“Really? You don’t want a cinnamon roll or French toast? Eggs and bacon even?” My mother once again perplexed and questioning my sanity at our semi-regular Saturday breakfast with cousins. I still remember the little pang of insecurity, the heat rising up my neck and spreading across my cheeks as the waitress stood there, pad in hand, looking at me then back to my mother again. Big hard swallow, face slightly scrunched, my fingertips tracing the tines on my fork before quietly restating my order, “side salad with blue cheese, an order of French fries and a large tomato juice.” My mother shaking her head, taking a drag from her cigarette and returning to her girlie chat with her favorite cousin. I’ve always had somewhat strange taste….
When I was really little my mother could not get me to eat anything at all in the morning and to be honest this is still pretty much the case. She had some luck for a while with plain yogurt and sunflower seeds but even that was a struggle and I rarely took more than five bites. It’s not that I don’t like breakfast food, (although I loathe pancakes or anything that comes with syrup) I’m actually quite fond of them, the thing is I just can’t seem to desire, let alone eat, those rich and heavy things early in my day. Eggs, of the runny variety, happen to be one of my all-time favorite things but in the morning? Too much. Way too much. I’m that idiot at Sunday brunch standing alone at the salad bar loading up in iceberg lettuce and pickled beets. I crave freshness over richness and as it turns out, always have. I’ll take baked chicken over Coq au Vin, seared slabs of beef over braised, have hated post roast my whole life and the majority of white or creamy sauces kind of make me cringe. My boss Randy and I have had this exchange no fewer than fifty times, “No, I don’t really like it Randy, it’s just too rich” his face now scrunched….as if he had never heard this before, “Too rich?! There’s no such thing as too rich!” and I’m not kidding, fifty times minimum.
“We want to start drinking what you drink” a very sweet, and really engaging customer named George. I used to think he was a vicious ball breaker but as it turns out he is just extremely inquisitive and funny as hell. He and his wife are giant fans of big, extracted reds and while they don’t seem to drink much white when they do those too need to be plump, oaked and soft in acidity. I learned their taste early on in our dealings at The Wine Country when they told me that they had a second home in Tuscany and while they loved the area, adored the food and the people, they just didn’t care for the wines. Kind of kills that slightly arrogant, “You just haven’t done it right. Had it with the right foods” crap that we in the business toss about, all too often and smugly if you ask me. They have tried, repeatedly, and they don’t care for it. Period. As someone that has made it not only my profession but my passion to have people drink what they like, come back and let me pick more for them, well I have no problem picking out lush and lavishly oaked wines for them to drink with whatever they’re having for dinner. I dig them and want nothing more than for them to be happy with what they buy from us. “We want to drink what you drink”….problem.
I always end up thinking about the movie Defending Your Life with this “issue” comes up. There is a scene where the super smart, “I use more of my brain than you do” guy, (Rip Torn) is eating his disgusting looking food and the other guy, (Albert Brooks) is curious and wants to take a bite. The smart guy warns him that he won’t like it but allows him to feed his curiosity and indulge, only to have the “not as smart” guy spit the food into his napkin and begin wiping off his tongue in horror. Now I think of this more out of a cringe inducing, “Oh don’t be that” feeling than in any way thinking that I drink what I drink because I know more than most people. Somehow though, when you warn someone that they might not be quite as smitten with the things you enjoy there can be an aura of elitism, either implied or perceived and I absolutely hate that shit. I never “evolved” into waffles, runny eggs before noon or blueberry pancakes and would never expect, assume or even think that anyone needed to “evolve” into Sherry or wines from the Jura. It’s what I dig, what drives my curiosity and it feeds my savory driven palate.
I don’t think the wines I drink are better, smarter or more sophisticated. When I discourage someone like George from jumping into Menetou-Salon, Muscadet or Fino it’s not because I don’t feel as if he’s ready, I just happen to know he isn’t going to like them. The tricky part is getting them to understand that without coming off like a snoot. These people come to know, respect and admire you (thank gawd) mainly for the fact that you continue to introduce them to things that they go wild for, which is the mark of a good retailer or sommelier, sell them what they want and will like, not what you think they should. They see you as an authority and in that there is an engrained curiosity about what drives us wild too. I get it, am honored that they even give a rat’s ass but I would be doing someone like George a huge disservice, one that could even be damaging in that, “This is what wine professionals drink?!” way if I were to send him on his way with the new Rebula, (Rioblla Gialla) from Slovenia that is rocking my world right now. Now that being said, there are plenty of others, others that like me crave the savory or different over flat out deliciousness…a smaller market without a doubt but one that is in fact growing and one that has been pretty much ignored for years when it comes to the majority of wine lists, publications and far too many retailers. Hell, I fell in love with martinis because there is almost never anything on a restaurant wine list that I want to drink. Could I drink Kenwood Sauvignon Blanc? Sure. Do I want to? Hell no and I’m not one of those wine lovers that will drink whatever wine just to be drinking wine. Especially when you take restaurant markups into account. Martini please….
