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Monthly Archives: April 2016

Sommeliers: Do We Need Them?

First of all, congratulations to Arvid Rosengren, from Sweden, who was recently named World’s Best Sommelier for 2016. He recounts, in an interview with Food & Wine Magazine,[1] the six years of constant study and preparation for the event. Held once every three years by the Association de la Sommellerie, the World’s Best Sommelier competition challenges sommeliers to written and practical exams. It is an intense, grueling event, and in the current culture of celebrity chefs and rock-star somms, winning could really go to one’s head. Yet Rosengren humbly concludes, “You know, whoever’s the best sommelier is really the one who makes his or her guests feel the best.”

2016 Worlds Best Somm

Arvid Rosengren, World’s Best Sommelier, 2016

Which got me to thinking about sommeliers in general, and I wondered: are sommeliers still relevant and necessary? In today’s social media culture, with Smartphones and apps constantly at our fingertips, do we really need a studied expert to tell us what wine we should drink with our meal? Spoiler alert…I believe we do. But perhaps the deeper question is: what qualifications should exist to be sommelier? I’ve read a number of articles lately arguing one point or another on this question, some of which I discuss in this post.

Living in suburban Northern California, I really don’t have a lot of experience interacting with sommeliers. There’s a fantastic wine bar and bistro down the street, owned and operated by a certified sommelier. I enjoy visiting there and talking wine, when he’s available. More often than not, if suggestions aren’t listed in the menu, it’s his wait staff who make pairing recommendations. Indeed, most of the restaurants in the community, even those with serious wine programs, rely on well-trained servers, rather than sommeliers. This doesn’t seem to be that uncommon here in the Wild Wild West. A San Francisco Chronicle article, from March 2015, asks “Where are all S.F.’s wine pros?” [2]

It's called 'Pretentious.' It tastes like crap, but it's $100 per bottle!

It’s called ‘Pretentious.’ It tastes like crap, but it’s $100 per bottle!

Let’s lay the groundwork with a definition. What is a sommelier? A sommelier, at the core, is somebody who manages a wine list. Not a very elegant or romantic definition, I know. The practice of certification for sommeliers is a relatively recent development. While wine and wine service has been around for thousands of years, the first Master Sommelier exam was held in 1969, and the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) wasn’t established until 1977. Since then, there has been a movement by some people to elevate certified sommeliers to a revered status, and restrict the use of the “S-word” to those who have passed their CMS exams.

wine-snob

I do agree that earning one’s Certified Sommelier pin is an impressive achievement, worthy of respect. However, we should not lose sight of the basic role sommeliers play. Like any other profession, there are book-smarts, and then there are street-smarts. Earning certification does not necessarily equate to the ability to be a successful sommelier in a day-to-day, customer service operation. Many highly qualified people have worked their way up, learning hands-on, on the job, but have not invested the time and considerable cash in obtaining certification. Arguably, these experts are no less sommeliers than those who have studied for, and passed their exams. Indeed, in an article published in Punch, Dustin Wilson, Master Sommelier and Wine Director at New York’s Eleven Madison Park, asserts that “in order to have a mature profession you need both the structure and standards that certification offers and the sort of openness that allows people to choose a different path.”[3] And in another Punch article, Carson Demmond goes so far as to say that “sommelier” is simply a job title. She says, “Sommelier” isn’t an abstract title or a generic, yet high-brow name for “wine expert”—it’s a job. A restaurant job. And certification is by no means prerequisite to being a good one.”[4]

Still, I do think that sommeliers, whether certified or not, are a valuable asset for the hungry masses. At least for some. Early in my wine journey, I was much too intimidated to ask questions of the few sommeliers I encountered. That’s a negative consequence of the mystique that the profession has created for itself. However, as wine culture expands and becomes less pretentious, more people are interested in learning. This is especially true for the younger generation, which tends to demystify much in life, breaking through boundaries, and bringing lofty things down to earth. In fact, in yet another Punch article, author Francis Percival describes the shift from stuffy, suit and tie “sommelier,” to the more casual, hipster, tattooed and jeans-wearing “somm.”[5] This eagerness to explore is not limited to millennials. As I’ve expanded my wine knowledge, I now know enough to be curious, and appreciate the opportunity to talk wine with an expert.

