Sacto, Are you ready? It’s The Sur Vs. Steve Show!

 

Off to Sacramento early this morning for a trade tasting the organizers are billing as “The Critic Vs. the Somm.” It’s kind of a M.M.A. smackdown beween Master Sommelier Sur Lucero and myself—or, at least, that’s what it’s purported to be.

They expect a big turnout, I’m told. We’ll taste through a half-dozen or so wines. Sur, like myself an employee of Jackson Family Wines, will do his M.S. thing and explain his analytical process. I’ll do mine.

The M.S. grid (I think this is it – I got it off the Web)

certainly looks helpful; it encapsulates just about every quality you could find in a wine, and thus helps you identify what the wine is in a blind tasting in which you’re using deductive logic to identify what’s in the glass. Deductive logic, you’ll remember from philosophy class, is where you take a top-down approach to reasoning: starting with the premises, you reach a conclusion that must be true, provided that the premises are true. Thus, if the wine satisfies all the parameters of a fresh young German Riesling, then it must be German Riesling—or so the Master Sommelier grid would have it.

That’s all well and good, if your objective is to pass the M.S. examination. But it’s not the way I taste wine. I always say that the way you taste depends on your job. Master Somms learn to taste the way they do because they want to be Master Somms; their job, as it were, during the period they’re studying, is to taste like an M.S., hence the grid. They learn to taste in order to deduce what’s in the glass and pass the test.

That seems to me a kind of closed-circle way to taste wine. I have no gripe against it, and I can appreciate the amount of hard work that goes into tasting a wine double-blind and being able to say it’s Bordeaux or whatever. That’s pretty good. It’s the Cirque du Soleil of winetasting: flashy, entertaining, a crowd pleaser.

I might have gone that route, except that the way I learned to taste wine was entirely different. It was basically the old British way, transferred to our shores via the media I read when I was coming up (the San Francisco newspapers, wine books) and, most importantly, Wine Spectator magazine. The latter was my Bible in those early years. I thought it was the greatest magazine that ever existed: I couldn’t wait to get my copy in the mail (this was when it was a tabloid, not a big glossy ‘zine the way it is now). And from Wine Spectator, I learned to taste wine using the 100-point system, in a way that—let’s admit it—is not nearly as rigorous as the M.S. grid.

So exactly how does the amorphous 100-point system work? Well, to begin with, it’s a subjective impression, but it’s not subjective to the point of random incoherence. The proper use of the 100-point system depends on extensive experience, the kind needed to draw upon a sense-memory of what “perfection” is and then comparing all subsequent wines with that rarely-encountered Unicorn. The way I taste is like a shortcut around the M.S. grid. It’s a lot easier: you don’t have to go through all those complicated line items, but then again, the sommelier doesn’t taste for quality; she tastes to be able to deductively identify a wine. I taste for quality. Those are two different things.

When I taste a wine single-blind, it’s not important for me to figure out what it is. That concept never even occurred to me when I was coming up. It would have seemed senseless. I tasted then, and now, with respect to the overall impression the wine made in my mouth and brain. Was it a Wow! or a Dud, and where on that continuum does it fall? After all, that’s the way actual human beings taste: do they like the wine, and if so, how much do they like it, or do they loathe it? It never seemed important to me to taste deductively; I wanted to learn to taste hedonistically (as Mr. Parker might put it). I wanted to get a job as a wine critic, and when I was coming up, wine critics got successful jobs based on criteria such as writing ability, knowledge of wine, and team skills, and not on deductive tasting. In fact, such deductive tasting is, to the best of my knowledge, a comparatively recent practice. Wine professionals never tasted the way sommeliers taste. Throughout history they have tasted the way I taste.

