Category Archives: sales

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.

L’Étoile du Nord

City of waters

City of waters

I’m back in the Twin Cities today, working with Northern Brewer. As usual it’s a busy time: meeting with folks, talking about new products, projects, sales, marketing and all the great stuff that goes into being the world’s best supplier of consumer wine and beer making equipment.

I picked a fabulous time to visit. The weather has been spectacular, with temperatures hitting 20C (low 70’s) and bright sunshine. Even the flight in was auspiciously pretty.

Never get tired of watching the world go by.

Never get tired of watching the world go by.

I’ve got a Q&A session with the folks in retail this evening, and they’ve come up with a great list of questions. It’s really the best part of my job, talking to folks about making their own wine, and seeing a really pertinent leading question down on the page is like reaching into the pocket of a coat and finding a $20 bill you forgot you had.

Strapped in and ready for use

Strapped in and ready for use

I’ve been meaning to give a shout-out to Northern Brewer for a while on the Big Mouth Bubblers that I got earlier this year. The idea of a PTFE fermenter with a gasketed lid that takes a bung and airlock seems fine, but when you use one for something that’s really messy, their usefulness snaps into clear relief.

I brewed a very hop-heavy IPA and when it finished fermentation, it looked like this:

Oh those dirty rings!

Oh those dirty rings!

That looks like a terrible job of scrubbing, but with the wide-open top, even a moose with bulky arms like mine can easily stick his mitts right to the bottom and get a good scrub on. What would have taken a long soak for a carboy and the application of a brush and plenty of awkward gyrations to get all the goop off, only took 60 seconds with a soft cloth and some brewing detergent.

Shiny as a new penny

Shiny as a new penny

It’s got a bunch of condensed steam on it, but trust me, that Big Mouth Bubbler is as clean as a whistle. I’m replacing all of my fermenters with them, because I can’t visualise ever wanting to lug around and wash narrow-necked carboys again.

Off for Q&A, and tomorrow video shooting and more fun times.

The Gospel of Retail

I’ve been in retail for a long time, first as the manager of a big home beer and wine supply store twenty years ago, and later as both a retail coach and trainer to others (while still running a smaller retail store on the side as part of my day job).

Take a left at Promotion and go straight on to Earnings.

The busiest corner in the city.

I love the business, which is really a thing you need to understand: either you love retail and the whole ‘I have stuff and want to get people to give me money for it because that’s how commerce and most everything works’, or you don’t love it at all, and feel positively sticky about asking strangers to pull out their wallets in exchange for your sordid junk.

It’s okay to be the latter. After all, there are certain aspects of business that I’m ill-suited to myself (accounting, bookkeeping, staying awake in meetings that last longer than 19 minutes, etc) and I avoid them. If you hate retail, you’re probably smart enough to avoid being in a situation where you’re obligated to perform as a retailer.

Unfortunately, some people don’t do that. And it drives me bananas.

I understand if it’s a job and you really need one. Been there, done that, actually shovelled manure for 10 hours a day for minimum wage. But I didn’t do it out of hate, and I understood how the job worked: that end of the shovel went into the muck, and the other end connected to me, and I kept my mouth shut and shoveled and somebody gave me a paycheque. Hating your job (believe you me, I hated that poopy job) doesn’t mean that you let it influence how you perform it. If it does, you’re letting yourself down. After all, if you’re bad at shoveling dung, what else can’t you do in life?

While it’s a sad case when retail employees dislike their job and let it show through inattention, ineffectiveness or pure loathing, it’s much worse when it’s the retail shop owners who are the problem. That’s when things get grotesque. I’m sure that there is nobody reading this who hasn’t had the experience of entering a shop with the clear goal of making a purchase, but has been frustrated out of it by an absolutely dreadful retailer, someone who was either having a bad day and let it loose on you, or someone who simply did not acknowledge that the act of transferring money from you to them, and goods from them to you was the only thing on the agenda.

I could raise a dozen examples I’ve experienced in the last month without even trying, and probably several hundred if you gave me a day (and I didn’t get depressed and quit trying because it’s all so repetitive and awful) but my very worst peeves are when I’m goal-oriented on a purchase to the point of target fixation, where my burning desire is to give money, get the thing and go, but the retailer wants to talk me out of it–‘Oh, those are quite expensive’, ‘That’s the display model’, ‘The new ones are coming out in a few months’, ‘I’ve given up stocking those–we can’t keep them on the shelves’. AAAAGH!

Smile, and the whole world smiles with you. Glare like this and they run as fast as they can.

I don’t dress that way anymore, but that’s my target fixation look

It was on this topic that I ran across a quote in an odd spot today, and as soon as I read it, I knew I had to share it.

The spot was Terry Pratchett‘s Unseen Academicals. For those who don’t know Pratchett, go forth and know his work immediately. He’s a British fantasy author who writes subtly, subversively and hilariously about the human condition, under the guise of a moderately ridiculous fantasy world that rides about on the back of a giant turtle.

Apparently, however, it's not turtles all the way down.

The Discworld. Turtle knows what it’s doing.

It might seem like kid’s stuff at first, but Pratchett is a class warrior, and egalitarian and one of the humanest humanists I’ve ever read. Nine stars and eleven thumbs up for him–if you know and love a reader, give them the gift of Pratchett, posthaste. Ahem.

The quote:

” . . . shops were doing well these days, largely because they understood the first rule of merchandising, which is this: I have got goods for sale and the customer has got money. I should have the money and, regrettably, that involves the customer having my goods. To this end, therefore, I will not say ‘The one in the window is the last one we have, and we can’t sell it to you, because it we did no one would know we have them for sale’, or ‘We just can’t keep them on the shelves, or ‘I’m fed up with telling people there’s no demand for them’. I will make a sale by any means short of physical violence because without one I am a waste of space.

Yes, yes, YES! The retailer’s target demographic is people with money who are willing to give them some. Nothing else matters, give the people what they want, quickly and efficiently and you’ll be so far ahead of your non-retaily competitors it’ll make your head spin. Just having a store with goods in it and warm bodies doesn’t mean you are a retailer–retailers sell things, period.

And if you’re a retailer, I salute you. You have goods, I have money: let’s talk.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going shopping.