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The Perfect Match?

Ironically enough, the greatest value a well-trained Sommelier brings to the table, literally, is the least considered aspect of the job.  Food and wine pairing is a top-of-mind, but poorly trained aspect of Sommelier education that gives short shrift downstream to wine enthusiasts own confidence levels leading to the mass of fear, uncertainty and doubt that marks this seemingly simple, yet complex aspect of the wine world.

A scan of certification curriculum and a conversation with any number of Somms. will focus on deep, empirical knowledge of wine and its history—where is it from, does the wine act as a reflection of its terroir, what is the varietal typicity, and other bits of deep administrivia.

Sommelier experience and education also leads to expertise in front-of-house service, wine list-building, cellar management and other aspects of high-end wine appreciation.  However, have you ever wondered, as I have, that given that Sommeliers primarily exist within the realm of fine dining, why the heck there isn’t more of an educational focus on what should be core to the job—pairing wine with the food that we’re eating?

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It’s curious for sure, particularly because Sommeliers are the unsung trendsetters in the wine world, sometimes unwittingly.

And, unfortunately, this lack of information at the very top of the pyramid isn’t available for a consumer trickledown effect.  Instead, what we have instead of food and wine pairing thought-leadership is a raft of information that bubbles up from the bottom, creating more difficulty in comprehension. 

However, there is simple hope, even if its self-administered. More on that in a moment …

For consumers, the fire lights and a passion for wine starts in any number of ways, but chief among those fire starting sparks is an exquisitely well-paired meal, the likes of which lives on in our memory bank next to other toe-curling moments in time when the stars align and something explosive occurs.

One of the finest meals I’ve enjoyed was a paired tasting menu at Esca in New York City.  Each course was better than the last and each wine was like the perfect dash of salt and pepper to the meal.  The food and wine offered an amazing experience that launched me into several new areas of exploration, including a mini wallet busting obsession with Barbaresco and the foods that go well with a bottle.

In fact, I submit that virtually all of my wine revelations have been in context with food, led by a Sommelier down a path I might not have normally taken.  It’s this food and wine knowledge that is powerful.  Likewise, it’s this food and wine LEADERSHIP that is very powerful, yet given short shrift in studied credentials and the type of knowledge that passes down as wisdom. 

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Simply, while I know that Pinot and Riesling are flexible accompaniments and Syrah and Zin goes with the grill, a Cali Chard is good for fish in a beurre blanc sauce, I would suggest that most of us are mere wine and food pairing neophytes playing in Double A ball in our homes compared to what could be major league performances.

This lack of educational engagement in between bridging food and wine with Sommeliers is a significant weakness; it’s akin to a Doctor not learning how to address overall wellness and instead focusing on diagnosing and prescribing medicine to solve specific issues as if our cholesterol levels existed on an island, separate from other islands.  Wait, that’s another post entirely ... 

If food and wine are simpatico complements to each other it would seem that the sum of the wine education parts would be a greater focus of food and wine in concert with each other instead of culinary education being what it is and Somm. education being what it is.

Check out the reading list and the goals of the Master Sommelier exam– food and wine as accompaniments to each other is a micro-slice of the overall course requirements – and the Master Somm. exam is the gold standard for wine knowledge!

These sorts of things lead me to question not just the big issues in the wine world, but also the small issues as well.  If something that is so core to the world of wine, as food is, what else are we missing the boat on entirely in terms of how we focus on knowledge that leads to evolution (not to mention innovation)?

Fortunately, there are a couple of really handy resources to bridge this knowledge gap.

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Most people in the know are familiar with a book called, “What to Eat with What you Drink.” It’s billed as the most comprehensive book ever written on food and drink pairing, with the core focus on food and wine.  It’s hard to argue with that statement, as well.  It’s a beautiful book and highly functional.

A little more neglected in awareness however is another book that came out last fall by the same authors – “The Flavor Bible.”  This book, while published later, is really a prequel to, “What to Eat with What You Drink” and is a compendium of foodstuffs that match with each other in flavor profile – things like beets and avocados, for example.  Who knew?

It seems to me, that anybody who gets in the kitchen is well-served by understanding the flavor combination’s that go well together.  And, with this foundation of knowledge from “The Flavor Bible” they can then graduate to, “What to Eat with What you Drink” finally putting to rest any unease they may have with creating the perfect meal, and experience, Sommelier and deficient Sommelier education not a concern.


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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Autumn Rain Pt. II

More odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass …

It Has Only Just Begun

There’s an old business management saying (paraphrased) from Peter Drucker that goes, “If it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed.”

Score one for luxury wine producers.

