May 252012
 

At last month’s Drink Local Wine Conference in Denver, a debate arose about whether being ‘local’ is enough merit for consumers to drink regional wines. After all, some among us go out of our way to buy local produce and meats from farmers’ markets and fruits stands. So, why not purchase local wines as well?

Now, just so we are on the same page, local wine is, as the Washington Post’s Dave McIntyre says, “wine from around here, wherever ‘here’ is.” For example, if you live in Michigan, wines from the state of Michigan would be local to you.

So, what was the crux of the argument? Some claimed that being local should be enough for consumers to purchase and support regional wines. Others argued that local wines should be held to the same standard as wines from more established areas such as California or France, and if they weren’t, that they were inherently inferior. I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Based on my experience with local wines over the past several years, there are great wines being made all over the United States. But, there is also a fair amount of bad wine as well. Should people drink crappy wine, just because it is local? No. Nor should they expect a Cabernet Sauvignon from Virginia to taste like one from Napa Valley. The growing conditions and winemaking preferences are too different for that to make sense.

So, to regional winemakers I say, “get out and taste wines that aren’t yours or your immediate neighbors’.” How do you know that your wines are commercially viable/competitive if you don’t know what others are doing? To consumers I say, “get out and try something new.” Buy a wine from your area. If it’s poor quality, oh well, you are richer for the experience. Even better, let the producer know. If it’s good, however, you’ve just discovered a gem that few of us in the rest of the country have access to. Isn’t that worth something?

May 212012
 

Part I: Glassware Stance 

Picking up a glass to smell wine may not seem like a big deal but after many years and watching thousands of students and consumers I’m convinced that it’s anything but automatic and something everyone may not be able to figure out on their own.  I’ve also come up with my own term for the process. “Glassware stance” is my term for the art and act of holding a glass and smelling wine.  Here are the important details:

The grip:

Always hold the glass by the stem, please.  Holding the glass by the bowl may work for Bud Lite, pirate’s grog or tomorrow morning’s cup of coffee but it’s remarkably tacky when applied to holding a wine glass.  You can only imagine what I think of stemless glassware.

Positioning

I once saw George Riedel, the George Riedel of Riedel Crystal, teach a group to smell wine by instructing them to gently place the rim of the glass on their upper lip just beneath their nose.  After many years of teaching and observation I’m more than willing to concede that this technique works for 90+ percent of the population.  It’s a good starting point for practically anyone.  However, it’s never worked for me.  More on that below.

Angle

Once the glass is smartly planted just beneath your delicate nose it’s time to ponder the best angle to hold said glass to get the most out of the aromas in the wine.  There’s definitely a sweet spot for any glass.  To find that spot start with the glass vertically placed underneath your nose and then slowly angle the glass upwards stopping, of course, short of 90° which is also the point at which you’ll find yourself snorting the wine making everyone around you wonder about your recreational habits.  At some point between 25° and 45° the glass will show its best and you’ll really be able to smell the aromas in the wine. Note the specific spot/angle and stick with it.

You might also be curious to discover that as you bring the glass slowly upwards your head and torso also tend to go slightly down.  And you might even notice that as you reach the spot where you can smell the best your eyes end up looking down in front of you either straight ahead, slightly to the left or slightly to the right.  It’s different for everyone.  This last point may not sound important but it’s actually vital to your being able to mentally process the aromas of the wine in terms of figuring out what’s in the glass compared to previous wines you’ve tasted.  In the last year I’ve come to believe that eye positions and smelling/tasting wine are closely related.  You’ll have to wait for a future post to learn more.  Stay tuned …

Intake: Sniff vs. Hoover vs. Retro

Most schools of tasting enthusiastically promote the concept of several short, quick sniffs.  I completely agree.  The “hoover” school of one intense long pull on the glass, however, can result in what I call carpal nasal where your nose shuts down because it’s overwhelmed by alcohol.  The hoover technique is obviously to be avoided at all costs when smelling fortified wine or spirits.

Retro-nasal is another smelling technique often bandied about by wine professionals.  Though it sounds fancy it simply involves tasting the wine first, spitting (or swallowing) and then breathing out through the nose.  Some professionals swear by it.  It’s not overly useful to me unless I have a cold.  But try it and see if it works for you.  It may be just the thing.

