Monthly Archives: September 2012

“No Place” like the Place…where everybody knows your name

Grape on the Block

Small suburban cities. Intimate, family-owned brick-and-mortar businesses, where everybody knows your name. It’s ironic that the much-loved television show, Cheers, which finished its run twenty years ago, offers us a vision of things to come: tight-knit community, sharing life experiences, engaging over alcoholic beverages. Last year, in my personal blog, I wrote about a group called Better Block:

The Better Block project started in April, 2010, when a group of community organizers, neighbors, and property owners gathered together to revitalize a single commercial block in an underused neighborhood corridor. The area was filled with vacant properties, wide streets, and few amenities for people who lived within walking distance. The group brought together all of the resources from the community and converted the block into an interactive neighborhood destination for people of all ages. The project was complete with bike lanes, cafe seating, trees, plants, pop-up businesses, and lighting.

Jason Roberts, founder of the Better Block Project said of his work, “(We) dreamed of a walkable, bikeable community where business would flourish and outdoor spaces would encourage meaningful interactions.” Indeed the project has flourished with Better Block communities popping up all over the country. The project was developed to show the city how a block could be revived and improve area safety, health, and economics if ordinances that restricted small business and multi-modal infrastructure were removed. Since that time, Better Block projects have been developed throughout the nation with many of the temporary infrastructure improvements and businesses made permanent.

But why stop our redevelopment with single neighborhoods. Consider the work of Joel Kotkin, professor of urban development, currently a fellow at Chapman University in Orange, California and the Legatum Institute, a London-based think tank. He authored THE NEXT HUNDRED MILLION: America in 2050, which explores how our nation will evolve in the next four decades. He postulates that suburbia is the future, but not the lonely, wasteful landscape of the past. In Kotkin’s vision the suburb of the future is fashioned from vital elements of the big city and morphed into small, village-type areas, much like what the Better Blocks project has built. And I can’t help noticing a trend here: Across the nation, smaller cities within larger metropolises, where people interact with their surroundings and with each other because their physical and emotional lives depend on it.

Hope for Utopia

Looking over Better Block’s work and Kotkin’s vision, I find myself examining an interesting paradox. When cities have lost their shine, we head to the countryside. When the countryside is too quiet, we head back to cities. The solution could be the creation of a space that allows for city living while maintaining the heart and soul of a countryside. Perhaps this is the utopia we’ve all been searching?

In the sixteenth century, Thomas More’s book, Utopia, proposed an ideal society of the same name. Some have chosen to accept this imaginary society as the realistic blueprint for a working city, while others have presumed that More intended nothing of the sort. Some think that More’s Utopia functions only as satire, a work intended to reveal more about the England of his time than about an idealistic society. This particular interpretation is easily confused between the Greek for “no place” and “good place”: “utopia” is a compound of the syllable ou-, meaning “no”, and topos, meaning place. So what we really have here is the implication that the perfectly “good place” is really “no place.”

So is “utopia” unobtainable? Perhaps the point is not to create utopia, but the journey involved. And as a wine professional, I can’t help but think that the grape has a place in this “Almost Eden.”

It wouldn’t be the first time wine has saved “paradise.” Thomas Lake Harris founded an American Utopian Community called Fountaingrove in 1875. Described by its founder as a “Theo-Socialist community,” Fountaingrove was established in Northern California on 700 acres, two miles north of Santa Rosa, dubbed “The Eden of the West.” Hippie consciousness aside, what is most interesting to me about the community were the vineyards. After five years of failing in the dairy business, the Fountain Grove Community planted grapes and their winery became an economic base. By 1886 they produced over 70,000 gallons of wine a year. It seems that even in utopia, a little alcohol-related relief is welcome.

Maybe these old and new “utopias” aren’t so far off from the original Cheers concept.
And Thomas More did have the typical Brit sense of humor so his Utopian society may not exist, but what does and what we strive for is a place where they know your name and what you like in your glass. Cheers!

Tina Morey, partner
PROTOCOL wine studio


Chile’s Mountainous Evolution

As Sommeliers and startup retailers we watch the wine industry closely, looking for distinct patterns that in turn allow us to make sound buying decisions for our clients. Our goal is to seek out and perhaps sharpen that cutting edge in the world of wine. My business partner GUY and I attended a trade tasting of Chilean wines guided by a Master Sommelier this past August. That event was immediately followed by excited conversations with many other wine professionals regarding discoveries of new-found and re-found geographic vine-growing locations. Savvy wine folk know there are no coincidences.