I received an email today for a new Cabernet release (name withheld to protect the innocent) and it mentioned that the wine had received a high Enologix Index score—indicating the wine “is predicted to garner a score of 95 or above on a traditional wine critic’s scale of 100.”

That’s a first. 

Usually the actual critic’s scores are touted, but this one indicates that it should score well based on testing.  Since it was couched in an email inquiring about my desire for a sample, it’s actually a nice Jedi mind trick.  I can almost hear Yoda saying, “The Force is strong with this wine, young Jedi.  Review it well, you will.”

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Speaking of the Force, I also feel like I’ve been focus grouped on the latest summer blockbuster.  “Based on our polling data, Transformers 2 should have an $80M opening weekend and do $250M domestically scoring strong word of mouth with young adult males…”

Methinks that while many small, boutique wineries think that fortunes can be lost (or never made) based on wine reviews, there are a bunch of deep pocketed folks who use Enologix and are laughing as they pull the lever behind the curtain.

This of course begs the question—who really rules the roost in the industry?  Is it critics or the science behind the wine?

Sidebar thought – I’m not sure what the phraseology will be in the future, but I’m pretty sure that the word “cult” has reached the point of diminishing return for high-end luxury Napa reds.  It’s a word that has too much in common with the cabal of greed on Wall Street.

If you couple the above with a mention of the 2005 Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace in Wine & Spirits magazine noting:

“The best Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon we’ve ever tasted on release.  Bar none.”  And the fact that Robert Parker, as reported all over, has said:

“Throughout the southern Rhone, 2007 is the greatest vintage I have tasted in my thirty years working in that region.” 

It would seem that areas of the wine industry are doing their part to ensure that the high-end of wine recovers.

Separate thought, same general vein:  Given that we’re headlong into football season, and college football’s BCS rankings were released for the first time over the weekend, all of this thinking about scoring, critics and superlatives has me wondering if the wine world is one statistician away from changing the game.

In the realm of sports, sure there are statistics that make for objective review, but then you have the super number wonks that turn the game – and numbers—into something different entirely and in doing so they change the way we view the game entirely. Quarterback ratings and strength of schedule come to mind, as does the value of on base percentage in baseball.

Guys like Bill James in baseball, Jeff Sagarin for rankings, and others have had a profound impact on the sport of games.  Wine is one dedicated statistician and uber-math formula away from making critics just another link in the value chain.

Condé Nast

My wife would like to take a moment and thank Condé Nast magazine for her new subscription to GQ magazine. 

Her original subscription to Domino magazine was switched to Cookie magazine when Domino folded.  Cookie then folded, but before it did is was the so-called, “stylish parenting magazine for the new mom” (despite the fact that our kids are mere twinkles in my loins).  With Domino and Cookie now kaput, she has been migrated to GQ, despite the fact that, well, she’s clearly not the market for GQ. 

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On the other hand, I love the cleavage shot of the cover model this issue. 

I can’t wait to see how they handle our Gourmet magazine subscription (Which is paid through 2012 because, hell, who pays attention to their subscription?  I kept writing the renewal checks because they came every two months).  Will we get a continuation of our existing subscription to Bon Appétit, or will they give us Teen Vogue?

Gary Vee

Gary Vaynerchuk’s myth-making is in full effect with the release of his new book.  I’ve read several blog posts that assert that Vaynerchuk built Wine Library from $5M to $60M AFTER he started the video blog.  While that inconsistency is a nice bit of legend for social media gurus, I do believe the truth is that he built up to that amount of revenue since taking over the family business in the mid-to-late nineties.  This master of the Internet, a guy who never misses a Google Alert with his name in it (with several different spellings), should proactively try to clear up this falsehood.

No, Gene Simmons from the rock band Kiss doesn’t have a cow tongue grafted onto his own tongue and Gary Vee hasn’t grown Wine Library 10X in the last three years.


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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Autumn Rain Edition

More odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass …

Not so Fast, My Friend

Shoddy research is not strictly the province of online media.  Poorly conceived flash reactions aren’t strictly limited to political pundits, either.  Witness the LA Times and an article that uses increases in coffee and wine sales at Safeway as an indicator that the economy is improving.  The story was widely picked-up online without much thought or research aside from straight quotes taken from a quarterly investor conference call …

From the article:

Wine is another area in which people are starting to change buying patterns.

At the start of the recession, the percentage of premium wines Safeway sold declined, he said (quoting Steven Burd, Safeway CEO).

“Our wine category has been a fabulous category for us for years, but we saw a mixed change with a reduction in premium wines, and we’ve now seen that reverse itself,” Burd said.

Taken together, the two examples of shoppers trading up in their selections “suggests to me, that we’re at, or near, the bottom of this whole thing, and that would be good for all of us if that’s true,” Burd said.

