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Alcohol By Volume: what’s up with that?

20 Aug

Yeah, hi. It’s me. Again. Still here. I’ve been writing for a local startup wine site that actually pays me money to be mouthy about wine stuff. That’s where I’ve been, including a few other places, otherwise known as getting paid to be a professional wino. (My poor life choice has been validated!) My latest is about how that alcohol by volume percentage can help you understand better what’s in that bottle you’re downing. Check it out here.


How to order wine in a restaurant so you don’t look like an idiot or feel like you got totally ripped off.

23 Mar

As you probably know, those old Betty Crocker rules about red goes with beef, white with fish have gone down the drain faster than year-old Beaujolais Nouveau. (Free tip: vociferously expressing disdain for Nouveau in a reputable wine establishment can score you a free bottle of real Beaujolais from the Proprietor. I ain’t telling you where this went down; I want to try that grift again sometime. But I digress.)

Newsflash: it’s acceptable to drink whatever you want with whatever you eat, wherever you may be eating it, whomever you might be eating it with. If I were one of those super-cheesy wine writers for the, I’d say vino la difference! But that would make you and me both gag. As the customer, you’re paying good money for the privilege of enjoying a memorable meal—not for the privilege of impressing a waiter.

You are, however, paying for the right to ask the establishment for the professional opinion of the server, wine steward or the sommelier (someone who picks out the restaurant’s wine list) over to help you out. This service is part of the markup you pay on wine, which I’ll explain below.

Gotta break up all this copy with something, right?

Wine professionals love what they do (c’mon, they drink for a living.) They have to, because they sure ain’t getting paid major bank for it. They’re happy to tell you about their picks, and they want to make sure you’re happy with what you’re drinking. So, don’t be afraid to ask. And don’t be afraid to ignore what they say if you don’t like what they say. Seriously. No kidding. The sommelier’s job is to make sure you’re happy and confident with whatever wine you order, even if they might not agree with it.

And if you get any stink-eye from anyone, discuss it nicely with the manager. Maybe he’ll comp you a dessert. If not, Yelp how you got food poisoning from that place and to avoid it at all costs. I’M KIDDING.

The proper cork-sniffing method
Not cool. Don’t do it. Moving on…..

Buy the bottle? Or buy the glass?

Unless I’m broke this week and can’t sell any more plasma, or it’s a work night and I know should “be a responsible adult” and limit myself to one bottle drink (HA), I’m reluctant to order wine by the glass in most restaurants, for several reasons:

1. You can’t guarantee the quality. You don’t know when that bottle was first opened. You could be paying top dollar for wine that’s been open for more than a week. Oxygen is the enemy of wine, just like it is to your car. Air “rusts” wine.

Sure, it’s probably a given that Chez Snootez goes through bottles of wine faster than Wally’s Chow Mein World. But I’ve had wine that’s clearly gone off at a big-time wine restaurant, where you would expect they’re opening new bottles every hour or so.

How to get around this:
Check the list and see how many wines they sell by the glass. If it’s somewhere between five and six each for reds and whites, then it’s likely the bottle hasn’t been there that long. Any decent place should mark the bottle when it was opened. It doesn’t hurt to ask, but know in advance that you might not get a firm answer. Or a true one.

If you’re not the adventurous type, order the kinds of wine most people have heard of: Chardonnay, Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and so forth. These bottles turn over faster. People tend to go with what they know in a restaurant, whether because wine is “intimidating” or because it’s too expensive to encourage experimentation. It’s a shame, frankly, because there are many terrific Malbecs, Gruner Veltliners, and Nebbiolos out there by the glass. (Seriously, try something new, won’t ya?)

Angle for a sample. Some restos that love their winos will pour you a half-ounce or so if you seem nice enough or likely to tip big, or dither over what to order in a charmingly befuddled way. Best of all, they won’t charge for it. The trick is you want them to bring it to you without asking for it so it’s their idea and you can act all surprised and “oh, gosh, for ME? You are SO SWEET!”

