Thursday, April 30, 2015

Prime Time Wine

Wine counterfeiting has hit a tipping point. Fox's series Backstrom hatched an entire plot around it. Rarely does wine, real or not, get this much air time and it's worth a closer look. The episode, called "Corkscrewed" can be found here.
They refer to "collector-grade wine," which made me grin because it sounds like a reference to illegal drugs, somehow making the crime more heinous. Rainn Wilson suspects, early on, something isn't exactly kosher, "How many old ladies with precious unopened bottles of wine can you possibly track down in a month? One?" He says the bottles are stolen, and then utters these words in the most menacing way they have even been uttered: "So where are you getting your wine?"
Only a minute or so later, he says "Take me to your vineyard guys," which is what I think aliens would really ask for if they knew anything about the earth before landing. No one should want to meet with leaders right away, much better to have a drink first.
The wine dealers, "keep the whole place regulated to the cellar standard of 59 degrees, it's good for the wine." There was a place in Portland, OR (the city where Backstrom takes place), that kept their shop at cellar temperature but they had a huge selection, unlike the dealers in the episode. The temperature was also their undoing in Backstrom due to condensation on the wrong side of a glass door. That room had, among other things, "Red dust, used as sediment. You won't find that in a week-old box of wine." Labels hanging were too washed out by a flashlight to read, except for one, Romanée-Conti. Their high-profile, luxury status makes them a consistent target for counterfeiters. Even their website landing page has a disclaimer, discussion of fraud!
The "brilliant sommelier" at Portland Governors Club (the recipient of the counterfeit wine) refers to a bottle as, "Romaneé-Conti Pinot 2005." He should know better with, "degrees from Yale, the Culinary Institute of America and a sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers." The wine should be vineyard-designated, the winery doesn't make a generic "Pinot Noir." But then again, he later states, "They love what I tell them to." Clearly not a role model for the position. They get some credit for getting the grape right. 
As to why on one knows it's fake wine? "For one, the wine is too valuable to open. And when it is, without anything to compare it to, very few people can tell the difference between a decent one and the most exclusive wines on the planet." This is certainly true, to some degree, but using "cheap red wine" in the bottles would give the hoax away very quickly. Apparently, in this show, "They mix different wines together and add a non-fermentable sugar to improve the taste. It's very effective."
Don't worry wine and food fans, cheese was not overlooked. The stomach contents of the murder victim held crackers and "Havarti cheese." Backstrom then finds, "a fancy cheese shop paper" in his trash. Who would go to a "fancy cheese shop" to buy Havarti? For that matter, what "fancy cheese shop" even carries Havarti? Couldn't they have just mentioned Brie instead? These are the moments where I feel my services could be used as a consultant for Hollywood when it comes to wine and food. It amazes me someone on the set doesn't know enough to point out the awkward choices.
Later, when Backstrom is drinking on the job (as usual) another detective observes, "That's a $150,000 bottle of fake wine, sir." They then all taste it. "Oh wow, that's good." "That's impressive." And, finally, after spitting it out in disgust, "Anyone fooled by this should just kill themselves." 
The highlight featured a return to Portland Governors Club, and Backstrom treating some of the membership on hand to a tasting. He asks for a side by side tasting of "the best you've got" and is told that "such a tasting would run in excess of $250,000." The dollar amounts are completely ridiculous by the way. A wine purported to come from Thomas Jefferson's cellar (a 1787 Lafite) sold for just over $150,000, these are not that old. The wines arrive, "a 2005 Romanée-Conti Pinot Noir...and a 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild and a '47 Chateau de Fleur [sic]." Rainn over enunciates the last one, amusingly so, and it later turns out it is Lafleur, according to a normal pronunciation by one taster. The sommelier responds after Rainn orders them, "You are truly an aficionado." They did pick some impressive wines. 
Disappointingly, the wine glasses are pretty cheap looking but the tasting has some highlights. One taster spits it out, "I had a bottle of the same wine in Italy last week, and it tasted a lot better than that." The sommelier stammers, "It could be that the cork has been compromised." Someone observes, "I distinctly taste some brandy." (Hmmm, that wasn't in the formula discussed earlier). The bottles are conveniently located in a glass case, standing up, behind the bar rather than in a cellar. They are not decanted. I'm sure this is expedient from a story-telling standpoint but it is amusing in light of the earlier, exacting cellar-temperature comment. 
It was a fun episode, I enjoy the show even when it doesn't focus on wine. Rainn Wilson's character is flawed and brilliant and a very interesting antihero, which probably means the show won't last. I hope it does. 
Oh, while the sommelier makes a run for it, breaking glasses (maybe that's why they were cheap?) and knocking bottles over, Backstrom pours himself another glass. Think I'll go do the same.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Crawfish Boil: Wine or Beer?

