Category Archives: Criticism

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.

NEW PRODUCT RELEASE, TIM VANDERGRIFT WINE KITS

April 1, 2015

Conjectural Technology Laboratories, a division of Tim Vandergrift Worldwide, is excited to announce the ultimate kit winemaking product, one that will revolutionise both the the use and the appreciation of wine. A decade of research and development has produced the ultimate device for detecting and defining the most subtle nuances of wine, the Beverage Vaporiser.

The Beverage Vaporiser system (also known as the Volcano for it’s cone-shaped appearance) allows the user to

  • Drink wine as young as 10 days old
  • Taste 100% of the nuances of any wine, regardless of type or quality
  • Identify not only grape variety and style like a wine professional, but even to name the terroir, region grown and even the vineyard, with no training or study!
volcano-vaporizer

System shown: red wine vaporiser, white wine vaporiser and two Vaporbotas.

“The concept is actually very simple”, says Dr. Ann Credulous, Director of the Conjectural Technology Lab for Tim Vandergrift. “Wine is a solution of organic compounds, with many volatile fractions–esters, ketones, aldehydes, thiols, monoterpenes, pyrazines, etc. For the most part The majority of volatile compounds responsible for aroma combine with sugars in the wine to form odorless glycosides. Through the process of hydrolysis, caused by enzymes or acids in the wine, they revert into an aromatic form. The act of tasting wine is essentially the act of smelling these vaporized aroma compounds. What we have done is found a way to duplicate the hydrolytic process that releases these aromas with tuned heat and vibration in a volatizing chamber.”

While the concept is simple, the results are anything but.

“Olfactory receptors cells, Dr. Credulous continues, “Each sensitive to a different aroma, pick up these compounds and transfer the information to the brain by way of the olfactory bulb. In the 1980s there was renewed focus in studying the correlation between aroma/flavor compounds in grapes and the resulting quality of wine. Scientists were able to use chromatograph-mass spectrometers to identify volatile aroma compounds in various grape varieties. It was our research into the action of the gas chromatograph chamber action that lead to the discovery of induced hyrdrolysis.”

WineCano

Hydrolysis Chamber not shown for security reasons.

The Beverage Vaporiser works like this: the wine to be sampled is loaded into the Volcano and is put through the patented Chromatographic Hydrolysis Chamber. There, through a tuned system of temperature, resonance frequencies and aetheric distribution algorithms, the wine is turned into a richly textured, intensely flavourful vapour. Inhaled gently, this vapour reveals every aromatic compound and every bit of the bouquet and nuance of your wine. According to Credulous, that’s the key to identifying wine like a pro.

“By extracting and concentrating all of the aromas of wine in a small volume, they’re more pronounced. Anyone who has ever struggled to identify a particular character in a wine will be able to instantly smell blackberry in a Cabernet, or cat urine in a Sauvignon Blanc! Using pre-set algorithms in the Volcano, wines will release aromatic profiles identical to famous wines and vintages, from ’47 Mouton to 2001 Screaming Eagle. Training your palate has never been easier!”

And there’s more. According the Director of Customer Experience William Nelson,

“Because we tune the precise type and quantity of volatiles that are released, we ensure that only the finest, richest aromas come out. We can make an inexpensive or very young wine release the same aromatic character of a first-growth or Premier Cru wine that’s been aged for years, even decades.”

William Nelson

Director of Customer Experience, William Nelson (above) demonstrates prototype portable beverage vaporiser at the Montana Cattlemen’s Wine and Steer Show.

“But that’s only the beginning: because ethanol is a volatile compound we can suppress the hydrolisation frequency of alcohol in the machine–the vapour is as delicious as wine, but won’t lead to intoxication or drunkenness! The whole point of wine appreciation is to identify the character of a wine, to appreciate it for itself. By eliminating the effects of alcohol on the nervous system we can extend that pleasure indefinitely, and consumers can use as much wine as they want, without introducing toxins into their body or straining their liver.”

vapour head

Ease up off that Cotes du Rhone, chum!

Of course, consumers can set the machine to deliver ethanol if they wish, by selecting the correct menu item on the touchscreen and agreeing to the End User License Agreement.

While there are plans for several types of vaporisers, including the portable prototype shown above, the Volcano is the first wine ‘Vape’ being launched. The Volcano Classic quality is first rate, and the build quality is incredibly durable: it’s made by a German company, Snortzen-Pickel, who offer a 3 year warranty standard on every purchase. Both the aromatic tuning and chamber size are adjustable to suit your needs–it can vaporise up to three litres of wine at one time, allowing you to serve two dozen guests easily.

Ann Credulous

Dr. Credulous in front of the first Beverage Vaporiser prototype.

The Beverage Vaporiser Volcano will be available in late September, timed to use in conjunction with the 2015 harvest. “We’re extremely proud of this product,” Says Ann Credulous, “Drinking wine is now a thing of the past–and rather than just sniffing a vintage like cavemen, we can literally inhale every drop!”

