Monday, October 5, 2015
I’m feeling a bit disappointed. I just opened the Fourth Edition of “The Oxford Companion to Wine” and not a single one of my entries was published. Admittedly, Jancis Robinson didn’t solicit any contributions from me, but I submitted them anyway. I was certain my well-researched entry on “Overblown Wine Encyclopedias” was going to get in. I’m certainly as qualified as many of the contributors to the OCW4, particularly those who are deceased. Who must be great fun at the book signings.
To read my inexplicably rejected entries for "The Oxford Companion to Wine," you'll have to jump over to Tim Atkin MW's site. Honestly, I cannot believe my entries aren't in the book! And she calls it complete. Maybe for the Fifth Edition I'll be asked to contribute. I might make it as one of the deceased.
As always, feel free to comment on Tim's site, he does so like to have witty ripostes and retorts posted there. Or put your torts and postes here, and I'll have them for breakfast.
TIM ATKIN MW
Thursday, October 1, 2015
I don’t think there’s a more accurate, or predictive, verb to describe how I got into the wine business than “stumbled.” Believe it or not, the first time I drank any alcoholic beverage was the day I turned 21. Well, that’s essentially true. My older, mischievous cousin Allen once gave me a sip of his beer when I was about 13, I think it was a Miller High Life, the “Champagne of bottled beer,” which is like being the foie gras of pigs-in-a-blanket, but I hated it. It smelled like the laundry hamper after my sleepwalking brother had peed in it. I had no interest in drinking when I was in college. I had little interest in anything other than self-pity and comedy. Drinking made one better, but ruined the other. But once I tasted a few interesting wines, I was smitten. I don’t think I’ve ever liked the fact that wines make me drunk, but I am in favor of wines making other people drunk.
I never wanted to become a sommelier. It just wasn’t on my radar. Or anybody else’s, back in the day. But when a friend of mine turned down a sommelier job, I decided I’d apply. I would never have heard about the job I worked for 19 years if my friend’s father-in-law hadn’t been a regular customer at the restaurant. When I started as a sommelier, in 1987, in all of Los Angeles and Orange County combined, that’s about 10 million people, I think there were six of us—there may have been a few more, but it wasn’t more than ten. In retrospect, it was a very strange turn of events. I’ve often wondered where my life would have taken me if I hadn’t eventually taken that sommelier position. I sure as hell wouldn’t be writing this stupid blog. And I wouldn’t know much about wine. Nor would I have met my wife, or all the amazing folks I’ve met because of this stupid blog. I’d be drinking Miller High Life and chowing down on pigs-in-a-blanket.
In my dreams.
I know that I didn’t take the sommelier job because I wanted prestige, that became an unforeseen consequence, one I still don’t understand. I needed a new career. And that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. Why people get into the wine business. What do they want out of it? Why wine as a career? And that’s tied into how I think about new people I meet who want to be in the biz, who decide to get an MS or MW, who write about wine, who pursue wine as a lifestyle. And the more I think about it, the more I’m struck by the insignificance of it all. Which is not a great way to reflect on your life or career. Truth is so damned inconvenient to how we view ourselves, and so widely ignored in the wine racket.
In many ways, the culture of wine trains us in the insignificant. The ubiquity of scores is the obvious example. Scores are now widely heralded as a “necessary evil.” Why is the adjective more important than the noun in that description? Also, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the vast majority of what is written about wine is tedious, meaningless, and too often regurgitated marketing (if that’s not redundant). There’s little truth in it, I know that. And, also, little joy. But it’s the current culture of wine. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s how overwhelming the wine market is now, how many wines are available. That leads to far more competition, and, thus, far more noise, far more hype, in order to be heard, to be tasted, to be purchased. Doesn’t matter, it’s the world we live in. If we choose to.
Wine is endlessly fascinating to me. I think I’m as transfixed by my own profound ignorance on the subject as anything else. But why does wine captivate me? I can get all poetic on you, but that would just be blowing the usual kind of smoke that Kermit Lynch is so good at, and Terry Theise, guys who sell wine for a living, the sort of smoke that passes for profundity in the pages of World of Fine Wine. The sort of writing that impresses me with its erudition, but leaves me feeling like I just finished a very expensive meal yet I’m still famished.
Truthfully, I’m rather embarrassed that wine is so important to me. It reflects poorly on my life’s priorities. It’s moderately shameful how much money I’ve spent on wine. Yes, it was my money, but it’s still something I try hard to ignore. Does anyone seriously engaged in wine want to actually see how much money they’ve spent on wine in their life? I don’t want to know. But, again, this is rather shameful, I’m glad I did. But why does wine have such a powerful hold on me? It’s not love, any more than being obsessed with a woman to the exclusion of your self is love. It may appear to be love to the casual observer, but it’s a distortion of love. And much as you might be defined by your obsessive love, you can be defined by your obsession with wine. Both situations are unhealthy.
