Monday, January 21, 2013

In which I interview myself about my new Eater piece

Levi: So, today a piece you wrote for Eater was published on that popular website. How did all that come about? What's the back story?

Levi: Well, the way it happened, they asked me to do the piece and then after that I said I would do it. I'm pretty sure that was the correct order. I didn't think about the answer to your question much until you asked it, though, so maybe I just need some more...well, maybe I am kinda sure that was the order. They asked and then I said something back. Something that probably sounded kind of like yes, or, or, well, it was probably yes. Yes.

Levi: Very exciting! And what did you tell them after you took the job? What did you say to win them over?

Levi: I'm pretty sure I said "Thank you." Though possibly I said "thanks." Sometimes I'm more casual like that. It really depends on how I am reading the moment. Reading the moment is very important to me. Very important. Like right now my read is that it is important to stress how important it is to me, so I am doing that right now.

Levi: So tell us about the piece that you wrote. What is it about?

Levi: Well we cover new restaurant wine lists in New York City. Places that I would recommend people go to get a glass of wine. Or a bottle of wine. Or two bottles of wine. It is hard for me to judge what is the right quantity for each guest would be, honestly. Like my Aunt Sally can drink two bottles of wine no problem, like no problem at all, does it all the time, but her husband Leroy would be swatting at flies even after half a glass of Chianti and this would be like in Pennsylvania during the winter when there really aren't even any flies around to be swatting, and it was just a weird feeling to be there and watch him do that, you know? Because he would. So for him I guess I wouldn't really be able to say how much I think he should drink but maybe a little less? Unless there were flies out, in which case it might be helpful. Uhm, so I guess maybe I don't know. Some people are more sensitive to flies. It's important to acknowledge that. Like we all have feelings. And maybe flies have feelings too, and...

Levi: Ok, but let me interrupt here for a moment, because outside of the whole quantity issue, and also the fly concerns, which sound fascinating, you do recommend to people which restaurants to go to. And how did you go about doing that?

Levi: Well, I gave the address. I mean, I thought that would be the simplest way, and everything. I don't want to take the fun out of it, or anything, I mean, it's cool if you want to explore and stuff, but sometimes an address is nice, right? I mean I guess you could ignore it if you don't want it to be there. Like if a correct address just isn't your thing. I would get that. I mean, we all would. We definitely all would. Like we all have our feelings, and...

Levi: Right, an address, of course. But what I really meant was, which criteria did you use to decide on the restaurants in the piece?

Levi: Always interrupting! Well, I'll tell you what, if think you are so smart, why don't you go ahead and tell me the answer! Who do you think you are, anyway?

Levi: Hmm...

The I'll Drink to That! Voltron

Remember Voltron? You know, Voltron. As in the Defender of the Universe, Voltron. Mechanical lion head limbs, Voltron.

Here is a quick refresher course in case you've forgotten:

To be honest with you, I get a little emotionally worked up just watching that. Voltron and I spent a lot of time together during my childhood. Really, I miss Voltron. I think I miss Voltron more than my childhood, actually. Nowadays I don't think about Voltron each afternoon like I used to. But I never gave up on the idea of Voltron, which was that a power team of 5 individuals, each with a different skill, could join together to battle the forces of evil and just in general rock it out across the worlds.

So it is probably not surprising that when I was thinking about 5 guests who were recently on I'll Drink to That!, that the Voltron team should come to mind. These are all powerful cats in their own rights, but when I think about how their skills complement the others and could meld together, I've got to tell you: just amazing. Amazing Voltron -like magnificence. Legendary stuff. And if you don't believe me you better watch out, 'cause Voltron never lost an animated battle.

So without further ado, here is my galactic strong Voltron team:

John Gilman, seen here with others members of Earth's Human Force, is the Intellect part of the wine Voltron. He thinks deeply about the solar systems Voltron moves in, and keeps everyone aware of the great history in which Voltron takes part.

Chris Barnes is the Integrity portion of the Voltron. He reminds the rest of the Voltron unit to go about their duties with heart, and with strong Voltron soul. Chris will also not allow the Voltron to cop out and wear silly wrap around robot sunglasses. Ray-Bans for the Voltron when the sun is out, or nothing.