Finally, don’t ever order the “house” anything.
Because it’s not what the house recommends. It’s whatever they got cheap from their distributor who needs to unload 4,000 cases that nobody wants to buy.

2. By the glass, you can’t guarantee the accuracy. When you order a bottle, you see what you’re getting when the waiter comes to your table to open it. He lets you inspect the label beforehand. If you order a glass, the waiter doesn’t bring the wine bottle from behind the bar and uncork it in front of you. Ninety-nine times out of 100 it shows up to your table already poured into your big-girl glass. How do you know that was the Australian Shiraz and not the Sonoma Syrah? The 2007 instead of the 2009? You have to take it on faith that they didn’t make a, ahem, “mistake” and pour the wrong/cheaper wine—and charge you the expensive price.

How to get around this: get a job in the wine industry that requires you to taste 25,000 wines year, and become a Master Sommelier which will basically make you a blind-tasting ninja that can identify what type of gravel the grapes were grown in. Sadly, I’m not kidding too much on this.

3. Economics 101: Bottles are better buys than glasses.
One bottle can yield about a glass and a half apiece for a table of four moderate drinkers, or about six glasses for the highly motivated solo diner.

One now-closed local place known for its 43-page wine list charged $15 for a glass of 2005 Fess Parker Pinot Noir. The bottle listed for $60. You’d spend $90 to get the same amount of wine by the glass. It retails for about $20. Yikes.

Here’s what to do:

This was dinner on my last birthday. A couple of the wines on this list are $17 a bottle retail. The cost to get the wine supplement with dinner was much, much more.

Check the glass price. That’s pretty close to the wholesale price the restaurant paid for the bottle. So when I see that Chez Snootez is charging $40 for a wine I paid $10 for at Slappy McPacky’s Plonk Palace, that wine goes on my “pass” list, regardless of how much I may love it.

Divide the bottle price by two or three, or in some fancy-schmancy restaurants, five. That’s how much you would pay for the bottle retail if you went to Slappy’s for it. Oh, and BTW: Some diners will order the second least-expensive wine on the list so that they don’t look like a total cheapo in front of their client, boss, date, or parents. Unfortunately, restaurants know this thanks to that voodoo human psychology thing. These are usually the bottles with the highest percentage markups.

Experiment, dammit! People tend to go with what they know. They just want to drink their Chardonnays, Merlots, Pinot Noirs, Cabernets, and so forth in peace. So restaurants know the usual suspects are no risk to put on the wine list because people will order them (and pronounce them with confidence). So it’s safe to mark them up more than a bonardo, lagrein, or txacoli (say chock-oh-lee).

Don’t just stick with California, Italy and France. There are tons of great values to be had in Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Spain, Austria, South Africa and Croatia (yes, seriously—Croatian wines are off the hook. Look for ones by Movia especially) because they’re not the first choice in the consumer’s mind.

Why is all this the way it is?
Food is perishable, and profit margins are low. Booze is a cash cow (hey, wine is worth more the older it gets, riiight?) Restaurants aren’t trying to rip you off (at least not all of them). They’re just trying to stay in business. Wine takes up a lot of valuable real estate in a restaurant. They need to stock special big-girl-and-boy glasses, which can break easily. They need to open bottles to train staff to know what’s on the list and what to recommend. They need to build in enough of a profit cushion so that if a bottle truly tastes like horse-butt (see below) that they don’t lose a good wad of cash on it. Because not only will that bottle have to go back to the distributor because it’s bad, all of its siblings in the case that came with it probably have to go bye-bye too, back to the magic wine farm where it can live happily, play, and frolic with all the other problem wine bottles. (You know where that farm is, right? It’s next to the one your parents took your never-endingly barking dog to when you were away at day camp…oh shit, those were my folks.) So restaurants take advantage of the quirks in human nature that make most of us predictable (see psychology, human above).

