Logic and Reason in the Beverage World?
Nah…Why Start Now?
I’ve now spent a solid thirty one years in the beverage business. Not all of that was actively selling beer, wine, and liquor at retail, though much of it was. In fact, if you extend that back to every restaurant I ran or worked in, for all of which I functioned as beverage manager, I’ve been involved in beverages for FIFTY years.
Somehow, miraculously, I’ve arrived here in 2023 not completely burnt out on either the business or the aesthetic of the whole industry, a total 180 from my career as a chef, which I would gladly opt to have surgically excised from my memory, if that was not (so far) purely a science fiction device.
BUT…this is not to suggest that I think the American beverage industry is some kind of lollipops ‘n’ unicorns fantasy land. It is, in fact, no less of a cesspool, a black hole, a morass of idiocy – pick your own derogatory term, they all fit – than any other US business culture. MONEY is involved: that is all you need to know to determine if a class of human endeavor is illogical and corrupted and dysfunctional, to some degree.
And, as with all those other businesses, it is NOT just the professionals working within it who are the main problem. Fanboys and girls, jaded critics, competitors with Agendae, health/well-being Nazis, even casual observers inflict their own massive damage onto the structure of every industry.
Again…BUT…the reason these people are able to inflict damage, either real or philosophical, upon systems is that the rest of allow them to do it. As a society, we have lost the ability and will to just laugh at absurdity and bombast. It was said, once, that if Hitler, during his emergence, had been kidnapped and taken to Trafalgar Square and had his pants pulled down, he would never have risen to power because, whenever he launched into one of those fiery speeches, all anyone could think of would be the image of Der Fuhrer with his bloomers around his ankles.
This principle would have its effective Golden Age now, with so many cranks, lunatics, delusionals, conspiracy freaks, and The Willfully Ignorant running amok. But it does NOT just apply to politics. The whole White Zinfandel Delusion – that says that White Zin comes from white Zinfandel grapes – has mulishly refused to go away for fifty years, even though it is patently ridiculous and thoroughly debunked SIXTY years ago. White Zinfandel comes from red grapes. ALL grapes, with extremely rare exceptions, have juice that is white, clear, not red, at any rate. There are quite a few White Pinot Noirs in the marketplace, now, and Blanc de Noirs Champagne is all white, even though both those are made with red Pinot Noir fruit. But you can still find people talking about White Zin grapes.
The Zin thing is just the most persistent and most visible of the wine myths. There are LOTS. Similar situation in beer. And in spirits. Example: google “homemade Kahlua” and you’ll find that MOST of the recipes call for vodka as the base spirit added to the sweetened, reduced coffee. But it says, right there on the Kahlua label, “RUM & COFFEE LIQUEUR”. Duh. I make mine with Cruzan Aged Dark Rum (cheap, delicious, assertive) and people say, “Wow, it tastes just like Kahlua!” There’s a reason for that.
I’m still not going to breech my long-standing policy of not writing negative things about small, independent producers of beverages. I like these folks and they work too hard for me to take pots shot at ’em from the cheap seats. But I have a number of simmering observations about irrationality and perverse illogic and that’s fair game. Those who may get offended have the ironclad RESPONSIBILITY, whether they like or or not, to objectively decide if what they read here applies to them. If the answer is yes and they get offended, well…good. They probably should be offended…regularly.
I’ve thought about this for years, some of it for decades, so I have zero apologies to make.
The views of you and six or eight of your buddies are not any sort of final authority. It’s a phenomenon old as dirt: a bunch of friends get together and share common interests and wind up with a terminal case Peer Group Myopia. They visit breweries or winery tasting rooms, sit and BS about what they’re drinking, and see no real need to do a reality check outside their circle. Which would be fine but they then, when outside the circle, quote their prevailing group-think as though it was passed down on stone tablets. It was not. These takes on this brewery and that, those wines and these over here, Bourbon versus Scotch versus Irish Whiskey, are OFTEN dead-flat fucking, factually, objectively wrong…but you will never convince them of that. Any criticism of these views is met with steaming piles of scorn and naked umbrage and assertions of the circle’s qualifications as beer/wine/booze “experts”. As one kid, here in Tacoma once told me, “I visited 22 breweries last year! How many did you visit?“
“Well, last year was actually a bit slower year. I visited about…oh, 82, 83, maybe,” I replied.