Steve Wildy is the Chill member of the Voltron. He reminds the Voltron unit not to get too big of a head, and to just take time to enjoy the greatness of being in the Voltron. Steve won't admit this to anyone without the highest Voltron Security Clearance, but he also brings a deeply Irish inflected drawl to the voice of the Voltron. When the Voltron speaks in the cadences of W.B. Yeats it is because of Steve.

Liz Nicholson brings the Fun to the Voltron. When the Voltron smiles, it is Liz's smile that the Voltron smiles. It's a great smile, and capable of disarming evening the most jaded pinot grigio drinking robotic foes.

Yannick Benjamin brings the Gusto to the Voltron. Yannick makes sure the Voltron never stops keeping on. And when the Voltron is down you know that Yannick will be team member who lifts the whole Voltron back up. With Yannick in the Voltron, there is no way that the Voltron ever loses heart.

Well, that's the wine Voltron. What do you think? If you want to know more, just click on the in-depth I'll Drink to That! interviews with the entire Voltron team!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Using it

Richard Serra's Delineator from 1974-1975, a hot rolled steel art installation purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in 2012.

Richard Serra's Delineator from 1974-1975, a hot rolled steel floor unit purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in 2012.

I guess it is true that Art is what we make of it.

Did you drink some wine today?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

For John Ritchie, a recap

Clarity and poise.

Hawthorne honey.

Fan favorite.

I remember it was red.

Conversation starter.


My first taste of the Vieilles Vignes! Yay! This was the 2006.

There were others, sorry I didn't get pics of them all.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Monday, January 7, 2013

Coming attractions on I'll Drink to That!

Our interview with Jean-Marc Roulot will be released on I'll Drink to That! tomorrow. You won't want to miss his very personal retelling of his own life history, or his entirely frank discussion about his own wines and the situation in Burgundy since the 1990s. We talk about why he left the family domaine at the age of 20 to pursue a life away from wine and Burgundy, and why he returned at 32 with the determination to make great wines. He also tells us what he did to change the winemaking after he returned. Jean-Marc reveals how he met his wife, Alix de Montille, and reveals what he was missing in his own life that he found as a member of her family. He also gives his own contrarian assessment of recent vintages, talks about what new wines he will be releasing soon, and does not hesitate to describe in-depth his actions to remedy premox. If your are curious about the house style of Domaine Roulot, he reveals the source of that as well, in addition to describing what it is.

This is a tremendously open and in-depth talk with the head of one of the world's most admired wineries. Do check it out tomorrow when it is released. The track should be online and on iTunes by noon.

Friday, January 4, 2013

What's behind door number wine?

What you do day to day as a sommelier is determined by the kind of restaurant that you work in. Seems like an obvious statement, doesn't it? But outside of the fine dining vs. casual dining divide, the topic doesn't come up much for discussion. At a basic level, though, there is a huge difference between working at an Italian restaurant, which many sommeliers do these days, and working at a French restaurant, and that is this: at one of those restaurants you will be trying a lot of Italian wines, and at the other one you will be trying a lot of French wines.

Funny as it might sound, drinking wine from the same country that inspires the food wasn't always a given. It used to be that American wines were super popular in this country. If you worked in a French restaurant you might still be selling California Cab on the the regular. In fact, half of the list at your French restaurant might be American. But that is less true today. Consumption of European wines is common (at least in New York) and there are fewer globe trotting lists that offer extensive verticals from around the world. So now if you work as a sommelier at a French restaurant you are probably tasting French wine.

But what are the other differences? I think I might be able to tell you. In fact, I think I might be in a unique position to tell you, because I've worked in all of what you might call the Big 4. And by that I mean I've been a sommelier in a fancy New American restaurant, a formal French restaurant, a fine dining Italian restaurant, and a high end Asian restaurant. Those cuisines are pretty much the options you have today as a sommelier. Well, you could add steakhouse and Spanish restaurant, but you get the point. There aren't so many sommelier jobs out there for Middle Eastern or Russian restaurants. Yes there are exceptions, but they are exceptions. If I asked you to name a top sommelier in American today who is based at a Uzbekistani restaurant you might have some difficulty coming up with an answer.