My default recommendation to anyone inquiring was, "Try riesling with that crawfish boil, if you must have wine." I had actually done this, though I usually defaulted to beer, like just about everyone else. However, last weekend an opportunity presented itself and I decided to experiment. I arrived to his crawfish boil
with three bottles of riesling and an albariño. 

They were not expensive, ranging in price from $9 to $14. It seemed silly to spend more for two reasons: 1) the spicy nature of the boil (getting spicier as each batch came out - no water change) meant I would likely be gulping rather than sipping and 2) more expensive wines are often more complex and it seemed to me that simple would be better since the flavor of the boil was so complex already (I like contrasting intense flavors and complementing subtle ones).
Overall, I think riesling is a good choice but you need to be careful which one you choose. Albariño, to my delight, worked surprisingly well but was overwhelmed. Beer is so ubiquitous at crawfish boils that it will be hard to unseat despite the fact that the bubbles in beer perk up you tongue and palate actually making taste receptors more susceptible to heat on the next bite. Some say alcohol works in a similar fashion, so wine may not be the best option either, though riesling is lower in alcohol than many other wines - more on this later.

Here are the specifics:

1) Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Columbia Valley, Washington 2014  $12

I have enjoyed this wine in the past and this was a good example but turned out to be too rich for the crawfish. It was fairly viscous and had a moderate sweetness about it. Not sugary but just too much weight for an ideal match. This is good backporch, pool, richer-fish-dish wine.

2) Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling, Columbia Valley, Washington 2013  $9

Be aware, this winery makes a lot of riesling, including some at this same price point that have similar labels. Select carefully. They are kind enough to put a scale on the back showing the degree of sweetness in the bottle (thank you Ste Michelle!). This was lighter and worked much better with the boil. It also beautifully displayed what I love about Columbia Valley riesling - there is a fullness in the mouth, some tropical fruit and even subtle minerality that I have never found in California riesling. (Side note: Oregon has less weight and exotic fruit but more minerality...and a higher price tag than Columbia Valley riesling). 

3) Clean Slate Riesling, Mosel, Germany 2013  $9, Imported by Winebow
Mosel rieslings are my Holy Grail. They are bursting with energy and seem to always have plenty of acidity to carry their sweetness. This is not sugary sweetness here, but it would never be confused with sauvignon blanc. At the risk of being overly simplistic, the wine is clean...and well named! The lime blossom nose and delicate, but not wimpy, palate made this the clear winner for me and the three others who tried it. Perhaps the lower alcohol (10.5% vs 12% and 12.5%) compared the other rieslings helped. Winner, and a perfect example to try at your next crawfish boil. If you don't like this with crawfish, stick to beer. Best of all, it costs less than $10!

4) Martin Codax, Burgans Albariño, Rias Baixas, Spain 2013  $14, 
    Imported by European Cellars
A control wine seemed important. Albariño comes from Galicia in northwest Spain and offers a brilliant mix of citrus and tropical fruits while offering a substantial wine with medium weight and a dry finish, but no tartness. This is one of my favorites and it did not disappoint. It is a perfect summer wine and pairs well with sushi, lighter fish and even fruit (which can be a challenge). However, the crawfish boil flavors simply rolled right over it. The pairing went well enough in that the wine did not interfere with the taste of the crawfish but it didn't add anything either. As the most expensive wine in the tasting (still very reasonably priced) there is no reason to select this for your next boil. Do try a bottle though...your mouth will thank you.

Don't be afraid to bring wine to a crawfish boil. I still recommend riesling but would try to get drier versions with less alcohol. This is not always an easy task, since sugar is converted into alcohol. More sugar means less alcohol but also means more sweetness. Less sugar, i.e. dryness, means more alcohol. Germany, due to the chilly climate often has lower potential alcohol (less sugar to begin with) and can create drier wines that also have lower residual sugar levels. 
There are lots of rieslings out there, try your own experiment. Let me know your favorites for crawfish or other spicy foods...I'm always looking for new choices.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Somms and reps part 2

This continues an earlier post about the sometimes tense relationships between sommeliers and their distributor sales reps - find the first here.