Why is there so much competition to be thought of as an authority on wine? Wine! Really? At this stage of my life, I hope folks remember me as someone who made eight people laugh once a week, not as any sort of authority on wine. Yet I certainly spent countless hours reading about wine, tasting wines, thinking about wines, touring wine countries… What the hell was I searching for? The prestige that comes with being a sommelier? That’s illusory. I like to think I always knew that. Was I looking to define myself in terms of my extensive wine knowledge? I think so, I think there was a lot of that. And I regret that, now that I’m out of the game for the most part. Because it didn’t work. I think, if anything, wine helped me stay lost to myself. And I think that’s true of a lot of people I meet in the biz.
I wonder if the recently anointed MWs won’t regret their decision to spend all that money and effort to join that exclusive little club. That’s not sour grapes, as they say in verjus, that’s just a thought. I read Rebecca Gibb’s statement about becoming an MW, and she remarks that she did it partly so wine people would take her, as a young woman in the trade, seriously. Wow. There’s an indictment of the wine business. Women still aren’t taken as seriously as men. We all know this is true, but no one talks about it much. That’s how insignificant a world it is, how self-congratulatory and smug. Focused on initials and numbers and descriptors, not equality and fairness. But that’s a subject for another day.
Why become an MW? Because it’s the Everest of wine diplomas? Sort of a typical privileged attitude. Forget the Sherpas, it’s the white folks who conquer Everest. But how is an MW different than an MS to regular folks? And why do we care? Once, I’m sure, it was a ticket to a decent salary in the wine business, a real career. Is it now? I can’t say as I’m qualified to express an opinion on the matter. But it’s a much larger investment than it once was, and the return is unlikely to be its equivalent. So why do it? Because it sounds like fun? Or because you want to be defined as a wine authority? OK. But remember to acknowledge the ultimate insignificance of it. Don’t get lost in it. Lead a real life, too.
The wine world is awash in petty arguments. I participate, to be sure, on a comedic level (or so I tell myself). And what’s more useful at winning a petty argument than credentials? But they’re still insignificant, petty, hollow arguments. Why is there so much at stake on being right about wine. It’s comic, really. From the blowhards all over chat rooms, to the pretend heroes who comment anonymously on wine blogs (anonymous because they’re so damned important, they cannot use their names!), to the judges at wine competitions who are convinced the world needs to hear their opinions, their monumental, Thurgood Marshallesque dissents on why a wine doesn’t deserve a medal. There are a lot of people lost in wine. One could argue I’m the wine poster boy for the guy without a clue, a compass or a map.
All of us take wine too seriously. Which, I think, is at the expense of the things that really matter. More and more, I’ve tried to make HoseMaster of Wine™ about seeing behind the curtain, when I'm not just being silly. But it’s a gigantic curtain. And there are thousands invested in keeping wine behind that curtain, in making us think that what goes on in front of the curtain, in the spotlight, is reality. They write columns in wine publications that are self-promotion, pure and simple. They write online puff pieces that obfuscate but pretend to inform. They're really just infomercials, cranked out in a journalistically sloppy manner, and repulsively rank. They go on countless junkets and try to make every wine seem fascinating, every region special, every winemaker a genius. I use the word “they,” but you know who “they” are because I make fun of them as often as I can. Not that I think anyone is listening to me. But because it’s satisfying for me, makes me feel a little better for having led such an insignificant life in wine.
I’d ask you to ask yourself what you want out of the wine business, if that’s your chosen field. I think I thought I was following my passion, in the now jejune parlance of Joseph Campbell. I don’t think now that I was. Wine’s been good to me. It has never lost its charm. The wine business? I don’t know. It’s something of a trap. I wish I’d spent more time chasing character and integrity and humility instead. Ah, hindsight.
And now that we’re done here, I’m guessing you’re famished.
Monday, September 28, 2015
“Good evening, and welcome to America’s Next Top Somm Live! Here’s your host, Larry Anosmia MS!”
“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Tonight is the season finale to America’s Next Top Somm. One of our finalists will be named America’s Top Somm. He or she will receive $25,000, and a prestigious contract with Jackson Family Estates, our generous sponsor. Yes, that’s Jackson Family Estates—Where People with Important Wine Credentials Go to Die™. And now let’s meet the judges!”
(The three chairs onstage, each in the shape of a giant tastevin, revolve to reveal the three judges, to a thunderous ovation.)
