Category Archives: connoisseur

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.

Important Matters

ha ha ha, I bet you're hungry now

Lunch is one of my three favorite meals of the day

In her excellent book, Much Depends on Dinner, Margaret Visser says, “The extent to which we take everday objects for granted is the precise extent to which they govern and inform our lives.” If you haven’t read the book, it’s a brilliant meditation on how we are shaped by the quotidian, and how little we appreciate the miracles of everyday life.

Nom!

Dos Viejos Comiendo Sopa, Goya, 1819-1823

I got to thinking about this the other day when I mentioned that I was having grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch. My friend Babins, a not-very-serious person whose humour I quite appreciate, noted that I only had to add a cup of weak tea to make it a perfect nursing home meal.

I get it: it does sound like a safe, nay, middling, choice for a meal. Something a harried mother might make a fussy kid, or a gentle meal for someone with limited appetite or shy a few horsepower in the mastication department.

Mmm, you smell like soup

Soup is like a hug, but hugs won’t burn your tongue.

But that really misses the potential haecceity of such a meal, the ‘thisness’ that makes it evoke powerful ideas and memories. I’ll wager that the picture above made a few people salivate, a few others tilt their heads and think about getting something to eat, and a few might even have misted up, thinking of the comfort and safety that such a meal conjures in the heart. A grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup isn’t a simple meal: it’s a powerful spell that can not only banish hunger, but fill the soul with contentment and soothe a mind battered by the concerns of the day.

But only if you do it right. I have powerful ideas about what constitutes ‘right’ in the case of grilled cheese (the soup shown above is homemade from tomatoes from my garden, but that’s a blog for another day). I’d rather go hungry (and let’s face it, I can afford to go hungry once in a while) than eat a sandwich with lousy, squishy bread and cheese made from plastic products, fried in a waxy yellow substance suitable more as a floor wax than a butter substitute. Here’s what I do when the urge for crispy, unctuous grilled cheese strikes me.

don't use the whole stick of butter

The best recipes have the fewest ingredients

Quality is of the essence, simplicity the watchword. Use top quality bread–I bought this from a local bakery, but if I have time I make my own. Day-old bread is a little better: too soft and it’s gummy. Slices need to be thick enough for structure, but thin enough to heat through easily. Butter–and only butter, please–is a given, but cheese needs a more thorough discussion.

If I’m making a melt or serving the sandwich alongside something with contrasting flavours I might choose a mellow or nutty cheese, like Muenster or Jarlsberg. If I had a load of spicy pickles I might choose Raclette, which I love. But for the sweetness of tomato soup I prefer cheddar. Choosing a sharp, well-aged version is crucial, but don’t get one that’s terrifically old or high in fat: it still has to melt effectively and ultra high-fat or low-protein cheese can simply liquify under heat, leaving a greasy mess. Don’t use too much: the cheese is for flavour and holding the crispy bread together. A thick gummy layer will cool down and be gloppy before you can finish eating your lunch.

My pan is over sixty years old, and I expect it to outlast me.

My pan is over sixty years old, and I expect it to outlast me.

You only need two tools, a frying pan and a spatula. Step one, preheat the pan over medium-low and add a teaspoon of butter to it–don’t butter the bread, because that will put way too much grease in the finished sandwich.

Nestled like sugarplums

Nestled like sugarplums

Next up, place both slices of bread in the pan. No cheese yet. let them gently brown for a few minutes to heat and crisp up on one side.

Grilled side goes inward

Grilled side goes inward

Take the bread out of the pan and assemble the sandwich, crispy side in with the cheese. Ho ho ho! It’s going to be crispy everywhere!

Flip as often as you want: the point is to get a perfectly crispy exterior just as the cheese melts inside

Flip as often as you want: the point is to get a perfectly crispy exterior just as the cheese melts inside

Add another teaspoon of butter to the pan and return the assembled sandwich to it. Careful not to scorch: don’t walk away here, as it’s crucial to get a nice crunch on the outside without scorch. You can flip it a few times if you’re getting too hot on one side. It should only take another three minutes or so.

Serve with your favorite condiment. I’ll often have a little hot mustard to dip the edge of the sandwich in as I go, but more often these days I’ll have a little Sambal Oleek, a crushed chili paste that suits my palate. Also, if you have some homemade pickles, they go down a treat.

Yeah, bay-bee

Yeah, bay-bee

How was it? Short lived, unlike the comfort and satiety that it gave me. Now where’s that cup of tea?

Grinding Away

cup-of-coffee

As Agent Cooper always said, “Damn fine coffee.”

I don’t always drink wine. Or even beer. I don’t even drink whisky every day, come to think of it. I don’t like soda pop for the most part, and I drink about two quarts of milk per calendar year. There are only two beverages I consume on a daily basis: water, of course, since I am a squishy bag of mostly water by design, and coffee, because it is delicious brain juice that lets me function in society.

punks

Nobody looks cool . . . oh, all right, they look ridiculously cool. Don’t smoke kids, it’s bad.

