Category Archives: fraud

Pretentiousness, Con Jobs, and Wine: Sommeliers

 

Yes, he's the Maitre d', but honestly, he comes off more like a som-doofus

Understanding allows people like us to tolerate a person like yourself

I’ll admit it: I am a victim to clickbait. This headline popped up in my newsfeed:

Are You Making This Big Mistake with Wine Corks?

and like a dope, I fell for it. But you won’t believe what happens next!

What happens is, I’m not going to link to the article. It doesn’t deserve my help generating clicks. You can find it yourself if you like, but I’m going to take some care to interpret it here for you in case you hate clickbait too.

Pimped out as their ‘Wine Wise Guy’, their author wrote an article that illustrates everything wrong with the concept of the modern sommelier and showed himself as a prime example of the self-important, narcissistic jackassery that follows it around like a foul stench.

What’s wrong with sommeliers? Nothing actually. Sommelier is a job description, and it means ‘guy who sells wine in a restaurant’. It’s as descriptive as ‘receptionist’, or ‘usher’, or ‘sanitation engineer’.

It doesn’t mean a damn thing more: guy who sells wine.

Unfortunately, in our celebrity and reality show obsessed culture the concept of sommelier as something ‘other’, something aspirational, something to be revered and worshipped has taken hold. Several things have conspired to create a cult of personality around ‘somms’, not the least of which are the sommeliers themselves. But they’re not the worst offenders: the worst offenders are the schools that offer sommelier ‘courses’, offering to teach everything about wine and to turn you into a wine professional.

These courses force a hapless student to memorise thousands of facts about wine regions and styles, most of which might be interesting in a Jeopardy Daily Double kind of way, but are useless in the real world, and are tarted up as trick questions, the better to exclude people who haven’t paid the tens of thousands of dollars for the course, or memorised a stagnant morass of factoids like an obedient Labrador Retriever doing tricks.

This is where they keep their souls while they work

They tag the most pretentious wine gits with these medallions so you can see them coming from far away

The thing to remember about sommelier programs is that they’re not actually recognised as an official education by anyone who matters. Sure, doing your time in wine prison is like a union card to enter the world of selling wine in a restaurant, but unlike a Red Seal for a Chef (transferable around the world), there is no formal recognition of this nonsense, and different schools of sommelier-dom don’t teach the same things.

Lest any somm-worshipper out there get in a flounce and accuse me of sour grapes (haha, see what I did there?) because I don’t hold that job description, let me reassure you: I am a recovering sommelier. At one point in my life I sold wine in the most overblown, pretentious, expensive restaurant you could name. Back in the early 80’s the soup was twenty-five bucks.

This is the first time I’ve admitted to doing that job in decades, because even back then it was a soiling experience, mainly because the owner was a fraud who kept the wine in a furnace room or a walk-in cooler, and 80% of the bottles that cost more than $40 were at our ‘other cellar’, which was the liquor store down the block, where the owner would sprint down to pick up a bottle as it was ordered. I did the job for a month before I quit in disgust to become a dishwasher instead.

When I had my first gig as GM of a resort hotel I took over the sommelier role and loved it. I got to help people enjoy wine by asking what they wanted and doing my best to give them exactly that. There’s no wrong way to enjoy wine, only the way the customer wants it. If they wanted red Bordeaux over ice, then I brought them ice. If they wanted Port with their fish, I made sure they knew what they were ordering and I served it. I had a bunch of backpackers come in who wanted kalimotxo, and when I found out it was cheap dry red and cola, I made up a pitcher. Why? Because I am not the arbiter of human taste or fashion: I am a service professional!

Which brings us back to the article. In it, the author first waxes his ego by mentioning in order a) how hard the exam was, b) how intimidating the examiners were, c) how obscure the questions were, and d) how much he hated serving wine to stupid peasants who came to the restaurant and expected him to serve wine.

Personally, I bundle most of these maneuvers into what I call “the frippery” of wine service: stuff that makes most people I know slink down in their seats in hopes that the sommelier will call on someone else to taste the wine.