“First, he’s often referred to as America’s greatest chef, mainly because it’s one of his job requirements. Known for underpaying sommeliers because he knows they want his name on their resumés, he’s a hero to restaurant owners everywhere, it’s Thomas Keller!” (Applause) “How are you, Thomas? Are you ready to go?”
“I am Larry! I’m kinda choked up. I can hardly breathe. I feel like a force-fed goose that will make amazing foie gras! I’ve sold so much foie gras, Larry, I have a three-car gavage.” (Laughter, and applause)
“Classic, Thomas! Our next judge is the publisher of the world’s most influential wine magazine, and something of an overstuffed goose himself!” (Laughter) “Each year, his magazine allows restaurants all over the world to pay him to declare their wine lists excellent. They’re not called the ‘Grand Awards’ because they’re cheap! Let’s hear it for Mahvelous Marvin Shanken!” (Applause) “Marvin! Ready to do this?”
“I’m so excited to be here, Larry. I’ve never done a show like this before. I feel like Mark Cuban cigar!” (Laughter) “Put me in your mouth and smoke me!” (Applause)
“I would, Marvin, but I’m trying to quit. It’s how I got my MS. Though I’m thinking Thomas might! Or our third and final judge might, too. She’s famous for being famous; the perfect judge for America’s Top Somm because she understands and embodies Narcissism, Kim Kardashian!” (Applause) “Kim, are you ready?”
“I’m ready, Larry. Oh, and Marvin, I don’t know about cigars, but I’m big on butts! Mine can disgorge Champagne!” (Laughter, as she demonstrates it.)
“I’ve got news for you, Kim, you’re the third biggest ass on this panel!” (Laughter)
“OK, judges, over the past weeks you’ve narrowed the field for America’s Next Top Somm down to three. Tonight, those three sommeliers will compete for your votes, and for the votes of our live television audience out there! Those of you watching at home will be able to vote for your favorite somm at the end of the broadcast. Your votes will count! And we’ll crown America’s Next Top Somm at the end of tomorrow's show. The winner gets a check for $25,000, a job with Jackson Family Wines, and, listen to this, their very own MS!” (Cheers, and applause) “Yes, Master Sommelier—the Myspace of Wine Diplomas.”
“Our first sommelier is from Las Vegas, Nevada, where she runs the wine program for Las Vegas’ hottest steakhouse, Meat Compass. Let’s hear it for Annie Oakchips!” (Applause) “Annie, tell the judges, and the audience out there, what you’re going to do for us tonight.”
“Well, Larry, I’m going to identify all six of the wines in these glasses in front of me blind.” (Audience gasps) “In sixty seconds.” (Applause) “While you grope me!” (Cheers!)
“Wow. So, Annie, this simulates what it’s like for you to work in a Las Vegas restaurant, is that right?”
“Not just Las Vegas, Larry! I’m a woman!”
“OK. Are you ready? Let me get behind you. Now, when I say, ‘Start the clock,’ Annie, you have sixty seconds to call out the variety of each wine in the glasses in front of you. The audience at home will see the correct answers, as will our three judges. OK. Start the clock!” (Larry grabs her ass.)
“OK, the first wine is, uh, Viognier, probably Virginia. Hey, that ass is not on the list for sale, buddy. The second wine is…Zweigelt. Pretty sure. Touch that again and I’ll Coravin™ your leg bag. The third glass is, oh, hmm, this is hard, maybe Meiomi Pinot Noir? Smells like God gave up. And, listen, touch those again and I’ll make you drink this crap. Number four is, wait, I can’t smell anything, it’s gotta be Pinot Grigio. Don’t stand so close or I’m charging you a porkage fee. Five smells like…oh, wait, is that Ruché? Is that a .187, or are you just happy to see me?” (Ten seconds!) “Six is, oh, oh, wait, six is…Pignolo!” (BUZZER) (Applause)
“That was amazing, Annie. Now, judges, tell us what you think. Thomas, you go first.”
“Very impressive, Annie. I liked how you handled Larry groping you. Larry, you can stop now. Though I was surprised you got the Viognier wrong.” (Audience moans) “That was shampoo. But you did great, and, if you want to work for me, not a problem. And minimum wage will soon be $15/hour in California!”
“Thanks, Thomas. Tough about the Viognier. But let’s move on to Marv. Marv?”
“If I’m not mistaken, Annie, didn’t Meat Compass receive a Wine Spectator Grand Award? That’s quite an honor. So I know you are comfortable with ridiculous prices and customer intimidation, which is important. And I liked that you pegged the Meiomi. It fooled Laube. So I think you did great, and you’d be a great America’s Next Top Somm!” (Applause)
“OK, Marvin, well said. Now, Kim, what did you think of Annie?”
