Monday, May 24, 2010

The Phone Book Wine List

On Friday I posted a question on the Cru Facebook page inquiring if people felt overwhelmed when the server drops off a phone book sized wine list at their table. The answer was not a surprise, yes. So I decided today to post a solution to the question to try to help people navigate a wine list of that proportion.

The first thing that you need to know is there's a 99% chance that the server that dropped off that wine list knows as much or less about it than you do. I am not saying that servers are not intelligent, I was one, I married one. What I am saying is that there is a lot of turn over in the service industry and 'career servers' are becoming harder and harder to find in a place that the ticket price is under $50 a plate.

The reason servers are not totally in tune with the list is because of training. To understand training you need to understand how the wine list was constructed. Wine lists are put together three ways. The first way is by the wine sales rep. This is usually the very generic wine list. The sales rep often (but not always) selects the best sellers or selfishly, the wines THEY need to push to hit their sales goals. These circumstance are happening less and less but still certainly exist.

The second method is where a manager or owner who is not too familiar with wine puts it together. This is almost always based on margin and price point. When a manager or owner does not know about wine that usually translates in to the fact that they don't care about it either, they are putting one together to shut up one of their regulars. In this instance they usually do wines that are popular, conservatively priced and sometimes they purchase on sale price of the wine distributors are trying to get rid of.

The final way, my favorite way, is when they hire a sommelier or wine expert of some sort to build it. I use to do more of this, now I have two main accounts and I like that because it is easier to maintain and buy new, cool stuff. In this option the expert or aficionado usually selects wines from several wine distributors to accentuate the best or most unique wines from each portfolio. This is usually where the 'phone book wine list' comes in.

Personally I have two lists as I mentioned. The first is a monster, over 200 labels, ranging price points, values, grapes, regions and so forth. This isn't exactly 'phone book' but it can be overwhelming. This is my award winning list, it's comprehensive, it's unique, and it's my pet project. The second list I control is smaller, 25 or so wines. I dumbed it down and then I classed it up. I selected grapes and regions that people were familiar with, things that people could pronounce and things that sold well in the marketplace. Then I selected really classic examples so people felt secure with a sense of typicity in the style. Finally I selected producers that people were NOT familiar with. Super cool values and unique producers are a recipe for success because people are curious. Then when they decide they like it, they talk about it, buy it, and the place that introduced it to them is a hero.

The problem with all three methods of building a wine list is time and money. It costs money and takes time to train a staff, and wine is usually ranks behind company policy and food menu. This is a formula for an overwhelmed server and customer. Some restaurants go out of their way to make sure that their staff is well equipped to answer questions, make suggestions and ease the customer's anxiety about the list. Other places have a wine captain, sommelier or wine steward on hand. That persons job is to make recommendations, pair food and wine, and answer questions. The restaurants with this service usually fetch a higher ticket price.

When there isn't an expert on hand, there isn't enough money to train everyday and you have a big list, that's where we come in to the problem of how not to feel overwhelmed. So here are a few things to do. First, ALWAYS ask you server for a suggestion when you are completely lost. They may not know the whole list but they have a 'go-to' that either the bartender, wine expert or owner told them about. Or perhaps they have tried a bunch and they really like one. This 'go-to' is usually a good seller and it's probably because it's pretty good. So start by asking.

If you get questions like "what do you normally like?" Think about it. What do you like? Name a producer and style or two. "I usually like Kendall Jackson Chardonnay" or "I love the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon". Try to select 'main-stream' labels, not that mailbox at the end of a gravel driveway you found last time you were on the wine trails in California. Think of things you like that have presence at a liquor store, this will ensure the server can find a base point in flavor or style to compare to one of the selections on their list.

If that doesn't work you can always point. That's right, point. When you open the list find a comfortable price point on the menu and when the server comes over, ask for a suggestion and point to a price on the menu you are comfortable with. Explain you are looking for something red, white, sweet or dry like this. Again, make sure you point directly to the price. This is NOT uncouth. I served for years and establishing a comfortable price point is a really important factor when trying to appropriately select a bottle of wine for a customer.

The last thing you can do is pull out your mobile device. There are plenty of online reviews of wine or trade magazine reviews to search through. Select a price and style you like (whether it be grape or region) and look it up. You will see the retail price and know if the place is price gouging. Remember though, almost every restaurant has higher priced than retail. Wine margins are what help keep the doors swinging. It's no different than rum, whiskey, or gin.

The worst thing that can happen in one of these experiences is you feel out of place. But you shouldn't. It's the restaurants responsibility to make your buying experience as pleasurable as possible. As of late 'standard tipping' and the job pool have resulted in some really poor service (you would think a high unemployment rate would give you a better pool to choose from, no. The really good ones are just doing it until they get a job in their field). To flip that though as a consumer do not assume that because we call them servers that they are servants. This is their job and they should be respected, if they give it.