What if the wine sucks?
Does it really suck? Or are you being a Picky McPickerpants? If you don’t like what you ordered, that doesn’t mean the wine is tainted or corked. Oh, and “corked” does not mean “little itty-bits of cork doing the backstroke in your glass.”

THIS is what corked is: Does the wine blatantly smell like wet cardboard or wet basement? Does it smell like stanky gym socks or the wrong end of a horse in August? Does it taste like paint thinner or vinegar? Does it look dull? If yes to any the above, you likely have a bad glass or bottle. And you may ask the sommelier or server that it be replaced. And they will do so, promptastically.

And yeah. Here's another break-up-the-page shot.

In high-end classy places, the somm will take the first taste before presenting the bottle to you to ensure it ain’t any of those things, especially if it’s a very expensive bottle. No, they’re not leeching a freebie off you. They’re making sure your evening isn’t ruined by horseass. Be grateful for that. Trust me on this one.

If you don’t like the wine, swirl it around for a minute. Let it rest. Try it again. Sometimes a little air can help even the hard edges out (yes, I know I called it an enemy of wine 57 paragraphs before this…let’s call it a frenemy). Still no good? Then you’re just a damn picky bastard and will probably get your meal spit on by your server in the back. Kidding again.

Don’t pass it around your party of twelve after you’ve approved it asking “do you think this is off?” and expect a freebie from your server. If the glass or bottle is less than 3/4 full, that wine is yours, sucka.

If it’s a red wine, ask for a glass of Coke. Mix it half-and-half and voila, you’ve got kalimotxo (kal-LEE-moe-cho) a Basque sipper that’s big with stateside wine hipsters. The white equivalent would be with Sprite or sparkling lemonade, caliguay. Do either with a bottle over $150, and you’re a wine anarchist.

If you’re really bummed out by your wine selection, treat yourself to dessert. And cocktails.

Tl, dr
Be a little adventurous, ask questions, don’t get hung up on the “rules” or the lack of them. Just have fun, enjoy the company you’re in, and be glad you can afford to go out to eat well, because, hey, the economy stinks.

Just shut up already, and tell me what I should get!
Sometimes, the stakes (steaks?) are high and you’ve got to impress that paid escort, client, rich elderly uncle, or special someone. When you can’t, or don’t want, to bring in the restaurant’s wine expert, here’s how to finesse it:

• Order wine that comes from the country of the type of food you’re having. More commonly called “if it grows together, it goes together.” Italian food + Chanti. . . get it?
• Don’t be scared of wines you can’t pronounce. Just point to it on the wine list, or say its list number.
• Pinot Noirs go well with both meat and seafood.
• Tart wines, like Sancerre from the Loire, go with any food that needs a lemon to cut through the richness ( think heavy cheesy buttery sauces) or even has lemon in it. I can’t tell you the science on that one and why it works, but it does.
• A medium-bodied Burgundy can pair with a lot of different dishes.
• If everyone has seafood, stick with a Sauvignon Blanc or Gruner Veltliner.
• Avoid Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay. People drink them like water substitutes (and some of them taste like them, too). The wrong one can really make your meal taste nasty. Besides, the Chard will usually be overpriced.
• Wines from Europe tend to have more subdued, even tastes. Wines from the New World (America, Australia, South America) are bigger and bolder and can be real roller-coasters of spice and flavors. If you don’t want your wine to claw itself out of the glass and smack you upside the head, stick to the Old World.
• Order expensive bottles earlier in the evening. You may only need one bottle with your dinner. If you want more wine as the meal goes on, you can go cheaper, when you’re less likely to be sober and savor what you’re drinking. It can also save you from sticker—and ticker—shock when the check arrives.

Happy sipping!

