Fill a van with half a dozen Right Coast sommeliers traipsing through Australia’s Eden Valley en route to Henschke, and the on-road proceedings will take on the air of a group of pre-teens after a full night’s sleep and a breakfast of Sweettarts that were about to enter Disney World.
Initially, I didn’t “get” why this group (who, along with me, were visiting as guests of Wines of Australia) was so amped up for a winery visit. I knew Henschke made very, very god wine, but so what – a lot of producers make very, very good wine. There was, of course, that thing about Hill of Grace, clocking in at $600 or so a bottle, but I’d had plenty of expensive wine that didn’t live up to the billing on its price tag and so I was actually firmly in the “skeptically optimistic” territory about tasting it that day. What the hell was wrong with these people?
But here’s the thing about good Sommeliers, particularly those from the big drinks like Boston and New York: they have access to world’s most exclusive wines that far exceeds their pay grade levels. It’s more intimate access than most of us get, and often it means that they enjoy an understanding of the world’s best wines that few others can readily grasp for having simply lacked the experience – and I include in that unlucky majority most pro wine critics, because they don’t have wealthy patrons ordering the better vintages of the world’s most difficult-to-obtain juice several times per night, as the somms do (depending on what rich-and-famous clientele might be forking out the cash for the good stuff that night on the floor).
[ Editor’s note: My favorite such story doesn’t involve drinking wine at all: as one of my newfound somms told me, he once served a group that included Robert Downey, Jr. After offering Downey the wine list, before he could finish his opening sentence Downey cut him off: “Oh, no, no, no, no NOOOOOO… take that away… we would tear this place APART.” ]
And so it turns out that the somms were all justified to have been so giddy, because I was about to be schooled – big-time – in what it really meant to have sommelier-level access to one of the world’s finest fine wines…
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My friend Rémy Charest has been reporting on events from the London Wine Fair over at PalatePress.com, and one of his recent reports really struck a chord with me.
What stood out for me was the concept of “infinite substitution” introduced to Rémy during one of the conversations that he had at the Fair. To the tape (emphasis mine):
Dan Jago, category director at Tesco, the supermarket chain that is also the largest retailer of wine in the United Kingdom, pointed out that in the wine world, a major difficulty is what he called “infinite substitution”. “There is always another product that will do the trick, in any shop. And if you do anything new, there are 45 others that will jump in and do the same thing”, he summed up, pointing out how most customers in supermarkets or large wine stores pick bottles rapidly, to get a price point and taste profile.
This stood out for me because Jago effectively summed up the vast majority of wine brands available right now in the U.S. For a sense of the volume we’re talking about here, Rémy mentioned a conversation he had with another friend of mine (damn, this wine world really is small!), Nomacorc’s Jeff Slater, who told him “there are something like 700 different wines in an average US supermarket.”
It sums up the vast majority of the 1200 or so bottles of wine samples that have overtaken my basement, and if they’re any indication of the U.S. wine market at large (and I’d certainly argue that they are), then the average wine consumer has learned something very important about how to shop for wine, something retailers have picked up on and have already factored into their stocking approach:
Most wine brands, within certain flavor profiles, taste the same and are priced the same; and so they are effectively interchangeable. And that is bad news for a lot of wine brands….
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I first met the World Wine Guys (otherwise known as Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen) when in New York City tasting through a shedload of New Zealand Sauv Blancs and Pinot Noirs (and learning how the Kiwis shuck oysters).
At the time, they told me that they were in throes of writing not a wine tome (despite their impressive resume of wine publication contributions), but a… cook book.
They Summer (now there’s a verb only ascot-wearing jet-setters could love) at a place called Fire Island in the Hamptons (which I like to call the South Fork, because it pisses Hamptonites off when I do that), where there are few restaurants. Out of necessity, they therefore spent a lot of time devising meals and procuring the local fresh produce to make them during their Summer holidays. The result of their experience is the brand-new – and quite excellent – Fire Island Cookbook, recently released by Atria Books (hardback will set you back about $20, the eBook version runs about $15 – I received a sample copy).
To celebrate the dawn of Summer, I’m giving away a hardback copy of The Fire Island Cookbook – here’s how to get in on that action…
For a chance to win, leave a comment on this post and let us know your fave Summer food and wine pairing (I’m particularly interested in your go-to Summer wines… for some reason I’ve been craving Vermentino myself…). On June 5th (in one week), I will randomly pick a commenter from those comments, who will then take home a copy of the book.
Simple enough, right? So get crackin’ – let us know about those awesome Summer culinary picks!
Cheers – and good luck!