Is one method better? Well, like I said, the way you taste depends on your job. Wine writers of my generation never troubled themselves to think deductively (although there’s a certain amount of deduction involved in my kind of tasting). We either tasted openly, in which case deduction was completely pointless, or we tasted in single-blind flights, in which we knew many things about the wines (region, vintage, variety, etc.) and were simply comparing them qualitatively. That’s still the way I taste, but there’s something else: since I came up as a magazine writer, the object of my thoughts whenever I tasted wine was the consumer. I always thought of those anonymous people out there who might buy a wine based on my recommendation. They don’t care about the M.S. grid. They don’t get into that level of analysis. They just want to experience pleasure, and perhaps some good wine-and-food pairing too. And so that’s how I taste: Does the wine give me pleasure? Because if it gives me pleasure it should give most consumers pleasure. And if it gives me pleasure, how much pleasure does it give me? That’s where the points come in. Ninety points is a lot of pleasure. One hundred points is pleasure unbounded—a wine that’s right up there in my sense-memory with the greatest I’ve ever had. I might be less able than a somm to say “This is a Cabernet Sauvignon and this is a Merlot” but that sort of thing doesn’t matter to me, nor do I think the readers of wine magazines (or diners in a restaurant) care about that in a writer or server. They want someone who cares about them, who is able to predict for them what they’ll like, who can tell them stories about the wines. You don’t have to taste deductively in order to be that person. I think, ultimately, the skills needed to be a Master Sommelier are exactly that: the skills needed to be a Master Sommelier. One develops expertise at that sort of thing in order to climb the sommelier ladder and append those magic letters, M.S., after one’s name. That helps to get a job nowadays, in this intensely competitive environment, but how it helps consumers isn’t clear to me.

From Houston: Michelin won’t come here? Really?

 

I’m told by my friends and hosts here in Houston, Texas’s biggest city and a financial and oil hub, that Michelin won’t come here to review restaurants. If that’s true, and they swear by it, it makes no sense. Houston is a great city, a port city that prides itself on its international culinary influences. I’ve now enjoyed the food in four places here, and I gotta say, Kudos! Good food. Interesting food, including a popup presided over by a James Beard award-winning chef. Why would Michelin ignore Houston? Don’t know. Just asking.

Anyhow – forgive me for short-shrifting my readers the last few days in terms of content and word length. Long days, and triple-digit temperatures with high humidity conspire against me being creative when I finally get back to my hotel room, usually after copious amounts of alcohol. (I will say they know how to make a proper vodka gimlet in this town!) On tomorrow (Wednesday) to San Antonio, then on Thursday, Austin. I like to remind people here that I consider myself half-Texan and Oklahoman. My mom’s parents moved to Oklahoma–which was then Indian territory–in 1907. The family quickly spread to Texas. All my cousins on that side of the family are from down here; I used to visit in the summers, and once, at the age of seven, I spent a good part of the summer digging a ten-foot-deep hole in my uncle’s Oklahoma City home looking for oil (which I never did find).

I’ve met some great people on this trip, including Sean Beck, the sommelier at a group of restaurants including Caracol, where we had some fantastic Gulf oysters, but more to the point, Sean is of like mind with me when it comes to today’s rather bizarre tastes in sommelier-driven wine. I won’t attempt to quote him, but it’s refreshing to know that not every young somm thinks that  wine has to be low alcohol and have a lot of funky dirtiness in order to be interesting. I exaggerate, of course, but you get the point…and as I told Sean, I think this temporary insanity in favor of so-called “natural” wines (a meaningless term) is coming to a merciful end, as the demise of In Pursuit of Balance symbolizes (and Sean, like me, scratches his head when it comes to defining “natural”).

Well, that’s it for tonight. Have a great Wednesday!

Can you “train” a palate?

 

I picked up an older issue of Bon Appetit in which the “Starters” column (a sort of “Ask Bon Appetit anything you want” feature) has the following question from a reader: Dear BA, I often hear chefs on cooking shows…talking about a person’s palate…What exactly does that mean, and can I train my own palate?