I started drinking coffee quite young. In retrospect, being in the single digit range for birthdays was probably a little on the youthful side for drinking caffeinated beverages, but if you believe the Coffee Achievers, it was probably the making of me, and there are worse habits.

My taste in coffee has evolved over the years, as has the way I consume it. As a kid I liked it with lots and lots of milk and sugar. I lost my taste for sweets after a while, quit bothering with milk, and started drinking hot, black coffee by the gallon. Keep in mind I was raised by simple prairie folks, and the coffee wasn’t premium or sophisticated. It was pre-ground, canned coffee that was on sale, and made in an automatic drip machine manufactured by a company more known for electric drills and sanders than for food equipment.

Braun_Coffee_Maker

It’s nice to know they never change.

A friend of mine once described this beverage as ‘Lutheran Coffee’, after the kind of brew you find in one of those giant percolators in a church basement. I liken it to hot brown coffee-water. After I left home I started buying beans and getting them ground at the store. Then I bought my own grinder, and one of the most perfect coffee making machines ever invented: the Melitta Cone Drip. That worked for years, until I got a bug in my ear about espresso. Then I had several set-ups, refining how I like my coffee with automated espresso makers, stove top units, et cetera.

green-beans

Seriously, they look like pebbles that aren’t even trying very hard.

I keep experimenting with coffee making, but the final frontier for me has been to seize control over roasting my own beans. Coffee is the seed of a cherry-like fruit, and after gathering and processing, it looks like a little green rock with a cleft in it, and it doesn’t taste of anything special. It’s not until you roast it to a rich, chocolatey brown that it releases that heavenly aroma and beguiling flavour.

beans

Oh baby, you look so good in black.

By this time you should be getting the idea that I never leave well enough alone, and everything in my life is in imminent danger of becoming an obsession. I did some research, fiddled around a bit with primitive methods, including roasting beans over a wood fire in an iron pan like the Ottomans did, but a conversation with a professional coffee roaster made me realise that there was something to having the right piece of equipment for the job: heat ramp-up especially was a thing. There’s a long explanation, but if you heat the beans up too slowly they dry out and lose some of their nuance. Heat ’em up too fast and they just char instead of roasting nicely. A good roasting machine can take that into account. A good machine like the Behmor 1600.

41402-after-dark-behmor-1600-plus-coffee-roasting-starter-kit-1000

The Behmor. The one I got came with a bunch of extras: a nice glass mug, a pound of coffee and a really good scale.

The unit is a masterful design. You can check out the manual here, which is an excellent segue: always read the instructions. With some things, like an ice-cube tray, the stakes are low. If you do it wrong, worst-case, you don’t get ice cubes. Because this machine is using high heat to dry out and subsequently roast cellulosic vegetable matter saturated with oil (coffee), if you overdo it, it can catch fire. Which is bad.

If you’re going to get a roaster, read and pay close attention to those instructions. They’ll make sure you stay safe and that you get a decent cup of coffee from the first try. After that, you can start fiddling around with the time, ramp-ups, drum speed and all that jazz. But start with the basics. To show you those basics, have a look at this overview of roasting basics that I put together in my kitchen.

The manual may be a little intimidating at first, but as you can see, it isn’t rocket surgery: Follow the instructions, don’t leave the Roaster unattended while it’s on, and learn to recognise the difference between first and second crack and you’re in.

A fascinating combination of high tech and established tech.

A fascinating combination of high tech and established tech.

If you’re curious about the coffee making rig shown at the end of the video, it’s an Aeropress, and it’s what I use to make an excellent–just about the best, really–cup of hot coffee I’ve ever had.

But what if you want a bigger thrill? What if you want the ultimate in coffee deliciousness? What if you want . . . this

Cold-brewed coffee is the hottest-cold thing to show up in coffee use in the last ten years. You get flavour extraction by trading the heat of the water for time. Rather than a three or four minute steep with water around 200F (your mileage may vary) you use tepid water and soak overnight, or for 24 hours. This slow, gentle extraction leaves behind a lot of the harsh tannins, while teasing out the smooth, rich flavours that make coffee so wonderfully good.

And Nitrogen dispense is what has made Guinness Stout so popular. Forcing your cold-brewed coffee through a Stout Faucet with medium-pressure nitrogen gives it that creamy, foamy ‘cascade’ of flavour goodness. Honestly, it makes coffee wickedly drinkable, to the point where I have to monitor my intake or I’ll wind up dancing around like wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man.

NITRO! KABLOOEY!

5 pound nitrogen tank, high-pressure regulator, stout faucet and connectors. Not show, 19 litre Cornelius keg and dedicated keg fridge.

