Sunday, September 30, 2012

Trust, It's Earned.....

And can quickly be destroyed.

“But, but he promised” Jeremy when he was about eight years old, in tears and completely heartbroken. A close friend of his had promised him something or other and reneged or backed out leaving my sweet son in utter disbelief and dismay. I remember scooping him up on my lap, resting his head upon my chest so he could feel as well as hear the words that I knew I needed to share with him, “Trust and promises, they don’t mean as much to some people as they do to you and I baby” a life lesson I knew he would someday discover but had hoped would be further out and maybe just a little less crushing. I had no idea what I was doing when I was raising my son in the beginning, but there were a couple of things I wanted to instill very early on, trust and knowing that if I promised him something he could have complete faith that it was true, that was on the very top of my list. And so it went for us, his fears soothed at times when I could promise him that everything was going to be okay, and as he grew older him returning that trust by being honest with me about what he was up to….with a few teenage hiccups of course but all in all, we’ve earned each other’s trust and protected that fiercely, even when, at times, those truths were hard to hear. On that foundation we’ve built the strongest love I’ve ever known. My heart is forever his and suspect his is mine as well. An extremely powerful thing that trust.

Never given it freely myself trust, been on the other side of true evil one too many times for me to just give that up right away. I protect myself, my sanity and heart, maybe too much at times, but I just can’t hand my trust over to anyone with a sweet smile, charm or slick tongue. I’ve got a big dumb heart and it is yours once earned but fuck me over, lie to me and make me feel foolish for believing in you, well that dumb heart will brokenly wise up quick. I can suffer fools, clowns, moody and emotional people, have loved many of all of those in fact but I will not suffer people that lie or don’t trust me enough with the truth. Just can’t do it. Life is way too short to spend it trying to sift through half-truths, flat out bullshit and that double-speak that tries to spin things and make you feel like the asshole for questioning. If I love and trust you, give me everything, even the things you fear I won’t like, chances are, if I do really care for you, that I’m going to be on your side. Will feel safe enough with you to know that there was a reason or story behind, whatever, and accept and love you anyway. Doesn’t seem that hard to me, in fact it seems way, way the fuck easier than all that other nonsense. So it turns out, this staunch belief in just being honest, works out really well in my chosen profession. 

“You’ve never steered me wrong” I am lucky enough to hear that at least once a week, most weeks more than that and there is something so powerful and affirming about that. Just as there was when a very regular and loyal customer let me know that something I sold her was not at all to her liking, “I hated that” she told me and I nearly hugged her for it. Sure we all love the accolades but the, “Yuck that was awful” is just as important to hear. For a wine merchant to properly pick out wines for you, for you and your palate, we need to hear the truth and the whole truth. If we whiff on a recommendation, let us know, we won’t get our feelings hurt or think you’re wrong, how can you be wrong about your own palate?! We need to know in fact, to ensure that we don’t make those mistakes when picking wines for you again. A good wine shop has only your interest at heart, we have to otherwise why would you come back?! This is always on my mind when tasting wines and dealing with suppliers as well….

“Oh come on, it’s not that bad and most people won’t even know. Look, you can make some quick money and once it’s gone it’s gone” a supplier in my ear trying to talk me into bringing in a wine that was butt-suckingly dreadful but on deal and super cheap. Look, we are all looking for ways to bring in a blast of quick cash, especially right now but for me, can’t taste a wine like that, even knowing that I can sell it for fifteen dollars and double my money, without asking myself, “At what expense?” Sure I could buy this well-known wine that’s being sold at a quarter of its regular price, because it is tasting tired, stack it and make a pile of quick cash….but what happens when someone asks me about it? I’m going to tell them that it tastes like ass and they shouldn’t buy it, which in turn will have that customer asking themselves why it’s there but….I have to be honest if I want to have my customers trust me right? That pile of untouched “Money making” wine would still be there, dusty and getting more tired by the week because I simply cannot fuck with the trust my customers have bestowed upon us…..I’ll leave that to Total Wine and their direct import, private label plonk. Unlike that mega corporation we don’t have a million dollars to lose building our business. We only have word or mouth and our reputation….not about to screw with that for a few bucks. 