Part II: Active vs. Passive Inhalation

This is the last piece of the aromatic equation and a very important one indeed. I mentioned above that most tasters are content to sniff away with the glass resting directly beneath their nose.  Such is not the case for me.  Many moons ago when I first got into wine I distinctly remember struggling with recognizing any aroma in a glass of wine and not being able to figure out why.  I also remember going to professional tastings and being surrounded by more experienced people in the industry blathering on about the floral qualities in such-and-such a white wine or the used saddle leather notes in a Southern Rhone Valley red.  To me it all just smelled like WINE, be it white, pink or red.  It goes without saying that I thought wine-speak was somewhere between a carefully orchestrated sham or a delightfully shared group hallucination.

Oddly enough the answer to my dilemma came in the form of a Cognac master class offered by Rémy Martin in 1988.   The Master Blender for Rémy at that time, whose name I unfortunately cannot recall, insisted that fine spirits like Cognac offered multiple layers of aromas with the most delicate aromas existing far beyond the immediate provenance of the glass.  He instructed our group to start smelling the Cognacs with the glass at least 10-12 inches from our face then proceeding in sequence to positions approximately six inches, three inches, one inch and finally with our nose directly in the glass.

He also went on to say that for him personally the best way to smell any wine or spirit was to move the glass away from one’s nose by at least an inch (if not more), open one’s mouth about a quarter of an inch, and breathe in and out gently through the nose and mouth at the same time.  I tried his suggestion and the difference was instantaneous and dramatic.  It literally caused my first major wine epiphany.  Immediately I could not only smell the Cognac in the glass 100% better but I could also actually recognize several of the aromas.  Dear reader, it was as if the clouds had parted, the bright sun was shining and the angels were singing.  I could finally smell—and recognize–something in the glass.

Looking back I realized that previous to that time when I put my nose directly into a glass the experience was far too intense and my nose and sense of smell were overwhelmed. Simply pulling the glass away from my face and opening my mouth made all the difference in the world.  I’ve come to call this technique “active inhalation” versus the “passive inhalation” of smelling through the nose alone.

Why does active inhalation work better for some people and most importantly me?  I really don’t have any hard data for an answer but can only surmise that by smelling through my nose and mouth simultaneously I’ve increased the amount of physiological real estate I use to smell by several hundred percent.  Will it work for you?  I’m not sure but it’s definitely worth finding out.  To do so simply try the following:

a. Start with the glass resting directly underneath your nose.

b. Move the glass slowly out to at least an inch away from your nose.

c. Make sure the glass is also positioned near your mouth.

d. Open your mouth about ¼ inch.

e. Smell the wine breathing gently through your mouth and nose at the same time.

f. Remember to breathe out—it’s always useful.

Test the results:

Are you able to smell better? Does the change make a difference at all?  In classes over the years I’ve found pretty consistent results: up to 10% of any group simply cannot make the change.  It’s as if I’m trying to get them to do something like throwing a ball left-handed if they’re right-handed.  From there I’ve also found that somewhere between 60-70% of any group will experience some, but not much, change by moving to active inhalation.  But it’s the last group that always offers a delightful surprise.  Somewhere between 10-20% of any group experiences a major and very positive shift. In short, they can immediately smell better as in somewhere between a life-changing and a mystical experience.  You may be tempted to scoff but it’s true.  In fact, I clearly remember one man coming up to me after a tasting class completely verklempt.  It turned out that hat he had a cleft palate and couldn’t smell practically anything since he was a child.  But the simple act of opening his mouth while smelling a glass of wine changed his whole world.  I was thrilled.  These are the moments we live for.

Reprinted from TimGaiser.com.

May 162012
 

Not long ago I had a lengthy phone conversation with a writer who was putting together a piece for the NY Post.  During our chat he happened to bring up just how difficult it was for him to get a good bottle of wine in a restaurant.  My reaction was somewhere between “doooooo!” and “really?”  I was surprised given the guy lives in New York, dines out regularly and knows more than a bit about wine.  After a few further questions from my end it quickly became apparent that his comfort level with wine in restaurants simply wasn’t there; that dealing with a sommelier or huge wine list was a major challenge.

He’s not alone.  Dealing with what I call “wine ballet” or the whole “being handed the wine list in front of my friends/colleagues/future ex-spouse” is a source of major stress for practically anyone.  I wouldn’t quite put it up there with the fear of public speaking which according to some sources is even greater than the fear of death (must be a tough audience).  Being put on the spot with a wine list the size of the Gutenberg Bible can definitely cause personal anxiety.  Still the writer didn’t believe me when I told him it was no big deal.  So I gave him my own strategy on how to get the best value wine from any given list.  Then I promised him I’d share with all my closest friends.  Here it is:

Prelude

There are some things you definitely must know before you darken the restaurant’s door. These would include the following:

a. Know the style of wine you like to drink.  Go into a restaurant armed with the knowledge that “I like a red wine with soft tannins, not too much oak and that listens to NPR;” or “I really like big, oaky Chardonnays that remind me of a monster truck pull.”