My year in wine, the summary

27 Dec

So 2011 was a bit of an important year for me, wine-wise because I

• Joined the Boston Sommelier Society after a whole lot of trepidation about not working in the industry for reals
• Got a subscription to Wine Spectator and didn’t open a damn issue
• Took the Australian Wine Immersion Program course.
• Started working with a startup wine site (more about this at some later point when appropriate)
• Tried Penfolds Grange
• Tried Nicolas Joly
• Spent about $2800 on wine
• Met Jean-Luc Thunevin
• Housed 150 bottles in my apartment
• Passed the CSW exam.
• Checked out Virginia’s vineyards
• Got my own personalized wino tour of Austin
• Led about two dozen wine tours in Boston for my new part-time job with City Wine Tours
• Had a bunch of fun with Red White Boston
• Tasted over 400 wines.

All that kept me busy, for sure. So expect a bunch of back-filled posts one of these days.

Domaines Ott? I think not. Seriously, the only freaking rosé(s) you need this summer.

18 Jul

Not quite a bouquet , but these are the rosés you should be drinking.

Maybe it’s me, but if I’m going to be sacrificing precious brain and liver cells this summer, I want something more than Commanderie de Peyrassol pale lavender-colored water passing itself off as rosé. Here are my highly flavorful, brilliantly colored, conveniently priced picks:

1. Rene Couly Dutheil Chinon (Winestone <$20). 100% Cabernet Franc and the most atomically-packed flavor of any rosé this summer. And you cannot beat that color. Strawberries, red berries and a hit of pink grapefruit up the ying-yang. Crisp without feeling like you have to scrape your mouth out.

2. Alois Lageder Lagrein rosé
(various places, $13-21). My summer standard and the one everyone I pour for loves.

3. Brana Harri Gorri 2010 (Wine Bottega, $19). Dark pink dusty sour cherry from the French side of Basque country and the Irouleguy appellation. I drank 7/8 of this all on my own during a Harry Potter marathon. Better than Polyjuice potion.

4. Schloss Schonborn Pink 2010 (Blanchard’s West Roxbury, $17.99),is way too cool for school and like biting into sweet wax flowers and orange blossoms–even though it’s dry pinot noir from the Rheingau. I know it sounds weird. But trust me on this. Highly unusual and unforgettable.

I won’t say “blech!” if you pour these for me:
Continue reading

White pinot noir: not a hit

7 Jul

Or, more specifically, white pinot nero since it’s from Italy. My friend Yoko at Winestone had been in the hunt for this for a couple of years. Since she’s got better industry/distributor connections, all I could contribute to this was my encouragement and best wishes.

So let me tell you about Vercesi del Castellazzo Gugiarolo Pinot Nero Blanco straight away. It was funky. And not in a cool way. Kind of like higher-class Zima, with a similar fruity, over yeasted taste. Avoid, avoid, avoid. Pic to come to help you identify this.

A wino takes it on the Smuttynose

2 Apr

A moment of silence for the dead soldiers, please.

Despite the photographic evidence of me as a baby sucking down my grandfather’s can of Schlitz, I never got into beer until I went to London my junior year and realized that John Cleese’s canoe-copulating take on American beer (“fucking close to water”) was spot on. After I got over my girly phase of shandies and snakebites, somehow I just started liking what I call “chewy” beers like stouts and porters. I don’t know how it happened–maybe one too many Long Island Iced Teas (I know, in London, go figure…well, no. I was drinking legally in a foreign country, rubbing elbows with the occasional rock star, and was rooming with two sorority chicks. That’s just what you do). So it was probably understandable that I’d need to reset those tastebuds back to dry and bitter(ish).

But that didn’t ignite a total conversion to beer. Since then, I’ve still maintained an ambivalence toward it. Sure, I guess I’ll drink it if you put one in my hand, as long as it’s not an overly hoppy Belgian or IPA, or swill like Bud, Coors (I have some political issues with them), or Sam Adams (yes, I know what I typed just then). But it’s not my first choice.

But beer’s the first choice of most of my best friends. And when one of them decided to turn 40, his wife planned a party around it; more specifically, a weekly “fireside chat” lecture/demo/meal yesterday at The Fireplace restaurant in Brookline, Mass. New Hampshire’s Smuttynose Brewery was the special guest star to the locally-grown and sourced New England cuisine.

