Thinking Farmers’ Market

It is a beautiful Saturday morning here in Dobbs Ferry. I’m at the store sitting at my desk with the door open, Screaming Blue Messiahs 1986 release ‘Gun Shy’ is blazing away on the stereo.(I hope my customers like it as much as I do, ‘cause it’s a little too loud.) The early spring breeze innervates my mind; I’m thinking of a dozen things at once until the hummingbird of my imagination lights on a springtime topic I’ve contemplated a great deal: the Farmers’ Market. More importantly, why doesn’t the Farmers’ Market mentality extend to customers buying wine? I’ve thought about it many times. How can I get people to think about local and/or farm-raised with respect to wine?

 One of the many things I love about my adopted state of New York and the HudsonValley is the availability and awareness of local foodstuffs. When I was a kid in the 70s the only fresh vegetables in the grocery store were onions and iceberg lettuce. My family grew tomatoes, string beans, potatoes, squash and Silver Queen corn. Fruit was available at farm stands by the side of the road. In the Fall, we’d head up to the Shenandoahs for apples and fresh cider, again, side-of-the-road. We weren’t driven by philosophy. It was just where things came from. Now here I am situated between one of the world’s great urban centers and acres of rolling farmland. It helps me feel at home.

 Farmers’ Markets are not a new idea. Market days and harvest celebrations have been commonplace in human communities ever since mankind adopted agriculture and animal husbandry as primary means of food procurement. Wine has played a part in human commerce and celebration since the domestication of the grape over seven thousand years ago. Yet over the past century or so – and at a greatly accelerated pace in the past twenty-five years – wine ceased to be seen as a drinkable agricultural product and became a cornerstone of a sophisticated lifestyle; a luxury consumer product. I think it possible that this change has occurred most quickly in our country because we don’t really have the kind of regional wine culture that the European wine superpowers do. …or do we?

 When we think of American wine we think of California. That’s natural. According to the TTB’s 2011 statistical report on wine, which came out just this month, 88% of the wine produced in the United States in 2011 came from California.* But every state makes wine. The 2009 ‘Wines & Vines’ supplier directory lists six wineries in Alaska and four in Hawaii. Fifteen states barreled a million gallons of wine or more last year.  At just over 9 million acres, the Texas Hill Country AVA (American Viticultural Area) is the second largest in the country**, but little Vermont makes 6 times as much wine as Texas. In the 1880s the Stone Hill winery in Missouri was one of the largest in the world. When phylloxera destroyed the vineyards of Francein the late 19th century, it was Missouri’s state entomologist who discovered that American rootstocks were resistant to the root louse. Yup, the Show Me State saved Europe’s bacon.

 The first winery in the US opened in Kentucky in the 1780s. We have a very rich indigenous wine culture in our country. You just have to look.  I know a fellow who opened a winery in the old Michigan State Asylum in Traverse City. He makes exceptional Rieslings and Gewurztraminers under his Left Foot Charley label. One of my very favorite Merlots is made by Koenig Cellars in Caldwell,Idaho. A few years back I discovered a winery in Rabun County, Georgia that made very pretty dry Vidal Blanc. Every now and again I email Terror Creek Vineyards in Paonia, Colorado to see if their shipping laws have changed. Terror Creek is the highest elevation vineyard in the country and I’d love to try their Pinot Noir. …and my own home state of Virginia has a wine industry more than thirty years old and produces a great number of very fine wines.

 The first time you taste a new wine from an ‘emerging’ state, don’t make the mistake of assuming it will taste like something you’d get in California. Wines taste different when grown in different places. A perfect example is our own North Fork of Long Island Merlots. They’re generally more earthy, leathery and structured than the bouncy, juicy California kind. …and you have to be open-minded and not give up if your first experience is a disappointment. There is no filter between local wine and you like there is an imported wine or a big brand from California. You might taste a few downers before you find something you like. But they’re out there. Keep looking.

 I love that so many of us are willing to go out of the way to support local farmers. Just don’t forget that local vintners need love, too. 

* The second largest producer of wine in the U.S.? Our very own state of New York.

 **The largest AVA in the country is the Upper Mississippi Valley AVA, It covers areas of Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. It is the largest designated winegrowing region in the world.