“BULL. SHIT.,” the kid snorted. And walked off in a huff.
Back in the late 90s, working as a wine steward at a large grocery store wine cellar, I had a guy come in with two women in tow and strut around the room, pontificating non-stop about wines he saw on the shelves. About every other thing out of his mouth was factually in error but he kept on preachin’ and I stayed out of it because No Good Can Come Of This. I asked if I could help them, he said, “I’ve got it“, and I went back to reading Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Encyclopedia of Wine. He stopped and picked up a bottle of Stag’s Leap Viognier, went on for a minute or so about his views on that grape, and then called out to me, “Hey, do you have any more of these California Condrieus?“
“Condrieu is a French appellation,” I replied, “In the US, they’re just called Viognier. And we usually have two or three but are sold out, now.”
“Well,” he sputtered, “I don’t agree!” And walked out in a huff.
Another huff…is this a theme developing?
Generally speaking, most of these problems are caused by received wisdom, the blank, unquestioning acceptance of what we have heard from friends or family or whomever our neighborhood “wine savvy” figure may be. At very least, anything you hear or read about wine, if you are inclined to repeat it, should be fact-checked against at least one or two other sources. We have on our desks and in our phones a website which contains the compendium of what is the sum of all human knowledge. Why BS gets circulated, these days, is anybody’s guess but laziness and misplaced trust are certainly among the Top Ten reasons. That guy or gal in your circle of beer or wine pals who maybe once had a semester of wine study at a local community college is NOT the final word. Question all facts, even the ones I give you.
Which dovetails neatly with this second topic…
Many people seem genuinely offended by acumen and the idea that others know more than they do. Which is really sorta, well, Tough Shit. We’ve seen how unemployed dolts and guys who clean septic tanks and baristas and fry cooks scream insults and threats at Dr. Anthony Fauci, all because he dared to have knowledge that they don’t possess. We all know some sports fans who loudly demand their favorite team’s coach’s head on a pike because they have the notion that their high school GED and Pee Wee League football is the equivalent knowledge base to that coach’s 25 years’ professional work in football or baseball or curling. We usually know someone who takes a certain perverse pride in making statements like, ” ‘Gone With The Wind’ was a piece of trash and I don’t care what all those so-called experts say!” or “Why do people get so fixated on Mercedes? They’re boring and over-rated!” or, my favorite, “People who drink Starbucks have no taste! It’s just over-roasted shit!” You know the type.
Here’s the deal, the hard reality that no amount of piled-high derision changes a bit: Some people just plain know more than you do. That is very true with me, about all sorts of areas of human knowledge and even about beer, wine, and spirits. I may not like it that I have worked this hard and diligently for decades and I am still not the Fount of All Wisdom but there it is, an immutable Fact. And I and possibly hundreds of other people like me, who have devoted sizeable chunks of their life’s energies and time to studying what we write about, absolutely DO know more than you, depending of course on who the “you” is that we are addressing. If I am talking to Tomme Arthur or Sam Calagione or Heidi Barrett or Doug McCrea or Gerry Webb, I know enough to shut the hell up and listen, instead of speaking. They know MORE than me. And there is a very real possibility that, if I am in a roomful of strangers, one of those strangers may well know more than I do about the subject at hand. Keeping one’s mouth shut is rarely a bad idea. But complete strangers, on social media AND in public, will confront others and say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Because I am now seventy years old (and look it), I get that from young beer geeks all the time. I no longer even respond. One of the nice parts of being an old crank is not giving a shit and I have precious little shit left that I can give and use it only sparingly.
The remedy for this is simple: LISTEN…before you…SPEAK. Read the room, Jethro. If someone is knowledgeable, you’ll probably pick that up shortly, unless you’re madly pontificating and can’t hear it. SOME PEOPLE KNOW MORE THAN YOU. Fact of life. Don’t like that?
There is no such thing as the “proper” glassware. There is this sub-genre of wine websites which present themselves as authorities on wines and wine culture. They’re really not but whatever. I found an article on one of them, maybe five years ago, entitled “The Wrong Glass Will Give You a Horrible Wine Experience“. This piece purported to assign the “proper” vessel for drinking each style and varietal of wine.