It’s a brave new world for wine!

Beer Gadgeteer and the Fabulous Fizzbuster

File this one under ‘Oh lord, what now?’

scurrilous fake gadget

It looks like it’s designed to rewind DVD’s . . . .

If you’re having trouble guessing what the gadget is, don’t feel bad: other than the strange label (which makes it sound like it’s for shaving cream or perhaps for cartoon hedgehogs) there’s nothing about it that suggests a function. My first thought was that it was for rewinding DVD’s. However,  according to the website,

Using ultrasonic vibrations, the Sonic Foamer excites the gases in your beer for an amazingly creamy head.

Oh. Okay. I can do the same thing by pouring the beer between two glasses, or stirring it with a spoon for a second, but sure, make an expensive gadget for stirring-impaired people, no problem. But why do they think you should stir it up and make a foamy head?

The aroma of a beer is released as the bubbles in the head pop. 

No, that is not how the aroma in a beer is released. The aroma in a beer is released when the low-weight molecular compounds that comprise the bouquet and aroma of the beer travel from the liquid and travel through the air to the receptors in your nose. Bursting bubbles in the head aren’t especially relevant to the process.

Certainly, agitating the liquid helps increase the amount of these compounds released–that’s why wine tasters swirl their glasses. And beer judges do the very same thing, swirling sample glasses to chase out elusive aromas.

moronic foaming gadget

Nobody with hands that smooth drinks beer. I’m just sayin’.

So it’s a gadget that’s a solution to a problem that exists in the minds of their marketing department. C’est la guerre. But even though their claims are malarkey, I can think of a brilliant use for one of these doohickeys: degassing excessively foamy beer.

This is a pet peeve of mine. Anyone who has gone on a pub crawl with me has had to watch me restlessly pour my beer between two glasses to chase off three-quarters of the carbon dioxide gas before I drink it. I don’t do it to all styles, because some styles like wheat beer, Kolsch and light lager need sufficient volumes of CO2 for proper mouthfeel.

‘Volume’ is the science-word for amount of gas in a liquid solution. The actual sciencey part of beer carbon dioxide saturation is governed by Henry’s Law and a bunch of frightening math. For our purposes, one volume of CO2 is the equivalent of one litre of carbon dioxide gas dissolved in one litre of beer at one atmosphere of pressure (sea-level, more-or-less). If you’re not metric, a litre is about a quart. If you’re having trouble conceptualising what this means, if you drink a litre of one-volume beer, you’re going to belch out one litre of burps, eventually.

A classic Czech Pilsner will have 2.3-2.5 volumes, very appropriate for that style, while Standard Western Industrial Light Lager will have 2.7+ volumes. That’s only fair since it doesn’t generally have any other character to speak of.

Where this all falls apart for me is ales. Classic British pale ales will have 0.75 to 1.3 volumes. If you’re a fan of these beers, they drink smooth and taste wonderful, and you don’t have to belch like a foghorn if you decide to have several pints. American ale styles on the other hand,  have as much CO2 as lagers. American Pale Ale clocks in at up to 2.78 volumes, making the much heavier, more flavourful style of beer as gassy and belch-worthy as lawnmower S.W.I.L.L.

fizzy

I’ll have a glass of greenhouse gas. And can it get it dissolved in fermented corn and rice juice?

For my palate, this destroys the flavour, mouthfeel and enjoyability of the beer. CO2 gas in solution produces carbonic acid, a flat, bitter tasting substance which dulls the bright flavours in the beer, and it makes me feel bloated and belchy after only a couple of pints. I keep questioning brewers as to why they continue to overcarbonate their beer like it’s a practical joke drink but the standard reply is, ‘That’s what consumers expect’.

hop-circle

One of my favourite IPA’s, but I pour it this way on purpose–gotta get the fizzies out.

Some day I’m going to punch those consumers in the snoot, because they just don’t seem to know what’s good for them. If they tried the beer at a proper carbonation level they’d find it much more interesting and drinkable. Maybe some day. Until then I’ll have to content myself with making my own beer and carbonating it to the levels I like, degassing commercial beers right at the bar, and complaining about how everyone is wrong about everything except me.

But I’m thinking I need to order me one o’ those de-foamers to do a little testing . . .

Neuroanthropology, Beer, and Business

 

beer-brain

‘The only thing I want floating in beer is my liver.’ Okay, brain too.

According to the Wikipedia, neuroanthropology is the study of culture and the brain. What is beer, if not culture, I always say, and yet it was a pleasant surprise to see the fellows over at the Public Library of Science Blogs saying the same thing in an entry, Carefully Crafting Consumption: Understanding the Craft Beer Revolution, where they examine (and get some experimental data on) ‘What are the driving forces behind the increased popularity of craft beer?’