So, now that you know how lists are put together and what to look or ask for I am sending you on a mission. I want you to go out to a place that you normally feel intimidated by the list, or where you normally just order the house wine, and give the wine list a whirl. There is so much cool stuff out there, I encourage you to explore. Ask your server, point to a price, use your phone, whatever, just love what you drink. Life is too short not to enjoy, as I always say, it's your glass, fill it with what you want.

Thanks for reading and as always please check out our website at We also have a Facebook page, just click HERE to become a fan.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director
Cru Wine Specialists

Monday, May 17, 2010

Wine Puns ARE Funny!

This morning I woke up feeling bubbly. I wanted to make the world smile for a day. World, take advantage of that, I am not always this chipper, especially on a Monday morning. I started my Monday just the same as any other. I checked my emails, wrote a LinkedIn post and then went on to Facebook.

Cru Wine Specialists has a Facebook fan page filled with all sorts of cool resources and fun information for people to read about and learn. Every Monday on the Cru Facebook page I post a Wine Pick, Tuesdays are 'Nick's Thought of the Week', on Wednesday I usually do something interactive and then Thursday I do a weather report from a wine region. Pretty cool stuff, people seem to enjoy it, and I get a bunch of comments which I enjoy reading.

After I post on the Cru Facebook page I usually go to my personal page and post something wacky. I do this because deep down I am just another Cork Dork wrapped up in a gorgeous body ;) This morning as I mentioned I was feeling rather frisky, so I decided to "free the grapes" in my own way, I started a post about wine puns. They are absolutely my favorite and I love when people engage in them with me. I have already received a positive response and I am literally having the best day EVER because of this.

So if you want to have fun and learn a little about wine at the same time check out our Cru Wine Specialists Facebook page and friend me personally on Facebook. Cru is on their 'Cru of 1000' campaign. We are looking to have 1000 Cru Facebook fans by the time we launch in a week and a half. So become a fan to support the cause and if you know anyone who would be interested in joining we encourage you to invite them to the insanity by clicking 'suggest to friends' on the left hand side of the page.

Thanks again for your continued support and CLICK HERE to check out the Cru Facebook page.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Cru Wine Online
Wine Director

Monday, May 10, 2010

Drinking Season?

As the snow melts and the temperature rises the signs of the season changing are clear. With spring comes rebirth and with rebirth comes the beginning of many other seasons. From Golf and Tennis to America's favorite past time, Baseball, spring begins a new season. But when is drinking season? As I sit and contemplate my consumption I think about what season results in the most drinking for me?

Normally I would just say winter. I live in Minnesota and there is only two fun things to do when it's cold, drink and, well, you know. But the winter makes me sleepy, and icy roads make me think twice about having one or two and then driving. So while I definitely drink (and sometimes one too many) in the winter, winter is not where my largest alcohol consumption occurs. Next is spring, spring keeps me so busy. From house upkeep and yard work to friends and family, I am really busy in the spring. Plus half of spring is winter like conditions. Then there is fall. In the fall drinking is a must because it is the best way to tolerate family during the holidays. But that really just accounts for the times I am with my family. The rest of fall consists of turning down the yard, working hard, and preparing for the holidays. Fall is definitely not my drinking season.

So that brings us to summer. Well, I would have to say after thinking about it summer is my drinking season. It is when I am at my finest and do my best work. The summer results in a lot of time spent outdoors. From fishing and boating to picnics and deck parties, I am out enjoying the little bit of heat and sun we get here in the Northstar State. I find myself drinking lighter whites and I drink more volume to help cool down in our 80+% humidity summer days. Whereas in the winter I tend to drink big bold reds to warm up with an emphasis on high alcohol and lots of flavor.

It really isn't that weird when you think about it, all alcohol has a season. I love to drink Gin and Tonics (with a wedge of lime of course) in the summer when sitting on the deck enjoying a book or some friendly company. Inversely I love Scotch in the winter. It warms the soul and it makes a great sipper. I know alcohol doesn't hydrate, but in the summer time we tend to drink more cool beverages to refresh. It's not just limited to alcohol or sports, everything has a season, food included. I love soup in the winter time and I rarely eat it in the summer. I like Iced Coffee in the summer and piping hot in the winter. The list goes on.

So as I reflect and examine my alcohol intake based on the season I conclude that my drinking season is the summer. So it is with that statement I ask you, what's your drinking season?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Unique Varietals: Stepping Outside of the Box

Last night was filled with mixed emotions for me. Each month a group of 12 of us get together at someone's house for a wine party. We rightfully refer to ourselves as the Grape Nuts. Since some are in the service industry we meet on Sunday nights, once a month. From CFO's to Natural Healers the group covers a wide range of lifestyles and professions. Some are really in to wine and some just like to drink, I span the range. We are all different but we have something in common, we enjoy each others company and we drink.

The reason last night was filled with mixed emotion is because it was our last meeting for the season. Our tasting season runs from September to May. Since the summers are hectic and people are busy chasing around family, vacations, and social events we take them off. While I too am hard to tie down in the summer, I truly miss the group. Last night's theme was Unique Wines and boy did the group bring their A game. From Xarel-lo to Roussillion we had some really cool stuff.