The use of the verb “train” is strange here. I’m reminded of what I had to do when Gus first came to live with me. There was a lot of dog training involved: he was pretty well housebroken, but not entirely, and he had to learn—and respect—my voice commands, including “no,” “stop,” “sit,” “stay” and “come.” This training involved me—the dad—imposing my will upon Gus, the child/dog. It was a process of issue command—wait for result—impose result if necessary—repeat—and repeat—until the result was an obedient dog, which Gus is.

Does one “train” a chef’s or wine lover’s palate in the same way? (“Sit, palate. Give me your paw, palate.”) Bon Appetit’s answer person, Andrew Knowlton, defined a “great palate” for chefs in two ways: a more fundamental level in which a talented chef can identify the flaws in a dish and know instinctively how to correct them: perhaps by adding a pinch of salt or squeeze of lemon.

On a higher level, Andrew defined a great palate by the degree of “taste memory” the taster possesses. According to this approach, the only way to acquire an extensive taste memory is to taste a ton of food (and, for our purposes, wine) over a long time. That way, when you judge a food (or a wine) you compare it to the greatest similar food or wine you’ve ever had. This presumes, of course, that you remember that greatest food or wine, which is why it’s a function of memory.

Well, most of you reading my blog probably have tasted a lot of wine in your time, and you no doubt possess an extensive taste memory (kind of like having a lot of books in your library). Still, I’ll bet you wonder if you have a truly “great palate,” or just an ordinary one. Am I right? Sure I am. I think most of us doubt our palates from time to time, even though we might never care to admit it. I do admit it, and I did throughout my long career as a wine critic. I always did the best I could, honestly and diligently, but I knew that there were palates more acute than mine. There’s always a palate more acute than yours, just as there’s always someone better than you at (name it: basketball, math, making an omelet, dancing, sodoku).

There’s a meme in this business that the best palates belong to those professionals who have undergone some sort of formal training: sommeliers and Masters of Wine. Winemakers, too, are often known as great tasters. I’ve known quite a few great palates in my time. One was (and still is) the longtime winemaker at Jordan, Rob Davis, whom I once saw correctly identify, blind, twelve Cabernet Sauvignons concerning their origin, Napa Valley or Alexander Valley. That’s pretty good.

I once knew quite well a person who was studying for his MW. He’d been at it for years, and was therefore completely saturated in that hard-nosed, analytical approach. When he tasted a wine, blind, he’d go into a sort of mesmerized concentration: eyes scrunched shut, brow wrinkled in thoughtful meditation. Swirling and chewing the wine, he’d begin his written analysis, slowly and methodically working through all the wine’s parameters—flavors, acidity, complexity and so on—until he felt he had a good handle on it. (Sadly, this person never did get his MW, and he eventually dropped out of the program.) Of course, the ultimate expression of this approach—the Gold Medal at the Tasting Olympics, as it were—would be to taste a wine double blind and announce that it is, say, a young Spanish Verdejo. Not Sauvignon Blanc, not Albariño, not Gruner Veltliner. This is the taster’s wet dream: to nail it in public. Polite applause (and perhaps envy) from the crowd—the taster’s reputation is enhanced—the story will go around the wine world via social media in no time.

Yes, that is one definition of a “great palate.” But you have to ask yourself, what’s the point of it all? You take years and years, do all that studying, all the hard work that goes into it, and for what?—so that you can nail Verdejo at a blind tasting? I’ve always said that the kind of tasting skills one develops depends on one’s job. Wine critics, of the kind I was and most of the well-known print critics are, do not need that particular skill. In fact, it may be detrimental to them doing their jobs well. Aspiring MWs and MSs do need it, for one reason only: to pass their respective examinations, so that they can get their credentials. Afterwards, such freakish analytical skills become less and less necessary, as the graduates find themselves careers in which other skills—business, teamworking, networking, accounting, organizing, writing, teaching, food pairing—take center stage. In fact, from the point of view of a consumer (which we all are), what skills do we want to see in the person who’s making buying recommendations to us? Personally, I couldn’t care less if my somm or critic can nail Verdejo blind. But I do want her to know her wines, tell me stories, answer my questions, impartially help me make my decision, and maybe even be able to have a good conversation about something besides wine.