Really? A quaint old ceremony, one that is the essence of the job makes him squirm? I wonder how he feels about the people who are paying him to do the job?

But then I see that person: The Imbiber. He’s the one—and it’s always a man—who relishes the pageantry of it all, the pomp and circumstance, who imagines that everyone else in the room is intently watching this noble ceremony take place. And when the sommelier places the just-pulled cork on the table to the right of the glass, The Imbiber picks it up ceremoniously, rolls it between his thumb and forefinger, and takes a deep, satisfying sniff.

The Imbiber deserves to be dunked in a barrel of wine.

Rolling a cork—which is just a piece of bark from a cork tree, after all—between your thumb and forefinger is just plain silly. And sniffing it? Sillier. That is, unless (and this is an important unless) you’re the person pulling the cork.

Yes, murdering customers because they expect you to do a job, preciously described as being so haaaard is a completely reasonable response. After all, why make them happy when you can measure your manhood against theirs and make fun of them?

Know this: I like corks. I know a lot about corks. In my time in my industry, the companies I worked for made (aggregately) enough wine to fill more than a fifty million bottles per year, and we bought corks for them all. Over the course of a thirty-year career, that’s a lot of metric tonnes of cork. I’ve toured cork forests, cork factories, cork warehouses and dealt with almost every cork manufacturer on the planet. I know more about corks than the author of this article ever will, or can ever hope to. I not only examine, roll and sniff the cork from most bottles of wine that I am served, I habitually carry a razor-sharp knife and cut the cork in half to examine the inside for flaws and density.

Also useful for stabbing

Razor sharp is important or you’ll never get a really good cross-section. From today’s lunch.

Even if I weren’t a professional with a deep interest in the world market, I’d probably still be interested in the cork. It’s the only thing standing between the wine inside the bottle and a harshly cruel environment that wants to spoil it. If the cork looks compromised or has an odour (more on this in a minute) then I’m going to sit up and start paying attention to the process at hand: trying the wine to see if it’s a) what I ordered and b) in good condition.

The author goes on to pontificate why the consumer has no business assessing the cork. First, of course, he has to explain to us peasants what a corkscrew is and how it works, since as a professional, he’s sure that’s quite beyond us. Then he warns that he might not deign to hand you the cork at all:

It might fall apart because it’s too old; it might snap in half because it’s brittle; the center of it might disintegrate, because it’s soaked through and crumbly. If any of those things happen, there’s no cork to present to The Imbiber.

Wrong: if the cork crumbles, you immediately show it to the customer, perhaps carefully assembled on a napkin to keep the bits together. Why? Because he is buying that bottle of wine, and it’s his right as a consumer to see it. But he doesn’t see it that way: the mark he’s sneering at has no right to his own wine, just to the almighty somm’s opinion about it.

If I’m the server, yes, I’ll immediately smell the wet end to see if there are any “off” odors that might indicate the wine is flawed, damaged, or just plain dead. The wet end of a cork is still moist and porous, but the liquid at the tip either absorbs or dissipates pretty quickly. And a few seconds later, the cork smells like… cork.

This is an easily dismissed falsehood: if the wine is contaminated by cork taint, the cork will smell like it, practically forever. This taint is 2,4,6 Trichloroanisole (TCA) and is caused by an interaction between chlorophenol compounds and corks or wood used in elevage, or processing wine. It’s a lot less common since cork producers stopped using chlorine to bleach corks, and started keeping sheets of cork bark off of the ground post-harvest/pre-processing (they can pick up a fungus off the ground that makes TCA contamination a lot more likely). Even in minute amounts (below the microgram level) TCA can ruin a good wine.

To sum up this whole sordid pile, articles like this, written by people who have an overweening, narcissistic view of their own worth and status are why I avoid modern sommeliers and their cult of celebrity. The job is exactly the same as the one done by the person who serves the bread, or the nice lady who takes the reservations.

