Friday, October 9, 2009

One Of Us Is Wrong

Remember a few weeks ago I said I wasn't a wine snob? I meant it. But devoted partner thinks I might be a wine snob, just not when compared with real wine snobs. I think he meant my brother. Who is way snobbier than I. And that's ok because, while I don't know what the ethical considerations are of waxing rhapsodic over a meal you got for free, please know, The Boy, that dinner Monday was stupid good - made even better by the truly amazing wines you poured. So devoted partner maintains that next to my brother I am a wine plebe, but next to the rest of the world's mouth-breathers, I am my brother. I am still deciding how I feel about this. However, it might be a necessary preamble.

Etienne takes me to a wine shop in Dijon each time I visit. The store is called Aux Vieux Millesime and I usually just ask the proprietor to make me a case of stuff he likes. Generally the bottles average 17 euros and I'll pick up one or two that are costlier - so we're not talking DRC here (fark, that makes me a snob, doesn't it? Domaine de la Romanee Conti, among the most expensive wines there are). I go home, we drink the wine, we sigh knowing that the wines I bought in a small shop in Dijon are unlikely to be available at the corner wine shop here. But I endeavor to find ones we especially like (and by endeavor, I mean I look online). We recently drank a white burgundy that was quite tasty and I looked for it online. Lo and behold, a wine store in Connecticut carried it. I bought some more.

Fast forward. This store now sends me tons of email about new wines and last night, one of their "wine consultants" called me to upsell me some stuff. Here's where it starts to smell of crazy.

He's very earnest, and sounds very young. Younger than my brother young. Young as in this might only be the first or second year he's legally able to drink wine. He starts by talking to me about a Rioja that, strange to say, I already own - my parents brought it back from a trip to Spain. Then he starts talking about a Bordeaux that Robert Parker gave many points to. At this point I stop him to mention two things: I don't favor Bordeaux, and I could give a rat's ass what Robert Parker thought of a wine. Since Robert Parker and I have never imbibed together, I don't know if we like the same things. His opinion counts very little for me when I go to buy wines. So then my "wine consultant" starts asking me what I do like. I tell him that, due to the wallet-unfriendly influence of Etienne et Pere, we drink a lot of Burgundy. He proceeds to ask me what I think of California wines. It is at this point that I channel my brother and say, "we don't do new world."

He then asks about Italian wines (leading me to believe Burgundy might not be his strong suit). I say I don't know much about them, but that we have had a lot of luck enjoying reds from the south and from Sicily (I refrain from mentioning devoted partner's favoring of Montepulciano as this will get us into a discussion my budget is not prepared for). He starts talking to me about a famous Tuscan producer who bought a Calabrian vineyard. And then it happens, he talks about malolactic fermentation. Ooooh, fancy winemaking term. Except he says malol'ay'ctic. I get trying to impress a customer by demonstrating a facility with "oenic" terms, but malolactic has the word lactic in it. As in acid, and the creepily named Lactaid for those who are intolerant. This slip up in turn makes me feel less generous towards the young man who can only seem to call to mind a southern producer who is actually a northern producer, making me wonder if he's reading from a script. He can't think of one indigenous southern producer to recommend?

We finally swing back around to Burgindy and now we're going for the ducats. He starts talking about a great deal on a Burgundy from a producer I've never heard of - which is NOT SURPRISING because I know like six wine producers total. He finishes telling me which wine publications gave it which ratings and then stops talking. He hasn't mentioned a vintage, a region, a grape; he hasn't mentioned what COLOR the wine is.

Me: Ah, and, where is it from?
Him: Burgundy.
Me (pause): Yes, but where (silence on the other end), what region? (More silence.) Ok, what color is the wine?
Him: Red
Me: Ok, and what are the OTHER WORDS ON THE BOTTLE?
Him: Oh, saynt (Saint or St.) George (Georges) vail (Vieilles).

Ok we're going to stop now. I've made my point and sounded like a huge bitch making it. Here's where we get to the critical examination part. I dig that French is a tough language and I don't expect everyone to speak it - hell, if you ask my French friends, they'll remind you I confused the words for condom and preservatives at the dinner table while trying to sound like I could speak in complete French sentences. I also understand that just because you work in an industry that is heavily influenced by France it doesn't mean you're an expert. My guy, my wine consultant, might be able to pick out Russian River Valley Zinfandels at 20 paces, but the fact that he doesn't know how to read a bottle of wine from France ticks me off.

For several reasons.

1. Let's pretend you are an art collector and a dealer, a French-speaking dealer, is trying to get you to buy a wonderful piece by Vansloh Omay. Do you buy it? Do you even know what he's talking about? (Pretend you're a French stereotype. Winslow Homer.) Would you buy a piece of art from a guy who couldn't even be bothered to attempt the artist's name? Wouldn't you think this guy isn't the expert he's trying to be? But let's be generous and assume that the dealer knows tons about Manet and Monet and Matisse, and nothing about Vansloh Omay; wouldn't a professional, upon learning that your tastes and his expertise don't match, ask you to wait a minute while he prevailed upon a colleague, who is an expert in your states tastes, to help you? Isn't that what good salespeople do? "I'm sorry, I actually work in the shoe department, but if you wouldn't mind waiting just a moment, I will get you the buyer for the linen department who can answer your questions."

2. The only only only reason I know what malolactic fermentation is is that I've read some books about wine. Not scholarly works, mind you, silly travelogues about people with much cooler lives than mine who go off in search of good wines from beautiful places and get paid to write about them. But, you see, it is only coincidence that I know what it is. Wine is not my job. If wine is your job, take 15 minutes and learn how to pronounce the things you plan to say to customers and what they mean.

3. Because if I was a heavy, if I was some cigar chomping hedonist with a lower level completely devoted to my cave, and some scamp showed as little knowledge as this kid, I wouldn't shop at the store again! I would take my business somewhere I could feel confident. I don't trust Robert Parker to make my wine decisions for me, but I do trust wine professionals. Fully half of the wine I'm constantly searching for is as a result of being served something in a restaurant. I trust that at restaurants where I ask for a recommendation, the person of whom I am asking has TASTED the wine him or herself. So when the recommendation is offered to me it is because the wine has been enjoyed, quite possibly with something similar to what I'm eating. I didn't get the feeling this kid had tasted any of the wines he was suggesting.

Now I know I am making a mountain out of a molehill. I know this. I also know that in the two months I have lived in Connecticut, I have come across these types of lapses in knowledge and salesmanship. And this confounds me. I always assumed that Fairfield county was made up, in large numbers, of people who used to live in Manhattan. Those people were as snooty as I am and expected a certain level of competence from people. Does that expectation evaporate with greater levels of suburban air? Some of my neighbors (and I mean that in the broad sense) do have million dollar cellars, don't those consumers elevate the level of discourse? I don't like to think that I have moved to a place where people blindly follow wine reviews and the recommendations of purveyors who have never sipped what they suggest, because it implies a laxity of mind I am deeply uncomfortable with.

I have opted not to drive to the store and tell them this in person. But I am seriously considering telling my wine consultant the next time he calls. Not because I want to make him feel bad about himself, but because, as totally lame as this sounds, I want him to do better by himself. I'm not going to NOT buy wine from him because he's ill-informed, but there are going to people who will, and he should know why that is.

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