The upside for our customers is they can rest assured that if a wine is there in the shop, it’s because one of us loved it, wanted to share it and knew a bunch of palates it would be perfect for, not because we are trying to snake oil you. Trust me on that.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Critic Criticism

Aren’t you tired of it yet? I sure the fuck am. Tired of reading blogs or online articles the comment section stuffed to near bursting with bashing, blaming, outrage, implications of impropriety and hearing the envy rich whines of people who are likely licking their chops just waiting to be anointed and plunk their pimply ass upon the still warm throne of the recently ousted “King”. So annoying. Annoying and that, “The consumer has the right to know” costume these asshats are wearing, well you might as well have wrapped yourself in plastic wrap because all your business is showing. 

Look, I’ve gone after Robert Parker before. I have said and will say over and over again, I think his palate is damaged. Wines he gives astronomical scores to often make me gag, literally. To this day I can still remember tasting a wine he gave something like 98 points to and that glopular wine still has the glowing distinction of being one of, no, the worst wine I’ve ever tasted that wasn’t flawed. Fucking thing tasted exactly like one of those cherry cordial things, like exactly. Chocolate, sickly sweet cherry juice, coconut and marzipan…yeah, just felt the, “I think I’m gonna barf” hairs stand up on my neck thinking about it. Vile, truly vile and that was a nearly 100 point wine?! Well I don’t huff Jello pudding cups and I’m not about to shovel dessert into my gullet under the guise of wine drinking refinement. Figured out long ago that Parker’s palate and mine was kinda like that Mars and Venus thing. Two different planets, and seeing as I’m not sleeping with him, well I’m not about to try and find some kind of compromise for the sake of getting along. Would just as likely take wine advice from Mr. Parker as I would the checker at my local Vons that has Tourette Syndrome. Sure he is abusive to the keys of his register, blurts out gibberish, has been known to snort and takes 45 minutes to take a personal check but at least Bob, (his name too by the way….hmmm) has a smidgen of an idea how I eat and never seeing any fucking cherry cordials and a daily purchasing of lemons and leafy green stuff, he probably has a better chance of spastically grabbing something off the shelf and having it match my palate than Parker does. Ah, but there’s the thing….

For years I, somewhat mistakenly, blamed Robert Parker for the placeless wines being cranked out by some of my favorite regions, in France specifically. Ranted and stomped my feet, my throat red and finger extended as I pointed to the indisputably most influential wine critic on the planet and blamed him for wrecking my beloved wines, rendering them “International” and soulless. Now before anyone starts thinking I’ve changed my opinion on that, let me just tell you, I still find many Rhone wines utterly undrinkable for their plump extraction, sweet fruit and excessive oak treatments but um, is that Robert Parker’s fault? Last I checked he was just a dude with a palate and mouth-wide-open readership that was lapping up any and everything he deemed drink worthy. He isn’t making the wines, just lavishing praise upon the wines that speak to him. If a region loses their shit and trashes tradition in favor of pleasing his palate instead of adhering to like a hundred years of tried and true winemaking, well I think we should be giving that finger to someone other than silly Robert Parker. 

I shunned Alsace when they started pushing ripeness, sweetness and began oaking their wines to shit, have done the same with Rhone. Alsace has seen a reckoning in the past few years, funny thing about those lemmings, they aren’t so loyal. Just because they bought cases, on the recommendation of a certain critic, in one vintage, doesn’t mean they will do so again…in fact, without those numbers, they won’t. Kinda hard to sustain yourself when playing to the whims of one palate right? Yeah, so Alsace has once again gone back to making the wines that had them placed on every bistro menu, the light, balanced and not mind-blowing but multiple bottles ordering because they taste so damn good with food. The simple food friendly wines that put them on the wine drinking map in the first place, I can only hope that the great producers in the Rhone will one day do the same. As someone that has had numerous conversations with winemakers in the region, I have a hunch they will. Big, rich and powerful is being done the world over, can those wineries compete on a world stage or might they want to consider embracing what makes them special and different? Keeping my fingers crossed for sure.

