Wednesday, August 26, 2009

For Once, the Wine Label Does Matter

As fall fast approaches, so does the time of year that an abundance of new vintages are released by wineries from around the Northern Hemisphere (Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand release more often in spring as their seasons are opposite). Room must be made in the wineries for the next batches of juice soon to come, so things are quickly moving from barrel to bottle, winery to distributors, distributors to retailers and restaurants, and finally - to you. It is an exciting time for those of us who look forward to tasting something new and the next releases of the wines we’ve come to look forward to every year. For better or worse, they are always at least a bit different – one of wine’s true beauties. Two weeks ago, I tasted through a table of great wines. And for two weeks now, something has really been bothering me. You’ll either be intrigued or think I’m crazy for I’m about to tell you next. A wine label has made me truly angry!
I should start by telling you that, these days, everyone in the wine business is practically kicking the door down to try and get their wines in a store or on a restaurant wine list. Because of this, I usually taste quickly. I simply don’t have time to follow “the method” as the Court of Master Sommeliers calls it, whereby one spends several minutes on a wine evaluating its many characteristics with eyes, nose, and mouth. Sorry, but these days it’s a quick look, swirl, sniff, taste, spit and on to the next. I trust that a good wine will have the power to slow me down and lure me in for a closer examination if it is truly worthy. The guests who order wine from my wine lists don’t see the labels, so I generally don’t pay too much attention to them. A label has definitely never played a role in my selections of wine. I’ll admit there are some bottles out there that are very worthy of notice. Sometimes the label is a perfect segway to a story about the producer and creates a personal connection to the wine. The artworks of The Prisoner or Papillon from Orin Swift, HALO from Trefethen are great examples. Sometimes labels speak of family history, or the personal philosophies and tastes of the vintner.
There is one winery in particular whose label has always compelled me to tell what I’ve long considered a wonderful story. The winery is Vision Cellars. The label has always featured a strong and pronounced African tribal mask. It kind of stares at you. One simply can’t look at it without wanting to know more about it. All the times I’ve served a bottle of Vision Pinot Noir, I’ve told the story of Mac McDonald, who is one of the few African-American winemakers in California. Mac grew up in Texas where his father was a moonshiner. A life changing experience with a 1952 Burgundy gave Mac a Vision, which led to him founding his label with his wife Lil in 1995 after spending 35 years working for Pacific Gas & Electric Co. He currently produces multiple Pinot Noirs including appellation wines from Anderson Valley and Sonoma County, and vineyard-designate wines from Cole Ranch Vineyard in Mendocino County, Chileno Valley Marin County, Rosella's Vineyard, Gary's Vineyard and Las Alturas Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. His Pinot style is an attractively rich core with an elegant frame. The wines have received very favorable wine press. Production is what would generally be called “boutique” as most of it is sold through the winery mailing list with very little actually going into the market for restaurants and wine shops. Simply put, Mac makes some the best Pinots in California. So when I saw the new label for the 2007 Sonoma County Pinot Noir; a bland, all white background, with the old mask shrunk down to the size of a fingernail and tucked away in the corner, naturally I was shocked. Why? Sure, the old label was a little loud, but it spoke of Mac’s heritage and the significance of his success, ultimately lending a personal connection to the wonderful juice inside the bottle. So why on earth make this change?
An anonymous source in the distribution chain told me there were enough buyers out there who felt Mac’s old label was “too ethnic” and that they felt it would be difficult to sell with such a label. Sadly, the label was muted to appease these people so that they would buy the wine. This is the first time I can truly say the label mattered to me. This bothers me. There’s a passion that goes into handcrafted wines like the ones made by Mac. That passion is being trampled on. I’m compelled to say few last remarks and ask you, the readers for comments, because I’m really curious what the average wine consumer thinks about this.
1. If there are wine buyers out there that actually passed on Vision Cellars Pinot Noir because the label was too “ethnic” – you deserve a long pull from the spit bucket! Really? Did you even taste the wine? It is fantastic. Not to mention well received by the who’s who of wine media. Isn’t a little “Wine Spectator 90 pts“ shelf talker card enough to sell your wine for you?
2. If you’re a Pinot Noir fan and have had the pleasure of drinking Vision Pinot, send Mac an email and let him know his label doesn’t need to conform to sell out. If you haven’t tried it, do yourself a favor and get your hands on a bottle, then write Mac. Maybe enough people will write Mac and he will proudly display his old label again in the next release.
3. What does a label mean to you? Does anyone out there really make a purchase decision based on the wine label’s artwork?
4. What year is it, anyway? How is that we can seemingly have come so far one moment and yet still seem so far in the dark ages the next?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