Finally, along with their knowledge and expertise about wine, and the foods with which to pair them, sommeliers bring with them the human element, so often lacking in our modern, connected, face-in-a-phone society. Smartphone apps only go so far, and like social media in general, remove actual, human interaction from our existence. Besides, they haven’t yet invented an app that can pull the cork and decant that pricey bottle of Burgundy for you.

So, yes, I do believe the sommelier is not only relevant, but necessary. Whether certified or not, it is about providing a service and enhancing a guest’s experience. For this reason, I value and respect sommeliers everywhere.

What do you think?

_________________________________________________________

[1] http://www.foodandwine.com/blogs/what-it-takes-become-best-sommelier-world

[2] http://www.sfchronicle.com/wine/article/The-last-sommelier-standing-where-are-all-6119178.php

[3] http://punchdrink.com/articles/op-ed-in-defense-of-sommelier-certification/

[4] http://punchdrink.com/articles/the-myth-of-sommelier-certification-debunked/

[5] http://punchdrink.com/articles/the-rise-of-the-american-somm/

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Review: Bruno Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013

Cabernet Sauvignon. The king of the grapes. The stuff of Grand Cru Bordeaux, and Napa legends. From poets to journalists, critics to bloggers, much has been written about this most famous varietal, and much more will be in the future. None of the words put to print can adequately capture the magic that happens when a skilled winemaker plies his art on this noble grape, and produces the fine elixir sought by kings and paupers alike.

Ah, but I wax poetic. Who am I kidding? That’s not my style! Let me just say that Cabernet Sauvignon is some darn fine wine! It is one of my favorite varietals, and if you believe the stats, it is my #1 favorite. And you can’t argue with stats! I had always considered Zinfandel my favorite, but looking back on my wine apps, I have consumed and rated more Cabernet Sauvignon than any other varietal! So much so, that Vivino considers me an Expert of California Cabernet Sauvignon! I don’t know that I’m an expert of much of anything, but if Vivino says it of me, I’ll take it!IMG_0917If you follow my blog, or have read my very first post, Appetite for Wine, (found under the About tab), you know that I tend to live in the Under-$35 world of retail wine prices. Most of my purchases are in the sub-$20 region. At this price point, you can find quality, but a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon in this range is rather one-dimensional and uninspiring. Not that it’s all bad…many have very good flavor, but are often blends that dilute the unique terroir, and/or spend very little time in oak, which I consider to be very important for Cabernet. As I discussed in a previous post, A Cabernet is a Cabernet. Or Is It?, not all wines are created equally, and things like climate, soil, and blending can change the character of wines made from the same varietal. Generally speaking, as with most things in life, the higher the quality, the bigger the price tag.

Another thing you probably know about me is that I am a NakedWines.com Angel. NakedWines.com is a crowd funded winery, whose winemakers produce high quality, boutique wines, which they sell directly to Angels. By avoiding the costly and archaic three-tier system, NakedWines.com is able to pass their savings to the Angels by selling at reduced prices. Therefore, Angels get better quality for the price. NakedWines.com seeks out the best and brightest winemakers. Many of them have worked in big name wineries, and have years or decades of experience.

The wine I am reviewing today is an excellent example of both Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, and what makes NakedWines.com such a great deal. The winemaker, Richard Bruno, has more than 20 years of experience, making award-winning wines at such notable wineries as Francis Ford Coppola and Sebastiani. He is a recent addition to the NakedWines.com family, and this is the first of his wines that I have tried. It will not be my last!

Since Vivino considers me a California Cabernet expert, I am making an “Expert Recommendation” for this wine!

IMG_0915

Oh wow! I had to double check the Angel price on this beauty! $19.99? Must be a typo. This is at least a $40-45 bottle of Napa Cabernet!