b. It’s also important to know what you don’t like—arguably even more important than knowing what you do like.  Know that you absolutely loathe oaky wines or you break out in hives if the alcohol in a red wine gets to be over 16%, which is not all that uncommon these days.

c. Have a couple of examples of wines you’ve enjoyed in the past that can be used as points of reference.  Once you know exactly what you like and don’t like, it’s good to have some wines in mind that you’ve tasted in the past that can be used in discussions with a server or a sommelier.

d. Price: know how much you want to spend within $15-$20.  Wine prices on restaurant lists can vary dramatically but chances are you already have a good idea of how much you’re willing to spend in future dining excursions.
The Main Event

Now you’re ready to go.  You’ve just entered the restaurant with the man/woman of your dreams. When the hostess races you both across the dining room and seats you next to the kitchen while smiling that “adios amigo” smile before racing off leaving the glassware on the table spinning, don’t panic.  Keep breathing.  Feel good.  Feel confident.  It’s going to be alright.

1. The Wine List: as you pick up the wine list head to any section and check out the pricing.  Spot the highest price you can find and the lowest price as well.  Drag those to your mental trash bin and discard.

2. Find the average price: get a quick eyeball average of where most of the wines are priced.  That could be anywhere between $40 and $150 depending on your location and the style of the restaurant.  After all, there’s a huge difference between a corner bistro and Gary Danko in terms of the cost of operations, infrastructure and the rest.  You might also keep in mind the fact that most restaurants do NOT make money by selling food alone but only manage to survive and hopefully thrive by the selling alcoholic beverages.

3. Find the sweet spot: set your sights on the 50-60% price range of the restaurants’ pricing scheme.  That’s usually where the best values are and that, meine liebchen, is your sweet spot.

4. Your server: when your server arrives (hopefully within half hour of your being seated) and asks if you’d like wine with dinner (wrong question), smile and say something like the following:
“You know, this is a really interesting list.  I’d like to talk to the sommelier/wine buyer (or whoever gets stuck with doing the wine buying) if they’re available.” 

Just kidding on that last one point but you should also know that what you think of as the glorious task of creating a wine list is often relegated to whatever poor soul is the assistant manager, a position that in many instances can only be described as one of the s**t jobs of the universe.

5. The buyer: if the buyer is on the floor, that’s great.  Hopefully they will be over in short order.  Once said buyer makes a drive by of your table, be sure to relay the above pertinent information to them as in:
a. “This is the style of wine I really like.  It makes me think of unicorns.”


b. “I hate XX kind of wine.  I think it’s demon spawn.”


c. “Here are some wines I’ve enjoyed in the past.”

6. Pricing: give them a price range to work with as in, “I’d like to spend $40-$50,” or “please suggest something great under $75.”

Be specific about your price range but remember that part of their job is to SELL and that means they will probably start in your price range and then suggest something a bit more expensive.  Don’t be put off.  Listen politely and smile.  If their suggestion makes sense in terms of your personal favorite wine style and it’s within your budget, consider it.  However, if their suggestion is hideously expensive (meaning they either didn’t listen to you or they’re completely clueless), smile again and say:
 “You know, that’s really not what I had in mind and I’m sure you probably have something more in our price range.  Could you please make a recommendation in the xx price range?”

Likewise, if their suggestion is completely obscure don’t hesitate to ask about the wine. Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl, anyone?  Good questions to ask about any recommendation would include the sweetness/dryness level, the amount of oak or the amount of tannin if it’s a red wine recommendation.  Ultimately, ask yourself if the recommendation fits your favorite wine profile.  If not, don’t hesitate to ask for something closer in style as in with less tannin, oak or cosmetic flaws.

7. Discourse: a bit of back and forth, always mindful of and communicating that magic combination of your likes, dislikes and desired price range, should be more than enough for practically anyone help you get a delicious bottle.

Coda: Magic Questions!

If in doubt, ask the following questions or variations therein. You can always feel free to skip everything above and head straight to these:

“What are your favorite VALUES on the list?”

“Is there anything you’ve just gotten in that you really like and think is a must try?”

“Is there anything you’re pouring by the glass that you really like and think is a great value?”

If you’re speaking to the buyer/sommelier chances are they will get dangerously excited at this point or they should be checked for a pulse.  This is the moment every sommelier dreams about, the moment when someone is asking their opinion about the coolest wines on the list that they have toiled in relative no-so-obscurity to put together.  What more could they want?  Odds are they will blurt out the best/ coolest/ greatest/most amazing wine in nano-seconds of the question leaving your mouth.  They may even get all verklempt on you.  This is how it should be.  If the wine is being poured by the glass by all means ask to taste it.  Otherwise, if the price is right give it a spin.  And if you really like their recommendation, be sure to let him or her know it and even throw a bit of cash their way.  It’s always greatly appreciated.  Cheers!

