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Sunday, 11 May 2014

Generation Gap?

Are Wine Critics Just Snarky?
Or Today's Wine Snobs?
So asks Our 'Fly on the Wall,'
Don Merlot,The PJ's dining critic
Today it is a pleasure to go into most American restaurants and read the menu, review the wine list, and talk to the waitstaff and know that the kitchen is ready for you. When I visited a well-known restaurant in New Orleans I was impressed on how the chef had educated the staff to understand the menu and the wine cellar; and prepare to inform the tables of the wines being offered by the glass that were good matches to the menu. With the waitstaff knowing their menu and wine, one feels that the meals and wines are positive.
That is how I felt when I visited Ralph’s on the Park in New Orleans. The wine I wanted was a Sauvignon Blanc and more than one was available. A good one from the Loire Valley was offered and it was perfect, and I noticed that there was also a superb Chilean, and a Spanish Albariño. Prior to going to dinner I had looked the menu up on line, and saw their wine list. To my surprised when I got there I saw additional new ones and that made me feel they were listening to customers.
Coincidentally in reading my wine magazines I saw that in the Food and Wine issue that June Rodil had been chosen one of the Sommeliers of the Year. She is of Qui in Austin, Texas. She is emphatic that the staff should be at a sommelier level of skills and extends this to the servers and the cooks who deliver dishes directly to the table. Wine is now a keystone of eating out. 
Several years ago I would have relied on my knowledge of wine to match the food that was to match what was ordered, and inventively I would end in a sparring match with the wine steward or waiter on the wine choice for each diner; the wine snob was there. I felt the staff thought I was the wine snob and I felt the staff was the wine snob. I always felt that the wines suggested were premium wines and I would be charged $50 to $100 for wines I did not know. The chance to have a glass of a good wine was rare. Not like today where I would have a chance to order by the glass and sort out what varietal went with the menu. And back then those days few knew about wine and knew little other than you could not find the traditional match.

The question of wine color in yesteryear was white or red and maybe rosé. Whether to offer a Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, or White Zinfandel. Maybe a choice of dry or medium bodied wine was available. In the 60s to 2000 the wine menu was left to the wine salesman and the wine shop staff which at best was pushing the wines he had in stock and wanted to sell. With the rise of American cuisine came with the recognition of the importance of a chef or an owner manager. And famous American wines and European wines found their way into the white table cloth premium restaurants.

All of this to me has now changed in traditional wine settings of yesteryear, the American trend was to follow the chefs, their cuisine and find wine wholesalers that could provide the regional wines. Then food became elegant along with the well-trained chefs. By the arrival of the new millennial the world of wine and cuisine was available to 90 percent of consumers and matching it to wine was available.  
Consumers who sat down at tables were sometime confronted by a wine sommelier/wine steward and an adversarial relationship developed. The consumer rarely wanted to pay more than $50 for an unknown wine, despite a strong recommendation by the sommelier or the server. Some restaurants chose charging twice the retail price. Waiters wanted tips of 20 percent, including wine, and wine stewards wanted wine on a separate tab, and they wanted a 20 percent tip including the fine wine. The business lunch and dinner of the 80s to 2000 paid for the premium wines which every vineyard wanted to achieve. Every chef who graduated from culinary school wanted to open up a five-star restaurant. The old system of France, and Italy of bistrot or trattoria to restaurant of one star to three star ratings, were skipped. This includes the life cycle wines too: carafes of house wine or pichets of wine in a family restaurant gave way to expensive wines bottles and wine cellars.
I read wine blurbs written by GEN X oenophiles/technocrats that corrected myths of wine. It broke my heart when the history of the Rhone said that Syrah was not brought over by Crusaders from the Middle East and it its origins were traced back to Greek and Roman vintners.
Then some young technocrat said that he solved the DNA history of mysterious “American” Zinfandel and that it came from Croatia and was the cousin to Primitivo. But proving the DNA changed the original story I was told. Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian had brought brought them to California; cuttings and rootstocks. A century ago at was treated as a peer to Cabernet Sauvignon.
In most of the post war USA the largest vintner became the Gallo Brothers. Jug sales became very popular at the retail level. One of the most popular wines was the Gallo Hardy Burgundy. At that time the USA was a beer drinking country. The sociological implication was that beer was a blue collar drink. Wine became associated with post high school educated/college educated middle class to upper economic levels.
In March 2010 there was article in the Chicago Tribune on “the hunt for that old fashioned ‘Burgundy.’“ To me the introduction in the article had the snarky comment of the new Millennial age: when a couple had a conversation – What happened to Wines with the label Burgundy and the answer today  is it says Pinot Noir? Because the original Burgundy gets forgotten. I guess I have to accept that the rules are broken.

I walk into any supermarket, like Whole Foods or Fresh Market, and it is amazing to find the fresh, dry, and frozen food and spice ingredients from all over the world is available. If I am looking for Chilli spice there is Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, Thai, Mexican, Peruvian, Caribbean (habaneros and Scot bonnets), and North African Harrisas.
There was a day when many friends did not like cilantro, but then they found Cantonese food with “Chinese parsley” and that was the same as cilantro, Indian chutneys, mixed yogurt mint and fresh Coriander which was cilantro Latin American Ceviche’s a marinade of lime juice, cilantro and green fresh chilies or Aji’s, Mexican guacamole, and Green tomatillo sauce, and Mayan chimols.
Walking through the aisles of a super market is just fascinating. Today most top 10% of USA income families can prepare the food recipes found in the major food magazines. The cable food shows now have reality Chef Competition that boggles my mind. I am glad I do not go through that gauntlet.
Chef schools started teaching that wine was another ingredient of a complete menu. Ethnic foods were found in Australia, California, New York City, Chile and Argentina wines were matched to local wine offerings.
In the May issue of Food and Wine Olivier Magny a young Parisian owner of Au Chateau Wine Bar and School said that the future of wine is in American hands, and the French are interested in drinking beer and feeling depressed.
There is a wine pairing article in the Food and Wine magazine of April 2014 which is very informative; I applaud the magazine because since 2008 the social structure and food and wine habits have changed rapidly. Their break down is,
Champagne/Prosseco/Cava/ Cremant/ American Sparklers/Lambrusco

Pinot Grigio/Sauvignon Blanc/Muscadet/Albariño/Vinho Verde/Guner Veltliner/

Chardonnay/Chenin Blanc/Viognier/Roussanne/Marsanne/

Pinot Noir/Barbera/Gamay/Saniovese/Mencia/

Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah/Cabernet Franc/Merlot/Malbec
The world has developed a whole new approach to wine and food led by the new successful chefs. Whereas the old school had wine suppliers and European Chef’s schools and traditional methods of pairing and presenting a meal. It now is in the chef in kitchens around the world who are renowned for creating a perfectly matched cuisine. The competition is very fierce. On Cable food shows, it is now de rigueur  
Armed with this up-to-date approach to conquer wine, I am very happy to win the challenges of matching food to my favorite foods.

(Don Merlot's doppelganger, Ron Alonzo, is a Chevalier of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin; A Professionnel de la Table of the Chaine des Rôtisseurs; and a CFSP level I of the NAFEM (Certified Food Service Professional).