Here is what I know, from a couple of decades of testing every single brand and design of wine glass, beer glass, and whiskey glass I could find:
What will give you a “horrible” wine experience is…drinking horrible wine. If you are drinking a well-made, carefully picked, properly aged and bottled and stored wine, that GOOD wine will still be good if you drink it from a $60 a stem Riedel balloon, a Cost Plus bargain wine goblet, a stemless Libbey balloon, a coffee cup, a jelly jar, a Mason jar, or a test tube. If your wine is crap, it will still be crap if you serve it from that sixty buck Riedel or the Zalto Denk’Art Burgundy Hand-Blown Crystal Glass at $260 a stem. So, is there really ANY difference between a well-made, somewhat pricey wine glass and that $10 Cost Plus cheapie? Yes, there is. It is a slight difference and one that you would need a very well-trained palate to detect or appreciate…a difference that is probably not worth your money. And, to be honest, as with much of what drinking adult beverages is all about, we humans are suggestible creatures. If we think something is going to taste better if it costs more money, chances are it will. I know people who have openly scorned any wine glass but Riedel and then done blind tastings with the glasses concealed and the majority of those same folks could not identify the Riedel from the other, cheaper glasses. Same with beer tastings.
Are there design flaws in beverage glasses? You betcha. There was a series of beer and wine glasses that was briefly popular a few years back, in which the stem – that skinny part that holds up the bowl into which the wine/beer is poured – was replaced with a slender tube that had wide rings molded into it, as places where your fingers can fit. The only problem is that wine stems – and beer stems/handles, to a degree – are deliberately made as solid rods to keep our warm hands from heating up the liquids. One maker’s IPA glass was a larger version of this and, sure enough, that properly chilled IPA wound up being a tepid IPA in about ten minutes.
For easy and effective appreciation of the aromas, those wide balloon wine glasses and beer tulips are there to make a little swirling possible, so that esthers in the liquids can delight your nose. So curved sides and stems are good ideas that are hard to do without. But even those are not mandatory. What determines the experience you have with a wine, beer, or whiskey is the quality of the stuff in the bottle. If you enjoy owning a Riedel or even the Zalto Denk’Art, by all means, DO IT. But you owe nobody apologies for drinking from your Etsy jelly jars.
Image property of winetuber
This next one is something I’ve been battling, literally, for well over twenty years: DON’T get married to any one style of beer, any grape or region, or any species of the world’s whiskeys. You can, if you like. Of course you can. Hey, I am not the Booze Police. And I do readily admit that I am a staunch devotee of Maximum Variety. I cannot even conceive of deciding that I’m going to drink Budweiser (or Dogfish 90 or Stone Arrogant Bastard or Sierra Nevada Celebration or Deschutes Black Butte) and nothing else, forever and ever, amen. The idea of drinking nothing but Chardonnay or Cabernet or Chianti or Chateauneuf du Pape or Zinfandel, to the exclusion of all else, for the rest of my days is horrific. Just saying, as I admittedly used to, “I’m a Scotch drinker” and refusing Bourbons or Canadians or Tennessee Sippin’ Whiskeys or any of the great brownwater stuff being made literally all over the planet, is to me just youthful ignorance that I am well grown out of.
When you dig a rut and climb in and throw a tarp over your head, you absolutely are well within your rights. But if you do that, you guarantee that you will not find the thing you like better – and it IS, by all that is holy, Out There, somewhere, hoping you’ll find it and take it home. You may tell yourself that your Beringer Cabernet is all you’ll even need in a wine and I’m sure it will be that for you. But what if there is a wine you would like a LOT better? There definitely is one, no matter what you’re married to now. I had a friend, in the late 90s, who stated flatly that nothing but Bordeaux could give him what he wanted in wine. That guy also whined and moaned because all of his Bordeaux was so expensive and constituted an investment for him, so he didn’t feel he could just open a bottle and enjoy it.