Reprinted from TimGaiser.com.

May 112012
 

One of my core beliefs about wine is that it’s the great connector.  Wine connects us in ways that no other thing, substance, or small household appliance does.  That for thousands of years, since the time Cro-Magnon man first started decanting young Bordeaux blends for aeration purposes, we humans have shared meals with members of our clan.  Nothing could be truer in my life.

Dinner time when I grew up in a household of six kids in the ‘60’s can only be described as barely controlled chaos.  With four boys awash in more testosterone “than you could shake a stick at,” as my Mom used to say, it was not uncommon to have a dinner roll ka-tonked off the side of your head when you requested bread from the other end of the table.  Asking for butter (which was actually margarine, of course) was likewise completely risky business.  In short, dinner was a Darwinian affair requiring skills of sleuth, cunning and dexterity.  Any and everything was passed around the table but once and if you didn’t get enough on that first shot you weren’t getting more.  A gallon of milk barely made it around the table and the oldest three of us quickly figured out that the only way to get more was to pour your glass full, drink half of it, and then refill before passing it on down causing an inevitable and immediate firestorm of protest from my younger brothers and sister.  It was also imperative that you quickly identify and skewer the biggest-ass pork chop/ham slice/slice of meatloaf on the platter when it came your way because it was your one and only shot at sustenance for the evening.  My school mates, needless to say, were always a bit taken aback by the carnal frenzy that defined our family meals.  They soon learned to adapt or went home hungry.  It’s also worth noting that my then future brother-in-law did not return to our house for over six months after his first Easter dinner at the Gaiser table.  Enough said.

Eventually with the patience of a saint and the help of blunt instruments my Mom managed to instill some semblance of table manners in the six of us.  That in itself is a minor miracle.  Beyond that she also managed in a very sneaky way to instill the dining ritual in us as a family, and not because she and my Dad were raised in the European tradition of fine dining in terms of candle lit extravaganzas and lengthy erudite conversations.  That was as about as remote as the Dog Star.  Instead it was the mere act of gathering the entire herd once a day so we could sit down and share something they considered important; that even if all hell had broken loose during the previous 12 hours we had the certainty of knowing that we as a family would share a meal, for better or worse.

Years later when Carla and I first moved to the city and were both bartending the dining ritual continued.  On our rare nights off together we either went out or stayed in and cooked dinner for one another.  Explorations into the Byzantine menus of Gourmet magazine often ensued with the kitchen getting completely trashed and our finally limping to the dinner table like stunned livestock after vigorous and sometimes pyrotechnic experiments in the kitchen.  Such is the stuff of magic and memory.

The dining ritual continued unabated after our lives went from “man on man” to “zone” in terms of having kids.  Looking back on those years I’ve come to believe that one of the greatest things Carla and I have given our kids is our many years of the dining ritual.  Maria, literally graduating from UNC Chapel Hill this past week, and Patrick, soon to be 19, have grown up their entire lives with the dining ritual.  That means when it’s dinnertime life comes to a screeching halt; that once dinner is plated and hits the dinner table everyone gathers regardless of whatever else on the planet is going on.

Maria has told me many times that the thing she missed most about home after going back east to school was dinner time, literally the hours of hanging out at the table after dinner was over chatting about everything under the sun. Discussions at times included endless debates about the ultimate outcome of the Harry Potter books.  For a time we were convinced the end of book seven would be a redux of Starwars in which Voldemort would say to Harry, “I AM your father.”  Noooooooo).  Another dinner found us suddenly fixated on redoing the entire cast of the Lord of the Rings movies from a very odd but special group comprised of both the living and the dead.  I will definitely post that another time because it’s wickedly strange and funny.

Does the dining ritual guarantee a happy family or a long relationship or marriage?  No guarantees here as all the conversation in the world may not be able to address your shocking dysfunction.  But take heart because the dining ritual is a primo number one opportunity to learn how to communicate with your partner/significant other/spouse or whatever the term is at the moment.  And that’s not a bad thing.  It’s worked for me for 35 years.  It might work for you.

Reprinted from TimGaiser.com.

