On the Road

Jeez, this makes my head look huge
I’m in a sling right now, so Mr. Stick-figure is a lot more mobile than I am.

I’m travelling this week, and hope to bring home some really exciting news . . . watch this space.

While I’m still here, have you checked out my blog at Winemaker Magazine? Cool update on a story I did for them in 2006–Crying In Your Glass.


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.

Things Happen

Face it, you read it in Farnsworth's voice, didn't you?
Yes, very good news

I have a zillion things going on right now, and it’s making me very happy indeed. I’m not a chap for sitting quietly and waiting for events to unfold. That way lies madness for me. Luckily, the unfolding, she comes. First, after a relatively short wait, I got a spot of shoulder surgery that I really needed. I first injured my right shoulder back in the mid 1990’s, competing as a powerlifter.

The older I get, the better I used to be.
600-3/4 lb squat. Yes, I did a full squat (hip below knee joint)

The sport was very good to me, teaching me discipline, persistence, and the rewards of focusing on really big goals. The trade-off was, that high goals come with costs and I had three knee surgeries (which turned out well) but finally hurt my shoulder badly enough that I had to stop competing back in 2005. At the time I looked into surgery, but since I was considered extremely high-functioning (“It hurts when I bench-press more than 315 lb.” “Well, don’t do that.”) my best choice was to put off surgery until the techniques got better. Fast-forward a decade and they have. Last fall I went in for an assessment and day before yesterday they knitted me new set of rotator cuffs.

It was all moosh in there.
Black and white is better. Colour is pretty gruesome.

I had full ruptures of all my rotator cuff muscles, a torn biceps tendon, bone spurs and the head of my humerus apparently looked like a used golf ball. But all better! Other than being in a sling for two months, I’m pretty dang happy, and the prognosis is that I’m going to actually be able to return to training. Competitive powerlifting? Well, wouldn’t that be a trip . . . but we’ll see. I’ll just be glad to be able to reach for things on low shelves without having my arm flop out of the socket.

See you there!

Next good thing is the upcoming Winemaker Magazine conference! I’m terrifically excited this year, since I’m doing a boot camp! It’s an intensive course for winemakers who want to learn the secret secrets that I’ve never shared with anyone before. As the industry’s technical guy for 22 years I was never able to really let loose with the good stuff for consumers. Now, sky’s the limit! I hope you’re going, and I hope I’ll see you there.

I’ve also got a couple of irons in the fire right now that are really exciting, product development-wise, plus something I’m terrifically pleased about. I hope to be able to let everyone know more very soon! Keep watching this blog, as I won’t be hiding any lights under bushels!

Working Days

A busy weekend: today I’ll be teaching a beer brewing class at Beyond the Grape in Port Moody. The last time I taught a class there I had a great time.

Teaching Tim is Teachy
If they’d had beer classes in college I would have gone on to do a doctorate.

The thing that keeps impressing me every time I have a beginners class is how young the new brewers are. I guess I shouldn’t be so startled: I began brewing in my teens, and was as enthusiastic as could be, so it stands to reason it isn’t just old guys who like to make their own suds.

We’ll be making a Brewers Best Belgian Witbier today. It’s a classic wheat beer, an ale that’s lightly hopped, with spicy fruity notes from coriander seed and orange peel added right to the boil. It’ll be perfect, just ready to drink in June when the heat is upon us.

The class itself goes through the entire process, from how to choose equipment, an explanation of ingredients, sanitation (cleanliness is next to goodliness), brewing, racking, bottling and more sanitation (it’s kind of a thing with beer), all in a single class.

If you’re near Beyond the Grape, they hold classes regularly, so give them a call and sign up. If you live in another area, almost all home brew supply stores hold classes–the fee is usually nominal, it’s much easier than you think, and you not only get the knowledge, you get a support network of the store, it’s staff, and a bunch of like-minded brewers who want to do the same things as you.

Look at me: thirty-five years after my first batch I still love to make and drink my own beer.

my head is actually shaped exactly like the hat
Beer mandatory, fez optional

Further Observations on Powdered Booze

Yesterday’s post about Palcohol got a bit of attention, and generated a variety of opinions and interest. While many folks agreed with my position (tl;dr: dumb idea, probably not going to come to anything) some commenters on social media were annoyed by my relentless negativity, noting that it actually existed, and had even been granted a patent in the 1970’s. One commenter over at the Bevlaw blog even accused me of having an understanding of physics that was at the grade-school level.

Carl. He taught me my most important lessons.
Miss you, Carl. Thanks for all the physics.

I understand folk’s chagrin. The Blessed Carl Sagan once wrote a book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, to explain the scientific method and instill skepticism and critical thinking in a wide audience. I’m not Carl Sagan (not even Neil DeGrasse Tyson is, although it’s nice that someone is trying) but I am someone who took Carl’s words to heart. If a thing sounds too good to be true, then you probably need to look very closely at it before you accept it as true. A big fluffy pile of powder that yields a single drink does not equal ‘magic powdered alcohol’.

