Wine articles

You never need to pack a wanker – or how I learned to stopped worrying and love sommeliers

Last year there was an incident in a French restaurant involving a notable wine-maker (I’m not allowed to mention his name for legal reasons), who sent back a bottle of wine saying that it was corked. The sommelier disagreed and refused to produce another bottle. Instead he offered the wine to other customers who pronounced it fine. The wine-maker’s table refused to pay and the police were called. But by the time the police arrived all the evidence had gone, drunk by the customers. I imagine that the French have specially trained wine detectives to deal with just such incidents.

I’ve had many terrible experiences with wine in restaurants, though thankfully none that required police involvement. The worst was at a Spanish place in Fitzrovia. I ordered a bottle of their cheapest Rioja. When it arrived I took a sip and it was hot. Not warm but mulled-wine hot. I asked the waitress to bring me an ice bucket — she refused, pointing out to me that it was red wine. I asked to speak to the sommelier. He came over oozing condescension. I repeated my demand for an ice bucket. His response was, ‘But sir, this is a red wine.’ ‘I know and it’s very warm so I want to make it colder.’ ‘But sir, this is red wine, Rioja.’ This circular argument went on for about five minutes until I said, ‘Listen! I don’t care that you think I am mad, just bring me an ice bucket!’ Eventually the ice came and I had to put up with pitying looks from the staff for the rest of the evening. I never went back.

No transaction has such potential for unpleasantness as ordering wine in a restaurant. To read the rest of this article in Spectator Life click here

Wine articles

Death of the Wine Snob

This is something I wrote earlier in the year for Spectator Life magazine but it has taken so long to appear that one of the shops I mention has since closed. Tant pis, as they say in East London.

Red-faced, plummy-voiced, with a big nose, the wine snob is a familiar social stereotype. He might laugh at you at a dinner party for mispronouncing Montrachet or be the face sneering at you from behind the counter of a stuffy wine merchant when you ask for a bottle of cava. Oddly enough, in all my years of buying wine and working in the wine trade, I very rarely came across this figure. People like this may have once been ubiquitous but nowadays the legend of the wine snob is kept alive by the wine trade as a way of proclaiming their egalitarian principles: haven’t we come far, they say, we’re not like those terrible blazer-wearing toffs.

Click here to read the rest. 

After writing this article, I had an experience in a trendy wine shop which suggested the wine snob is actually alive and well. He’s just changed a bit.

Restaurants Wine articles

Wine and food matching nonsense

Like most people who think themselves humorous, I have a very low tolerance for other people making jokes. I commented in an earlier post about the silly suggestions about wine matching on the Oddbins website. I said they sounded like the idea had come from a by a gang of facetious students. On reflection I can see that I was wrong. I now see that they’re satirising the modern fetish for over-specific wine and food pairing suggestions. Is it anymore ridiculous to suggest matching a wine with music by Bob Marley than ‘barely-seared albacore with green zebra tomato salsa’?

This ‘absurdly specific’ recommendation was noted by Eric Asimov in his thoughtful book, How to Love Wine. It comes from Wine & Spirit magazine and the suggested wine is a Swanson Pinot Grigio 2008 from California. The 07 won’t do as it is best served alongside grilled unagi (whatever that might be.)

The old buffers at the Sediment blog have a similar experience in their Wining & Dining ebook:

“I once encountered a wine whose producer ‘recommends drinking with braised pork belly with seared scallops and a white bean mousse’ – an unbelievable proposal, not unlike a car manufacturer saying, ‘the maker recommends this car for driving along the A406, turning left on to the Finchley Road.'”

Wine and food matching is all the rage in the wine world at the moment. I put it down to the growing influence of sommeliers. They have a vested interest in making the business of putting wine and food together as complicated as possible. If it was simple, they’d be out of a job. Nowadays wine writers don’t only try wines but attend dinners put together by chefs and sommeliers where dishes are ‘paired’ with specific wines. This leads to a whole new level of embarrassment for amateurs like me as not only are you expected to comment on the wines but also how they go with the food.  This happened recently at a recent dinner where I was on a table with expert Lucy Bridgers – she leant over and asked me just this. I didn’t know what to say, I liked the food, I liked the wine, and they seemed happy if not ecstatic together. Rather like my parents.

