Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Grateful Employer

I've helped many wine businesses with their wine programs, either through increased sales, better educated staff, buying strategies or just general wine program structuring and nurturing. In general this has just gotten me a thank you and sometimes an actual fee. But sometimes an employer really gets it and treats his employees like the assets they are. For the last four and five years, Paul the owner of Hamptons Wine Shoppe in Westhampton, has taken his staff to a Tunbleweed Tuesday night of dining and wining at Starr Boggs Restaurant. The wines come predominantly from purchase that he has done throughout the years, some I've helped with sourcing, others not at all. I usually bring something from my collection and he has contributed a wine or two from a collection that he and I purchased from a friends restaurant cellar years ago. Some highlights have been a old Forman Cabernet Sauvignon, old Louis Carillon Puligny, Dalle Valle, Guigal, Ducru-Beaucaillou, some really wonderful diverse collections of wines with a bit of age.

Last night was the 2012 version of the Tuesday after Labor Day. A day that the restaurants and retailers of the Hamptons (and other summer resorts) celebrate and breath a sigh of relief that all the businesses made once again. Even though I am not as involved in Pauls business, I got this years invite and then the discussion about the wines to be brought.

We started with a 2003 Château Smith Haut-Lafitte Blanc, yes a bit of an off-vintage for whites of Graves or Pessac-Leognan, but you never know. It was minerally with nice aromatics, but a touch flat due to the heat of that vintages growing season. Worked well with the slices of chard tuna, but flailed against the raw clam and other seafood. Best match was actually the salad and tomatoes which brought their own acidity to the palate.

Next we moved on to a 1997 Domaine Rougeot Meursault Charmes, this was a wine that also had a questionable vintage but  nice pedigree and a surprise each time we opened one over the years. We've had good versions of this, bad versions and great ones. This particular one was better than good but just a bit shy of the awesome ones that we've seen over the years. Hint of minerals, hint of nutty maturity, lovely balanced acidity and nice length. Worked beautifully with most of the foods.

On to the reds... first up was a 1995 Dalla Valle Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was just as expected, bold Cabernet fruits a touch of oak still lingering un-resolved and spice and leather mingling in.

This was followed by what I considered the wine of the evening, 1996 La Moulin Côte-Rôtie from M. Guigal. Last year or the year before we had the big brother of this wine the La Turque

Sommeliers & Tips

My background in the restaurant and wine industry has been long and chaotic. When I think of the gratuity in restaurants I have many opinions and they are based on a wide array of experiences. Those experiences include feelings of envy, joy, guilt, confusion, compassion and many others.

Envy was one of the first emotions I had when it came to the concept of gratuity. I was a Sous Chef for The Gingerman start-up restaurant in Albany, NY when I was about twenty or twenty-one. The responsibilities were overwhelming, I worked an average of 65 hours a week (which after my the restaurant career I've had since seems light) and would sit and drink at the bar with fellow employees. The sense of envy and jealousy I had as they collected their bounty of tips was overwhelming. Here I slaved away in a hot kitchen for at least twice as long to make less money! As a young person fairly new to the restaurant industry that was tough to take. Today I realize that tips are not a consistent income and that it takes other sacrifices to achieve those dollars. But I still believe there is a severe imbalance between many kitchen employees and the tipped employees.

Joy 1
After toiling in kitchens in Summit County, Colorado; Manhattan, New York; Albany, New York; Poughkeepsie, New York; Badgastein, Austria and St. Moritz, Switzerland I moved to the other side of the restaurant. Actually to the Bar. My first foray was as a bar-back, but eventually I ended up behind the bar while going to Restaurant & Hotel School in New Haven, CT. It was an interesting sorta mobbish restaurant where I actually met my wife. The money was decent but nothing like the couple of nights I remember a decade or more later. 
The first great tip night I can remember happened at Richters in New Haven. I don't remember the specifics, just the 'count'. The final tally was either just below $1,000 per bartender or just above, I can't remember exactly and I think it was with my bartending partner at the time who also ran the kitchen but worked the bar on occasions. Dieter eventually went on to own the place, not sure if he does today or not.