In order to demonstrate how this works, I ordered some maltodextrin yesterday, so I could give this a shot and show just what an ounce of booze mixed into a pile of fluffy white powder looked like. But lo! Someone at Popular Science has actually gone to the trouble of making their own homemade Palcohol ahead of me.

As I postulated yesterday, the base is maltodextrin. In this case the author used a commercial version called N-Zorbit M, used by molecular gastronomists to adsorb liquids into a compounded powder, typically something like olive oil, which is then sprinkled onto stuff to delight and amaze diners with the juxtaposition of olive oil flavour in a light fluffy powder. Or to bamboozle them into spending nine hundred bucks on a meal with eight bucks worth of ingredients, I always forget how that works with molecular gastronomy . . .

Here’s the process from the PopSci article, emphasis mine:

  1. Weigh out 100 grams of N-Zorbit into a mixing bowl. Because the powder is so fluffy and light, this will be a sizeable mound.

  2. While whisking steadily, drizzle in 30 grams of high-proof spirit. I use Lemon Hart 151-proof rum. After you’ve stirred it in completely, the powder should be dry, but somewhat chunky. If it’s still moist, sprinkle in a little more N-Zorbit.

  3. Sift the dry liquor through a fine sieve to break up the chunks and make a nice powder. If you’re making a larger batch, you can do it in a blender and step 3 won’t be necessary.

At the end of the process you are not only carrying the original amount and volume of alcohol that you started with, you’re also toting along a cup (perhaps more) of extremely fluffy white powder to boot. That’s not what people visualise when they’re being sold ‘powdered alcohol’: everyone wants something that looks like a teaspoon of baking soda that magically turns the liquid it’s dropped in into alcohol. And that’s not happening–it’s just not possible in organic chemistry for that to happen. Once you have pure ethanol, you can’t ‘dehydrate’ it into a powder, no matter how cool that sounds.

In the meantime, people have often tried to package alcohol in low-volume/low packaging, easy-to-conceal formats (which, let’s face it, is the killer app for powdered booze). Many people will be familiar with Shotpak

shotpak, snotpak, you tell me
Popular with those fond of regurgitation . . .

But that’s the tip of the bottom-shelf iceberg. There are 187ml (6-ounce) kiddy flasks (junior mickey) and pouched drinks widely available, ‘airline’ bottles’, devices for smuggling booze into stadiums inside a brassiere, et cetera.

Honey I shrank the booze
Tiny little drunks are delirious with glee

Those are all dodges to try and circumvent rules about using alcohol in public or in licensed areas. People never want to be told that they can’t have a drink, and putting one over on the man (and maybe saving money on over-priced stadium booze) is very appealing. But powdery alcohol isn’t going to do it.

Missing the Points–Over and Over Again

Missing the Points–Over and Over Again

I’ve only written my first words in this entry, and I’m already ashamed of myself. Why? Because I’m providing coverage of something I despise: the 100 point wine scale. If only it would have the decency to die a swift and painful death I’d never have to talk about it again. I hate it, I don’t use it, and I have a strong feeling that people who do so are fundamentally different from me.

Unfortunately, certain people are hanging on to the scale tooth and nail, knees and toes. I’ve criticised it before, in long-form at my previous blog (read it, sometimes I can’t believe I can be that coherent) but I find that the urge is back. What started me off this time was Jamie Goode. He’s a very accomplished and articulate wine critic, and doesn’t like the 100 point scale either.

A Goode likeness

Jamie put up a video on the scale. He speaks about the obvious flaws: the way the score is influenced by the critic’s biases/current state, the implied precision of a finite scale (1 point in a hundred!), score inflation (88 points is abject failure), the unattainability of a 100 point score, the low effort a lazy system like this enforces, meanwhile it’s the default system, as bad as it is, score inflation (eventually all scores will be 99 or 100), etc.

Jamie goes on to ask if it could be changed, if  a consortium of wine writers could force a different system. The answer is probably not. Not because it wouldn’t be better, but because he’s missing the central flaw of the 100 point system, and its central appeal to people who market and sell wine–and who those people really are. More on this in a minute. 

Jamie and I are mostly in agreement. What really set me off was the response from the other side of the fence, specifically Tom Wark over at Fermentation blog. Tom is a PR guy/publicist for the wine industry, promoting and marketing wine, wearing many hats, all of them well. He does fine work in his field, but it has to be understood that while he rails against certain details of the system and modern winemaking and wine, he represents the status quo and defends it.