Older wine in restaurants? Not worth the risk

 

Somm Journal executive editor David Gadd asks the pertinent question of what to do when you let a sommelier hand-sell you a glass of older wine, and when you taste it, it’s over the hill.

I say the question is pertinent, because we see this happening with greater frequency nowadays, what with these older vintages, especially of more obscure wines and regions, being readily available at affordable prices, and somms being notoriously into “cool”, offbeat wines that can be downright strange to more traditional tastes. The general public, which includes many professionals in the wine industry, still is mesmerized by older wines; even though many of us understand that the life-curve of most wines is short, and that, from the moment they are bottled they begin to die, the possibility of finding some transmogrified old treasure still haunts us, and is probably responsible for more money being spent on moribund wine than is generally acknowledged.

Such at any rate was evidently the case with David Gadd, who spent $25 each on two “fossils” that were “heavily oxidized” and finished “flat [and] funereal.”

That does not sound like a pleasant gastronomic experience!

I had a very similar time once in one of Carmel’s top restaurants, when I was persuaded by a somm (complete with silver tastevin around his neck) to invest in a 12-year old Spanish Albariño he guaranteed would be fantastic with my scallops sautéed in butter. The wine was completely dead and tasted frankly awful.

The reason these anecdotes, mine and David’s, matter is not because of their particulars, but because they raise questions of current interest. Today’s diner of fine food and wines is confronted with a looming question: whether to stick with what he or she knows and likes, which is usually Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or one of the other major varieties, in a fresh and relatively young wine; or to go the route of adventure, which usually means an obscure variety, from a lesser-known country or region, and moreover, may—depending on the restaurant and sommelier—have acquired some bottle age, although it may still not cost much more than a younger bottling. One might be tempted to go the second route, in which case there are two possible ways of preventing catastrophe: asking for a free tasting sample of the wine before officially ordering it, or reaching an understanding with the server that, should you not care for the wine, you will have an unconditional money-back guarantee. Both of these are more or less standard practices in good restaurants, but both come with a certain level of risk: you, the diner, are out on the town for fun, and you don’t suddenly want to find yourself plunged into drama with a sommelier or server, particularly when the playlet is likely to be overheard by strangers at neighboring tables (not to mention potentially stressing your dining companions). The first alternative, asking for a free tasting sample, is less fraught with danger, but also less likely: a restaurant is not likely to offer a tasting sample of older wines (although the advent of the Coravin is making that more likely).

The diner, then, finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. We don’t want to be conservative and stuffy and trod only the well-worn paths of least resistance. We want to be open to surprise and delight, ends that cannot be achieved unless we’re willing to take risks. But the dining room floor is often not the best place to take those risks. As a former critic, I have come to the conclusion that older wines are generally more apt to disappoint than to please, which is why, except under strict circumstances, I wouldn’t take the chance, but would stick to young and fresh. There are exceptions, of course: if there’s a wine and winery you’re familiar with, and know has a good track record for aging, then go for it. (For example, I wouldn’t have any problem ordering a 12-year old Corison Kronos.) But old dry Loire whites, which is what caught David Gadd off-guard? Nope.

World’s best sommelier 2016: Arvid Rosengren


As of yesterday, the world has a new “best sommelier”! The winner of the 2016 ASI World’s Best Sommelier competition in Argentina is Arvid Rosengren!

Rosengren is the popular sommelier at Charlie Bird in NYC. Although he lives in SoHo now, he studied nanotech engineering in his native Sweden before switching to hospitality school and eventually working for a number of years in restaurants in Copenhagen, both on the floor and as a buyer.