If the bread guy started rolling his eyes, writing articles about how stupid people who eat bread are for asking for white or rye, or the reservation lady wrote snide blogs about how people who made reservations were dumbasses who really should let her handle things because they’re unqualified, the consumers who patronise those restaurants would lose their collective minds–as they should. But because some people buy into this cult of sommeliers and assume that they are the final word on how to drink wine, they get away with smug, nonsensical crap like this.

What’s the answer? I don’t have one, that’s for sure. However, a good first step is to avoid any restaurant that this guy works for. Also, if there’s a celebrity sommelier in a place you’re thinking of going to, don’t take any guff from them: you are buying that wine, and if you want to drink it out of a coffee mug, or eat the cork with a dab of mustard, you damn well do so.

I have been saying this for thirty straight years, and I’ll say it again: nobody can tell you how to enjoy wine–if they’re offering advice, trying to help you find a good match or something tasty in your price range, then they’re a good person, doing a good job and they deserve thanks. But if someone tries to tell you that you’re doing it wrong, or you’re not qualified to know your own mind and enjoy the things you like, as you like them . . . put your hand on your wallet and back out of the room, because they can’t be trusted.

One last thought, because as the man says, there always is one:

. . . unless you really like having sommeliers think you’re a twit. In that case, go right ahead, smell all the corks you want.

Dude, I’d rather you hated my guts than change anything about the way I enjoy wine to suit you.

 

All right, here’s the stupid article, if you must. Do me a favour and open it in an incognito browser. I don’t want to get this blog all sticky.

Send Lawyers, Guns, and Wine

arsenic

Arsenic, old Ace

I’m the innocent bystander
Somehow I got stuck
Between the rock
And a hard place
And I’m down on my luck
Yes I’m down on my luck
Well I’m down on my luck

Warren Zevon, Lawyers, Guns and Money

Warren definitely put his finger on it: in the face of intransigent problems sometimes strong solutions are required, like legal advice, firearms, or piles of cash. On the other hand, if you’re on the receiving end of such a solution, sometimes a bit of critical thinking is the best cure you could hope for.

Case in point: a class-action lawsuit has been launched, alleging that “There are very high levels of arsenic in top-selling wine”. According to the CBS news story, BeverageGrades, a company that performs laboratory analysis of wine,

(Hicks) tested more than 1,300 bottles of wine. Almost a quarter of them had levels higher than the EPA’s maximum allowable amount of arsenic in drinking water: 10 parts per billion. No one can say for sure why, but Hicks noticed a pattern.

“The lower the price of wine on a per-liter basis, the higher the amount of arsenic,” he said.

This sounds terribly alarming. And, it gets worse:

CBS News took those results to epidemiologist Allan Smith, associate director of the Arsenic Health Effects research program at U.C. Berkeley.

“These are about two to three times in this particular sample, the drinking water standard, and they vary, they fluctuated, but some of them were up to three, four or five times the drinking water standard,” Smith said.

Smith said 50 parts per billion of arsenic — the highest level found in one of the bottles Hicks tested — can be deadly over time.

Even though “parts per billion” seems like a very small amount, Smith said “Arsenic is highly toxic; it’s astonishing.”

“It has as many effects inside the body as cigarette smoking does,” Smith said.

The obvious conclusion that Hicks and CBS want you to draw is WINE WILL KILL YOU AND EVERYTHING YOU LOVE! PANIC! HURRY UP AND PANIC ABOUT WINE! 

It sounds terrible. And it’s meant to, because the guy who helped gin up the lawsuit stands to profit from it. You see, BeverageGrades doesn’t offer lab services for wineries based on their need to make biochemically correct wine. It’s business model is one of ‘certification’. For a fee, they’ll test your wine and reassure consumers that it’s ‘safe’. From their website:

BeverageGrades is a private company offering lab testing, quality assurance and certification of alcoholic beverages for suppliers, restaurants, retailers and ultimately, the end consumer.