May 072012
 

An email arrives from WTSO and you immediately begin to salivate. Perhaps your heartbeat races and your pulse quickens. Thankfully, this isn’t porn-related spam, but rather a doorway into a semi-secret world of seemingly unheard of wine discounts. At 30-70% off original retail pricing, these time-sensitive deals offer up incredible values on a wide range of wines from lower-priced, large production wines to some of the world’s priciest such as Napa Valley Cabernets, Brunello di Montalcino and Bugindian Pinot Noirs.

So just who is this WTSO that sends such great e-mails? Cracking the code, WTSO stands for Wines Til Sold Out, a members-only, flash sale wine site and the brainchild of Elliot Arking. Elliot seems to have appeared from nowhere if you believe his LinkedIn profile. This is somewhat true since Arking launched WTSO in 2006. However, it only tells part of the story. Arking’s full resume encompasses work with several successful companies, including the purchase of Roger Wilco Wine & Spirits, a retail wine shop in southern New Jersey, with his brother Joseph, in 1982.

His son Jamie’s profile is more complete, chronicling his career in research and development and strategic marketing after receiving a Ph.D. in molecular pathology and, later, an MBA in Finance. Jamie logged in time at healthcare and biotechnology companies, taking up residency in D.C. and then San Diego, among other places. Sounding more like a Wharton professor than wine salesman, Elliot explained that he told his son to “always be on the income side of the ledger.”

With his own 30 years of experience in brick-and-mortar wine sales, Elliot was uninterested in online retailing when his nephew (Joseph’s son) first suggested it. But, his aha moment came when he viewed an electronics website that sold only one product at a time. He thought the idea made sense and offered a great value proposition. Adopting the same concept, Elliot and Joseph unveiled WTSO in the summer of 2006, building up its membership slowly, but steadily, over time and learning along the way. About four months after the initial debut, he tweaked one of the offers to include free shipping and noticed a big impact on sales. As a result, all orders now ship free of charge.

By 2008, WTSO had become a serious venture, at which point Elliot began to nag Jamie to return to the east coast and join the family business. As Jamie tells it, “He told me to stop … (expletive implied) … around and get home.” So he did, taking on the role of WTSO’s Chief Financial Officer.

Jamie jokingly complains that he doesn’t get taken along on tasting trips, but claims that his palate isn’t as sophisticated as that of his father and Uncle Joe. Despite his mock indignation about being confined to spreadsheets and numbers, Jamie seems quite giddy with the way things have evolved; clearly proud of the company his family has created.

Today, WTSO employs 30 people and has over $70 million in annual sales. The website generates $52 million, with the balance coming from sales through their app and other social media. Although their mailing list is quite extensive, approximately 140,000 active members account for the majority of purchases, who continue to buy again and again.

Given the Arkings’ devotion to customer service, such repeat business is to be expected. What might be surprising is the level to which they will go to make their members happy. Along these lines, WTSO uniquely provides a money back guarantee; if the customer has a problem with a wine for any reason –even if s/he just doesn’t like it – they will receive a credit for that particular purchase. Similarly, in tracking customers’ comments on the site, they discovered that a member had identified a corked bottle several months earlier, but not reported it. Elliot immediately reached out and offered a refund, much to the astonishment of the member.

Rather than sharing his opinions, by design, wines are marketed with their respective press scores since Elliot prefers third party endorsement to add legitimacy to a wine’s quality. On rare occasions, if a wine has been purchased in sufficient quantity, it may show up on the site again and will also be accompanied by members’ ratings.

While some have been critical of the flash site phenomenon, arguing that the approach is unsustainable long term, the Arkings disagree. They feel that wine will always be available to be sold in their business model. Moreover, they stress the positive influence that their site has on individual wineries – offering an important distribution channel with high impact and high thru-put to the consumer, such as the sale of 1,000 bottles in a single hour on one occasion.

Elliot further emphasized that they buy in large quantities and pay right away and was quick to note that, upon purchase, they take delivery of all wines. Consequently, they have full control of the product (as well as the risk). This differs from some of the other flash sale sites that market on behalf of the winery, but don’t ever take possession of the products. This point of differentiation ensures that WTSO maintains the highest quality throughout the process, but also translates as good cash flow for the wineries which don’t make any money on inventory sitting in their cellars.

Additionally, Jamie suggested that they are helping smaller wineries find new customers that they wouldn’t otherwise find. As a follow up, he believes that their WTSO clients may ultimately become wine club members of a given winery, having been exposed to those wines through WTSO.

Looking ahead, Elliot admits that he takes a conservative view, begging the question, if it works, why change it, but does acknowledge the significant potential in growing their customer base. Accordingly, while there are no plans to add or alter the company’s activities, member acquisition remains a priority for the foreseeable future. All of which means that there might be a lot more people salivating over their inbox.