On his blog bio, he talks about this recent competition:

I have spent considerable effort and time bettering myself by competing as a sommelier, which involves hard theoretical study, blind tasting of wines, spirits and other beverages and practical tests. My next (and final) challenge is to compete for the title of Best Sommelier in the World in Mendoza, Argentina, a competition put on by ASI (Association de la Sommellerie Internationale) every three years. This year there will be 58 competitors, each having won the title of the best of their country.

He also wrote about the 2013 competition for Europe’s best sommelier on his blog.

While in Mendoza, his girlfriend Line “took over” his instagram to post updates. Very cute.

Rosengren is the second Swede to have won the competition.

World’s best sommelier 2016: Arvid Rosengren
World’s best sommelier 2016: Arvid Rosengren

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A great sushi meal in S.F., and some thoughts about somms

 

Had a fantastic lunch at Pabu Izakaya, Michael Mina’s sushi restaurant at 101 California in the FiDi. My goodness, I love sushi practically more than any other food but it can be pretty generic. In this case, it was outstanding. We had a bunch of different things off the menu and ate it family style and everything was so fresh and delicious, I couldn’t help stuffing myself, down to the last piece of nigiri. Incidentally, their ahi tuna poke, served on a crispy wonton, is my desert island food. OMG, so good, and the perfect starter.

One of my fellow diners was Scott Christopher, from the House of Prime Rib, up on Van Ness, which brought back great memories. I haven’t eaten there for some time, but well remember the cart with the standing rib roast and the Yorkshire pudding, not to mention an excellent wine list. So I’m going to have to get back there, and soon. You’re never too old for that beef fix! And retro is back, as a new generation discovers just why great restaurants like the HOPR have endured through decades of wars and earthquakes and tumultuous times and emerged triumphant.

My fellow diners, including Scott, all seemed to be in their twenties and thirties, wine people, and it’s so interesting to chat with them and find out what’s on their minds. One of the questions I ask restaurant people is, “What’s hot these days?” and that always stimulates a good conversation. A topic that arises with frequency is that a restaurant can’t just have a wine (or beer, or spirits) list that contains stuff the proprietor or beverage manager or sommelier likes. It has to offer customers things they like! This would seem obvious, from a service and commercial point of view, but it isn’t always. For example, I like telling the story of the Sonoma County restaurateur who told me about another restaurant, someplace around Petaluma, that didn’t have any Chardonnay on the wine list. The reason: The somm didn’t like Chardonnay! Anyhow, the restaurateur who told me about this added that he’d heard about it from a diner, who came to his restaurant and told him she’d never go back to the no-Chardonnay restaurant again, because she likes Chardonnay, so why would she? Well, of course, that no-Chardonnay sommelier certainly didn’t do his restaurant any good. He tried to impose his own tastes on his customers. It’s all well and good for a somm to have maybe 20% of the wine list be “interesting” stuff he or she is enamored of. But the other 80% should be stuff that real customers want! The ideal somm, it seems to me, plays the role of a bridge between his tastes and those of his customers. It’s a delicate balancing act. I’ve dined in fine restaurants where the somm tried to push bizarre stuff on me that, frankly, might have been interesting by itself but was awful with the food it was paired with. We need to get past that era, which, hopefully, is ending. When somms respect wine more than they respect their customers, something is seriously askew.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.

Scores, stores and wineries: a new analysis

 

Every day, I get blast email advertisements from wineries or wine stores touting the latest 90-plus point score from Suckling, Parker, Vinous or some other esteemed critic. Here’s an example that came in on Saturday: I’m reproducing everything except the actual winery/wine.

_____ Winery’s ____ Napa Red Wine 2013 Rated 92JS.

Notice how the “92JS” is printed in the same font type and size as the name of the winery and wine. That assigns them equal importance; the rating and critic are virtually part of the brand. Later in the ad, they have the full “James Suckling Review” followed by a full “Wine Spectator Review” [of 90 points]. This is followed by the winery’s own “Wine Tasting Notes,” which by and large echo Spectator’s and Suckling’s descriptions.