In an effort to avoid the internet and any kind of exchange or writing, (been in a pissy and raging mood…probably reading too many wine blogs) I tuned into Top Chef Masters this evening, the finale. Huge Top Chef fan but I confess that the Masters edition isn’t nearly as compelling to me, but tonight I was looking for mindless entertainment so I nuzzled my chunky ass into the corner of my couch, glass of Tempier Bandol Rose in my hand, television slack jaw perfectly set and my day weary frame ready to be numbed. Watched as the final two contestants busted their asses making a meal that would please the surprise panel of judges. It was fierce, dramatic and for a time did what I wanted, spun my head with nonsense but as the plates were being finalized, last minute zesting and flourishes being administered, I saw what is every chef’s and likely winemaker’s worst nightmare happen, a table full of critics. Ack!

Not fellow chefs or frequent diners, critics. These cats were cooking the meal of their life for people that get paid to judge and criticize, critique their food even though most of them have never even worked in a restaurant. Ugh! I was even starting to sweat. A table of 10 or 12 people geared and trained to break what is in front of them apart, find fault with the tiniest of details and in their defense, are paid to do so. The chefs saw who they were cooking for and nearly crapped themselves….cannot say as I blame them. My interest was piqued and my mind was far from that whole numbing business I was hoping for. I was on the edge of my seat as I watched these two, tremendously different chefs prepare dish after dish in a competition that asked them to show who they were, gave them the freedom to use whatever they wished to share their story. One guy a very traditional chef, known for refined food, the other a wild child that pushes people to eat outside the box as it were, a champion of offal and extreme dinning. Found myself torn as I would rather eat the more traditional food, offal makes me queasy and not in that good way, but feeling the passion and unapologetic, “This is what I do” snarl of the far more inked and emotional other guy. 

Plates presented and within seconds I knew what was going to happen, half the room was made weak in the knees by the perfectly prepared traditional food, the other wowed and swooning for the racy, raw and more rustic offerings. Watched as one critic said, “It was embarrassingly bad” only to have another say, “That was the most thrilling thing I’ve eaten in 30 years” my face all scrunched as I thought, “Well…who’s right?” the answer the same as it has been in all my years in the wine business, dealing with critics and customers, the answer is, you are. If it gets you off, then it is the best, period. Doesn’t matter if it’s the story that grabs you, the flavors, a pairing or just a general style and if you can find a critic that seems to be lit up by the same things that you are, by all means, follow them.

I’m no critic. I am charged with tasting wines, far more than I want most days, and while I always buy with an eye for our customers there are things that scream out to me, shake me, thrill me and I’d be a fat, slack jawed liar if I didn’t concede that I’m able to sell those wines just a little faster. The words in my shelf talker expressing my excitement and those customers that have come to trust or find themselves agreeing with my palate, well they gobble them up. So what kind of hypocrite would I be if I were to sling poo at others doing the same thing? Same is true of the stuff I do here. I don’t take samples because I refuse to feel beholden or obligated to anyone and my standards, they are high. I was lucky enough to skip that whole college wine drinking phase, never perused the local CVS or Trader Joe’s for wine. I was fed at the teat of traditional French winemaking and while I will forever be swooned and swayed by wines the world over, it is those place wines that will always speak to me. They will be the ones that dig their teeth into my flesh, get me fired up and cause my verbiage to bubble over with varicosity. The kind that hopefully and thankfully brings people in seeking them out and knowing exactly what I mean…and they want it too. No different than the cherry cordial Parker fans, just a different palate.  Kinda thinking there is room enough for all of us…

Siskel or Ebert, Heimoff or Galloni, Parker or Dugan, (look at me putting myself with his majesty. My blog dammit) Olken or Kemner, Washam or Fiering, just follow your heart and palate, stop with the political rhetoric and criticizing of the critics. Find out who moves you, inspires your thirst and drink richly from them. 