“What’s the point?” a quick post

 I didn’t start this blog as an outlet for my rants but  I have to complain a little bit. I’m over winemakers who have any agenda other than taste; those who want to make ‘natural wines’ or who set out to make wines which embrace some sort of philosophy. I know that we are all Children of the Earth, that we have only one planet and that we should treat the soil and groundwater (and each other) with respect. …but the next time I meet with a winemaker who claims to be driven by the will to be a ‘Steward of the Land’ and to ‘Express the soil’ I may just have to excuse myself. Call me ‘old fashioned’ but isn’t taste the point?

 I just this moment left a meeting with a California winemaker. You know: one of these new, young guys that want to make wines that stand for something. There were five wines. Before each, an introduction along the lines of “I want to make wines that are lower in alcohol” or “This doesn’t taste like your typical California Chardonnay” or “These are geeky wines for the sommeliers“. Yeah, geeky to be sure; atypical, yes; but let me tell you: it went from bad to worse with every wine. The wines were terrible. He forgot what a his job really was: Flavor. Taste was just not part of the agenda.

I’ve been amused for a long time by the California winemakers who proclaim that they want to make “…not your typical California Chardonnay” The end result is ALWAYS an unpleasant, green, cloudy, yeasty, sharp disaster. You know why? Because these young producers have read so many articles decrying the overripeness and heavy-handed use of oak by California winemakers that they have completely missed what is ‘typical’ about California Chardonnay. Fifteen or more years ago, producers heard consumers cry ‘Uncle’ and backed off a lot of the oak in making Chardonnay. It’s been a great change because now we can actually experience what is ‘typical’ of California Chardonnay: rich, sunny flavors with a backbone of crisp acidity, stylish weight and a long dry pleasant finish. In short: white wines of unabashed tastiness which area pleasure to drink. Young winemakers: if you want to make wine that is ‘…not your typical California Chardonnay” I can save you a world of hurt and embarassment: there’s this grape called ‘Sauvignon Blanc’…

Ever walk into a bar or restaurant and ask your server, “what do you have in a green, lean, low acid red with sharp, hard tannins and high levels of volatile acidity?” Of course not. Why would you? The whole ‘wines with low alcohol’ movement is really pretty laughable. I have a friend in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley who makes Zinfandels that end up with over 16% alcohol in some vintages, yet they are as balanced and enjoyable as anything. …and I’ve tasted young cash cow Pinot Gris that are 13% and as hot as Georgi Vodka. It’s all about balance. Chateauneuf du Pape, France’s first Appellation Controlee, stipulates a minimum alcohol level of 13.5%. That law was codified in 1936 and it seems to be working. Makes me hope that this ‘wines with low alcohol’ fad will go away and leave us alone very soon.

To any winemakers reading this, if you want my attention, don’t come to me with an agenda. This is really all you have to say: “This is a beautiful vineyard. We did our best to harvest when the fruit was just ripe, then we worked to make a clean, delicious, complex, stylish wine that is a pleasure to drink and that will continue to develop over time in the bottle.”

Was that so hard?

Retail (part1)

I’ve wanted to write for a long time about being a retailer. Though so many people visit us regularly I’m sure a good many wonder what it is we do all day.  It’s a pretty commonly held belief that we spend our days sitting in the office, talking about wine and washing our lunches down with fine Bordeaux and whiskey. In reality, much our time is spent working the floor, moving boxes, answering the phone and dusting.  Yet, despite this rather simple job description there really is a lot that goes on in a retailer’s work day.

Take this morning, for example: I arrived at 8:25 a.m. to find three delivery trucks lined up on Cedar Street. Thursday is delivery day, so it’s good to get an early start. So far, so good.  Then I go inside to discover that the lights in the refrigerator don’t work and the uninterruptable power source on our server has overloaded, crashing the server and throwing the network a monkey wrench. We open in twenty minutes and there are 125 cases to bring in and a network to fix. No worries, right?  I just call the IT department. Oh yeah: that’s me! I crawl under the desk and get to work. By 9:05am the deliveries are all in, the bad power source is bypassed, the server up, the network re-established and the store is open for another day of business. New bulbs don’t solve the problem in the ‘fridge, so we open up its guts and get to work. Maybe a relay or a new ballast will do the trick. I’ll keep you posted.