Built along similar lines was a recent email ad for a certain Brunello: The headline was “2011 ____ Brunello di Montalcino DOCG”; immediately beneath is (in slightly smaller point size), “94 Points Vinous / Antonio Galloni.”

We can see that, in these headline and sub-heads, through physical proximity on the page or screen, the ads’ creators have linked the name of the winery and the wine to the name of the famous critic and his point score. One of the central tenets of advertising is to get the most important part of the message across immediately and strongly. (This is why so many T.V. commercials begin with the advertiser’s name—you hear and see it before you can change the channel or click the “mute” button.) In like fashion, most of us will quickly read a headline (even if we don’t want to) before skipping the rest of the ad. The headline thus stays in the brain: “Winery” “Wine Critic” “90-plus point score.” That’s really all the winery or wine store wants you to retain. They don’t expect you to read the entire ad, or to immediately buy the wine based on the headline. They do expect that the “Winery” “Wine Critic” “90-plus point score” information will stay embedded in your brain cells, which will make you more likely to buy the wine the next time you’re looking for something, or at least have a favorable view of it.

This reliance of wineries and wine stores on famous critics’ reviews and scores is as strong as ever. There has been a well-publicized revolt against it by sommeliers and bloggers, but their resistance has all the power of a wet noodle. You might as well thrash against the storm; it does no good. The dominance of the famous wine critic is so ensconced in this country (and throughout large parts of Asia) that it shows no signs of being undermined anytime soon. You can regret it; you can rant against it; you can list all the reasons why it’s unhealthy, but you can’t change the facts.

Wineries are complicit in this phenomenon; they are co-dependents in this 12-Step addiction to critics. Wineries, of course, live and die by the same sword: A bad review is not helpful, but wineries will never publish a bad review. They assume (rightly) that bad reviews will quickly be swept away by the never-ending tsunami of information swamping consumers.

Which brings us back to 90-point scores. They’re everywhere. You can call it score inflation, you can argue that winemaking quality is higher, or that vintages are better, but for whatever reason, 90-plus points is more common than ever. Ninety is the new 87. Wineries love a score of 90, but I’ve heard that sometimes they’re disappointed they didn’t get 93, 94 or higher. Even 95 points has been lessened by its ubiquity.

Hosemaster lampooned this, likening 100-point scores to Oprah Winfrey giving out cars to the studio audience on her T.V. show. (“You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car! And YOU get a car! Everybody gets a car!”) Why does this sort of thing happen? Enquiring minds want to know. In legalese, one must ask, “Cui bono?”—Who benefits? In Oprah’s case, she’s not paying for the cars herself; they’re provided by the manufacturers, who presumably take a tax writeoff. It’s a win-win-win situation for Oprah, the automakers and the audience.

Cui bono when it comes to high scores? The wineries, of course, and the wine stores that sell their wines (and put together the email blast advertisements). And what of the critics?

Step into the tall weeds with me, reader. A wine critic who gives a wine a high score gets something no money can buy: exposure. His name goes out on all those email blast advertisements (and other forms of marketing). That name is seen by tens of thousands of people, thereby making the famous wine critic more famous than ever. Just as the wine is linked to the critic in the headline, the critic’s name is linked to the 90-plus wine; both are meta-branded. (It’s the same thing as when politicians running for public office vie for the endorsement of famous Hollywood stars, rock stars and sports figures: the halo effect of fame and glamor by association.) There therefore is motive on the part of critics to amplify their point scores.

But motive alone does not prove a case nor make anyone guilty. We cannot impute venality to this current rash of high scores; we can merely take note of it. Notice also that the high scores are coming from older critics. Palates do, in fact, change over the years. Perhaps there’s something about a mature palate that is easier to please than a beginner’s palate. Perhaps older critics aren’t as angry, fussy or nit-picky about wine as younger ones; or as ambitious. They’re more apt to look for sheer pleasure and less apt to look for the slightest perceived imperfection. With age comes mellowness; mellowness is more likely to smile upon the world than to criticize it.