Now pardon me as I slip even further into this bottle of Tempier Rose…

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Very Thought

“A couple of people from my wine group didn’t want to sign up for your event because of that one time when you paired a beer with one of the cheeses” a fairly regular customer talking to me as she perused the reservation book for my upcoming class, scribbling the initials of her group next to the names of its members. She didn’t say it in a snide tone, just matter of fact, there were a few people, “wine people” so offended by the fact that I would pour a….GASP, beer for a pairing event that they were going to take a pass on the whole event this time. Say what?! I flipped the pages of the reservation book and was instantly made to feel better when I hit the last page, the full waiting list. Name upon name of people, couples and friends that were hoping to get a seat on the off chance that someone cancelled, “Well I guess they showed me” I said with a smirk. 

This is where wine people, or I should say, “wine people” piss me right the hell off. Piss me off and actually show me how not into wine they really are. There are all kinds of wine lovers and while I do my best to respect and value them all, this snooty sub set of wine idealist, well they are the actual wine snobs and I have very little respect for that. These are the folks that look down their nose at everyone waving or sipping a cocktail or a beer at a sports bar while they raise their glasses of Truck Stop Red, or whatever craptastic house wine is being served by the glass, bottle probably open for over a week, doesn’t matter, needs to be wine and almost always needs to be red, you know to prove how sophisticated and classy they are. Asswads. As someone that has been in this business for a very long time, and is fiercely passionate about wine I’m not about to drink a shitty glass of anything just to prove I’m a “wine person”. If the options are, “Red, White or Blush” I’m getting a damn Gin & Tonic, period. Wine isn’t a thing to me, not a drink or symbol, it’s about flavors, both on their own and how they pair with food and as a true wine lover, I know that wine has limitations and I would never disrespect a wine, or worse decimate it, but shoving into a place it doesn’t belong. If you want to, go for it, but don’t act as if you are a “wine person” and don’t get your nose out of joint when a specialist tells you that wine might not be the best choice. It is our job as wine specialists to teach and sell wine, giving crappy pairing advice does neither. 

Tonight I am giving a seminar on wine and cheese pairing, we do two a year, one an informal stand up tasting on a Saturday afternoon which is often slammed and rather chaotic and then one on a Friday evening, seated and with much more one on one interaction. These Friday night events sell out nearly as fast as my fried chicken and Champagne ones so I know we will be fielding “Did any seats free up?” phone calls all afternoon. Phone calls from people that are actually into wine and how it pairs with food, not people that would shudder at and toss their nose in the air at the very thought of tasting a beer in that setting. So real wine people that are there to learn, I couldn’t be more thrilled to have them. Only wish I had more space!

These events are always a ton of work, both physically, as we need to slice, scoop, cube and prepare the cheese plates/platters, but they also kick my ass in that brain drain kind of way. Really taxes my skills and stretches me professionally and I must confess, I fucking love that part. Sure I could just throw ten cheeses out there and grab a few bottles of this or that and people might still be happy…ten wines and ten cheeses, what’s not to love right? But the thing is, if I’m going to put my name on this seminar I want it to be as perfect as humanly possible. I have one coworker that breaks my balls every time I do these wine & cheese pairing deals, kind of laughs at me as I scurry about, popping corks and breaking off pieces of cheese, stress over the lineup, “Now if I put the Roaring 40s Blue Cheese before the Reblochon, the wines are going to be out of order” and change the order eight times, “You know Sam, it really doesn’t matter” his chide. May not matter to him and he can do his events as he wishes but I take this stuff pretty seriously and feel I have an obligation to those in attendance to show that there really is a science to these things, a chemistry to why things will and will not work with certain wines, to teach and share what years of being both a wine and cheese buyer have taught me. Not to mention I believe it really does matter and when you have a successful pairing, you not only sell more wine, you know, because it tastes good, but you can also help people “Get it” and that right there, well it can inspire more real wine lovers and there is something so very gratifying in that for me. 

