Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Clearing the table

Any winemaker will tell you that it takes a lot of beer to make a little wine. Conversely, any brewer will tell you that it takes a lot of beer to make... well, more beer.

Rightly so. Beer is fresh, light, fun, ready to consume. I know after a long day of tasting through a lineup of wines, heady with alcohol, tannin and acidity, all I want is a pint of malt, hops, and bubbles. It cleans the palate and clears the mind of the seriousness of a tasting. Everyone knows that beer is only for fun. Right?

When I was young, age 3, to the dismay of my parents, I tasted BEER, the ubiquitous black and white generic available widely at the end of the seventies. An unattended can left at toddler height was my unfortunate introduction. It was as though I had eaten a severely rotten apple and washed it down with a glassful of shame. My parents needn't have been upset; that taste kept me away from any alcohol for a decade. At thirteen, the Schmidt's "Animal Beer" pilfered from my older sister's party kept me on the straight and narrow for another five years. After trying to choke that down, I turned to coffee for my vice, beginning my career as a barista at the age of fourteen. Then, at nineteen, while visiting a wine drinking friend, I was presented with a six pack of Pyramid Wheaten Ale. I was skeptical and chagrined, but decided to give it a shot. I was given the gift of flavor. Full, bready, floral, creamy flavor. I quickly finished my first three beers, bowled over at what I had been missing. I announced to my friend, sitting on the front porch with her wine in hand, that I was finally utilizing my liver to its fullest, then proceeded to take a nap.

Thank god sommeliers, excuse me Cicerones, are now giving beer (almost) the same consideration as wine. All across the country restaurants, gastropubs, and cafes are experimenting with exciting beers and are experiencing fantastic growth. Even looking through the pages of Food + Wine, one sees the increasing presence of brews in the beauty shots.

While a majority of Americans still consider Bud Light the pinnacle of a brewing treat, I will make it a point to include discussions on beer culture as another facet of the flavor industry. Of course, by now even bud light is making an unfiltered wheat beer, but I promise to dive a little deeper than that. More stories than reviews, (such as how I came across a number of beautiful LPs retired from a small radio station while making a road trip to WI for the beauty pictured above) with as much useful information as I can cram in. Promise.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Selling Ourselves

Right now, I am in one of the least appreciated positions in the wine and spirits industry; distribution rep. Granted, the company is fine, my coworkers are all very talented, and I truly enjoy building relationships with clients within my territory, but I recognize that look I receive when I walk through the door.

"This guy, again?" Yes. It's me, again. I am here because according to the three tiered sales system, you can't be trusted to buy directly from wineries. And, god knows, consumers need the protection of wineries being able to come directly to them. It is a drag when you might have a fantastic relationship with a producer, a family working hard to make beautiful wine in the hills of Sonoma, but because their wines aren't carried by a Illinois distributor, you can't sell them in your store. You can tell your consumers to buy directly, or go visit next time they're out there, but you don't see that on your bottom line.

So, here I am, big green bag filled with reds that have been sloshed around on my shoulder all day, and whites that have lost their chill despite the ice packs nestled in beside them. I am here to tell you why my wines work best for you and your retail store or restaurant. I am here to tell you about profitability and points and discounts and delivery days and service beyond compare. The next guy or gal waiting behind me? Forget about them, they're selling discount bulk plonk that will hurt you and your business. I am the real deal. I am the golden calf with the promises of only the best wines and the best deals for you, and only you. What about the restaurant across the street that I sell to as well? C'mon you know that they don't have the savvy that you do, and anyway, you and I are pals. Best friends. We'll talk about your family, kids, friends, the sport of the season, and we'll grab a lunch together because, I just want to hang out with my friend.

Except that this isn't me. I've been the buyer before and had sales reps do all of these things and more. I can't tell you about points and keep discounts in my back pocket. I want to work with you and see if there is anything that might work in my portfolio. I am not going to force it on you. I will tell you about the producers, if I know them. I will tell you what I have read, and if I don't know the answer, I am not going to lie. I like some of my clients very much, but, I don't have a company card to take them out to lunch. Frankly, I wish I could work for some of my clients. They're just good, smart people. People who know what they want to buy. I can show them wines that I think are gorgeous, and oftentimes we'll agree, but perhaps they know that none of their clients will buy them. And the wines will sit and languish, or they'll end up drinking them themselves rather than having them take up shelf space. Nobody wants this. Frankly, I want to sell you wine so I can keep my job, but if someone else has a better wine than I do, I will be the first to admit it.