While certainly quotable and notable because EVERYBODY is looking for a silver lining in a year that most would like to erase from the memory bank, the problem I have with this article is there is no context.  In particular, there is no explanation of what exactly a “premium” wine is.

Most people in tune with wine price segmentation (particularly in a grocery store environment) call wine “premium” if it’s in the $7-$10 range.

Call me elitist and out of touch, but If we’re getting excited because people are moving up from “fighting varietial” wines in the $4-$7 range into the $7- $10 “premium” range, we’ve completely lost touch with who is hurting in the wine business.

The reality is that a tick up in buying for $7 - $10 wines may be a consumer confidence indicator for one demographic slice of the wine public, but that is hardly a corner-turning vote of confidence for the folks that have been impacted most – small production wines in the $20+ category.

Palate Press

Palate Press, the recently launched online wine magazine, is going gangbusters.  As a founding Editor, I decided to participate more out of desire to not be left out, more so than a desire to carve up my time to an even greater degree. That’s proving to be a prescient move.  Traffic, awareness and engagement (comments, etc.) are all off the charts in less than two months time.  There is an audience for what Palate Press is doing and that’s very gratifying to watch develop … credit principally goes to Founder David Honig who has made a yeoman’s effort in people wrangling, and to William Tisherman (Tish) who ensures every published piece goes through a quality editorial filter.  Both are great to work with.

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If you haven’t checked it out, I would urge you to do so …  I have a piece that published today on the ongoing need for consumer activism in wine.  While much progress has been made since the Granholm ruling in 2005, much more needs to be done—specifically in the area of retailer shipping and affording the same rights that wineries have.  You can check my post called, “Wine Liberty and Justice for Allhere.

Mirror Wine

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I had hoped for a triumphant post here today … a post that gloated about a decisive victory by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish over USC on Saturday.  Alas … that didn’t happen despite the great fall weather and game day atmosphere in South Bend …  USC has had ND’s number for most of this decade with eight victories in a row.  In doing some research, I realized that Rick Mirer, Notre Dame Quarterback from 1989 – 1992, who beat USC all four years of his college career, has a Napa Valley wine project going on …

His first vintage, a ’05 Napa Cab, is starting out allocated and SOLD OUT!  It came out of the gate with a 94 rating by Wine Enthusiast.

Congrats to Mirer, a proud graduate of ND, (graduating is something most USC football players don’t do, ahem), and his project is called Mirror Wine Company—at least he is winning these days even if his alma mater is hit and miss every Saturday.


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A Couple of Performers at Price Point

I find myself doing wine reviews once every three weeks or so.  It’s not that I don’t drink more wine, I do.  It’s not that I don’t like writing tasting notes, I do.  It’s not that I like to torture myself with 700 - 1000 word blog posts everyday, I don’t (actually I am sort of masochistic like that, but I digress).  It’s, just, well, I kind of like to do wine reviews the same way I would give a personal recommendation for somebody—only selectively and only when I can really vouch for him or her.

Both the Macari and the Four Bears were received as trade samples and despite that peccadillo I can vouch for them.

N/V Macari Vineyards Sette 7

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2007 Sean Minor Four Bears Carneros Pinot Noir

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Can Wine Enthusiast Magazine Woo the ‘Silent Majority?’  Pt. II of II

Picking up from part one of this two-part series, Wine Enthusiast magazine has an opportunity to capitalize on the confluence of circumstance that exists in the world of wine, an opportunity that requires the resources, leadership and wherewithal of a professional publishing organization, an opportunity that is currently lying fallow.

At no point in time has there ever been more growth, confusion, special interest and turmoil around the world of wine.  And, while online wine media would like to think that the future of wine content is in consumer generated bytes, the reality is that wine is the only consumer packaged good that desperately needs its mainstream media arm to act as a guiding voice, an arbiter of reason and a leader in divining order out of chaos, as the online wine world sub-divides into niche interest areas.

Unfortunately, the mainstream wine media approaches their work as an elite lifestyle choice (Spectator, Wine News, QRW), a vehicle for ratings (Parker), or a smart vehicle that skews towards trade interest (Wine & Spirits, Sommelier Journal).

While Wine Enthusiast probably likes to believe that they cover the wide swath of ground in between the “wine interested” and Wine Spectator and Wine & Spirits, the reality is that the magazine, editorially speaking, addresses the “wine interested” more so than the “wine enthusiast.” It’s exactly this “silent majority” of wine enthusiasts encompassed in the name of the magazine that I would like to see Wine Enthusiast focus on, as opposed to the current common denominator.