Anyhow, it is passing strange to see how intertwined the worlds of wineries, wine stores and wine critics have become. Like triple stars caught in each others’ orbits, they gyre and gimble in the wabe, in a weird but strangely fascinating pas de trois that, for the moment at least, shows no signs of abating.

Too many chefs? A culinary academy closure raises questions

 

It’s a real shockeroo that the Culinary Academy in San Francisco is closing. Its graduates include Ron Siegel, now of Michael Mina but I remember dining at the old Charles Nob Hill restaurant, which he eventually left to go to Masa’s. Talk about a resumé!

There are two outposts of the culinary arts in the food-obsessed Bay Area: The Culinary Academy [also known as Le Cordon Blue] and the Culinary Institute of America, in Saint Helena. To have one of them shut down in the midst of one of the greatest restaurant booms in memory is amazing. The official reason for the Culinary Academy’s closure is high food and facility costs,” but a major financial problem was “a $40 million settlement in 2011 of a class-action lawsuit by students who claimed the school inflated graduation and job placement rates.”

According to that settlement, 8,500 students who attended the Academy between 2003 and 2008 were eligible for tuition rebates, based on the notion that “they were told a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu would allow them to become chefs, but that many students who graduate are unable to obtain that position.”

One hardly knows where to start in the commentary. During the first 15 years of this new century, being a chef was one of the hottest careers in America—at least, the America of the coasts, and in the urban and rapidly urbanizing centers of the country, where despite the Great Recession people had good jobs and were developing the discretionary-income behaviors of upping their food game and looking for great local restaurants in which to dine. I’m sure that many applicants to the Culinary Academy dreamt of being the next Ron Siegel, and why not? It’s a good dream.

The “chefs are hot” movement was rivaled, in our food-and-wine world, only by the “somms are hot movement,” which itself was exceeded by the “mixologists are hot” movement. Still, there seems to be enough room in our hedonistic culture for chefs, somms and mixologists to co-exist, with plenty of jobs for all.

What, then, are we to make of the Culinary Academy’s closure? I will not weigh in on the merits of the 2011 lawsuit, but clearly, even graduates of an esteemed cooking school in San Francisco found it hard to obtain the sort of work they were expecting; some of them faced “in excess of $100,000” in student loans, hardly an amount a young line chef, even if she could get a job, would be able to repay for many, many years.

I remember when I moved to San Francisco, everybody wanted to be an M.B.A. That was the hot job of the first Reagan administration. Of course, all those newly-minted MBAs didn’t get rich. That degree, too, was over-hyped and over-sold. I frequently have the same feeling about sommeliers today. There are so many ways to get certified, whatever that means, that I sometimes think, pace Warhol, that in the future, everybody will be a sommelier for 15 minutes.

But an oversupply of chefs? What else are we to make of the Culinary Academy’s closure? Clearly there are two things going on: (1) the media’s obsession with these sexy careers, and (2) the corresponding reality that there are not enough jobs for all the graduates of the nation’s cooking schools.

I believe in dreams. I made my career as a wine writer based on my dream. But that was then; this is now, and I don’t know that the dream of being a chef is based on reality. There comes a time when a career gets so popular that too many people pursue it; being a wine writer is in a similar plight today. I am second to no one in the esteem in which I hold chefs. They have been instrumental in our evolution as a culture. If I had a kid who dreamed of being a chef and asked for my advice, I’d be torn. Follow your dream? Or forget about it because the competition is so intense and the chance of success is diminishing. I honestly don’t know what advice I would give.

The somm phenom: Why?

 

What’s up with all these movies about sommeliers?

I’ve lost count how many there have been. Now, there’s yet another: Somm: Into the Bottle. Haven’t seen it, won’t see it, just want to understand what’s up with this. When did somms become the coolest, most movie-worthy demographic in America?