Previously, if you wanted to do nitrogen dispensing at home, you needed a full-on setup, with a keg refrigerator (standard homebrew kegs are not fridge-friendly: they crowd out the pot roast), a nitrogen tank, special regulator, and a bunch of other bits and bobs. Not a stretch if your life includes that kind of thing as a hobby, but a bit of a stretch for your average coffee fan.

jacked-up

Everything you need to Jack Up your coffee.

Enter the Jacked-Up™ Nitro Fully-Loaded Cold Brew Starter Kit. It includes everything you need for cold-brewed, insanely delicious cold-brewed-nitro-coffee at home. Two things make it ideal for home use. First, the keg itself. Have a look at mine.

nitro-cannonball

Coffee roaster, check. Coffee grinder, check. Jacked Up Nitro system, check. Gallon of pea-pod beer . . . what?

Pop the tap and the regulator off of it and the whole keg fits onto a shelf in a standard fridge, ready to dispense your coffee at any time. (Don’t tell anyone I told you, but it’ll also dispense Wine like a champ).

jacked-up-nitro-keg-regulator-white

I love good engineering. That regulator is built like a tank.

Second, check out that regulator, with the attached nitrogen cylinder. You don’t need to buy the full-meal-deal nitrogen tank, regulator et cetera, you just screw in a cylinder of nitrogen gas, pop it on the keg and dial up your pour. You can even take the Cannonball keg with you to parties or the back yard, or wherever. This is a brilliant enabler of coffee usage.

Check out how I do it.

I’ve nearly got the whole coffee thing handled. Five, six more years at most and I’ll have my system perfected.

Now, I wonder how you roast your own tea?

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!

Drinking With Your Mind

Here comes the airplane!

Here comes the airplane!

It’s an old saying in the restaurant industry that diners eat with their eyes first. I always thought this would make spicy food vastly less appealing, but I learned that it’s a metaphor for how perception informs reality: if you think something is going to taste good, it’s going to taste good to you. Seems clear enough, but here’s the kicker: apparently we actually drink with our preconceived notions and our expectations.

Free? I'll take two!

Free? I’ll take two!

In a 2003 study by Dr. Brian Wansink of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, diners were given free glasses of wine with their meal. Some were told it was a French wine, others were told it was a local (North Dakota) bottle. It was, in fact, Two-Buck Chuck in both cases. But the people who were shown a French label ate more dinner, and rated the food higher. Those who thought they were getting ND wine ate less and rated the meal ‘average’. Same wine, same food, different perception.

This really struck me, because over the years I’ve had a lot of calls from retailers asking for help finding a particular kind of wine for a customer. Typically they’ve had a bottle of wine on a vacation, or in a great restaurant somewhere, and they’re looking for a wine kit closest to it in flavour and aroma. I have to suppress feelings of despair at these calls, not because we don’t have something that’s stylistically close to the wine (we might even have a kit that’s nearly identical, or can be made so with a little tweaking) but because it isn’t the wine that they want to replicate. It’s the experience.

The wine tasted like crisp air, beautiful mountains, and fresh powder . . .

The wine tasted like crisp air, beautiful mountains, and fresh powder . . .

It’s even worse when the retailer starts off with, ‘They just got back from Switzerland . . .’. Typically the people were sitting on a patio on Lake Geneva, or in a ski lodge in Gstaad, and they had a wonderful white wine called ‘Fendant’. Fendant is the Swiss name for Chasselas, a grape with long history and short flavour. It’s slightly citrusy and the best examples hint at grassiness, but mostly it’s really, really neutral (hah, Swiss wines taste neutral, who would’a thought?) which is to say, bland.

But the folks were in the mountains, in a wonderfully well-organised, clean country, enjoying the fresh air and perhaps some wonderful cheeses, at peace with themselves in the center of a grand and magnificent setting. They could have been drinking lighter fluid and would have enjoyed the bouquet and ordered a second bottle. Many times people will bring a bottle home and when they open it, find it very disappointing. This is the origin of the phrase, ‘It doesn’t travel well’ . That actually means, ‘I couldn’t bring the setting and the experience home along with the wine.’

What's good wine? It's any wine you like, no matter it's price or what other people think of it.

What’s good wine? It’s any wine you like, no matter it’s price or what other people think of it.

What to do? Nothing, really. There isn’t anything wrong with letting a whole experience wash over you, having it enhance your perceptions. One of the most incredibly delicious bottles of wine I ever had was a bottle of Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon. While there’s nothing wrong with that wine, I recall it as being utter ambrosia. But then, I was falling in love at the time, and the sky was bluer, the air was fresher, and I was the person I always wished I could be at that moment.

We can all take a bit of wisdom away from experience versus actuality: it’s always good to be mindful of what we eat and drink of itself, and to be present at every moment of our lives. As the sage once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

I couldn’t agree more.