None of us are in this business for the big dollars, hell many of us pour a huge percentage of our paychecks right back into the pot as it were, and for me it’s all about my love of wine, cheese, food pairings and the very real pleasure I get from helping others get their happy palate on….even when I have to say, “You know, wine just isn’t appropriate here”. Not going to let myself be too upset by the snobby set that uses wine as a symbol, a class marker of sorts and am instead going to keep doing as I have been, keep focusing on pairing and a wine's place….won’t beat up a wine by trying to smash it into some status hole where it doesn’t belong and keep teaching those that wish to listen. I’ll trade a “I’m too fancy to drink craft beer” person for the, “You know I always liked wine but learned to love it after coming here” one at my pairing events….any day. 

As I wrestled with one of my all-time favorite cheeses yesterday afternoon, groaned over how deliciously rich and intoxicatingly luscious it was and then took sips with this wine and that only to have my beloved cheese go starkly metallic, fiercely ugly and unappealing, making me want to do a Tom Hanks move from the movie Big and grab a napkin to wipe the gross from my tongue, wondering where all the beautiful caramel and toffee notes in the cheese went, I knew what needed to be done. I thought of those folks that were annoyed with the last event because I opted to pair a beer with a particular cheese, flinched a little and felt a pang of, “I don’t want to upset anyone but” took another bite of that powerful and mouth coating cheese, let it spread across my palate, “Sweet, deep caramel and toffee, crunchy little crystalline bits, wicked intensity. This needs a porter or a stout”. Beer, it had to be a beer. I played around a little longer, tried a few other things but it was a smoked porter with vanilla bean that was by far the better match. Bit of a quandary considering the last time I featured a beer it left a bad taste in someone’s mouth. Mulled it over, kicked it about but in the end I had to go with the better pairing seeing as it is a seminar about pairings and all.

 I like to think that I’ll never be too old or too snooty to learn something myself, I did take a lesson from those beer protesters. I am going to offer two things with that cheese flight, a wine and that smoked porter, a lesson for the group as to why there are times when wine just isn’t the right choice when it comes to food pairing, no matter how much you love the stuff. 

Fearing the backlash but believing in and standing behind that pairing….wish me luck!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Worshiping At The Altar Of Soulful Expression

My son and I were watching the movie Cotton Club the other night, sweating our asses off at 11:00 PM, the weather had been just brutal here, glass of Rose silently puddling at my side as I cringed and flinched at the horrible dialog and cheesed up mobster costumes but then came what I was waiting for, why I’d seen that movie more than I would ever care to admit, the dance scenes. Little beads of sweat slipping past my shoulder blades, running the length of my spine and soaking the waistband of my jeans, my weary head bobbing as I watched bodies move about to music, lost in the watching of soulful expression. 

“My God, look at him” my mother in awe watching Mikhail Baryshnikov jump, twirl and suspend his body as we were watching White Nights. I had to agree, it was magical to watch, so perfect and polished, beautiful in the way classic sculpture is but I just sat, waited for the one point in the movie that had me scooting to the front of the couch, my toes digging into our thick and dusty carpet, eyes wide as my body responded the only way it knew how to, vibrate with want. Gregory Hines alone in a studio, hard floors and a wall of mirrors, his ultra-thin and slouchy frame in a tank top and baggy slacks. The energy at first coming from his feet, his tap shoes pounding out music of their own, almost dueling with whatever sound was coming from the boom box, the tap-tap-tap, gravely sounding drags and heart-thumping “bang” as he lifted both metal enhanced feet and once again slammed them against the ground. Toes, heels, ankles, knees and finally his whole body was adding motion, sound and expression as he danced. Shoulders, one just slightly before the other, dipping and shaking, making the eyes follow the beat all the way down his frame as he danced out his pain. Compared to ballet it may have seemed rudimentary….but for me, so soulful and way fucking sexy. While I could always see and appreciate Baryshnikov, it was Hines, that scratching and pounding that spoke to me, “My God, look at him”…

Been in a wicked funk lately. Not pissy, not angry, although my last two posts, upon rereading do make me sound a little bitchy, I don’t have the tell-tale signs of bitchdom…just blah. Might be the heat, could be the sluggish traffic at the shop or the fact that I practically had to beg to get ten people to sign up for my last class. Probably some witch’s brew of all the above and as someone that loathes unexplained mood swings or the blaming of hormones, (but I’m guessing as I get older I will be much more compassionate about that business) and prefers a more practical, “Okay, why is this happening?” approach, well my “Blah” has been nibbling at me. Like the picking at a scab and the, “Ouch, quit it” that comes with it. 