“I like your dress. It shows off your ass, and that’s really important for women.” (Applause)
“Thanks, Kim. Our next finalist is from Los Angeles, California, where he runs the wine program at the restaurant for Cedars Sinai Hospital, The I.V. at the Shore, by night, and is practicing ventriloquism by day, please welcome sommelier Price Gouge!” (Applause) “Welcome, Price. Now how are you going to top Annie and become America’s Next Top Somm?”
“Well, Larry, I’m going to present each of these remarkable judges with a wine list I put together that doesn’t have a single wine the judges will recognize!” (Oooh) “And, while they’re trying to figure out which wine to order, I’ll disappear!” (Applause)
“That’s astonishing, Price. Those of you who have never been a sommelier may not understand how hard it is to actually create a wine list that makes no sense to anyone, yet, for many new restaurants, that’s the current trend. It’s important that the sommelier be far more important than the guests, I think we all agree about that. Alright, Price, go ahead and give Thomas, Marvin and Kim their wine lists.”
“Now, Price, I…wait, where did he go? Judges? Anyone seen Price? Well, when it comes to wine lists, I guess Price is the hardest to understand. So? Marvin, what do you think?”
“I don’t have the slightest idea what to make of Price’s list. There are, like, 80 wines, and I don’t recognize a single one. Wow. That’s unbelievable. And Price isn’t here to help. I don’t know what to say, Larry. I’m deeply impressed, and I think that’s what people are looking for nowadays from their sommeliers. In the old days, I’d look at a wine list and see dozens of wines I wanted to try. That seems selfish of me in retrospect, but it was just the way service worked. I think it’s great that so many young sommeliers are more focused on their own taste, on fooling the customers into ordering their pet wines, their Pet Nats as it were. If I were at I.V. on the Shore, I’d definitely have to spend a lot of time talking to Price about what wine to order—time I’d otherwise have to spend with my wife and friends. It’s all about him! Price is the epitome of America’s Next Top Somm!” (Applause)
“He’s pretentious, he’s self-centered, he’s all about being the star of the show…he’s perfect, Per Se!” (Cheers)
“I like that he was staring at my ass. That’s important for a woman.” (Applause)
“OK, judges, so far we’ve had Annie blind taste and identify six wines while I groped her, while Price dazzled us with Narcissism. Let’s move on to our third and final contestant. He’s from New York, where he just recently returned after a short time serving with ISIS, and is the sommelier at New York’s hottest spot, Tavern on the Landmines, please welcome Hugh G. Markup!” (Applause) “You’ve got two tough acts to follow, Hugh. Dazzle us!”
“I’ll try, Larry. Those ISIS guys didn’t know much about wine, but they taught me a thing or two about sales techniques!” (Applause) “I’m going to ask each judge to look at my wine list. When they’re ready to order, I’m going to intimidate them with a few choice words into spending more money than they intended.” (Applause)
“That won’t be easy, Hugh. These are experienced wine professionals with four large breasts between them. Good Luck. Let’s start with Thomas.”
“OK, Hugh, let me have a bottle of Spottswoode Cabernet, the 2009.”
“And six glasses?”
“Yes. There are six of us.”
“Very well. I’ll bring the smaller stems.”
“Oh, I meant two bottles of Spottswoode.” (BUZZER. Applause)
“Nicely done, Hugh. Now, Marvin, see if you can outsmart our somm.”
“No problem. So, Hugh, I’d like to order two bottles of Montelena Cabernet 2001, please.”
“You’ve had the Screaming Eagle, yes?”
“Of course, many times, Hugh.”
“And your guests?”
“Well, I, uh, don’t think, I, uh…I doubt it. Let’s start with that, then.” (BUZZER. Applause) “Oh, BLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP you, you BLEEEEEEEEEP. You got me.” (More applause)
“That leaves it up to you, Kim.”
“OK. Bring whatever damn wine you want, Hugh. My ass is paying.”
“Nicely played, Kim! You win, and Hugh wins. Spending other people’s money is what a great sommelier learns to do. Hugh, that was fantastic.”
“There you have it, folks. Now it’s up to you. You have the rest of the evening to phone in your votes for America’s Next Top Somm. Be sure and tune in again tomorrow when we’ll find out which sommelier will win $25,000, a job with Jackson Family Estates—Where People With Important Wine Credentials Go To Die™, and an MS. MS! The Myspace of Wine Diplomas! This is Larry Anosmia MW wishing you a good night, and reminding you that it’s not important to drink the wine you like, it’s important to drink the wine we like. GOOD NIGHT!”