But you can’t ask the consumer to pay for the testing–it’s too expensive on an ad hoc basis. So it’s up to BeverageGrades to get money out of wineries. Unfortunately, according to the CBS report

He took the test results to some of those wine companies.

“Most wine companies, when I mention arsenic and wine in the same sentence, literally almost hung up the phone on me,” he said.

The next step, he said, was to supply the data to a law firm.

“He was trying to get their attention; he was trying to blow the whistle on them,” attorney Brian Kabateck said.

Initially this sounds horrifying, and smacks of coverups, shady deals and would seem to suggest a scenario of a crusading laboratory saving the public from a campaign to poison them. But this doesn’t hold up when you start looking at the facts. The first is that BeverageGrades will profit from increased testing using their certification, which amounts to a strong-arm job, or it will profit as a paid expert witness in the lawsuit on behalf of ‘consumers’.  To the point, BeverageGrades issued a press release:

BeverageGrades believes that retailers need a screening and certification model that allows them to assure their customers of the purity of all of the alcoholic beverages they sell, and particularly their control or private label brands.

And that is what Hicks sells: relief from fear. If it happens to be the relief of fear caused by an irresponsible and valueless lawsuit that he ginned up with a bent premise, then all the more power to him for a creative way to increase business.

There is some question, however, if he was actually the discreet and altruistic consumer advocate he makes himself out to be. From the very good article by Snopes on this:

Wine Spectator contacted some of the wine brands named in the lawsuit, many of whom stated that Hicks had made no effort to contact them before filing the class action, although he did send out a press release to some wine vendors offering his company’s testing services to them:

[A wine company] spokesman said he had not heard of any named winery contacted by Hicks before the lawsuit was filed. The same day the suit was filed, BeverageGrades sent a press release to certain retailers offering its services for a “screening and certification model that allows them to assure their customers of the purity of all the alcoholic beverages they sell.”

Well, well, well.

A very troubling issue is the conflation of safe standards for arsenic for water and for wine. There is no federally mandated standard for wine. Sure, drinking water is set at 10 PPB, and the average adult drinks two litres of water per day, and furthermore uses the water to cook, make other beverages, and to wash and bathe. It makes sense to set drinking water standards very low.

However, anybody drinking two litres of wine per day, and using it exclusively to cook, make coffee and bathe is living a very odd lifestyle. They’ll be dead of acute alcohol poisoning or the effects of chronic overconsumption of alcohol before there are any measurable effects from arsenic on their system, so comparing water to wine is a waste of time.

SHUT UP AND KILL ME

SHUT UP AND KILL ME

And the amount of arsenic you could consume in wine isn’t even in the same league as other sources. For instance, the FDA limit for daily inorganic arsenic intake from shellfish (mussels, clams, and oysters) is 30ppm (parts per million) versus 30ppb (parts per billion) in apple or pear juice. That’s right: you can consume one thousand times more arsenic in a bowl of cioppino than you can from a juice box–or a glass of wine.

That is, if going is a thing you want to do, eh

That is, if going is a thing you want to do, eh

Interestingly, Canada has a standard for Arsenic in wine: 100 PPB. I haven’t been able to find out how that level was determined, but for the moment I’m assuming “common sense”, based on levels cited for drinking water extrapolated for wine consumption’. According to Stephen Cater, director of quality assurance for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario:

In the past year alone, the LCBO quality assurance laboratory tested more than 11,900 wines for arsenic levels, including 1543 wines from California. All of the wines from California that the LCBO lab tested and subsequently offered for sale were below the maximum allowable limit for arsenic. We have not observed elevated arsenic levels in US wines compared to what is found in wines from other regions and countries.

11,900, last time I checked, was a much higher number than the 1300 Wicks tested, and the fact that world wines are comparable to US wines is significant, since you’d expect to see a spike if indeed cheap US wines were heavily contaminated.

Which brings us to the bottom line: is this a real story, or is it a health panic induced by an unscrupulous laboratory and a predatory lawyer, for their personal profit? That will have to come out in court because you can bet there will be counter-suits for damages and some serious legal scrapping.