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The impetus behind this review is two-fold – a recent quote from a wine writer for Wine Enthusiast lamenting the fact that Wine Enthusiast is infrequently (ever?) included in the same conversation as Robert Parker, Jr. and Wine Spectator, describing that dominance of influence as “hegemony.” This is coupled with the current Editor’s Letter in the November issue of Wine Enthusiast in which Publisher Adam Strum says, “Our goal at Wine Enthusiast Magazine is to encourage America’s wine culture, which has been thriving for the last decade, to continue to flourish.”

The problem is that the lament of the wine writer compared against the stated goal of Wine Enthusiast Magazine encapsulates the disconnect and frustration that is felt in the market.  Parker, Spectator and Enthusiast are subject to significant vitriol by segments of the wine audience who feel vastly underserved by their media.  In regards to the “hegemony,” the notion that there is an unfair regime in charge of influence is an astute point, but misguided.  Enthusiast wants to be considered elite, but appeal to the masses at the same time.  As Jack Welch (former CEO of GE) always noted, if you can’t be #1 or #2 in your market, then you should choose another market.  It’s exactly that notion of finding another market, the true wine enthusiast, that I think Wine Enthusiast the magazine needs to focus on.  In doing so, they’ll be asking their “wine interested” audience to ratchet up their engagement, which is far less egregious than asking a core audience who has long felt ignored to suffer a ratcheting down.  As any teacher knows, the bright kids in class suffer the most when you build your lesson plans for the weakest link.

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Here are 10 suggestions for Wine Enthusiast to carve out their own market and create a category of one addressing the “silent majority.”

10) Redesign the magazine to appeal to the future of wine, those under the age of 40, with a contemporary, worldly sensibility.  The current design says, “Suburban Soccer Mom and Old Navy Dad.”  Look at Imbibe, Fast Company, and others that get “accessible and urbane.”

9)  Represent a lifestyle that actually exists – people that are passionate about wine, but more in line with the Trader Joe’s demographic of, “over-educated and underpaid.”  This isn’t to say “poor,” just household incomes that look more like a Toyota and less like a Lexus.

8) Ramp up a cultural aspect that resonates – music, food, a life well-lived, not necessarily a clichéd affluent wine lifestyle.  Three of the biggest bands in the world – U2, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews have lead singers that are really into wine.  Why are these mentions relegated to a surface-level one-pager at the back of the magazine, if that?

7) Ditch the wide net that includes beer and spirits.  You can’t be all things to all people.  If I want reviews for Tequila, I’ll buy a Tequila affinity magazine, or look online.

6) Expand the “Enth degree” with more general interest tidbits and factoids.  People like “fast food” content that is interesting and conversational fodder.

5) Expand the number of op-ed pieces and incorporate more opinion journalism.  Simply, include more columns from a wider array of voices.  There’s a reason both Newsweek and Time have redesigned this year to incorporate more op-ed—it’s because it’s interesting and it sells.  Take stands on the issues of the day in the wine world and help shape thought.

4) Lose the puff pieces on Ripasso and Cava.  Nobody cares.  Make these stories about people and personalities with Ripasso and Cava as the tableau.

3) Dramatically cut down on the number of pages dedicated to ratings.  These are fine for online, for the iPhone app., and other areas, but having 1/3 of the magazine as tasting notes leads me to skim, at best, when I actually want to be reading something interesting (see people, personalities, stories).

2) Reinvent the genre of ratings.  If you can’t be #1 or #2 in the influence sphere, it’s because you haven’t differentiated enough with authority.  Everyone acknowledges that points aren’t going away, so how can Wine Enthusiast reinvent the ratings genre to something unique, a category of one?  Consider aligning with CellarTracker or something that is crowdsourced and acknowledge that people are valued contributors to the wine scene, now and in the future.  Own this by complementing the crowdsourcing with the experienced palate/critic in a way that fosters collaboration and not empirical correctness.

1) Migrate the Wine Star awards to something that popular opinion values more than as a stroke fest for wine companies to advertise with the magazine.  I’ll eat my hat if Gary Vaynerchuk doesn’t win the “Innovator of the Year” award and the public perception will be that it’s a naked grab at his daily 80,000 strong audience.  Just saying …

Bonus 1A)  Demystify, debunk, and create thought-leadership around the culture of wine – the way it exists, quite imperfectly, not the way the industry would like it represented in their minds eye.

In summary, it shouldn’t be too much to ask that wine media provide content for wine enthusiasts, in a manner that they find valuable.  Too often these days, the most ardent, interested and active audience in wine isn’t being reliably serviced with content that matters.  It’s a disservice, and one that can be fixed.  By addressing this “silent majority” not only does Wine Enthusiast create their own category, but they also create consumers that advocate for them creating a vehicle in Strum’s words, that “encourage(s) America’s wine culture, which has been thriving for the last decade, to continue to flourish.”


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