The wine I was most interested in was a Lemberger we had from the Red Mountain region of Washington State. The producer was Kiona and if you have never heard of them don't feel bad, I hadn't until last night. Kiona is owned by the Williams family and was started in 1975. They are best known for their Rielsing which has been reviewed by trade magazines like Wine Spectator with fairly good success.

Lemberger is a red grape variety from Germany. It is also known by its synonym of Blaufrankisch in Austria and goes by Kekfrancos in Hungary. It's profile is low acid, medium bodied, and spicy and it usually displays black fruit flavors and aromas. It's becoming popular in Washington State accounting for about 120 acres of land under vine. While it doesn't sound like very much it is the largest planting outside of Austro-Hungarian Europe.

Kiona's plantings come from the Red Mountain AVA which is located in the Yakima Valley, which is inside of the Columbia Valley, confusing I know. Anyway, the Red Mountain region (which is neither red nor is it a mountain) is a fairly new AVA gaining its status in 2001. It's fairly small covering just over 4000 acres of land. The Williams family of Kiona are the pioneers that inspired the Red Mountain district. They petitioned for their own AVA (American Viticulture Area) siting the region has specific characteristics that defined and separated it from other regions in the Columbia Valley AVA.

The couple that brought the wine to the tasting last night found the Kiona at a local retailer and decided to bring it to the tasting as a backup. You see, when the Grape Nuts get together the event is as much about food as it is about wine. The themes either revolve around wine or food but either way each member brings a food to pair with the wine they are sharing. The wine they brought to pair with their dish was the Tangent Albarino. Tangent is a label produced by Talley Vineyards in the Central Coast of California. The Tangent was great, I love seeing more and more California producers in the Central Coast planting Albarino. The first example I ever tasted was by Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards. It was one of the finest examples I have ever tasted outside of Rias Baixas in Spain, Albarino's home where it accounts for 90% of the area under vine.

Back to the tasting. The couple brought the Tangent Albarino to pair with a delicious pastry filled with cheese, chicken, spinach and more. It was a great pairing. But like a good Grape Nut, they knew that we always need transition wines. Transition wines are the wines we drink in between courses while the next person or couple gets their dish ready. The transition wine after the Tangent was the Kiona. I was blown away by this fantastic domestic example of a grape I had tasted maybe a handful of times in my life. One of the lists I consult on a has a sweet example of a Blaufrankish (Lemberger's synonym from Austria). It sells well because it is the only sweet red on the list. But I had never tasted one from the United States before last night.

Unique Varietals in the US are an interesting topic because we do not have native Vitis Vinifera vines (European grape vines used for making wine). Bordeaux has its Cabernet, Spain has its Tempranillo, Italy has its Sangiovese, but the US doesn't have a staple native Vinifera varietal. Grapes like the Concord (the most widely planted grape in the US) are an example of a Vitis Lambrusca vine, the vine used for table or eating grapes. So with all of this said I have no strong feelings for one grape variety over another. We don't have a history that involves a native grape that we must preserve. Our most notable variety we plant and praise is Zinfandel but it's not even ours really because researchers have found it is the same grape as Primativo from the South of Italy.

Other regions throughout the world have strong feelings against certain grapes intruding in to the vineyards. In Italy, 'Internationals Varietals' like Cabernet and Merlot have made their way in to their sacred Tuscany well known for producing Chianti. There are some traditionalists who think that the wines of Italy should only made from native Italian grapes like Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Barbera. Spain is no different putting emphasis on native varietals like Albarino, Tempranillo and Monestrell (which is France's Mourvedre) and believing that Internationals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir should not be planted in their vineyards.

So that brings us back the US. We as American's are a bunch of Unique Varietals. And more importantly we are all transplants from somewhere. Our culture is a byproduct of European trends. As much as we think we invented Gallons or Feet these were European units we adopted. So when it comes to grapes I say the more the merrier. Bring it on, I would love to see all sorts of unique vines growing in the US. The whole world perfects and boasts their examples of Internationals like Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir. Lets take obscure grapes and see if we can do them well. Look at Argentina, they took a minimal varietal like Malbec which was used in small amounts for blending in the Bordeaux region of France, and perfected it. Now it is their signature varietal and most people think it's native to Argentina.

I applaud pioneers like Kiona, Bonny Doon and many others for stepping outside of the box and growing unique grapes in the United States. I want to see more Gruner Veltliner, Aligote, Carignan and Tannat planted stateside. Of course with attention payed to site selection, growing season, climate, etc. I am not saying just pump out a bunch of below average to mediocre unique varietal wines for the sake of being different. But Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet, Sauv Blanc and Chardonnay are not the only things that will grow well in the US.

So it is to you Kiona and all the other unique varietal pioneers that I tip my hat to. Bravo, and keep up the good work. It is producers like you that will help put the United States on the international wine map. Okay, I am going to step down from my soapbox now. Make sure to check out our new website for more fun wine goodies.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director
Cru Wine Online