Tom is the pretty one on the left

Tom’s apologia is well-written, as usual. What he comes down to is this: the scale is shorthand, the imprecision is understood, and critics use it as an honest way of conveying important information in a soft field (subjective quality can’t be precisely qualified) and consumers who have the same mindset as Tom will find the scores useful, as they are well-intended.

Jamie may have missed the most important point, but Tom is subtly more wrong. Understandable, given his stance on the true usefulness of the 100 point scale. From a podcast episode of winebizradio.com

What’s unethical…when I call a magazine and say ‘I’ll give you $25,000 for a 93 point score,’ and they say ‘You’re on’ – that would be unethical. I’ve been in this business for 20 years and I’ve only bought coverage, uhm, once or twice. As a publicist my job is to get as much ‘right’ kind of exposure for my clients as I possibly can. If I thought I could buy a 95 point score from a reputable publication and be reasonably assured that no one would find out, I’d do it in a minute.

Let’s just soak in that for a minute. would it be possible to buy positive reviews from magazines without using the 100 point scale? Sure it would. Would it have the same portability, impact and downstream usefulness as a 95 point starburst sticker on your wine label? Not bloody likely. But Tom not only says he considers it an acceptable thing to do, he mentions having done it ‘once or twice’.

So here’s why the 100 point scale is a sick, rotten vestige of the bad old days of wine writing: it’s too easy for those in the wine buseiness to misuse it for gain.

I actually agree with Tom in some ways: it could be a useful if inaccurate and subjective way to describe wine in a shorthand that would benefit consumers. But as long as humans are human, it will be misused. Ian Ayres, a professor at Yale, wrote this about wine criticism:

Both the wine dealers and writers have a vested interest in maintaining their informational monopoly on the quality of wine.

Let’s go to the reigning champion on human economic behaviour. Adam Smith said

“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

Meeting together in this case means tacitly agreeing on the 100 point scale as the arbiter of taste in wine sales. As long as critics can use the scale without having to fully qualify what the scores actually mean, it’s not just useful shorthand, it’s a direct route to manipulating wine consumers.

Before anybody uproars that no decent or ethical wine critic could possibly countenance that, I suggest you go back and read Tom’s quote above. Not only does he countenance it, he acknowledges that it is done, and that he has done it on multiple occasions.

Lest anyone think that I’m personally spiteful towards Tom, I like the guy. He’s a warm, thoughtful and genuine fella, and every time I’ve met him, he’s been kind enough to share his time and insights with me. But he’s a businessman defending his commercial interests here. The 100 point scale is a proven sales tool and can instantly raise any winery to unthinkable cult heights in a single number, and any publicist who didn’t fight for a high number as hard as they could is a bad publicist.

This leaves us wine consumers in a state. Three decades ago when I used to slavishly follow the Wine Spectator for ratings, the scores were useful: they guided me through the bottles in my local liquor store and helped me find some treasures–some of which scored only 87 points. I’m not entirely certain that the scale was free of corruption back in those days, but I know what it’s like today, and I can’t use it.

The only advice I have is to do a bit of meta-analysis: I’m a big fan of structuralism and this is where it comes in handy for me. I’m not nearly smart enough or educated enough to enter into extended debate on De Saussure and his philosophy, but in interpreting wine criticism a reductive version of structuralism is useful and necessary. Nothing a critic says means anything until you understand the context of his interrelationship with the wine and the world. Once you know where the critic is coming from, and how his or her bread is buttered, you’re more-or-less immune to their bias. From there you can pick out useful nuggets of information from the dross of their less noble intent.

But better than tedious Derrida-ist analysis of wine critics and their writings, I think the best thing a consumer can do is to grab a couple of good books on the history and general interest of wine and start trying a few bottles in their price range. Get to know the folks in your local wine shop, find out what they like personally, and then filter their recommendations as you go.

You’ll discover not only great wines, but the knowledge of their greatness within yourself–not along some imaginary, arbitrary and false scale designed for deceit.



My Name is Tim, and I’m Here to Help

Who is Tim Vandergrift and why does he want to help?

Excellent question–I’m glad you asked.

I’m an authority on consumer-produced alcohol beverages, what most folks refer to as ‘homemade’ wine, beer, mead, sake. For more than two decades I helmed the Technical Services department for first one and then the other of the world’s largest consumer beverage companies. ‘Technical Services’ makes it sound like I was in IT, but it was the only title that really fit the job I did. Mainly I talked, lectured and wrote about wine and beer making, wine, kit wine technology and applications, and anything else that people will sit still and listen to, and I did promotions and marketing and helped design and set up homebrew shops and On-Premise operations across Canada and the USA.

Nowadays I’m an independent consultant to the industry, doing much the same things as before, but as a freelance type guy–I’m always late for work and my boss is a slave-driver. 