Don't you hurt me baby

Don’t you hurt me baby

What we can tell right now is this: the amount of arsenic in wine won’t materially contribute to the overall levels of arsenic taken in by the average consumer, unless they’re actively trying to kill themselves with wine. Should we be concerned about the food and drink we consume? Always! But there’s a time to panic and a time to use common sense and reason to navigate the world, and this is one of the latter.

Now if I may be excused, I’m going to go drink an entire bottle of wine, because I feel I may be low on important trace elements, like happiness, contentment and joy.

Update, 3/21/15:

Days late yet still contributing to the spread of Hick’s misinformation scaremongering, Mother Jones wrote yet another non-journalistic, click-bait ‘article’ with a terroristic headline. If you’d like to share the disdain, you can read it here.

At least the person who cut and pasted the clickbaitery published an addendum. Here it is:

Wine industry groups have begun to contest the lawsuit’s contentions and motive. The California wine trade group, the Wine Institute, released a statement saying, “While there are no established limits in the U.S., several countries, including the European Union, have established limits of 100 parts per billion or higher for wine. California wine exports are tested by these governments and are below the established limits.” A representative of The Wine Group, one of the defendants, says that the plaintiffs “decided to file a complaint based on misleading and selective information in order to defame responsible California winemakers, create unnecessary fear, and distort and deceive the public for their own financial gain.”

Small mercies.

Wine and Fraud

But he seems so nice!

But he seems so nice!

If you follow my other blog at Winemaker Magazine, you may have read my recent treatise making fun of rich idiots being defrauded by scammers. At the rarefied prices that vintage Bordeaux and ultra-rare Burgundy command, it’s often a simple matter to take money from people desperate to believe they’re getting something too good to be true, like a 220 year-old bottle from Thomas Jefferson’s cellar.

Seems legit--after all, it's a picture of Jefferson with the bottle.

Seems legit–after all, it’s a picture of Jefferson with the bottle.

But it turns out that you don’t even need to go that high to find a way to scam wine consumers. According to the New York Times, the Hill Wine Company in Napa not only sold cheap Central Valley grapes as premium Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, they also stole premium grapes from clients they made wine for.

. . . Del Dotto formally accused Hill Wine of stealing the first batch of grapes and sought repayment of nearly $42,000 it had paid for vineyard management services. Tony Ventura, Del Dotto’s attorney, said in an interview that the grapes it claimed were stolen from Howell Mountain were intended for a wine that his client planned to sell for $195 a bottle. “If you’re going to steal, steal the good stuff,” Mr. Ventura said.

Oy. You have to wonder where this leaves us as wine drinkers, and as wine makers. In my opinion, first and foremost we should not seek out wine that relies on charm or exclusivity to sell itself. There are almost no wines in the world that cost more that $75 a bottle to put into the market. Prices much beyond that either indicate fanatical dedication to lowered yields, insane pick-over strategies, 100% new barrels every year and other, equally ridiculous levels of attention to detail and quality. That covers maybe half a dozen vineyards on earth. The rest can come in cheaper.

When they come in at vastly higher prices you’re either living in a crazy-high alcohol tax zone or the winery is relying on non-quantifiable (and thus cost-free) gimmicks to push their product. From the NYT article,

“Most Napa wines to me are way overpriced,” said Tony Westfall, co-founder and chief executive of Invino, an online wine seller based in Sonoma. “A lot of people would say Lake County is just as good as or better terroir than Napa.”

To persuade someone to spend $30, $50 or $100 for a bottle of wine, wineries need to not just produce quality juice, but also build an emotional connection with the customer.

While I feel that all wine should be experiential, that we should drink in places we love, with people we cherish, and for reasons of celebration, I have enough emotional connections in my life that I don’t need one with a winery. I’d rather get honestly-made, fairly-priced wine–and I’d also like to get what I paid for, not the disarming charm of con artists.

Now if anybody needs me, I’ll be making my own wine–and I know exactly where those grapes came from.