So what can I tell you? Well, I thought it actually would be most helpful to start with the headaches. Yeah, I know it is lame to lead with the negative. But if you are considering different jobs, isn't it important to know about the potential pitfalls? I think so. And where else might you find out this information? Nowhere, probably. Ok. So here we go.

What is the biggest headache about working as a buyer in a high end French restaurant?
I think the answer has to be that you are often faced with purchasing wines you have never tasted. And that is because those wines are limited, expensive, and in demand from other buyers. And they just don't open the bottles up at the trade tastings the way they used to. Nor does the rep come around with a sample before you have to place that DI order. Nobody ever says it, but this fact of life was only exacerbated by the demise of Chateau & Estates, which used to carry big inventory with back vintages available for tasting. If you are ordering Burgundy or Bordeaux you are often placing orders before the wine has even arrived in the country. There is some real guesswork to that. What if you end up totally loving the wine? Will you have ordered enough quantity that you can turn people on to it? Or will you have to hoard the bottles because you can't reorder? Not only do the wines often have to be ordered before they are released, they often can't be reordered. Once the shipment comes in the shipment goes out, and that's it. No more is offered until the next vintage. Which can also lead a buyer into the predicament of over ordering a wine that turns out to be a bit disappointing. Trying to stake a big claim can backfire if you don't get from the bottle what you are looking for.

I'll take a moment here to praise the importers, like Frederick Wildman, who do make a big effort to open bottles before asking for orders. And there are definitely sommeliers who make a point of regularly visiting producers to taste in the cellars. Those people deserve a lot of praise as well. But for the rest, it can be a bit of a gamble. Why do you think there is such a demand for wine critic scores while at the same time there is such a general emphasis on a producer's reputation?

What is the biggest headache about working as a buyer in a high end Italian restaurant?
The balkanization of Italian wine in New York is pretty astonishing. Want a Barolo? Great, this distributor has two Barolo producers. This other distributor has three Barolo producers. And this great big distributor has four Barolo producers. All of varying quality. As a buyer of Italian wine in New York you can easily find yourself working with 15 different distributors and that would be for a SMALL wine list. With a mid sized or bigger list you are probably talking to 40+ different distributors. That is 40 different calls to make, 40 different dudes to taste with, 40 different relationships to maintain, and 40 different orders to place. Forty. Each week is only 7 days long. Forty is a lot. It is a lot of work. It is a lot of emails, and it is a lot of talking on the phone. It only gets worse if you decide to do something totally foolhardy like deal only with Southern Italian wine. Then you are really asking for it, because although many distributors have added wines from the South to their books in recent years, the offerings are still highly spread out. There is no one stop shopping, even if you wanted it, and even from the North. De Grazia was the closest that we may have seen to that kind of size and specialization. Yes, I do know of buyers, especially the old school Italian buyers, who cobble together a list from like 5 or 6 distributors, guys with big books who are friends of theirs. I do wonder how much volume they really see, but it's possible. But you might not like the look of things too much if you are an ambitious sommelier who wants to have a sharp list and you go about working that way.

The other thing about Italian, and this definitely plays out on the floor, is that with Italian you will probably be decanting a lot of red wines. As French restaurants have moved from Bordeaux to Burgundy there has been a shift from decanting. But if you are serving Barolo you are probably decanting it. I mention this because decanting takes time. There are implications for workload and staffing.