On any given delivery day we can get as many as two hundred cases of goods in, or about four tons* We check them in, move them downstairs to put away or out in the store for the shelves. Most boxes move at least twice. None of us needs a gym membership. Once the goods are in and put away there’s paperwork; new goods get created in the database, vintages are checked and updated, the goods are received into inventory. Costs never seem to be the same from month to month so with every item we have to decide if we raise our shelf price to cover increases or if we keep things as they are and lose a little bit of the bottom line. Believe it or not, we usually absorb cost increases. All business is competitive and the wine business is particularly so these days. Best to stay sharp.

It’s funny how big, new stores with their shiny racks and wide aisles have only a finite amount of space, but an old store can absorb new stock like a sponge. If you’ve ever been to our store you know how packed full it is. 1,300 square feet of selling space stocked with nearly 2,000 different wines and 900 different spirits. A retailer is a little like a librarian. These are our stacks. Between the shelf stock and the basement storage there are nearly 44,000 bottles in stock but there is always room for more. You just have to be creative. 

Unlike sommeliers, who know the menu and work from a list especially chosen for that menu, we need to be prepared for anything, anytime. Sometimes it’s burgers on the grill or lamb Tagine with preserved lemons other times, vegan tofu with edamame and sprouts. I cook every day, so I love the part of my job in which I talk food, recipes and cooking with our customers.

..and there is our favorite game “I had this wine last week”  (seriously, I love this game) It goes something like this:

“So, I had this wine last week. It was really good”
 “Was it white or red?”
 “Was it Italian, French, American?”
“I don’t remember”
 “Did it come in this kind of bottle (Bordeaux) or this (Burgundy)”
“That one (Bordeaux)”
 “What else do you remember about it?”
“It’s dry and had a greenish label and started with a ‘p’ “

–several minutes pass –
 “Was it this?”
“Oh, yes!” cries the customer, waving about a dark green bottle of Orvieto with a beige label produced by Trappolini. It is an interesting study, what people remember about wines they’ve enjoyed, and  it’s great fun when we can guess that Trappolini is the wine that starts with ‘p’.

Most of our inventory comes from six to eight wholesalers but we have more than forty different suppliers who call on us. That’s a lot of attention and that doesn’t even include the steady stream of small, new and in some cases fly-by-night companies who constantly stop by trying to get us to buy from them. It is a full-time job just fielding suppliers. …and all the while, answering the phone, working the floor, moving boxes and dusting.

(Ok. ‘fridge works. Looks like a new ballast is the ticket. )

 We taste a lot here in the store; some weeks between fifty and seventy-five wines will be presented to us. It is a great experience – the BEST possible experience in wine, in fact, but sometimes we’ll go a whole month without tasting a single wine worth buying. Think about that: 200 to 300 wines in a month and not a one worth buying. There’s a lot of unfortunate wine in the world. Even now we have about two dozen samples in the office that we need to plow through. Some I’m hopeful about, others just look grim. It is easy to assume that we just pop the cork, taste a little and then buy the wine if we like it and pass if we don’t but it doesn’t work that way. Being a professional buyer is much more complicated than buying for home.  It isn’t a matter of liking a wine or not. I don’t like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc but I can tell you that the seven on our shelf are of great quality. The wines we select must first be proper and correct and then they have to be the right price. If the wine in your glass is rich, round, juicy and purple then it’s not proper Bordeaux even if it says ‘Bordeaux’ on the label.  If I hand you a bottle of Pinot Noir it needs to taste like Pinot Noir, not like Syrah. That’s my job.
Speaking of my job, there’s the phone and another delivery is here. Time to move a hundred more boxes. Then maybe I’ll dust the Chardonnay section
*the average case of wine weighs approximately 40 pounds, a case of liters of spirits more than a third again as much.


During one of those rare seasons as an undergraduate in which I remembered that martinis, long lunches, women and wine were not, in fact, my declared course of study I took a semester of Chinese philosophy. A passage that went something like this has always stuck with me: “If you pluck a flower you will cease to understand it”* The idea is that we cannot get a full sense of its flower-ness if we remove it from its natural environment.  Context is exceedingly important to our understanding of any situation or system. To an archaeologist the depth at and matrix in which a potsherd is discovered is as important in many cases as the artifact itself. If they say or do something stupid a public figure will protest that they were taken ‘out of context’ as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card in the court of public opinion.** Yet, context is only rarely talked about when it comes to wine.