There are of course some classic matches, port and stilton, bloody meat with tannic reds, albariño and clams, but the problem with many recommendations is that they are really only of interest to sommeliers and experts such as Lucy Bridgers. We should not forget that food and wine matching is a very recent thing. Enthusiasts of yore would have paid no attention to our rule of dry wines with main courses and sweet wines with pudding. The truth is that most dry wines will go with most savoury dishes and the old rule about white wine with fish and red with meat isn’t such a bad one. This is especially good advice when eating out because everyone will order differently so forget matching just order a delicious bottle of red and one of white and I bet you’ll be happy. A heavier Beaujolais cru and a decent Macon will cover almost any eventuality, you are as unlikely to get a major clash as you are to score a sauternes and Roquefort style perfect match. If you’re eating on the continent, life is simple as you can just order the local wine and it’ll probably work.

Look, I’m not a total anachronist.  I don’t want to go back to sack with everything. I’m glad that someone worked out that Burgundy goes with game birds. And it’s nice that at this very moment there are sommeliers in Brooklyn working out the right wine to go with octopus vol au vents. I’m just saying please don’t make wine any more complicated that it is already. I’ll leave the last word to Mr Asimov:

“. . . just as with tasting notes, overly specific instructions for matching wines and foods are mystifying and intimating for novices and useless for experienced drinker.”

I should add that the Sediment ebook is well worth reading and only costs £1.99 from your friendly local online retailer. It goes particularly well with a 2005 Bandol from Pradeaux served with my aunt’s Armenian lamb stew. 

Interviews Wine articles

Wine interview: Eduardo Porto Carreiro

This week I’m delighted that top sommelier (sorry wine guy) Eduardo Porto Carreiro has agreed to take part in my booze interview. Originally from Brazil, Eduardo was sommelier at Grace and then Lukshon in Los Angeles and has recently moved to Bar Boulud in New York. 

What was the first wine you had that got you hooked?

I don’t think I can pinpoint exactly one wine that got me “hooked.”  I recall quite fondly growing up and always sneaking sips from my mother or father’s glass at the dinner table.   If I had to pick one specific event: it would have to be when I was in college and I went on my first winery visit.  I was in the Finger Lakes region of New York and had the opportunity to visit Hermann J. Weimer (one of the top Finger Lakes wineries) — there I tasted through a huge spectrum of Rieslings from dry to sweet.  I was amazed how complex and versatile just one grape variety could be… For the first time, it was both an intellectual as well as a hedonistic fascination.

I’ve been told you prefer the term wine guy to sommelier.  Why is this?

Fundamentally, “wine guy” and “sommelier” are really the same thing.  However, I feel that most people become more relaxed chatting about wine with someone when titles and oft-perceived-as-pretentious terms are thrown out of the window.  I don’t change who I am to play the role of the wine guy or the sommelier, but it does seem to change the guests’ view as well as their comfort level.

You started your career as a wine clerk at Greenblatt’s Deli in Los Angeles.  Which of their sandwiches is your favorite? 

Greenblatt’s Deli is a fascinating place.  I was lucky to have landed there. Not only has it been one of the top wine stores in Los Angeles for the past seven decades, it has also been the home to some of the best Deli Sandwiches in America.  Without reservations or hesitation: my favorite of the Greenblatt’s sandwiches is their Corned Beef & Pastrami Combo Reuben (corned beef and pastrami! ed.) It’s heavenly decadent.

Which reds would you suggest to those who think they only like white?

Wine drinkers who prefer to drink whites seem to do so, because they don’t particularly like the bitterness that tannins lend to a wine and have a preference for fresher and brighter profiles.  I would recommend young and vibrant low tannin reds that could be served with a bit of a chill.  A great young Beaujolais, or perhaps a Frappato from Sicily, or a Poulsard from the Jura would be good options.

Which wine makes you inwardly groan when customers ask for it and why?