Every wine-producing country wants an identity—a peg to hang the proverbial hat. The key to discovering that identity is to first uncover what makes a country unique. For example, Chile sports a climate and geography that has the ability to produce wine naturally, using phylloxera-free vine stock. New producers are actively pushing geographic boundaries by venturing into cool climates and high altitudes with old-vine cuttings. This tactic possesses much upside for potential quality while adding significantly to expense, thus reducing commercial potential. So far the gamble is paying off. However Chile has yet to quantifiably reap the benefits of their uniqueness.

Push and Push Back

Only three wine corporations control 84% of the overall wine market: Concha y Toro, Santa Rita and San Pedro. These three plus Santa Carolina control almost half of total exports. Through the decades of their reign, the Chilean wine industry, as it was known, became complacent, conservative. No outside competition and minimal new internal competition provided little incentive for change. Chileans did not worry about what wine they were drinking and wineries did not worry about significant new investments in vineyard or winery. Chilean producers did not possess the drive to venture into frontier wine regions, where the air is thin and quality potential grows exponentially. Instead Chilean production is traditionally focused on warmer, valley regions with abundant water sources. The tradeoff for this high yield, low risk strategy is a reduced overall quality.

In a statement that sounds benign enough, Ignacio Recabarren, winemaker at Concha y Toro said of current Chilean winemaking practices, “Chile is subtle. We depend on simple, natural things, which the world does not yet understand.” The world understands just fine: Chile is in line for a huge wine culture shift.

Changing Chile

At PROTOCOL, we typically say “It’s just wine.” But of course that statement’s underpinning is more complex. Wine is emotional, wine is political, and wine is catalyst: wine is evolutional…

Enter the revolutionary wave in Chile: MOVI (Movement of Independent Vintners) has emerged as a push against the corporations and what could ensue is the most exciting time in Chile’s wine producing history. For those of us in the industry, some of the most transforming wines in the arena today may in fact already be planted in obscure regions of Chile. As Andres Sanchez, MOVI member and winemaker from Gillmore Wines announces, “[We’re aiming at people] who are not just trying to do comparison shopping and find good value at the supermarket, but rather people who have an interest in flavor, histories, and the relationship of the product with its land and country.” What’s interesting about the smaller member-wineries is that they’re pushing the envelope and throwing out the tried and true Chilean wine playbook.

Derek Mossman, owner of Garage Wine Co. framed the scene perfectly when he commented, “Soon articles began to appear about the ‘coveted urban myth’ of Garage Wine Co. that minted our humble garage as a denim-clad David figure up against the enormous odds of agro-industrial giant Goliaths.” Indeed, MOVI is a relatively small group of winemakers, a Halloween who’s who of Italian counts, lawyers, photographers, skiers and ex-pats as varied as the regions and soils they work.

This emerging Chile reflects a philosophical turn from industrialization to farm. Winemakers, who are agronomists first, have returned to the land to work the vines and study the complex soils from higher elevations in the Andes to the coastal edge. Many MOVI members can be found in the Maule Valley, hit hardest by a series of earthquakes, most recently 2010, which left the area’s small family-owned grape-farmers hurting. And yet the movement persists in the Maule Valley where the talk is of old-vine carignane, as mature as 70 years. It seems earthquakes, granitic bedrock, and old-school bush vines are a veritable feast for hungry, multiple-hat wearing revolutionary winemakers.

Something to Watch

It’s too soon to say how this will all shake out. Can the MOVI revolutionaries sustain themselves against the onslaught of big business wineries? Will the dominating wine corporations succumb to change and aid in the search for regionally characteristic sites? Whatever happens in Chile, it’ll be something to watch, especially as Australia, New Zealand and Argentina also make their own push forward. The next few years should be mountainous times indeed. PROTOCOL will be watching…

Tina Morey and GUY, partners
PROTOCOL wine studio

Your Sommelier Hates You

Dubious Honor

It’s Saturday night and you’ve got a date!  You’re dining at the well-received Acme Anvil Steakhouse.  The Sommelier approaches you for the dubious honor of wine selection.  Aiming to impress, you scan the list for the familiar.  One Napa Cabernet stands out and you ask, “I’ve heard a lot about this Cabernet, I went to Napa and visited their tasting room, do you like it?”