Joy 2 (a bit of Guilt too)
There might have been other days that approached that massive day bartending at Richter's but they didn't make a substantial mark on my sub-subconscious. The biggest day of my tipped career happened in the late '90s at The '21' Club where I was the Sommelier for the Private Dining Rooms. Those were some insane days, the economy was humming and the rich were not only very rich, but very willing to flaunt it. And where better to flaunt ones wealth than at 21. The list was large, but not massive or sick like the one I worked with at The American Hotel in Sag Harbor (had 2 pages of DRC when I was there). I don't remember the night that I broke the $5000 barrier, but that is by far the most money I have ever made in a day. I shouldn't say night, because I do remember my calculation of the gratuity included lunch and dinner. The day was a difficult one in which I carted and opened wines of all levels in price and quality and I ran up and down stairs like a madman. When a dining room four floors from the wine cellar needs more Vintage Krug or the like, you run. I think my knuckles have permanent ring dents from dashing around that place carrying seven bottle of Champagne by hand. Three bottles in each hand and one cradled in an elbow. One elevator for both staff and customers so that was useless. (Except for the time I rode up with the high-price strippers that were the entertainment for one of my clients!)

Confusion & Guilt (What should I tip)
As a former sommelier and restaurant consultant, I have been put in the situation many times of having a dining experience become very extravagant due to the kindness of friends, former colleagues, clients, etc. Situations where I've gone to dinner at a restaurant and been gifted, food and wine by the owners. How do I tip when I am gifted extravagant items that I might not be able to afford? I feel I should tip on the total of what the bill would have been had I not been given so much? That is the play, but sometimes that creates a spend higher than I might have been prepared to.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

What Goes Around Comes Around

When I first joined the "tribe" of street wine peddlers, one of the first places I called on was a little store in Southampton, NY that had just been bought by a new owner. Judy and Charlie were new to the business and I knew how the liquor and wine sales teams would pounce, selling them cases of stuff like Campari or other such that a store would only need a bottle or two of.  You know, someone trying to fill a quota in a simple, one shot way.

As I was working for a small wine company (American Estates, a small division of Lauber Imports) and was a former wine buyer for restaurants, I offered a touch of guidance on things that might wait on their purchasing and what products might be priorities. That tiny bit of guidance turned into a twenty year friendship that includes my family visiting them at their winter hiatus spot in Lake Tahoe and skiing together. Charlie is the greatest Senior Skier I have ever skied with, he and I have had some wonderful days struggling through the steeps and deeps with my son in tow.

Given their gracious hosting of us and participation in our skiing adventures, my wife and I would always put together a collection of wines to bring from our cellar to enjoy with them. Always we'd bring more than needed and leave the rest. The bounty always included things my wife and I thought were special from Burgundy, Bordeaux to Napa, Sonoma, Willamette and Santa Barbara. Things like 1978 Beychevelle, 1986 Lynch-Bages 1992 Staglin, 1995 Clos de la Roche from Dujac, Foxen Pinot Noir, Forman Cabernet Sauvignon and others. Judy and Charlie always complained about the largesse of it but what a great time. We'd cook and drink after a long day of skiing or take some wines to a local restaurant and pay the corkage.

Soooo... on to last nights wine adventure. We were asked to join them for dinner at their house near Sag Harbor, NY. My wife was told the menu would include braised lamb, so we wanted to bring something nice with us. I chose a 1998 Fanti Brunello di Montalcino and a Luna Vineyards Canto (a sangiovese blend from Napa Valley). Things we thought would be a nice compliment to braised lamb. When we arrived they greeted us at the door we explained our wines, then Judy carefully put a white bottle box in my hands and asked that I (again carefully) look inside. What I found was this:
A tattered labeled bottle of 1945 Leoville Las Cases. The bottle was in the store when Judy and Charlie took over and at the time they thought this and the Petrus (which became a donation) and others of the ilk were over-priced in the purchase and inventory of their deal for the store (1994 ish). Those in the industry understand what has happened to such wine values since!