This wine is a great example of why Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of grapes. Deep garnet in the glass, the nose is a basket of freshly picked boysenberries, blackberries, and blueberries. On the palate these berries are joined by deep, dark black currant, spice, and hearty oak. The oak enhances, but does not overpower the wine. This is a dry wine with bold tannins. But even straight from the bottle without decanting or aerating, (yes, into a glass! I’m a oenophile, not a wino!) the tannins are not harsh, but are smooth and chewy, and balanced with bright acidity. After decanting for an hour, the tannins are even smoother, the flavors enhanced, and the acidity nicely balanced. The finish lingers long with berry, spice, leather, and smoke.

This wine will age gracefully for several years, but if you have a slab of beef or lamb laying around that needs grilling, open this one up and find out what everybody is talking about. 4.5 hearts (92-94 points) now. Definite 5.0 with a couple years of age.

NW LogoIf you’d like to try this, or any of the other outstanding wines available from NakedWines.com, click here for a voucher worth $100 off a first-time order of $160 or more. You’ll be glad you did.

Cheers!

 

Club W, Part II

Hooray! I received my second Club W order! I reviewed and discussed my first Club W experience a few weeks ago in Club W, Part I. As you may recall, I ran into a small glitch in my first order; a $26 introductory credit did not apply correctly, leaving me out of pocket for the full price of the order. Faster than a speeding bullet, the Club W customer service team credited my account for the $26, resolving the issue for me, and ensuring a repeat customer for them.

I had high hopes for my second order. Being somewhat underwhelmed by the standard $13 wines, I included in my order a $24 “Porter & Plot” 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, along with three of the $13 selections: 2013 “Likelihood of Confusion” Sierra Foothills Zinfandel, 2012 “La Forza” Super Tuscan, and 2014 Più Gioia Pinot Grigio (IGT delle Venezie, Italy.) Living in the shadow of the Sierra Foothills, I am especially partial to Zinfandel from that region, so I was really looking forward to experiencing a “Likelihood of Confusion.” Purchasing four bottles gets you free shipping, saving $6, so it’s like getting the fourth bottle for only $7.

Unless otherwise specified, Club W orders are processed on the day of the month in which one’s first order was placed. My processing date was March 2. Alas, on March 3, I received an e-mail from Natalie, a Club W Wine Concierge, with some bad news. There had been an accident in the warehouse, and the last few cases of “Likelihood of Confusion” had been damaged. Natalie apologized, and had already credited my account for the $13 cost of that bottle, once again assuring another repeat order from me. I understand that accidents happen, and to the best of my knowledge, nobody was hurt, which is the most important thing. So at worst, I missed out on trying a wine I was looking forward to tasting. Also, this provides fodder for “Club W, Part III” sometime down the road.

Eager with anticipation, my (now) three-bottle box arrived at my office. Like a kid a Christmas, I cut the seal and lifted the lid.  ExcitedThere’s my 2011 Napa Cabernet! There’s the Super Tuscan. But…where’s the golden-hued Pinot Grigio? In its place, there is a 2014 Meraki Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles. 11275856-Confused-emoticon-Stock-Vector-smiley-face-cartoon

Now, I love Cabernet. And I’m starting to explore Paso Robles wines more. Stock-outs happen, I get it. But if that’s the case, substituting a big, bold Cabernet for a light, refreshing Pinot Grigio? That just doesn’t make sense. Perhaps it was an order-fulfillment error. Those happen, too.

I e-mailed Natalie, explained what had happened, and asked that she look into it for me. 12 minutes later, Natalie replied. (There’s that speeding bullet again!) Natalie said she would look into it, but affirmed this appeared to be a warehouse error. In the meantime, she had already submitted an order to send me that missing 2014 Più Gioia Pinot Grigio, shipped expedited service. She also told me to keep and enjoy the Meraki Cabernet, and even recommended it as one of her favorites!

So while my ordering experiences have not been without hiccups, the Club W Customer Service team has been on top of it with prompt, courteous, and satisfactory service. Kudos to Natalie and the rest of the team for providing such good service in a day and age when good service is hard to find! 61_1_blue-ribbon-perfect-logoAnd now, on to the reviews!

 Meraki Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles 2014

This is one of the best mistakes I’ve ever received!