And not just movie-worthy, but heroic. I suppose you could make a movie about garbage men, but it would be hard to make them into compelling cultural heroes. IMHO, garbage men are greater American heroes than sommeliers. I mean, we could live without somms, couldn’t we? But we couldn’t live without garbage men.

So why are somms the new American icons? Complicated stuff, better left to leftwing college assistant professors of media (and I should know, I once worked in the Film Department of San Francisco State University). But let’s back up and see what we can figure out. Somms work with two things: wine and food. So we first have to figure out why people go to movies about wine and food.

Well, mostly they don’t. They went to Sideways—I’m still not sure why—and Sideways was purportedly about wine, but it wasn’t, really, it was a buddy road trip comedy that just happened to take place in wine country. Yes, they were able to lampoon the silliness of wine snobbery, and that helped. But Sideways was a phenomenon, and, in some ways, I think all these somm movies have tried to capitalize on the Sideways pheenom. They can’t, of course; they won’t. But I suppose the producers of Somm: Into the Bottle do a little prayer at night hoping it will be the next Sideways.

Nor do Americans much go to movies about food. Was “Julie & Julia” about food? In a way, but if the lead actress had been Meryl Fingerhut instead of Meryl Streep, no one would have gone. Now, food and wine have played important roles in supporting movies: I think of “Disclosure” and Pahlmeyer Chardonnay, for example, but, in the food world, you’d be hard-pressed to think of a movie that seriously dealt with cooking. That is the realm of T.V. But no movie has ever seriously tried to merge the two phenomena into one. “Somm” of course is ostensibly about wine, but everybody knows the milieu of the somm: the restaurant. Somms don’t work in wine stores: they work in places where people go to eat, and eat well. So the food tie-in is inherent in any conversation about sommeliers.

Food and wine are central to our culture. They always have been but arguably now more so than ever. America, despite its problems, is and long has been the richest country on earth. People, even those at the lower end of the economic scale, have more money than most other people anywhere else. We all eat out: how much we spend is a personal decision, but eating out stimulates an interest in the kinds of foods we wouldn’t, or couldn’t, make for ourselves, if we were just at home. So this economic surplus we have actually stimulates our interest in cuisine. And America being a melting pot, of course, those of us lucky enough to live in cities have access to a virtual cafeteria of the world.

Then there’s wine, which has been a superstar for decades. It always lurked at the edges of cultural media, sometimes more, sometimes less, but for the last 40 years it’s been more, more, more. Sometime in the 1970s wine began to be the camel’s nose under the tent. Then the camel’s head. Then the entire camel. Usually with such massive cultural intrusions filmmakers come up with a genre, but they never really did with wine (the way they did with, say, war, or spies, or rom-coms). Still, the possibilities must glow in the eyes of some producers. Another Sideways?

Ultimately, Sideways proved nothing. It indicated nothing; it predicted nothing; it was a meteor that flashed, briefly, in the atmosphere, and then disappeared. So, in this sense, I think all these somm movies represent the dreams and ambitions of script writers, producers and actors who hope they’ll strike the big time. As for the somm phenomenon, their story is always presented in terms of the difficulties and challenges of becoming a somm and being certified. Struggle against the odds: that’s a great American film meme. I guess somms are the “Rocky” stars of the 21st century: Instead of having great bodies, running around in silk shorts and fighting for a living, they pop corks and make small talk with diners. Somms are young hipsters, mostly good-looking, and seem to be the lords of the nightlife of our great cities, at the center of it all, the focus of food, wine and cultural trends in America. It’s not entirely true, of course—the image is much greater than the reality—but it’s true enough for those of us who dwell in the wine-and-food bubble and are curious about these phantoms, a kind of resident spirit of the First Church of the Restaurant at which we all worship. So if you manage to see Somm: Into the Bottle, drop me a note and let me know if it’s any good. Maybe I’ll catch it someday on cable.

Have a great weekend!