And the Big, Bad, "P" Word is...

Just saying the word makes me cringe. If you think it is truly behind us, I’d like you think again. Our society today is defined by media. Whether you are sitting in your living room, driving your car, listening to the radio, or reading a magazine at the doctor’s office, there is nearly nowhere you can go today without being subjected to advertisement for wine, beer, or spirits. Marketing people spend their whole careers seeking new ways to get their product in front of you. As a man whose livelihood revolves around fine wine and spirits, that’s a good thing for me. However, there is so much sensory contact with alcohol through advertising that most people forget how recently it was that alcohol was illegal in our land of the free.

Prohibition was repealed on December 5th, 1933 - just over 75 years ago. It’s really a short period of time in US culture when you think about it. In fact many of us still have family members who lived through Prohibition – who are still very much a layer of our cultural fabric. Though they may feel differently about it now, they were all at some point supposed to believe that alcoholic consumption was morally wrong; associated with aggression, antisocial behavior, and inevitable criminal activity. Supporters of prohibition taught (some might say brainwashed) their children alcohol would turn them evil. They even went so far as to blame the Great Depression and World War I on alcohol. So while we may SEEM a long ways away from that period, in fact there are at least several generations in our society that, whether they realize it or not, harbor some negative impressions of wine or any other alcohol as a result of some lasting effects of Prohibition mentality.

So where are we now? Surely we’ve come a long way from branding wine drinkers as criminal heathens, right. We may no longer be outcasts in our society, but are we Americans still reluctant? It is remarkably common to see diners concerned about ordering a second or even a single glass of wine with a meal because of a genuine fear of intoxication. Many people see the enjoyment of alcohol with a meal as irresponsible, unnecessary, sometime even reckless. Think I’m exaggerating? Consider some statistics.
  • The percentage of adults who drink alcohol in European countries varies between 80% and 90%.
  • In the United States, approximately 65% of adults drink alcohol.
  • American per capita consumption of alcohol by volume before Prohibition was nearly double what it is today.
Many Europeans would argue a little wine with every meal makes them healthier and happier. In France and Italy, wine is often as important to setting the table as the silverware. Being a Sommelier, I’ll insist until I’m out of breath that every meal is better with the right wine and occasionally a good beer (I even cook with a little bit of wine in my eggs every morning). As I mentioned in my first blog, this is part of what drives me to write about wine. In addition to teaching a thing or two to people who already have an interest in wine, I have sincere hopes that blogging can help save at least a few of the third of Americans that will otherwise sadly go through life missing out on one of man’s greatest creations. Europeans were exploring the art of fine dining before our country was even born, so it’s at least slightly understandable why more of them get it. But we are Americans! It’s not in our nature to be so behind for so long. So wake up people! Pull the cork on a bottle of wine with your next meal. And if someone around you doesn’t like it, hand them the cork and tell them what they can do with it.