The bottle stayed in a dark corner of the stores basement wine storage since they took over and likely was there many years before. Judy checked the provenance at some point in the past and it passed her litmus test. The only reason she didn't use it for a donation to a worthy cause (hospital benefit or the like) was due to the rather rough look of the label.

Surprising for me was the way the cork came out of this 67 year-old wine. I was worried, because I didn't have an ah-so corkscrew (can it be a corkscrew if it doesn't screw). But with a double hinged corkscrew I was able to remove 98% of the cork before a tiny piece refused to follow along.

I was able to get that little tiny piece out without it dropping in the bottle, yep I still got it Fred ;)

Naturally with such an old wine, you just never know if it's hosed. So with a some trepidation I sniffed at the bottles opening. The wine seemed to be in decent if not a touch tired shape. I decided we shouldn't wait too long to taste it as I wasn't certain how long the wine would be in such shape once opened. I kept the bottle horizontal the whole time so that the sediments weren't disturbed (Fred) and poured out glasses for each of us. There was a hint of mature Bordeaux mingling with a hint of spice and madeira, it was that hint of madeira that worried me about the staying power of this elderly girl. But I was totally wrong, five minutes later all of us found the wine evolving and changing in the glass and the wine still had some grippy tannins. And this just continued... the wine kept evolving a bit every few minutes, and then about an hour later it was gone and I had to open that bottle of Fanti '98. Charlie commented on the incredible youth of the fourteen year old Brunello, and while it was still fairly youthful, our palates might have been a touch influenced by the previous elder citizen.

But... the Brunello was indeed a fine match with the lamb... it was just up against it with a perfectly aged world-class Saint-Julien so naturally we'd think it was young. And after looking at the ratings from Spectator 89, I think we got an exceptional wine in the 67 year old Leoville Las Cases. Parker didn't rate it and Clive (my favorite wine writer) gave the wine an excellent written review in his Grand Cru book.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

How I got the name McSnobblier

Back in the early part of the century (2003 maybe) I wrote an article for a magazine called the Improper Hamptonian about the local wine industry. I don't have a link to the original but I reposted the response article on my website.

The original article that got me the name McSnobbelier was a shot across the bow of the Long Island Wine Industry as I wondered why they put all their focus on producing Chardonnay and Merlot and virtually ignored Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. My premise was that to make the greatest Chardonnay or Merlot a new wine region had to compete against the marketing, history and quality of some of the world's greatest wines. Why not use the soil and climate advantage that Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc have on Long Island and the weakness of the marketplace those two grapes used to have as well. This of course has changed since 2003 or 2004 when I originally made that comment.

When the original article was published I was very upset with my editor as she had made changes to the article that changed the tone and meaning. I came across as far more critical of Long Island Wine Industry than I liked due to editing. But when I got the letter, I realized that sometimes being controversial works... a la Steve Cuozzo of NY Post writing about snobbish wine lists.

I got a bit of backlash from associates that owned vineyards and wineries in my backyard and from the founding member of the industry Louisa Hargrave. Along with the winery owners that disliked this theory, I also got a letter to editor saying that I shouldn't call myself an Advanced Sommelier rather I was a Master Snobelier. So I embraced the moniker, though changed it a bit.

Above is the original letter, here is it in print with my Editors response:

Hello Improper,
I’ve been enjoying your magazine since its “Hamptonian” days. I usually look for the wine articles in the local magazines. 1 Found the November “WINE OBSERVER” to be a little offensive to our local wine industry. Chris Miller was reviewing a wine tasting at the new Stony Brook Center for Wine, Food and Culture With Kevin Zraly. Now everyone is entitled to their opinions, but...if Chris is going to list his top 3 choices per flight, then LIST THEM! I wasn't there so I don’t know exactly which wineries and vintages were tasted, but I understand that there were wines from: France, Germany and California in addition to Upstate NY, and Long Island. What caught my attention and raised my ire was the last paragraph of his Blind Flight article. Chris can be as bored as he wants to be with Chardonnay (A.B.C.), but to “DIS” both local Chardonnay and Cab Franc so badly as to not bothering to rank them, OR any of the other wines in those 2 flights??? Worse yet is to say that he doesn’t think Long Island is suitable For Chardonnay (Hello? how many acres and awards) and Cab Franc isn’t showing up to potential (Jamesport CF. 2001 recently voted “Best Red “fine in NYS"). To me this means one thing, Chris may be an Advanced Sommelier, but I think he is more a candidate for “Master
Enjoyer of Local Wines, John Graeb, Cutchoguc
Thanks for your letter John, but don’t be too hard on Chris, be is all subject to editing-—-which in this case is the culprit for any snobbery. What is represented in his final paragraph is merely Chris’ opinion of the Cab Franc present that day. As Chardonnay, now that’s a matter of taste, which he did not have that day as he did not attend the Chard tasting.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Here is an excellent blog about wine clubs by the Wine Curmudgeon:

Wine clubs and what their success says about the wine business

I have plenty of opinions about this and could drone on about it for quite awhile, but my main thoughts are below...

Third party wine sales are coming under attack and the space is evolving rapidly.  Zagats, NYTimes and others are having their business models analyzed by State Liquor Authorities as they do not hold Retail licenses, yet they take money in.  California has or is ruling on what they call third-party marketing, New York is trying to update their liquor codes as I write this, and Groupon has had to move away from offering wine discounts (they are deemed too close to the transaction).

There are many serious complexities and inconsistencies in wine sales and distribution laws and codes and plenty of 'scofflaws' out there ignoring those laws.  I find it interesting that NJ is one of the states that doesn't allow direct to consumer sales from wineries, yet some of the internets largest wine sales come from that state!?!?

Interesting times right now, there will continue to be many fits and starts in this battle but eventually the consumer and producer will get their share of power in this equation...Right now the battle is being waged in back rooms with lawyers and executives of giant corps (Diageo, Southern, Heineken...) and State Authorities.

Monday, March 21, 2011

European Wine Consumption vs. other Countries

For several years I have heard murmurings about the decline in wine consumption by Europeans, especially in France and Spain. Here are some recent numbers which illustrate the pain European wine industries are going through:

Wine consumption in Italy, as in other traditional European producer countries such as France and Spain, has fallen from 37 million hectolitres of at the end of the 1980s to less than 25 millions today (-30% in 20 years). On the contrary, new consumption is growing in other areas: United Kingdom (+94% compared to 20 years ago), USA (+47%), Russia (+63%) and China (+160%).

This puts increased pressure on all wine producing countries as Spain, France and Italy produce huge amounts of wine that are pushed through the economy.

VinItaly & Noble Wines

VinItaly starts in a couple of weeks and I am starting to get some press releases from them on occasion. The most recent one speaks to what I have been preaching for a long time, promoting the culture and noble qualities of wine and the benefits of small producers and their connection to those two important concepts. A small excerpt is below from the release.

How can the Italians be encouraged to drink wine again?” Boscaini asks the question but also
provides the answer: "We need a communication policy that explains the naturalness and benefits of
wine as a noble product of our most ancient traditions."

Giuliano Dell’Orto suggests a few, highly effective rules that are especially valid for the
small companies representing the backbone of Italian production that cannot implement major
investments despite playing an important role in promoting the excellence and wealth of the
extraordinary, broad and high-quality offering that is the fullest expression of that genius loci which

is the exclusive heritage of Italy:
• focus on the distinctive features of the company;
• define a set of appropriate and effective tools for correct communication;
• create a unifying and easily recognised brand language;
• rationalise the offering portfolio in harmony with the culture of the company and well-
organised in relation to the needs of consumers;
• make sure that products are communicated in an effective manner through packaging that
highlights their specific character.

"Communication," Chiara Lungarotti, President of the Wine Tourism Movement, explains "is
particularly a problem for the many small producers entering the market over the last ten-
fifteen years that today need recognisability, visibility and positioning on the market." For all of
them, "wine tourism may well be of great help in terms of promotion and communication because it
improves awareness of product quality for Italian and foreign tourists alike."