Haven’t wanted to read, write, talk, be talked to, be ignored, sit silent, go outside and be active, be touched or find my inner seductress as I sit next to someone that isn’t touching me…inspiring them to want nothing more but to. Not angry, not sad, not lonely, not annoyed, not sexy….just not. Sucks, like hard and not in that tummy flipping and tongue flicking kind of way. Feels like some self-inflicted form of lock down where even my palate isn’t allowed conjugal visits. But…

Saturday night I was whisked off in a limo full of friends/ customers, was doused in grower Champagne and seduced with historic Los Angeles beef dip sandwiches. Rendered drunk on laughter, runny cheeses, potato chips and ladies in high heels and short shorts. Felt myself holding back, knowing I was in charge of taking at least one of the drunken revelers home, feeling in charge of the opening of the Champagnes that I had introduced that group to, making sure everyone had salty snacks to hold in their fist pumping Tom Petty sing along paws. Control, too much control, not of others mind you, nothing I love more than watching people get their “loss of” on, hell I’m the one opening the bottles! No, too much control of me….and I’m beginning to discover, the more I close myself off, the more I lose. The more I become like those sad ladies that raised me….no more, enough, I’m jumping back in the deep end and my skin is way beyond ready to be covered in bumps.

Came home after bubbles and viewing the soulful expression of a dear friend that used her art to work through her divorce. Splashed blues and blacks on draped pieces of glossy material, hung them from the ceiling, her shoulders dipping and shaking as she challenged us to watch her music move down her body, the reason we were piled in that Champagne and cheese soaked limo, to find what I know I have been aching for….inspiration. The new Dave Matthews Band, (goddamn it Google alert, I’m aging here! How am I to start my affair with that man if you don’t alert him?!)  CD sitting on the dining room table, right where I sit and try to create, inspire and share my boozy lusting and findings.  

“Oh My Love, if I had my way all your dreams, would come true”
“Spread yourself across my lips and I’ll spoon you in”

“Make your belly full and all your dreams come true”

“You are like a secret garden as I shuffle through this broken town”
“If you are tired I’ll bare your burden, if you’re dreaming I will not disturb you”

“Come winter I’ll build you a fire from the bones of who I used to be, before you came and washed the weary away, before you came here for me”

The slow, almost mournful twang of a banjo and callused fingertips strumming at tight strings in the absolute perfect pitch, soulful growl flicking away at parts of me that have been resting beneath my dormant flesh just aching, begging to tear through. Shifting of my thick hips, moving and sinking my toes into thick carpet once again, my heart thumping and mouth watering as my shoulders dip with each saturated mouthful of “Just what I need” spills across my needing soul, stealing my breath and lapping at my heels. 

Fingers wrapped around the neck of a bottle, cold air finally moving through with enough strength to lift my thin white t-shirt as I slip out my apartment, the rush of “What are you doing?” and “Why not?” covering my still skin, pulling it tight and making my ache visible….toes poorly pained and also in need of attention plunging into the cool water of the spring that trickles harmlessly through the hushed complex. A woman, a girl, in need of refreshment finding it with Dave Matthews, (Really Google? C’mon now) the sweet burn of indulgence filling my mouth as the cold water bites at my ankles. Feeling that shell crack against the pan and your soul spill out upon a surface that makes you jump….sizzle and gives “over easy” a whole new meaning. Fuck. Maybe I needed that lull to feel this high but, high I am...... Dave mixed with Armagnac, maybe not as elegant or regal, as polished as Cognac but much like Hines and his pounding, sexy as hell and has me worshiping at the altar of  soulful expression. Dave’s voice and prose, raw passion and brilliance coaxing me into a state of utter….openness, the Armagnac filing my mouth with richness, profundity and a sting of seriousness that keeps me from teetering too far over the edge but raises my brow and begs for….just one more. 

Much needed….
Now about that touching me business….
So ready.