Sommeliers were strongly in support of representatives knowing the basics of wine. This seems so obvious it's hardly worth mentioning except that you would be amazed how many clueless individuals there are in the business. "Distributors hire super sexy women or 'stud' male reps who have no knowledge about the wine they're trying to sell." For every sommelier that wrinkles their nose at these hires, there are dozens of other accounts tripping over themselves to do business. I can't even count the number of times I have heard, 'She doesn't know anything about wine and she brings me questionable product but I always try to order something to make sure she comes back next week.'
This tied into a few questions. There was also wide agreement about reps understanding "sensory concepts (tannin, residual sugar...)." This falls under basics of wine, to my mind. If you can't discuss and evaluate the wine on a similar level, building a business relationship will be that much harder.
Sommeliers also freely admitted they were more likely to buy from reps with a good wine education. "It shows dedication and professionalism."
One somm also mentioned knowing the products and pricing. While this also seems obvious, there were a few wholesalers (the biggest ones) in New Orleans that could not get a price right on an invoice. Time after time, the same wine arrived at different prices. When I worked retail, we had weekly meetings with our reps and managers to get the pricing correct. It goes beyond knowing the price, you have to get it right on the invoice too.

"There is nothing more irritating that a distributor rep reciting all the statistics on sugars and acids." Agreed. If you want the stats, there are usually available online. Reps that insist on regurgitating those numbers usually do so in a vain attempt to make themselves appear knowledgable.

When asked how much time they give a rep to present the answers ranged from "two minutes per wine" to 30 minutes (the most common). There is a nice shot at those reps who bring almost a case out with them hoping some will find success. The shotgun approach is universally reviled by professional buyers and adored by those hoping to get a nice buzz while "doing their job." "Forget the 'let's pick from the bag' routine. If you want to sell me something, sell me something."
I applaud this! I dreaded seeing a rep in front of me with a huge array of bottles, it could really put me behind if the buyer didn't limit the tasting. One technique (that I have witnessed) employed by large wholesalers with multiple reps working some accounts, was to try to monopolize the buyer. One rep shows up, calls the others and they try to piggy-back presentations. This can tie up a buyer for a long time and discourages competing reps from waiting to present their wines.

When asked if there were any 'rules' for sales reps, one somm responded, "Bring a great product - not the wines you are being told by higher-ups to upsell." This is perhaps the biggest hindrance to accessing great wine. Not only are reps pressed to sell certain brands within their portfolio but sometimes there are monetary incentives tied to pushing particular wines. Large production wines drive sales for wholesalers and mean lots of profits year after year. These producers want constant growth and pressure the distributors to make sure it happens. These are supposed to be the lead recommendations and take priority over other wines. Occasionally, especially during OND (October, November, December - the big sales months), the wineries will put their money where their mouth is. Cash awards are available for new placements and for overall sales of certain products.
I used to represent a couple of wineries that offered $10-$20 for new placements (meaning an account that hadn't ordered the wine in the last six months, or a year, placed an order and took delivery). The rep needed the customer to sell through a few cases in order to qualify for further bonuses on the placement. This showed the new account was actually selling the product. Sometimes sommeliers need these wines but that is a rarer and rarer occurrence. What usually happens is a months long game of reps trying to present what they need while somms wade through the dreck to get to what they need. Eventually, a mutual understanding would develop and a change of rep or somm could start the game all over again.

On a side note, reps sometimes created "new placements" by sending bottles that were never ordered and then made it such a pain in the neck to pick up the bottles for credit that the account finally just put the wine on the shelf or the wine list and sold it. Sometimes, this would result in re-orders if the wine sold through. Orders should not have been placed with the offending rep until the bottles were returned but the reps I saw employing this sleazy tactic sold brand name liquor and wine and most accounts could not easily go without the other products, so the practice continued.

Steve Heimoff wrote a piece in response to the article that prompted my posts, called "Kumbaya" wondering why we all can't just get along in the wine business. The comments are telling. Lots of reps responded but the best one was from an ex-somm who pointed out the biggest problem was the sheer number of reps. A buyer could easily fill most of a week with nothing but appointments to taste wine with different reps. That's just the reps, consider the ever-growing portfolio of wines available and there is always something new to present. The dance card fills quickly and so does the wish list.
Wines do not always get ordered even if the somm approves. Room may need to be made in the cellar and/or the list itself. Sometimes it takes weeks to make room for a wine, even one that excites the buyer. 

Good and bad examples exist in each group, it would be great to find a way to shuffle all the incompetent sales reps to the buyers who purport to be sommeliers while they look for favors and drink for free. Meanwhile the worthy, considerate, professionals could work together. Another pipe dream...or maybe pipette?

Hope you enjoyed some insight into a relationship that brings wine to you in restaurants.