Smuttynose's Star Island Single, Summer Weizen and Smuttynose IPA

The lead-off beers

First course: Star Island Single (mermaid Dixie von Trixie on the label) and Summer Weizen (vintage photo of somebody’s mom) paired with a salad, with vinaigrette, blue cheese and pecans. I think I preferred the salad over the beer this round, but the food with each beer together were very good–even though I don’t like the beery lighter spectrum.

Second course: Old Brown Dog Ale and Finestkind IPA (pic of Bartles & Jaymes-type local guys) paired with a) a pulled pork tartine (open-face sandwich), or for the vegetarians, pasta with greens. I opted for the pasta, but from what my companions were saying, this was a pretty big hit. The beers went well with the pasta, too. It felt a little odd for me not having, say, some Italian white, but I got over that after the third bite. What was also cool is that the Brown Dog is probably the best brown ale I’ve ever had. It gripped your mouth without taking it captive and holding it for ransom–I could see this going well with lots of different food. It had presence without being a pain in the ass about it. I’d even go so far as to say they could amp the taste up a notch or two and still have a damn good beer.

Free beer for me!

Probably my favorite of the afternoon. And not just because I got a second one.

Last up: a caramel brownie sundae with Robust Porter (circus performers) and Shoals Pale Ale. The latter was a pleasant surprise: usually, heavier beers pair well with the caramel, especially with their coffee or burnt overtones, but the Pale Ale was heavy enough in its own right to stand up to it. One of the staff of the restaurant noticed me eying an orphaned bottle of porter and even slipped it to me. (Yes! Free beer is the tastiest beer of all!)

A moment of silence for the dead soldiers, please.

The good mood was running high among the staff, the speaker, and all 40 or so of us. In addition to hearing all about Smuttynose’s scrappy start-up story, there was a bit of trash talk about how beer is better than wine because it’s more food-friendly and involves more ingredients than grapes and water. All I’ll say about that is Twinkies have more ingredients than cake, too. And if I were a religious woman, I’d probably point out that if beer’s so great, why wasn’t Jesus tapping a keg at the Last Supper with his fraternity brothers apostles? There was also a bit of trash talk aimed at the Gin Savant for being a Yankees fan, but we’ll move beyond that…

If you ever get a chance to hit the Fireplace for one of these Saturday afternoon chats, jump at it. The Fireplace has been a very reliable go-to for me on the major holidays when my parents come to town, and it was cool to be there kicking back with my “other family.” The room was cosy without feeling like you were giving the strangers next to you a dental exam. There were a couple of blips with the service (e.g. not every one at my table got beer at the same time, a couple of stray MIA courses) but these were resolved pretty quickly.

Ok, Smuttynose. You’ve won me over. Just let me drink up my stock of Abita Turbodog and Yuengling (which I have for sentimental reasons, not taste reasons) first so I can make room in the fridge for ya.

Grand tastings and why they’re usually gross

1 Apr

If there’s one rule wine stores should live by (I could cite more than that, but will limit myself for purposes of this post) it would be “Always be tasting” (ABT)–that is, always have a bottle of something open so your customers have a perfect excuse to stop by on a whim or on an errand.

Most people are neurotic enough about “not knowing enough” about wine that they don’t want to risk spending their hard-earned money. I think people have a similar reluctance to buy a full-fledged album when they like just the lead-off single, but that’s for another blog, and why we have iTunes. That’s why store tastings are so important: they’re a chance not only to bring customers in and educate them, but to build up trust and a better relationship with customers that will lead to upselling and repeat visits.