Ahhh, the Sommelier’s element–he knows the drill and the answer flows smoothly, with a soft smile he says, “That’s one of our most popular!  I sell more of that wine than any other.  All of our guests who love Napa Cabernet find this wine delicious.  I’m sure you will too.”  You order the wine, proud of your intelligent selection.  The wine is opened, poured and you do indeed love it.  All seems well, but little do you know, your Sommelier hates you.

I recently attended a professional wine seminar that boasted “Best of the Best.”  These were delicious wines from around the world, but the conversation turned when the Master Sommelier suggested a high-end Australian Shiraz would make a good transition from Napa Cabernet.  Many Sommeliers and restaurateurs lamented with the common cry, “Our clients only drink Napa Cabernet, they won’t try anything else!”

From Coke to Coffee

Not more than a few decades ago American wine was considered subpar.  The common assumption was that only Europe produced wines of distinction.  Fortunately, this attitude has evolved, now New World wine-making regions produce quality wine, including Napa.  Considering this evolution newness, it’s surprising how quickly wine has matured in the States.  It only took some thirty years since American wine entered the world stage for us to develop our style: hedonistic.  This is evidenced by the popular brands possessing consistent characteristics: big fruit, heavy, extended oak treatment and higher alcohol.  Intensity is what America loves!  A diet focused on rich, meaty foods craves big, intense wines.

Many Old World (European) wines are for the advanced palate.  Unlike American wine, it took generations to create the unique styles of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone and the like.  These are complex wines, rich with history, and it takes time to discover why—an evolution in taste.

I’ve always been a beverage guy.  As a teen I loved soda, so much so that I forced myself to abstain for many years.  Eager to find a new fix, at age 16 I tried coffee. It was impossible to appreciate.  I’d grown up on Big League Chew, Coca Cola and Fun Dip candy.  This coffee stuff was disgusting–but I persisted.  Coffee isn’t so bad if you add sugar, cream and chocolate, so I drank mocha.  Then I attended a coffee tasting at Seattle’s Stumps Town Coffee.  It was served hot, fresh and black–my palate revolted.  But again I persisted, encouraged by the “Coffee Sommeliers.”  It took time, but now I enjoy coffee black and surprisingly all the flavors I’d been adding: dairy, sugar and cocoa were already present!  It just took time and effort to reach a point of understanding and appreciation.

One Step Away

And so we return to your Sommelier, the one that hates you.  It’s not you he hates, he’s simply frustrated that in a world of many complex, amazing wines, almost every bottle he sells is rich in style.  Combined with the high-pressure atmosphere of restaurant work, the situation is explosive.  Next time you’re in a fancy restaurant take a peak into the “back of the house.”  Odds are you’ll see a sign reading: “Guests Can Hear You” or “This is a Quiet Zone.”

Imagine the scene, a disgruntled server making insulting comments laced with profanity about the table five dude with the paisley tie and his insistence that we drop new glassware because he’s opening ANOTHER Napa Cab!  These incidents generally end the same, one employee loses his job, one table gets a free meal and one back of the house area gets a warning sign.

At this point you may be wondering: do Sommeliers really care this much about my wine choice? Think back how that Sommelier answered your question. Was that smile genuine, or perhaps a bit sarcastic?  He never said he liked the wine.  What he said was people like you like that wine.  Upon reflection the whole comment was backhanded!

If you’re a bit upset because you fail to see how spending $300 on a Napa Cabernet and tipping the Sommelier to open it is insulting, I understand.  But there’s something more important going on here.  This backlash against customers ordering popular wines happens more and more often now, both in retail and dining establishments.  I believe it is a harbinger of change.  Our wine culture is on the verge of transitioning from hedonistic, one-dimensional, intense wines to those of nuance and regional character.

This change is already underway as wine lovers ask more in-depth questions.  Some of my favorites are: What organic wines do you have?  What is the alcohol of this wine?  And most impressive:  I really like Cabernet Sauvignon do you have another varietal I might enjoy?

Wineries are responding.  Winemakers are making revolutionary comments: “We don’t submit our wines for scoring.” or, “We spent a lot of time and money identifying the proper grapes for our vineyard” or my favorite, “I like to make wine that I enjoy drinking!”

So don’t take it personally if your Sommelier doesn’t cotton to your taste.  Perhaps it’s just a sign that wine is about to change.  Instead go ahead and ask for a trousseau from Healdsburg.  That’ll turn his head!

GUY, Partner
PROTOCOL wine studio

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