 I don’t say ‘never’ because those elaborate menus printed in all of the food and wine magazines and newspaper columns serve the purpose of creating the proper context for a very specific group of wines chosen for the occasion. But the context of our lives is not so artificial. There are more than four dimensions in our taste lives. Our senses of smell and taste are influenced by our body chemistry, the time of day, the season of the year, the relative humidity, whatever ambient aromas are lingering about. If you had a tuna fish sandwich for lunch the environment of your palate will be different than if you had a cheeseburger or a salad. Even such overlooked factors as elevation play a role (it’s a vapor pressure thing). Our perception of wine is constantly changing.

 We all know that Chateau Talbot is going to taste one way out of a Spiegelau glass in a leather armchair at The Campbell Apartment and another way sipped out of an enamelware coffee cup by a campfire in the Adirondacks. So, what’s the big deal, then? This is; something I run into regularly. A customer will come to the store and say to me, “I really liked that wine the first couple of times, but it wasn’t so good last time we had it.” More often than not, it’s the drinker — not the wine — that has changed.

 So much that is definite and immutable and absolute is written about wine that we want our wines to be the same every time. I lay the success of those awful made up wines squarely at the feet of this sensibility. If Layer Cake were a plate of food we’d put it down in horror and slowly back away. Wines that truly taste the same way every time are stripped out and bare. They generally have no character. Real wines are constantly changing and so are we.

 Try a fun experiment. Invite over some friends and serve food that will go with any wine. Roast chicken with gravy and mashed potatoes, a good pot roast – something like that. Open up a bunch of different wines, say a Valpolicella, aBordeauxand a California Pinot Noir. You’ll see what I mean. Maybe a wine you generally love won’t taste quite right, maybe a wine you’ve never seen eye-to-eye with will turn out to be your favorite of the evening.

 Don’t be dismayed by a favorite wine when it acts differently on a particular day. It’s as likely you at fault as it is the wine. Good, honest wine can show you a different side of itself from one day to the next. It’s all just a matter of context.

*this could be Hindu, it could be Chinese — it could even not exist – but it came from somewhere and has stuck with me for years

**to any public figures reading this: This is why we never send sexually-charged texts or pictures of our dirty parts to other people. Such actions cannot be taken out of context

…and so it begins

If you know me, you know I like to talk. I’ve been in customer service all my life AND I’m from the South so no one had to guess very hard that I’d turn out this way. …and I do like to write. But I never wanted to blog. There are already hundreds of places for edgy insight and grammar like this: “Last night, we had a Chardonnay from the RussianValley with our TV dinners and the buttery, oaky flavors went beautiful with our Mac n’ Cheese” The very last thing the world needs is another blog.

Clearly I caved, because here I am. If you want to lay blame, you have only to fix your collective gaze on two friends of mine. I won’t use their real names, let’s just call them ‘Kevin’ and ‘Margot’ (who do not know each other and live on opposite coasts). ‘Kevin’ knows that there are writers and columnists who bug me so about a year ago he started sending me links to articles and I’d write a rebuttal and send it back, cc-ing ‘Margot’. Over time my mailing list expanded to a couple dozen friends and colleagues. Eventually ‘Kevin’ and ‘Margot’ were each insistent and persistent enough to convince me to build my words a home. Another friend, we’ll call her ‘Kristen’, sat me down in front of WordPress and created an identity for me and after that I just ran out of excuses.

I’m not going to write about wines. There is already plenty of that. But being a retailer gives me an unique position from which to comment. Retailers are the permeable membrane between the people who make and market wines and the people who drink them. I like to engage customers in our store, encourage them to think for themselves about wine. I ask questions like “Why are you looking specifically for organic wines?” and “Why would you think South America makes better value wines thanFranceorItaly?”. These are the sorts of questions that I plan to explore in this project.