It’s a good and timely question: over 400 new craft breweries opened in the last year in the USA. In my home of British Columbia we’re getting something like thirty new craft breweries a year right now–and it’s picking up every day.

Why are people so hot on craft beer–particularly at a time when macro beers (the pale, fizzy stuff that requires advertising on television) are declining precipitously? It’s so bad for the major breweries right now that they’re on incredibly aggressive acquisition schedules, buying foreign premium breweries (such as Becks) and then tossing the recipes and filling the pretty ‘imported’ bottles with BudMillerCoors Standard Western Industrial Light Lager (S.W.I.L.L.) It’s not doing them any good, mind: as soon as they acquire and ruin a new brand, sales fall off a cliff. 4th quarter sales for MillerCoors are down 2% on domestic sales. Pete Coors, chair of the Molson Coors Brewing Company and Chairman of MillerCoors summed up their problem quite succinctly in an interview with The Denver Post:

“Basically the biggest trouble we have is on-premise sales,” he said. “We have a lot of bar owners who are enamored with craft beers. They are beginning to take off the premium light handles and putting bottles behind the bar instead and replacing the handles with craft beer handles. We lose 50 percent of our volume when that happens.”

The company is trying to compel bar owners to keep their beers on tap by impressing them with facts.

“We have done research that shows it’s not in the economic benefit for a bar to do that,” he said. “Having a premium light brand, whether it’s Coors, Miller or Bud on tap actually improves the economics of their business. People stay in their seats an average of 18 minutes longer when they have a light premium beer on tap. That means they are spending more money, leaving bigger tips. We have a little algorithm and an app that we give to our distributors to evaluate and analyze these businesses and bars.”

It’s hard to be cynical enough with that series of statements. Coors is, of course, a deluded plutocrat, scion and heir to a fortune (which tends to make people quite able to deny observable reality and substitute their own) and really wants to preserve that fortune.

I WILL DRINK YOU ALL

Girls, girls, you’re all pretty.

Simply put, the reason why bar owners are replacing S.W.I.L.L. with craft taps is that’s what beer consumers want. The extra 18 minutes he mentions probably comes from the fact that people can’t drink his beer fast enough because it’s ludicrously over-carbonated and they needed 15 of those 18 minutes to belch.

Back to neuroanthropology: why do craft beer lovers reject S.W.I.L.L. ? The article at PLOS is excellent and covers a lot of ground, hinging on the paradigms put forth by anthropologist Daniel Lende, who ‘proposes the following items as useful to understanding what drives consumption: sensorial, corporal, experiential, decision engaging, social, and meaningful.’ 

All good stuff and there’s a great bit on blind trials using different beer glasses to gauge drinkers responses to actual rather than presumed flavours and aromas, but the two most significant points pretty much cover what drives craft beer drinkers away from S.W.I.L.L. and into better beer, flavour and engagement.

Typical S.W.I.L.L. beer uses very few ingredients (one malt, one or two hops, and some sugary adjuncts), that have low flavour (rice and corn taste like almost nothing after fermentation). The sad truth about these beers is that blindfolded, the most fervent of their partisans cannot tell them apart–they are specifically designed to be as flavourless as possible–offend fewer people, grab greater sales.

beer-misalign

One of these things is not like the other . . .

Craft beers on the other hand have the option of using many different kinds of malt–there are hundreds available–and in addition to the explosive growth of new hop varieties, they also add anything that strikes them as a positive–licorice? Sure! Coconut? You bet! And so on. They also use different yeast, and since yeast contributes heavily to the profile of a beer they can really stick the flavour knife in and twist it, adding aromas and flavours of bubblegum, melted butter or tropical fruits, if they desire. S.W.I.L.L. is universally made with alcohol-tolerant, neutral profile yeast.

All it takes is for a lover of beer is to try a few craft beers and as soon as they become normalised to the very different flavours and aromas, all S.W.I.L.L. tastes weak, watery and fizzy. It doesn’t matter if it’s the same alcohol content or the same body, the relatively weak palate of flavours and neutral character makes it wimpy.

Engagement is the second part and it’s the secret key. It’s impossible to engage with a corporation that concentrates of return for its investors above all else–no matter how many small brewers they buy, no matter how hard they try to use those breweries and their beers as a mask to try to cajole people to like their overall portfolio, it won’t work.

I engage with breweries that can tell me an authentic story about their beer–who made it, where the recipe came from, how they feel about it, and what cool stuff they’ve done and plan to do next. A corporation, designed only to make money for investors, doesn’t have a story like that, and as soon as they purchase a craft brewery they destroy its story as well.

And a corporation will never, ever understand why. Because they could be making bricks or shoes, and don’t care what the vehicle for their revenue stream is. Real craft breweries engage their drinkers with not only flavour, aroma and choice, but also with a real dedication to the idea that beer is more than just a drink–it’s a gateway to an experience.