My usual writing style is pretty loose, and I can never stay on topic (my wife says I have undiagnosed ADD) so if you’re reading here, please join me in hoping for the best. I’ll be blogging about stuff I’m doing, beer, wine, food, cooking, drinking, eating . . . come to think of it, if you can ferment it, cook it, eat it, or drink it, I’ll pretty much be interested in it. Label me a professional hedonist, I think it fits.

I’m 50, and I live in White Rock British Columbia with my wife of thirty years and a  horrible gigantic elderly curmudgeon of a Siamese cat named Spot.

He must have liked the way my eyeball tasted because he bit it right after this was taken

Important Questions I get asked:

What do you mean, ‘I’m here to help’?

Just that: if you’re in the industry, you can reach me for consulting at tim (dot) vandergrift (at) gmail (dot) com. If you subscribe to Winemaker Magazine, I’m the regular kit columnist. I also blog on their website: Wine Kits. Or you can keep reading here and pick up useful things, such as which wine to drink (see below) or which beer to drink (all of them, especially the one you made yourself).

What’s a good wine?

Anything you like to drink is good. Seriously, if you enjoy it, it’s awesome. Never let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn’t enjoy because they’ve got their hand on your wallet.

Beer? What do you know about beer?

I’ve been an all-grain brewer since 1996 and I’m a BJCP certified judge. A lot of people say they love beer, but honestly I think they just say that to get it into bed. I have a deep and abiding emotional connection to beer that transcends time and space, and forms the basis of my personal philosophy (if more people relaxed and had a beer, more people would be happy).

What’s your favourite wine?

Whatever I’m holding at the moment. I’m awfully fond of Champagne and mind-bendingly expensive French Burgundy, but I’m happy to drink anything reasonably tasty.

What’s your favourite beer?

Duvel. There, I’ve said it. Try it and see if I’m right. As a category I’m awfully fond of IPA.

Do you ever drink anything else?

Sometimes a day goes by when I don’t have time to enjoy a beer–but not two days in a row. In between I’m very fond of the brown liquors, with emphasis on Scotch and Irish whisky, love a good cocktail (after three decades of devotion I’m still working on my Martini recipe) and sometimes even drink non-alcoholic beverages and I’ll try anything once. I’m not big on sweet drinks, or drinks made out of candy–they strike me as childish, and I grew up specifically so I could enjoy potent, bitter, sour things, not comforting sweetness.

I roast my own coffee and keep fifty or sixty kinds of tea on hand. I also remember drinking water once. Tasted like fish lived in it.

Why can’t you spell anything correctly? 

I write in British-Canadian English. That means I put u’s in things and have the letter s where many people would put a z (pronounced ‘zed’). I should probably have a copy editor go over my stuff, but that’s a layer of complexity I rarely have time for–although I have a lot of time and love for good editors.

Why do you hate sommeliers and cicerones? 

I don’t hate them personally (well sure, a couple) and I’ve even practised the profession in the past. I just don’t like the way their profession has evolved. A sommelier is just the person who manages and sells wine in a restaurant. They’re not gods among men, and they should be treated like any other knowledgeable waiter, not like superstars or arbiters of taste. As for the bizarre attempt to hijack the sommelier designation for beer service with the whole cicerone thing . . . I’m at a loss, really. It’s fun to talk to knowledgeable folks about beer and wine and the food pairings that go with them, but honestly, it’s not rocket surgery. People have been successfully consuming food with beer and wine for over ten thousand years without a designated expert to tell them that they’re doing it wrong.

What do you think of the whole Robert Parker/100 point ratings/professional wine reviews thing? 

This is a family friendly blog.

Are you a curmudgeon?

Kind of. I honestly like people, though. Especially you–are you always this wonderful? Have you lost weight?

Can I ask you a question about winemaking?

If you’re a homebrew shop owner or a winery, contact me at the address above. If you’re a consumer, I’m pretty booked up most of the time, but I’ve got a notion to hold an ‘ask me something’ blog in future. I’ll let you know.

Do you do anything else?

Besides drink, you mean? I’m a national level competitive powerlifter, love motorcycles, garden a lot, hunt and shoot guns, travel, cook (everything) and I try to spend as much time as I can reading and thinking. Sometimes I even write for magazines and make deadlines.

Ha ha, just kidding. I never make writing deadlines.

Where can I read more of your stuff? 

There’s the Winemaker Magazine blog I mentioned above. Sadly, the big fun blog I had at a previous employer has been erased with a liberal application of lawyers. Stay tuned to timvandergrift.com for the best stuff.

You could friend me on The Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tim.vandergrift

Or follow me on Twitter https://twitter.com/Wine_Guy_Tim

Or look at my Instagram feed http://instagram.com/tim_vandergrift

Lord, please let there be no more social media thingies to hook into.

Spot can be found on The Facebook, when he can no longer be bothered to answer, being an ex-cat. I miss him always. . https://www.facebook.com/spot.cat.35

How did you get this job?

I’m still working that out.