When I picked the title for my blog I didn’t know that Tears for Fears had a record called ‘Songs from The Big Chair’. In the 80s my musical tastes were equal parts hippie and hillbilly; no real wiggle room for the teeny pop of the time. ‘The Big Chair’ came to me in an exchange with ‘Kevin’ with regard to a column about wine trends with which I particularly disagreed. In my opinion, the columnist didn’t have sufficient experience to properly comment on trends and, as such, had missed on several very important points. My comment was “[said writer] did not have a big enough chair to have the proper perspective on the industry”.

…and who knows, perhaps I don’t either. Perhaps it is I whose opinions are misguided. Maybe I am just contributing another empty water bottle to the great Pacific garbage patch that is the world of web logs. There’s really only one way to find out. Join me. Read on…

New Year’s Resolution

Just in the last few years as prices for Bordeaux wines have become beyond the reach of the Common Man I’ve started to hear the strangest statement uttered by more than a few collectors. “I have a case of that, but I just can’t bring myself to drink it. It’s worth too much money”. I have to say, that irks me a bit. It makes me wonder why the speaker bought the wine in the first place. Buying and selling old wines at auction and in the after market is a billion dollar business but to me wine is to drink. What are you waiting for?…and you don’t need to create some fancy menu with the perfect food on a special occasion. Good, honest wine always works. A special bottle of wine makes its own occasion. That wine in your cellar is potential. It is to share with friends, remind us of a place and time.  
The first time I had Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs was with a friend on a beach at the resort where we worked in the Virgin Islands. We had some time between the lunch and dinner shifts. He pulled out a bottle and said “let’s go get some sun”. We took two highball glasses from behind the bar and walked down to the beach. We drank the wine, looked at girls and talked about nothing for an hour. Then we went back to work. That was more than twenty years ago and I still think of that warm Caribbean afternoon every time I pull the cork on a bottle of Schramsberg.
My New Year’s resolution for 2012 is to encourage everyone to have a very special bottle of wine with the most pedestrian of foods. …on a random Tuesday with your friends and family around. Fire up the grill, make some burgers and go get the 95 Beaucastel. That bottle of Dom Perignon that’s been in the back of your fridge since last year’s office party? Grilled cheese sandwich. You think popcorn and a movie is a fun week night? Try it with a bottle of Corton-Charlemagne. Brunello and Mexican food? Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it! In 2011, Occupy Wall Street tried to turn the spotlight on the plight of the Common Man. Well, occupy this: let’s make 2012 the year we quit worshipping wine.            

Natural winemaking

No one has to guess that I am a man of strong opinions. I’m pretty vocal about my likes and dislikes. While I may be — and probably am — wrong a fair amount of the time, I’d like to think that more than 25 years in the wine business has left me with a touch of insight.

You all know the things that bug me: critics’ scores, the alcohol level bandwagon, sommeliers, Italian Cabernet, using the word ‘terroir’ anywhere outside of Burgundy, referring to wine as ‘juice’, calling me a geek (please, I’m a nerd, people, not a geek. Hello …glasses!), and don’t get me started on “traditional”.

But lately a new buzz term, if you will, has been popping up all over the place and it makes me practically apopleptic. Natural Winemaking. Seriously, has the wine business come up with yet another way to confuse and mislead our public? It’s bad enough that people think every grape of a non-organic wine is dipped in DDT and that 13.5% alcohol means the wine is just bad but do we really want to plant the seed in our customers’ minds that there are wines which are unnatural? …and I’m not talking about Yellow Tail and the like. Even customers know that’s just glycerine, oak chips and Super Purple. I’m talking about your Sancerre or whiteBurgundyor Pinot Noir or Rioja. ’cause that’s what’ll happen. Once we segregate a group of wines from the general population — like organic — customers immediately look to avoid the opposite. We want our customers to think of a whole, big, dynamic world of wine; an exciting world they can explore freely.

Do we really need this term at all? We are just talking about grapes, barrels and our favorite little eukaryote. Our industry is moving away from chemical additions and treatments more rapidly every day. Vineyard management is better than ever. Workers’ health is more of a concern in most parts of the world than ever before.

Our customers are not walking home with Smoking Loon, Rex Goliath or Mommies Time Out — none of us sell that crap — so we can service them without ever using the term ‘Natural’

Please, don’t drink the kool-aid. Don’t be one of the people talking about natural wine. Our consumers are confused enough


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