Denver Wineos Unite! Or, my alcoholic Rodney King speech…

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am on my soapbox. Yeah beeaatches. Last night, I went to a second showing of ‘SOMM-The Movie’ here in Denver. Invited by the group from Grand Vin (thanks to Kevin Arndt and the crew), they reached out to the community of buyers and sommeliers across the front range. Call it an ‘industry night invite’…

Shit. I should go back a bit further in the day.

Earlier yesterday, I had coffee with Kendra Anderson, buyer at Pasta Vino in Boulder, and ‘freelance’ wine writer (her words, not mine) for Westword magazine as DenverSwirlGirl. We had a chance to talk about the state of the union in regards to the local wine scene. Kendra brought up a point of contention, which I wholeheartedly agree with. Where is the community of wine professionals in Denver? Do we have any organization that promotes education, networking, or a sense of camaraderie? It got me thinking…

There are plenty of ‘certifications’ available. The ISG, SWE, CMS, IWG, and WSET hold classes monthly, with most arranged here in the Front Range. We have the highest number of Master Sommeliers in any state given the size and population. Frasca Food and Wine was named ‘Best Wine Service Restaurant’ by James Beard this year. Colorado has arrived. What about its’ largest city, Denver? We give our Denver chefs credit and praise in light of their accomplishments; Denver ’5′ and other marketing organizations put these names at the forefront. You have the same with the bartenders and mixologists; Kenyon, Hodak, Henderson, and Melton have been doing it for years (I would include my man Dayton, but he is a Boulder boy). Why is it that our wine professionals haven’t done the same?

I ask, are we ‘lazy’ in our approach to being true ambassadors for this great industry?

Unfortunately, I feel it confirmed as I looked at the half-empty theatre before the show began. People are busy, their lives consumed by work, family, and the like, but for the working floor managers and stewards of vino, this is a movie that does give you an opportunity to connect with the career you so passionately enjoy. Like anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant can relate to ‘Waiting’ or ‘Dinner Rush’, why is it that I see little embrace with this vehicle? I hear more grumblings from buyers about the sheer number of lunches, trade tastings, and seminars held by distributors and wine importers (heck, I have done it myself), but is there, will there, be a movement to excel from the body of individuals that are the gatekeepers to the restaurant wine programs and dusted-off shelves of bottle shops in our fine town? Are we self-absorbed to the point where we have become islands of wine knowledge?

I feel we have enough talent and enthusiasm. Wine culturehowever, begins within.

There is something else that troubles me about the current way we look at ‘trade tastings’. It may sound radical, but what of it if all are invited from the trade to experience and learn about the great producers in every region of the world, regardless of who is hosting? If we looked at the sharing of information and open dialogue of our wine community at every stage of the game, would that not result in a greater number of wine consumers, which would invariably increase the sales, distribution, and revenue of all? Imagine having 30% more core wine drinkers! Wineries could do more wine dinners, tasting events with the public at retail establishments, because there is a real, tangible need! Or are we so ‘protective’ of our business, whether it be fear of losing a brand, or a placement to a more desirable one, that we cannot see the forest for the trees?

I think we already do this at the distributor rep level. Even though we are competitors, we taste each others wines, provide feedback, while we are in line to present our wares to the buyer of the establishment. Our kids play with one another; we go to picnics and barbeques. Distributors, importers, switch brands, are consolidated, form national strategic alliances. The friendships usually don’t end because of those forces. I have written before that I fondly remember the Tante Louise yearly gathering of wine and spirits industry folk, a celebration of who we are. Yes, it is good to get together once a year; however, these events have dropped off. The competition warrants little interaction amongst us wineos…at least I get that impression from many heads of companies…

“Not a buyer?” “Then you’re not welcome.”
“Who’re they with now? Should they be here?

I have ideas that combine trade tastings with consumer tastings, getting the most out of the bottle instead of it dumped down the drain. Events and seminars with multiple distributors on a tasting panel, describing the wines and engaging with the audience. Educational trips where trade and consumer sit next to one another.

Or, in the words of Rodney King, a rather famous imbiber of alcohol…

“Can’t we all just get along?”

Cheers,
William

3 Comments
  1. Oh William, you just opened my Pandora’s Box. Pour yourself some dark, mysterious, Cornas, cause this convo is going to get very dark, very fast.

    It takes foot soldiers to start building a community. Loud voices like (maybe?) you and me.

    But it helps if you have an infrastructure in place that can support that.

    The irony is that wine servers have such a entity. It’s called the Court. I barely knew what it was four years ago when I took my first WSET class.