“Medium purple color in the glass. Appealing, classic Cabernet Sauvignon aromas of blackberry and cassis. On the palate, flavors of ripe plum, cherry, blackberry, and oak. The tannins are remarkably soft and smooth for such a young wine, giving it a creamy mouthfeel. On the finish there are light berry notes with a hint of leather and tobacco.

Biodynamically produced if that’s your thing. This is the best wine I’ve had so far from Club W! Great value at just $13!”

4.5 Stars (92 to 94 points)

La Forza Super Tuscan 2012

“Ruby-purple color. Aromas of fresh blackberry, cherry, and spice. On the palate there are flavors of blackberry, red currant, black pepper, oak, and just a bit of earthy notes. Medium bodied with firm tannins and bright, fresh acidity, this wine is made for food. Yet is fruit-forward enough to stand up on its own. The long finish lingers with blackberry and spice, and that acidity keeps the mouth tingling for several minutes. A very nicely made Super Tuscan!”

4.0 Stars (88-91 points)

Più Gioia Pinot Grigio 2014

“Light golden/dark straw color. Initial aromas of stone fruit and mango give way to pineapple and grapefruit on the nose. Light bodied with bold, lively acidity. Tangy citrus flavors dominate; grapefruit and lemon-lime, with pineapple, and a hint of pear on the finish. As it warms and opens, I get a whiff of banana candy. Definitely more tangy than most Italian PGs I’ve had; almost more of a Cali Sauv Blanc style, but well made and interesting. Paired well with grilled shrimp.”

3.5 Stars (85-87 points)

Porter & Plot Cabernet Sauvignon 2011

And at last, the $24 bottle I’ve been waiting to try!

“Ruby/purple color in the glass. Aromas of Marionberry pie, black plum, and violet. On the tongue, there are a variety of flavors going on, including Marionberry/blackberry, ripe plum, black currant, and a hint of cedar and spice. The tannins are very soft and smooth, with mild acidity. The mouthfeel is rich and full, coating the mouth. This wine has aged well these five years, (although with the wax seal preventing any air getting in, necessary for long-term aging, I’m not sure how much longer it will continue to improve.) The finish is pleasant and lingers with dark berry, cola, smoke, and mild vanilla/oak notes.”

4.0 Stars (88-91 points)

Conclusion

After two orders, I still think Club W is a novel concept and a good source for people who are newer to wine exploration. As I mentioned in my earlier post, their target market appears to be millennials who are just starting to enjoy wine. In summary, here are the pros and cons, as I’ve experienced them so far.

Pros:

  • They have a wide selection, including some lesser known varietals, and are supporting small production winemakers.
  • They have some unique features that other online retailers and clubs do not. For example, it appears that once you’ve placed a bottle in your basket, it’s yours – even if you don’t complete and ship the order for a couple of months, and it otherwise sells out in the meantime.
  • Their customer service team is prompt, courteous, and efficient.
  • You can easily skip a month, or several, without cost or penalty.
  • Their packaging is second-to-none.

Cons:

  • Limited ability to review (1-5 scale ratings, only, and no half-stars), or otherwise communicate with the winemakers. It seems ratings are only used to power the algorithm to determine recommendations.
  • The wines are good, but not what I consider great. Of seven bottles, my average rating is 3.7 stars (roughly 86-88 points.) Not bad, but frankly, I can get equal quality for less, or better for the same price. For example, the Porter & Plot 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon was good; I rated it 4.0. However, for the same $24, I can get a Beaulieu Vineyards Rutherford Cabernet, a solid 4.5+ wine, from my local Total Wine & More store.
  • While their customer service team is very good, the fact that I have had contact with, or from, their customer service team three times in two orders is telling. Hopefully it’s just growing pains and they’ll get the kinks worked out.

As I’ve mentioned, I foresee continuing to order from Club W once in a while. If you are new to wine, and want to try out the Club W algorithm for recommendations, do us both a $13 favor, and follow this link to sign up!

I think for my next order, I’ll let Club W do all the heavy lifting, and go with their recommendations. I’ll let you know what I think in Club W, Part III. Stay tuned!

Cheers!