I’m upset to admit that every time someone asks for a Pinot Grigio, involuntarily, my guard does go up a bit.  In the ten years that I’ve been in the wine business, Pinot Grigio has easily been the most requested white wine. It’s a grape that I don’t have much fondness for and that is so widely available, it saddens me that people don’t move beyond such an obvious option.  That being said, every time someone asks for a Pinot Grigio, it does give me the opportunity to turn them on to a different grape that may appeal to them even more.

What has been the least popular wine that you have listed? Do you regret listing it?

I’ve listed several “orange wine” style bottles on lists that I’ve curated that don’t tend to be terribly popular.  And I don’t regret listing them.  For the small niche of people who do appreciate these wines, and for the guests that we get to turn on to this unique style — we win regulars and repeat customers for life.  There’s nothing quite like dealing with adventurous wine-drinkers and it’s these less popular wines that make for great little victories along the way.

What’s the hardest dish you have had to match?

Szechuan Dan Dan Noodles.  Numbingly hot.  Dry wines are a terrible match; as are most off-dry wines.  It has to be a very specific kind of fruity Riesling or aromatic white Belgian ale.  Very tough to match!

Do you think that sommeliers have a great influence over what the average wine drinker buys?

I think sommeliers do have an opportunity to influence drinkers.  Most importantly, though, I think that sommeliers play a pivotal role in empowering average drinkers to trust in their own palates and push their boundaries with regards to what kind of wines to drink.

Have you ever told a customer that he’s wrong?

No.  I honestly believe that there is no right or wrong with regards to taste.  It’s entirely personal and individual.

How did you become a sommelier?

I fell into it.  I was a waiter at a restaurant with a great wine program and asked a lot questions.  My interest was rewarded when I was asked to help out with the wine program, eventually becoming the Assistant Wine Director.

What’s your big tip for this year?

Keep an eye out for wines from Corsica.  The regions of Patrimonio and Ajaccio have some fun little wines coming into the market.

What bottle are you most looking forward to drinking?

There’s a 2002 Ambonnay Grand Cru Champagne from Marie-Noelle Ledru in my fridge right now that I cannot wait to open.  It’ll be perfect for a lazy Sunday brunch at home.

Who is your favorite drinker in literature and why?

Henry Chinaski (Charles Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical main character in the novel Women).  This character drinks like there’s no tomorrow and reminds one that moderation isn’t so bad after all.

You own a wine label, Angelica Cellars, with your best friend, Ben.  How did you two decide to go into business together and how involved with the making of this wine are you?

Ben (Feldman of ‘Mad Men’ fame, ed.) and I have been great friends for a very long time.  We always used to drink together (even before it was legal to do so) and eventually came to a place of imagining what it might be like to get into the production side of things.  We did a lot of research and ended up deciding that we should make a wine that we both would love to drink because if all else failed, we could always drink up the inventory.  Long story short, we found a great little vineyard in Santa Barbara County that had the right clone of Syrah and the right climatic conditions, and we found a co-op winery that would help us with our project, and we haven’t looked back.  Ultimately, we make all the big decisions regarding wine-making, packaging, marketing, etc.  But, thankfully, we have a great team that looks over our barrels when we’re not around and effectively allows our vision to become a reality.

Do you have an aversion to ‘wine talk’? Are there any wine words or terms that annoy/ baffle you?

I don’t mind wine talk if the person I’m talking to comes from a real or grounded place and is using it because of a passion for a particular wine.  I have a real aversion to wine talk, if the person who is using it wants to somehow show off or elevate themselves above others.  That said, the word “filigree” to describe a wine has always confounded me (no idea either ed.)

What Californian wine would you recommend to someone who thinks that all US wines are jammy and brash?

Today there are quite a few up and coming producers such as Broc Cellars out of the central coast of California and Arnot-Roberts out of Northern California that could easily dispel notions that American wines are jammy and brash. But there are also older and more established wineries that could challenge those assumptions.  Try to find a bottle of Hanzell Pinot Noir from the 70’s — it would easily hold up to any Old World wines.

Finally if you had one wine to drink for the rest of your life what would it be?

If I were a man of means and had to answer that question truthfully, the one wine I’d drink for the rest of my life would be Champagne. There’s nothing quite like a great bottle of Champagne and there are few wines that are as versatile and can be drunk morning, noon, and night.

You can find out more aboutAngelica Cellars here.