Eric Arsenault is the Sommelier for The Chop House and the Director of Wine and Spirits for Mainstreet Ventures.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Introduction to

Hello fellow Ann Arborites. I'm eager and excited to be blogging on wine. Why? Because I passionately believe our culture needs a large scale forum to educate the public about wine. Wine appreciation is a life enriching hobby that I sadly think too many people avoid due to a lack of understanding and an effect from something I call the big bad P word (subject of a future blog).
People often wonder what leads sommeliers to become sommeliers. I think it’s fitting that I introduce my self on by telling that story. I'm thirty-one years old, a devoted husband to the most amazing woman on the planet, a proud father of two lovely girls, and I'm very thankfully still carded on occasion. So, often people are surprised by how much I have to say on this subject given my age. I occasionally joke, saying I'm 55 years old and my anti-aging secret is a glass of pinot noir with every meal (two with breakfast on the days that I ride my bike 50 miles to work for extra fuel). Seriously, I don't really drink in the morning, save for a mimosa at Sunday brunches. I am a novice cyclist, but my ride to work is only 6 miles each way. I have however worked in the restaurant industry for 17 years and began intensive study of the juice before I could legally drink it. As a server paying my own way at U of M, I knew wine was my bread and butter in regards to more tips. I guess it was around 2000, while working at The Gandy Dancer, when I realized I was the person everyone else in the restaurant would come to with a wine question. I never planned for it, but wine was becoming my expertise whether I wanted it to be or not. I pursued the possibility of a greater role with wine in CA Muer (former owners of The Gandy Dancer), but it reached a dead end. That was okay because I had other plans. Entrepreneurial plans.
I loved the outdoors and I had ambitions to start an adventure guiding company and eventually take it west. I started a company called Climb On, leading rock climbing groups in Grand Ledge, Michigan and selling outdoor gear over my website (I was a Mechanical Engineering Major my first two years at the U and I admittedly have a techy side to me that needs constant feeding). It was around this time that the career Gods spoke to me, and after realizing my youthful ambitions did not make much sense from a family-man perspective, I began moonlighting as a web designer while serving at The Chop House. As my list of website clients grew via word of mouth, it seemed I had inadvertently chosen another entrepreneurial venture. I had just registered another LLC and began thinking my calling was in web design when the career Gods spoke again. Actually they weren’t Gods this time, they were the heads of Mainstreet Ventures, owners of The Chop House, Gratzi, The Real Seafood Company, Palio and a collection of other distinctive eateries in Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Florida, and Maryland. Somehow I was the person people brought their wine questions too again and they were looking for a new Sommelier. That was a little over three years ago and things have been no less dynamic. I still work the floor as the Sommelier at The Chop House, but my role has expended as The Director of Wine and Spirits for Mainstreet Ventures, overseeing the beverage programs for our 15 restaurants in five states. Suffice to say, between my daughters and my workload I’m getting carded less frequently as of late. My wife pulled my first gray hair a few weeks back and I may actually have a wrinkle or two by the time you finish reading this lengthy first blog entry.
Most would think the best part of my job has something to do with the endless tasting of wines on a regular basis. While that is certainly a task that I courageously and dutifully commit myself to with great sacrifice for the betterment of all, it is not the best part. What has been the most interesting, challenging, and ultimately satisfying all at the same time has been the work I’ve done to evolve the way we educate our service teams on wine. Over the years I have developed some unique perspective on what people know, do not know, or think they know about wine. That perspective has become the foundation of my passion for educating people about wine. A few months back, I held a seminar on this topic at the Michigan Restaurant Association’s annual trade event. At times I’m frustrated by how many people still don’t get it when it comes to wine – how a great wine can cement the memory of a great experience for a lifetime. I’ve studied European cultures, where wine is far more prevalent than in our own, compared and contrasted them, and I have strong convictions about what is needed to move our culture, even if one community at time, in a direction that is positively forward. With the humblest intention of using this blog as the vehicle to do just that in Ann Arbor, I say
Hello and Please check back again.
Eric Arsenault
Certified Sommelier
Director of Wine and Spirits
Mainstreet Ventures, Inc
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