Category Archives: teaching

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.

Winemaker Magazine 2016

Santa Rosa in reposa

Santa Rosa in reposa

It’s here! One more sleep!

The Winemaker Magazine conference for 2016 is in Santa Rosa, California. It’s the largest (and best) home winemaking conference in the world. As a columnist for Winemaker, I’ll be there as a speaker and panelist, giving lectures, answering questions, and hanging out with my wine making people.

Drinking alone is like . . .

Drinking alone is like . . .

Last year’s conference was in Portland, Oregon, and was a blast. I’m looking forward to seeing my good friends.

Gi, get ready for our annual picture!

Gi, get ready for our annual picture!

And some of my more sinister accomplices . . .

Plotting, with beer.

Plotting, with beer.

It’s a little too late to pick up tickets, but if you’d like to live vicariously, you can check out the conference schedule here, and you can follow my live conference updates on Twitter @Wine_Guy_Tim and on Facebook and look for the conference hashtag . . . when I find out what it is. #winemagconf2016 sounds good!

If you’re already booked and coming to the conference, I’ll see you there! You’ll recognise me by my Master Vintner shirt and my delighted grin at getting to hang out in such a gorgeous place, drinking wine with fabulous people.

I'll look for you in the audience!

I’ll look for you in the audience!

See you there!

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.

Master Vintner Small Batch Winemaking Part Four

You may remember Master Vintner from such posts as Master Vintner, Your Personal Wine and Master Vintner Part Two: Racking Day. As such you might well wonder, ‘What happened to part Three?’ Don’t worry, all will be explained.

Laid out and ready to go

Laid out and ready to go

Step three and step four kind of run together, so I’m blogging about both of them at once. When we last left our Master Vintner Small Batch wines (Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir) they were resting comfortably in secondary fermentation. The next step was to . . . READ THE INSTRUCTIONS!

Yes, I keep coming back to the importance of reading. It’s your guarantee of success! A quick read-through let me know that I would have to check the specific gravity and then rack the wine from the secondary to the Little Big Mouth Bubbler again for stirring and fining/stabilizing additions.

I sanitized all of my equipment, took a specific gravity reading (0.992 and rock steady) and then transferred the wine from the jug to the LBMB.

Auto-syphon: how do you live without one?

Auto-syphon: how do you live without one?

Once all of the wine was transferred over (leaving very little behind in the jug–less than a couple of tablespoons of goo) the next step was to add metabisulphite to prevent oxidation (browning and loss of flavour) and prevent bacterial spoilage (going icky).

Sulphite is your friend, and wants you to be happy.

Sulphite is your friend, and wants you to be happy.

Let’s talk about sulphite. It’s one of the most common food additives in use today, and it’s been in continuous use in winemaking for many centuries. It’s in every preserved food you buy and in lots of things you wouldn’t expect (noodles? Check. Frozen orange juice? You bet! Pancake syrup? Sure!) It’s safe and almost completely benign. If you don’t believe me, check out the world’s #1 Authority on sulphite use in home winemaking.

So that’s sulphite taken care of. In it goes!

Be sure to tap the packet: a bit of the powder can get caught in the corners.

Be sure to tap the packet: a bit of the powder can get caught in the corners.

After the sulphite is in we have to stir the wine to distribute it, and to drive off gas in solution. This is crucial to the success of the kit. Carbon dioxide gas is produced by the yeast during fermentation. In a commercial winery this is not much of an issue because they take one or two years to get the wine ready for bottling, and in that time all of the gas escapes. Master Vintner kits are designed to be ready to bottle in just four weeks, so the gas has only a short time to escape from the wine. To stay on schedule we need to aid the process through mechanical agitation.

A stirring experience.

A stirring experience.

I stirred the wine for a full sixty seconds and then added the first fining agent. Fining is the process of dropping suspended material out of the wine so it’s clear enough for bottling and drinking. Common fining agents are either mineral in nature (Bentonite, Silicon dioxide) or a colloid/gelatine (Isinglass, Chitosan) and in wine kits they’re often used in pairs. The instructions say to add the packet labeled ‘Siligel’, a silicon dioxide solution–essentially really finely pulverised beach sand in a liquid and then stir again.

Sharp scissors are an essential winemaking tool

Sharp scissors are an essential winemaking tool

Cut the tip off of the Siligel packet . . .

Squeeze!

Squeeze!

. . . and then another sixty seconds of stirring.

That's what good stirring looks like--get the fizz out.

That’s what good stirring looks like–get the fizz out.

I popped the lid, bung and airlock on again and over the course of the next two days I kept my spoon in handy and stirred the wine again for sixty seconds at breakfast, lunch and dinner–since it’s right in my kitchen it’s an easy step to take right there when you’re already making a sandwich or preparing your Sunday roast.

After two days of stirring it was time to go on to Step Four, Stabilizing and Clearing. Since it’s almost exactly like the last step, I’m putting it all into this one long post to keep things clear.

I cleaned and sanitised all of my equipment, checked my specific gravity (yep, still 0.992) and did my next addition, Potassium Sorbate. Sorbate is a bacterial suppressant. It doesn’t kill or even annoy spoilage organisms, but rather keeps them from breeding, which is crucial to the whole process of fining and stabilising: you use sulphite to stun/kill some of the yeast and any other organisms, you use the fining agents to sweep all of the micro-organisms out of the wine, and then you use sorbate to keep any of them from breeding back to the point where they can affect the appearance or flavour/taste of the wine. Sorbate is used in a lot of foods, condiments and even in beauty products and health food supplements, and is found in some berries (blueberries and Mountain Ash) as well. So, in it goes, with the first step being to dissolve it in a tiny amount of warm water.