So, yes, roll your eyes and dread another salesperson comin through the door. I Promise, I will try my hardest not to be the same old salesperson. And we'll never go to lunch together.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Old Style

My love of beer, and of the image of the ubiquitous Chicago favorite above, seems at odds with my love of wine. Beer on the tap, drank fresh from the cask or keg. Enjoyed young and fresh. Wine has a long and beautiful tradition of being stored in elegant fragile bottles, sealed with bark from a tree, aging undisturbed and never break or go bad or... wait. Not right. We all have opened a corked bottle, or had a bag break heading up the stairs to our apartment, and whoops. There goes your wine.

I love hearing the stories of the village wine shops that had the cask in the cellar that they used to fill the containers brought in by their neighbors and customers. Of course, there are also reports that these wines were plonk, by today's standards, but still, it was a truly local item that continued to age and serve the needs of the village. In recent weeks, I have been excited to learn about the resurgence of these old techniques being modernized with wine kegs making the rounds.

The wine keg is keeping the old principles in mind with new technology; ease of dispensing, shipping, and providing a larger quantity of wine at a less expensive initial cost to the vendor. The step up is is higher protection of the wine from oxygen, and rapid aging. The kegs pictured above are from Oregon, and are meant to be delivered to the tap via hoses, like any typical beer delivery system. The keg below is meant to be visible, and is available directly to consumers. Smaller, but similar in theory.
One thought that keeps ringing in my ears is the old wooden cask. Of course the common knowledge is that one must protect their wine from oxidizing and aging too rapidly, thus the minimal oxygen exchange of modern kegs is ideal for this. However, what of the wines of the (old) Piedmont, that were kept in cask for up to four years before bottling? What about the barrel tasting most of us have been fortunate enough to enjoy? Were those wines any less drinkable because they weren't in a bottle yet? Perhaps a large cask of wine can continue to age in the corner of a wineshop or corner store, just as well as in a cellar or cave. I have seen such setups still in use in Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. Certainly, not in the corner next to the stove, or in the sun where it would cook into vinegar, but in a cool corner where the bottles line the shelves as well. I am certain that there are a number of laws in the U.S. regarding the dispensing and transporting of wines from cask to home, but one sees brewpubs selling growlers (half-gallon jugs) from the tap, then sealing them with a shrink-wrap collar; who is to say that this method shouldn't be available to wine?

Provided microbreweries are converting to canning beer to save on bottle, label, and shipping cost, perhaps the end result will be wine in a can. Wait, too late. Ugh, that's unfortunate.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Who gets to drink this?

Over the past month there were a couple of auctions of note in the wine world. Hart Davis Hart in Chicago sold the largest single cellar collection in the US for 2009 and Piasa hosted a massive garage sale for La Tour d'Argent in Paris. Both houses had solid numbers and sold some pretty incredible wine including a bottle of pre-revolution (1788) cognac in Paris, and some extremely rare 59's and a veritable lake of merlot with all of the Petrus in Chicago. (A bit of disclosure; for the past two years, I had worked for Hart Davis Hart. No longer, but on to better things hopefully...) While listening to the news regarding these sales, my wife brought up a concern. "It seems unfortunate that so many people wanted to drink these wines, but with all of the collectors looking to tuck these away, the prices became too high. Who gets to drink these anyway?"

She wasn't the only one who wanted the bottles to end up in the hands of drinkers instead of professional collectors. David Ridgway, la tour d'argent's chief sommelier was reported in the Guardian as saying "I would like to think that other people will enjoy them rather than just collect them. Wines for me are meant to be drunk with people you love preferably. There are too many hoarders." I know I felt the same while watching lot after lot of beautiful wine disappearing into collections, knowing that the buyer was not going to drink them, but turn around in a couple of years and resell. At the auctions, it tended to be a pretty easy guess as to who was who in the drinker vs. buyer category. I watched one individual sit through the majority of one auction to bid on six out of about eight-hundred lots. He and his companion shared a bottle of wine with lunch and was obviously jubilant when he won, and crestfallen when he didn't. (He won half of his lots, two 1990 red Burgundies and a late 90's Chateauneuf, losing out on three bordeaux from the morning session.) As he got up to leave, his nose was red from his lunch bottle, and cheeks flush with the excitement of winning.