The problem is when stores only open the cheap stuff. Now before I get a crapload of grief for being a wine snob, consider that you can go into any high-end department store and sample the $150 cologne, right? Not just sniff it, but spray $8 worth of it all over yourself if you want to smell like a Tijuana peel palace. Ok, yeah, a bottle of $150 Eau de Sniffy lasts longer on the counter than a $150 bottle of Chateau Night Train; I know THAT. But what does trying that $150 bottle (either the cologne or the wine) do for customers? It’s a fantasy they can live. It’s luxury within reach. It’s a great anecdote to tell their friends and coworkers–“hey, I tried a $150 bottle of…”– who might want to stop by the store sometime and try it too. I know a store that has Enomatic tasting machines. They offer wines from $13 and even upwards of $60 to sample every day. I’ve found two new faves ($42 and $58) that I got to try from those machines. Would I have bought them without trying them? Probably, because I am such a wine-ho and have a problem. But might someone else buy them because they got to try before they buy? Oh, probably yes as well.

And that brings me to one of the many reasons I was annoyed at the semi-annual grand tasting I went to a couple of nights ago. It was at a liquor store that’s got a reputation for a good overall selection of alcohol, and a solid stock of wine. I’d been to a couple of this store’s tastings in past years, but it had since fallen off my liquor calendar for a few reasons–it was just too crowded and too poorly laid out for me to navigate without me wanting to get stabby on someone. And it seemed badly managed: I had even once placed an order for a few premium wines which had never been processed. When I called to re-place the order and hopefully get the tasting-night special discount, I was informed they couldn’t do that. (oh, yes, you can. You just choose not to.)

I went to go meet a Tweep IRL, as the kiddos say, and hoped for the best. Eye-yi-yi.

As I expected, the crowds around the table were four to six deep (again, the store had a piss-poor layout), because the people who had made it to the front were bogarting the space. Seriously, does free booze make everyone forget what they learned in kindergarten about taking turns, keeping your hands to yourself, and sharing?

Customers were hovering around the snack table like sharks around a wounded dolphin, jabbing the shards of pretzels in their hands into the last scrapings of hummus, chevre and pub cheese dip. Seriously people, gorging on crackers and cheese and getting your drink on is not a good substitute for dinner. EAT FIRST. The wine will still be there. Distributor reps had little plates of discarded or uneaten food on the table next to them as they poured. People draped their grape stems on rum bottles in the aisles, left their empty plates on displays, and the employees working the floor weren’t paying attention to the cleanup. The store, which isn’t the swankiest to begin with, looked like the last night at sea on a cut-rate cruise.

I decided that the fastest, least inebriated way to get out of there was to limit myself to tasting wines over $30. I had to drop that down to $20, because nothing was over $26. So I got to sample only about six out of 100. (FWIW my order that never went through at the tasting two years ago included six wines over $36) Is this a sign of bad times in the wine store industry, or a reflection of the neighborhood’s hispter demographic (This store had a tasting the previous week at their location in a more yupscale nabe)? Yes, I know a lot of great wines can be had for under $15; I own about 50 of them myself. But again, it was a missed opportunity for the store to educate and upsell. Even with the event’s 20% discount, they would have a chance to increase the per-order amount had they gone a little higher up the sales list. At least my visit with my contact was worth it!

Red White (Buzzed) Boston

5 Jan

Tonight was the first official meetup of the Red White Boston Tasting Crew, part of Red White Boston, a company that does a lot to promote local wine stores in the area. In addition to a wine-seeking mobile app, the founder, Cathy, started the Red White Tasting Crew to provide a band of wine evangelists in the area, and maybe even focus-group some bottles that are new to the Boston market, leveraging social media.

The meetup, at the Enormous Room in Cambridge, featured some of the portfolio of Panther Wines, a Connecticut distributor that’s now moved to Massachusetts. Their focus was mostly Australian, and one of the members even brought his own red-white blend he’s been developing at the Boston Winery in Dorchester to try out. It was about nine wines–even with me arriving late from work (damn Cantabrigian parking). I didn’t do a heck of a lot of networking–for me, business cards are what you drop into fishbowls for free lunches, heaven forbid actually using them to give to people.

You can read about the evening here; as I’m too tired right now to do it much justice. But hey, I got voted a best tweet for wine #3. Aw yeah.