    All I knew was there was this Court thing, which was geared more to servers, and this radio station thing, which seemed a little more holistic about the topic of wine.

    Eventually I passed my WSET Advanced and since there was no live teacher doing Diploma in Chicago (I’m still not comfortable with the all-online program), I decided to look into the Court MS to continue my wine studies.

    I have met several Advanced and Master Sommeliers; even have had the honor of interviewing several for my blog. Each one, individually, has been very kind and respectful of my questions, and very supportive of my dream to work in this industry.

    But as for the institution itself . . . my Love/Hate feelings toward it haven’t changed in four years. I love the challenge, the gauntlet it throws down in front of each one of us. But I still get the sense that in the end, it’s whole purpose is just to perpetuate itself as a Bubble. The Court just writes and proctors these tests, and the lucky few (a loaded word, admittedly, but I am sticking with it) will be rewarded with certificates and pins.

    I don’t see the Court making any public statements or doing any lobbying in D.C. to try to streamline wine shipping and distribution requirements (Tom Wark’s new consumer advocacy group is EXACTLY the kind of thing the Court should have introduced ten years ago). How about having a few MS speak out on this Medieval bill to lower allowable BAC to .08?

    I don’t see the Court making any PSA’s about the importance of customers providing fair tips to their servers. I don’t see them trying to help servers get affordable health care or (GASP!) get them some form of union protection.

    I saw the movie twice; I know sommeliers in most markets have hosted some of the screenings. But at least in my city, the one somm who hosted spent almost all of her Q & A time gossiping about other somms she has known; and where they are working now. How about taking a few minutes to explain “Here is the upcoming list of Intro Exams. The website is __________ . If you have any questions, please take one of my business cards and shoot me an email.”

    It just seems so insular and bubble-like. Like strictly a Rich-Person’s game. You really wonder what the proverbial nineteen year old waitress in Muncie, Indiana; taking care of Mom during the day, attending Accounting classes in the afternoon, and working her ass off at Olive Lobster until two a.m., would make of watching Somm on her iPad. “Could I ever fit in with these people?” The missed opportunities for the Court MS to interact with actual consumers and servers, actual grape growers/farmers, actual retailers are all around them. In my perfect world, if your city is lucky enough to have a Master or Advanced Somm, he/she should be required to do at least one public, preferably pro-bono tasting each month. His/her employer should be “strongly” encouraged by the Court Hierarchy to go along with this.

    Maybe all of this is happening and I just don’t see it. But trust me, I have my eyes and ears open, looking for this kind of community, and I hope that maybe this movie will help develop it a little more.

    (Deep breath, pheww! Feel much better now.)

    • Doug,

      I don’t think it is Cornas…more Cote-Rotie.

      Thanks for writing! The fact is that there are many passionate, dedicated wine professionals in every neck of the woods, across the country, waving the flag for better wine and service. I also think that these professionals, by working together, can spread the word about the joy of wine to folks interested in learning more about the craft, and what makes this nectar so appealing. You are right. It does require foot soldiers. I think that many, especially front of the house, are engaging, suave, and able to control a conversation, a room, and the floor. I have long admired the low-key approach and personality in them (myself included). Most would prefer to play the role of ‘Switzerland’ in regards to promoting their talents, preferring to stand in the shadows of chefs and mixologists. I believe there is a way to showcase what we do, without coming across as a douchebag. Only too often, we focus on our own wine dinners and events, without heralding those happening around us, or, even attending them. I feel a set of wine dinners and events, supported by a regional group, attended by us, and by consumers, we can sit side by side, talk wine; they can see what we do, how we think, and gain a better understanding of our approach and philosophies to food and wine pairing and developing our palates and programs.

      I also think it is more important for wineries, distributors and suppliers to work together to increase the number of wine drinkers. You may never be able to compete in marketing dollars with the likes of big beer, spirits, even (wine) companies, but we have a fiercely independent restaurant scene, which protects their own. Wish I had an answer for that, but one thing is sure:

      We are the largest wine consuming nation on Earth. Lets act like it.

      I do not have an answer for your opinions on the Court in how they make statements to the politics of the day. As an educational body, it may be that they neither sanction nor endorse stances in those topics. They are nonetheless respected and are spheres of influence in the ways wine and laws surrounding them are handled. I will say there are many personalities, voices and points of views on a variety of topics from the MS I have had the privilege to know.

      The discussion continues…if anyone has ideas, I would love to hear them!

      Cheers,
      William

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