Sure I’ve bemoaned the lack of interesting French, Italian or Spanish wines on lists for years. I’d no sooner drink Jadot or B&G than I would Kenwood or Blackstone, and on the higher end I don’t swoon for Domaine Drouhin, Rufino, Ferrari Carano or Hugel. There are far more interesting, (to my palate) wines and I’m not about to slug through an overpriced bottle of “blah” just to retain my wine drinker status. So I did as my fellow less-than-mainstream-wine-lovers did, suck it up. I bring my own wine or opt to sip on a martini or some other cocktail with my meal. So imagine my delight the first time I dined at The Slanted Door in San Francisco and opened the wine list to find scads of wines that made my heart thump away in my chest, made my mouth water and made it near impossible for me to settle on just one. I was down-right elated and to this day my meals there are some of the most delightful, on both the food and wine scale, I’ve ever had…and I eat out a fair amount so that’s saying something. A couple of weeks ago I read an article in the San Francisco Gate about shrinking wine lists and a handful of restaurants that were scaling back on Cabernet and Chardonnay in place of lighter or less traditional wines. I for one was thrilled and grateful that this pocket of wine drinkers were finally being heard and serviced. Turns out, not the case with everyone in this business of ours….
Read a number of rants and flinched through a couple blog pieces where people that loved the status quo were called smart wine lovers and people that craved something else were called sycophants. Could not believe my eyes and found myself somewhat shocked by the ire and outrage. What the hell dude?! Name calling and hurling out of “east coast elitism” because an Italian restaurant is buying less Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay and more Friulano? That a Vietnamese restaurant is pouring Beaujolais or Zweigelt, (both lighter and softer reds) with their food instead of Silver Oak Cabernet? Are you shitting me? I will say that one of the quoted wine directors made a really dismissive and equally insulting comment as some of the backlash I read but go after her, not those of us that actually do want to drink those wines. To act as if my, or anyone else’s love of Ribolla is somehow a, “I’m cooler than you because I drink this stuff you’ve never heard of” thing is absolutely insulting and way the fuck out of touch. Period. Maybe if the press paid a little more attention, to the world stage of wine, people might have heard of Ribolla, Zweigelt or Savagnin and I wouldn’t have a winery rep pouring me his Pinot Noir from Sta. Rita Hills telling me that his wine is Burgundian and pointing out the misspelling of Sauvignon Blanc on my shelf talker for Berthet-Bondet….a wine from the Jura made with Savagnin. Those wines have been around a whole hell of a long time, they aren’t new and neither is our appreciation of them. If a handful of restaurants, out of hundreds of thousands, choose to accommodate “The rest of us” well I say, thank you for noticing and furthering our wine appreciation and enjoyment of our meals.
I would never in a million years think George’s love for Darioush and Caymus Cabernet was anything but a genuine passion for the wines that keep him happily slurping on glass after luscious glass, and it would never even cross my mind that he would be better off drinking, or worse even, wouldn’t understand, the wines that I love. It’s not out of some hoity sense of hipsterism that I discourage him from wanting to drink as I do, it’s out of respect for his palate, his taste and his wallet. Look, I’ve been eating for over forty years now, have tasted those pancakes, cinnamon rolls and waffles and as much as I try, I don’t like them, and the same is true of braised food and a good clip of new world wine. They simply don’t suit my taste, don’t please me or give me that back arching thing that makes me crave more. My palate has always leaned off the beaten path but it’s becoming increasingly clear….I’m not alone.
We have very different taste, no one more right than the other and I think it is high-time that we all made room for that fact. Never ceases to amaze me the uncivil and flat out intolerance thrown about, on both sides of the old word, new world wine conversation. It is wine people, and it is as it has always been, subjective. You like what you like, I like what I like and there are millions in between. The sooner we accept that fact the sooner we look less like poo slinging, bloated with self-importance asshats and maybe, just maybe, in return welcome more people into this world that we love so much we are willing to take potshots at one another for.
Just a thought….