It's a teeny amount and it dissolves almost instantly.

It’s a teeny amount and it dissolves almost instantly.

And then to stir that into the wine.

Everybody in the pool!

Everybody in the pool!

Next step is to add the ‘liquigel’, a clever contraction of ‘liquid gelatine’ and the final fining agent.

Snip!

Snip!

Squirt in carefully.

It's pretty sticky: make sure it all comes out of the packet.

It’s pretty sticky: make sure it all comes out of the packet.

Once everything is stirred up and all additions are done we need to top up the wine to the one gallon mark again. Don’t worry about diluting it: if you’ve been racking correctly you’ll be adding less than a cup and a half (350 ml) and the kit is actually formulated to accommodate this extra water.

Topped right up.

Topped right up.

After that it’s back on with all of the lids and airlocks and onto the counter to rest for six days until the wine is clear.

Soon, my pretties . . .

Soon, my pretties . . .

So far this has been the easiest, smoothest winemaking I’ve ever done: the one-gallon size makes doing one kit so easy, so quick, and so simple that doing three more at the same time doesn’t feel like work at all–it feels like a fun hobby leading to a great end–wine!

Road Trip

Houston skyline

Nice little place . . .

After a relatively quiet summer at Chaos Manor it’s back on the road for a bit. I’m in Houston today, a city I’ve only been through once before. I’m giving a presentation on wine retailing here and I’m really looking forward to it. Not only do I get to meet Texas homebrew shop retailers (some of the friendliest folks you’ll ever meet) but also, Mexican food!

texmex

Come to Papa

If you’ve never been to Texas but you have been to Mexico, the food is different. It’s even called ‘Tex-Mex’. But it’s ridiculously good, and I’m looking forward to digging into some of it.

I’m only here for one day: tomorrow at o-dark thirty I’m off to Atlanta to catch up with some more retailers there. Just like Houston, I’m looking forward to meeting up with a great bunch of people and having a really detailed discussion of wine retailing in the USA.

My lunch strategy might have to change there, but I’ve got a plan: barbecue. Canadians are woefully ignorant of real barbecue. Shamefully, we use that word to describe grilled food, which isn’t actually anything like barbecue, which actually centers around low-heat, long time cooking over smoky wood fires.

franklin-bbq-brisket-6

Now that’s a pit!

Before I started travelling in the USA I had no idea that there was so much regional variation–Texas does beef best while the Carolinas do pork but have fierce regional loyalties to different sauces. Memphis does chopped pork and fabulous ribs, while Kansas City barbecues any animal that holds still too long (barbecued lamb ribs are to die for). It was all confusing and I didn’t know what to order.

But I put in action a clever strategy: any place I go that has good barbecue, I ask for help, with a little twist. If I’m in Carolina I say, ‘I’ve had Texas barbecue–is this anything like that?’. Local pride swells like thunderheads, and folks are quick to guide the poor, misguided Canadian to ‘the good stuff’. Sure it’s  a wee bit of a fib, but I’ve had so much good barbecue from it that I can’t help myself.

Which reminds me of something my favorite food anthropologist, Margaret Visser put in her book, Much Depends On Dinner: people are the same everywhere: the only thing that changes is the dinner.

But it’s a long time until dinner–work first!

 Edited to Add . . .

barbecue

Ribs, brisket, spicy sausage, jalapeno corn muffin, heart-attack potatoes and dirty rice. Even the salad had barbecued meat in it.

That was some pretty good barbecue.

Winemaker Conference 2014

Winemaker New York 2012

A discourse from the source, of course, of course.

I’m heading to Virginia next week for the Winemaker Magazine 2014 conference, June 5-7 at the fabulous Lansdowne Resort in DC’s ‘Wine Country’.  I haven’t missed a conference since the very first, in Monterey back in 2008. I love the Winemaker conference: even though I have to work during the conference I get a chance to meet old friends, find out how their wines are coming along, see how they’re doing and generally catch up with a great bunch of people. In all these years I haven’t met one winemaker I wouldn’t be happy to have as a guest in my house. I think there’s something about taking winemaking seriously that self-selects for thoughtful, happy folks.

teachering

Lecturing to a sharp crowd

This is going to be an especially cool year. I’m teaching a one-day Winemaking Boot Camp. It’s going to be an intensive one-day course with a lot of hands-on trials of advanced equipment, for bottling, transferring, processing and testing. It was a bit of a scramble pulling it all together since my previous corporate sponsor is no longer involved with the conference, but with the help of some friends (more on that soon) and the understanding and largesse of Winemaker Magazine (thanks Brad!) I think I’ve put together a really outstanding program.

top-secret

I’ve got a little file on that . . .

The really cool part is going to be on post-fermentation correction of wine character. This is the secret stuff that in my former life I was obligated to discourage, since it wasn’t part of the program for our products–the companies stances have always been that wines made from kits should be considered complete in themselves. While this is technically true, that still leaves an awful lot of room for tweaking kits, especially now that the toolbox and palette of professional winemakers is now available to retail consumers! It’s going to be a ton of fun!

Well, if I get that case of wine across the border, that is . . . hmm.

You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter for ongoing updates ( #WineMagConf) from on the ground.

Also, as always bookmark this page and check back: good news is always just around the corner!