Hell, he should be flushed! He picked up some great bottles that he was going to enjoy with friends over a great dinner. At least, that is what I like to think. maybe he was going to have them while laying down in a dirty closet, crying about how much he spent. Regardless, I love the idea of wines actually being consumed. After one auction, I pulled an order that was just over a quarter million dollars worth of wine, that I knew was going nowhere near a Laguiole. It was going somewhere cool, dark and still, and was not to reappear until the market had an uptick or this gentleman needed to buy his company back after the crash of 2008.

On one hand, I was very disappointed with the future of the wine in front of me. It was like looking at a prize racehorse put out to stud, but it was too expensive to get in your mare's sack. It was going to sit around, be pretty, talk about how incredible it should be according to past performances, but when was it going to get laid?

The one nice thing is that there are lots of collectors out there, paying for proper storage, aging wines without the thought of knocking the neck off of any of them. This means, yes, someday these wines will be available for the rest of us to purchase, though at a serious premium. A look around at any of the fine wine retail websites will show how it is becoming prohibitively expensive to get into some of the vintage wines. Not to mention the absolute joy of seeing how much your favorite fine dining establishment will charge for said bottles. Paying for storage isn't cheap! After all, there are so many things that can go wrong while a bottle is aging. Corks dry out, seepage, bottles break, labels fall off... really silly things to think about, but these are horrible risks for the investor. Honestly, how would you want to set a bottle upright with the intention of having something special with friends, only to find the cork floating on top like an unflushable?

I won't say that I encourage all of these wines to be opened before their time; in fact, I prefer a wine that has had a little time to develop the nuances that come with a little age under the belt. But, at the auction house, or at the restaurant, I am indeed chagrined that so many beautiful bottles will be enjoyed by so few, if enjoyed at all. I have seen bottles that have made me want to cry because they had gone nowhere and were now little more than pretty paperweights.

To this end, I celebrate and tip my hat to friends who purchase with an eye toward drinking. Perhaps a case to save and flip all with the goal of using the profit to purchase more to drink! We could all use a little flushing of the cheeks, and a good bottle of wine always helps.

Monday, June 22, 2009

break it down

Working in the wine industry obviously has its perks; great dinners, visiting vineyards in California, meeting collectors and enthusiasts, and occasionally popping some special corks with friends. The truly special moments are when friends discuss what is happening with the industry; both in and behind the glass. Lectures on terroir and winemakers, brewmasters and regional specialties, roasters and seasonality... it can get heated, it can get funny, it can get serious, or it can be opinionated blowhards running their mouths.

I have been in the "professional beverage industry" for eighteen years, starting with my first position as a barista at the tender age of fifteen. I took up with serving wine and beer along with my coffee duties at nineteen, and was lucky enough to spend these formative years in the Pacific Northwest where the artisans behind the craft still made themselves available. Talking and learning with producers from this area solidified my decision to stay attached to the industry when I moved east with my wife to Chicago. Here, I have taken that love of all things beverage and developed wonderful relationships on the other side of the fence; distributors, restaurateurs and retailers. All this and also some fantastic friends who consider themselves nothing more than lucky consumers. They can have any opinion they want, not swayed by any professional allegiance, and I find a lot of truth within their comments.

As important as it is try and convey the most accurate information I can, I also need to stress that all of the stress, ego, and BS that can go along with these sort of discussions will need to be checked at the door. I love what I do, but as we all know, it's all just a drink you are going to be passing along to the sewer within a couple of hours. I will do my best to treat these discussions with all seriousness, but with a lighthearted touch to it. After all, with the constant evolution within the beverage industry if you think you know it all, you're wrong. That is why there is so much discussion, and why it is so much fun. When I say something incorrect, I certainly hope there will be someone there to correct me. Please do.

In the meantime, please get a cup of tea, or crack a beer that you've been holding onto for a while. I look forward to writing and sharing what comes around. All best.