What is the biggest headache about working as a buyer in a high end Asian restaurant?
The real issue with Asian is that you have to constantly reinforce the idea that your sommelier job is needed. Your role is not a given. Nobody really thinks of wine first when it comes to Asian food, whether that be Chinese, Thai, Korean, or Japanese. And by nobody I mean nobody who is your boss, unless the owner is by some off chance a big wine guy. And I mean nobody who works with you, as most of the servers won't have grown up around wine. Also go ahead and add to that nobody who is dining in the restaurant. Sit and watch how many people order sake with sushi compared with how many people order wine with the same. It isn't even a contest. At least not in New York. Which leads us back to a big problem for the wine guy, which is that beer, cocktails, and sake are all cheaper to hold in inventory than wine AND they offer more profit potential.  There is no way that you can mark up a wine 5X cost. Absolutely no way. You'd be strung up by your finger nails for even trying to get over that way. But guess what? That is a common markup percentage for those other beverage categories. With sake very few of the actual customers even know what they are buying, or what size a "carafe" actually indicates. So basically, as a wine guy at an Asian restaurant you are always fighting an uphill battle to show your relevance. I specifically remember being told, when I worked at a sushi restaurant, that I was "window dressing." I am 6'5'' tall. How many windows out there are as large as 6'5''? It can be a tough fit.

What is the biggest headache about working as a buyer in a high end New American restaurant?
The biggest headache with New American is the lack of inexpensive, tasty artisanal wine from this country. The bottom pricing floor can be high, and many wines can end up grouped right around each other in price on the list. That's if you stick only with American wines, and probably part of the reason why so few buyers actually do. But if you add European wines, you have options. Customers are open to eating New American with Spanish wine, or with Italian wine, or indeed with American wine. In general you can avoid a lot of the pitfalls because the strength of a program that is broad is the flexibility that you have. You can move in and out of categories pretty easily as the market shifts or as you find new things. Which I guess could be a handicap in that it is hard to position a real angle to the list, an obvious statement on the paper of what the list is about. This is more of an issue now that Cult Cab is out and Chardonnay no longer rules that roost. Those used to define the New American lists. Luckily, you don't have to be stuck in the endless allocation game that those entailed, either. But I would mention that just as it is nice that you can see producers who speak your language and visit often, you also have to face them when they want to pressure you to take their stuff. It is a bummer for me that I don't get to see a particular Burgundian much, but at least he isn't on the phone to my boss saying I ought to be fired because I don't carry his wine. Because that does happen with the American producers, and it does suck.

American wine can also be more brand driven, and when wines are brand driven it can take away some of the potential for turning people on to new things. The customer already knows what they want to drink, so why should they talk to you? This is also a bummer. 

And that's it folks. That is what I'd say about the headaches involved with the different cuisine types. I might be back with another piece along similar but more positive lines on another day.

Thursday, January 3, 2013


Are Americans open to drinking more tannic wines than they have been in the past? My sense is that they are. Certainly, I am. But I think the trend cuts across more than just the taste of tannic wine. Why is it, really, that kale salads are SO popular? Why have bland white spirits mixed with fruit juice given way in their popularity to cocktails with a barrel aged spirit base and the addition of bitters? I think the American palate is in general skewing more towards the bitter, and closer to the savory edge.

How Americans relate to bitter flavors has come under discussion in a couple of different pieces that have come out recently, both of which you might find interesting even if you don't agree with me.

Eric Asimov's excellent piece about Dolcetto in the Times breaks the national silence on a grape that has a big audience back home in Italy, and a big presence on retail shelves in America, but which receives little attention here and no acclaim. I definitely recommend that you give Eric's piece a read. There really is a plethora of inexpensive Dolcetto readily available in the States, and you rarely are paying the oak tax at the register when you buy a bottle. I certainly have been drinking a lot of Dolcetto myself. One of my favorite producers of Dolcetto, by the way, is Flavio Roddolo. I would point you towards either of his two Dolcettos if you want to see what all the fun is about.

I drank this 1996 Roddolo Dolcetto a few months ago and it was dee -lish. Think about that for a second. This is a wine where you can pick up a current vintage for about $20 a bottle. What red wines for $20 are you able to drink with pleasure on release OR age for around 20 years with great results? Not so many options come to mind, but this one does.

Some of the other wines I'm drinking these days are talked about in a listing from Imbibe Magazine. I remember getting the email request from the author of that piece and as I was writing the response it was like, wow, wine after wine, what do these all share that's the same? The answer, of course, was savory and bitter flavors. No fluff stuff, and no General Mills packaging. It is a trend that I've seen in other people's drinking and eating habits as well.

What do you think? Are we Americans getting more savvy about savory?