I listened to this for about nine months and finally hit the wall. I was working in a retail wine shop, then, at which he bought a lot of his Bordeaux, and the next time he came in and started moaning, I grabbed a bottle of a good, value-priced Spanish Rioja off a display and handed it to him. “Here,” I said, “My treat.” He looked at it and me. “Spanish? Really?“
“Shut up,” I replied, “It’s FREE. Take it home and drink it.”
I was open two minutes, the next morning, when he came running into the shop and sputtered, “That…that wine! It was AWESOME! Do you have any more? Can I get a case?” I sold him a case and he was back in a month. “Okay. I was wrong. Ya got anything else like that?“
It was $15 a bottle. So were the next four I sold him, all of which he loved.
The poor dunce was going to drink Bordeaux for the rest of his time. Now, he drinks all sorts of stuff and his Bordeaux collection has so far brought in a dash over $125,000…of which I saw nary a penny. Bastard.
Your next favorite wine, perfect ale, special whiskey IS Out There. But if you stay in that vinogamous relationship, you will pass like ships in the night and you will never know the thrills you missed.
Last (almost) – for now! – if you take nothing else from this, PLEASE, do NOT make that one largest mistake that is made daily, by literal millions of American beverage fans:
“__________ (country/state/region/appellation/vineyard/etc.) (winery/brewery/distillery) is the best in the world!”
NO, it is NOT. And the statement itself is silly, bordering on childish. Unless you have visited and tasted at every brewery or winery or distillery in the world, you don’t know who/what is the “best in the world”. FACT. We all understand this and everybody hearing such declarative hyperbole understands that it is largely symbolic, intended to convey enthusiasm and not objective merit. The thing is, though, there is about a 99% certainty that whatever name you utter is not even the best in your own backyard. Taking Washington as an example, there are over 800 wineries here. And we do tend to be homers, here. People from East of the Cascades will probably have a Best Wineries list that is ONLY wineries from Walla Walla and Red Mountain and Horse Heaven and the upper Columbia Valley. They MAY not even acknowledge those from the Columbia Gorge and, chances are, they will know nothing at all of those West of the mountains, like Cadence and Olalla and Wind Rose and Wilridge and Walter Dacon.
Most of us heard this simple-minded claptrap in relation to French wine, mostly about Bordeaux and Burgundy, from well-meaning but indoctrinated friends and acquaintances from our pasts, who swallowed French Superiority whole from whatever wine pedant haunted their own youths. And it has served the French purposes to continue having folks think this but if it was true, at one time, it’s NOT now. Great wine is being made literally all over the planet. If someone tries to feed you this cheesy, buttery, snail-infested throwback fairy tale, by all means be nice. But let it go in one ear and out the other. Make up our own mind about what you like. Don’t even take my word for it. As I said, there really is NO shortcut to gaining wine knowledge and being informed about the world’s wines – OR beers or Whiskeys or Vodkas or or any other damned thing – than personal experience. As Fleetwood Mac once said, “Go your own way…” Still good advice.
This doesn’t really need more explanation. If you want to say that something is “best” and give it any real teeth, GO TASTE STUFF. Cuisines, wines, beers, food, there is no shortcut. Just know this: saying anything like “best in the world” in front of a genuinely knowledgeable wine person or your local wine shop clerk instantly marks you as a newbie. So…stop it. Please.
Last (really), if you do or ever have gone to a winery or distillery tasting room just to get a buzz on from the sample pours, KNOCK THAT SHIT OFF, LIKE RIGHT NOW. That is NOT what sampling is for. It is a benevolent business practice that lets consumers get to know the producer’s wares. If your aim is to get hammered, buy a fuggen bottle and go home, where you won’t be a menace on the roads, and have a ball. But doing this is bush league bullshit and when the business tosses you out on your ass, don’t you DARE get a ‘tude about it. PERIOD.
There will probably be another edition of this, as gripes like this pop up, which they do with numbing regularity. But this is a start and, as I get older and more cranky, they become things about which I am less and less inclined to – NOT “capable of” – ignoring. I could easily just wave off all this static but that’s not my function on this planet, for better or for worse, and those with more to lose, of course, have to be more diplomatic…but it’s stuff that SHOULD be said, so I elect me, who owns his own pop stand and is a decade past caring about what anyone – save a few dozen fam and friends – thinks about me.