Water Sommeliers: The Next Big Trend?
I read the title above this morning in The Daily Meal (All Things Food and Drink) and had a good chuckle. Apparently, the author was talking about more than just whether you’d like still or sparkling. His bottom line was that the establishments that are employing a water sommelier or training their servers/sommeliers on their extensive offerings of water options are attempting to improve the quality of the experience for you, their customers, in a meaningful way. Uh, sure, I guess? It reminded me how in the competitive restaurant world, risk-taking to get a leg up means starting a new trend, or second best, following the new trend just to stay au courant. Remember sake and beer pairings? All Natural wine lists? Just what is the genesis of beverage trends in the wine business and why do certain trends fade into fads while others broaden our known world of wine?
Wine is a many-splendored thing. There are so many choices of what to consume, each option supported by an encyclopedia of information attempting to explain why it is a unique voice amid the din. I have lying around here somewhere my “Galet,” the seminal tome of all grape varieties including all known synonyms of each used to make wine the world over. It must be three inches thick. Think of it, thousands of sub-genus (Vitis), sub-species (vinifera), varieties; that is, types of grape that are used to make wine. Vitis vinifera is an ancient plant indeed, a wild weed that has been proliferating and with each seed formed (likely) creating a new variety. Some wine drinkers and many of you reading this enjoy the very act of collecting the information, learning about different varieties, and delving into the story behind a single wine. In this digital age there is so much information readily available. In fact there is more information about the wines than there are wines available. How can I taste Rkatzitali if almost all that is produced in Georgia is going to Russia, and none is coming anywhere near here?
To help channel all of this information somebody must narrow down my choices. Your favorite fine dining establishment or fine wine store can’t stock everything, so somebody has the responsibility of ‘wine buyer,’ and that person is limiting what I can choose to experience at his establishment. Or to look at it another way, someone is helping me discover and try new wines they have tasted with me in mind, a conduit of information and experience. For that I am most grateful.
These wine buyers are, in essence, tastemakers. If they lead, do you follow? When are they creating or following a trend and when is it mere sideshow circus-ry? There are many types of lists but at minimum a successful buyer will offer a range of wines in style and price that work with their restaurant’s food. Beyond this straight-forward task, a wine buyer can distinguish herself/himself by identifying the formerly obscure or overlooked wine(s) that will be the next popular wine and offer you an experience you had not even considered when you walked in the door. Nailing this can mean job security or career advancement and maybe even the envy of his or her peers. Think of Shelly Lindgren from A16’s Southern Italian list—with selected California wines, including Peay. In large part due to her championing Southern Italian wines you will find Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Falanghina—and a host of other wines whose names tangled my brain when she relayed them to me in the early 2000s—on wine lists across the country. She started a robust trend because the wines had something to say that was real. They were not the result of winemaking gimmickry or a desire to be hip. They were and are a revelation to drinkers and have now become standard options on most Italian wine lists.
But not everything that is promised to be remarkable becomes the Next Big Thing. Fifteen years ago, wine professionals and the press were touting Grenache as the Next Hot Thing. Not that the idea exactly fizzled, but varietal Grenache never caught on like Pinot noir, or Merlot before it. Just wait, now that Syrah has lost its momentum, the press is hot on Grenache again. Will it happen this time? Does it offer something unique that drinkers need to experience and have as one of their beverage options? Have we been missing something vital?
Old world winegrape growers are steeped in tradition, often restricted in their choices of what to plant and how to grow it. That means the whim of the wine-consuming public either alights on their little corner of the world, or not. In California, we are still trying to figure out what will grow well where, and as far as restrictions go, it is the wild west, plant whatever you wish. Can the grower here tap into the bubbling currents of the wine cogniscenti and plant today’s (or tomorrow’s) new hot wine grape? Absolutely! It is quite possible though that before the five years it takes to raise the vines and make a wine out of their grapes are up, the new trend has changed, and the fickle fad-chasing wine consumer has moved on. Grafting over mature vines shortens time to market a little (three years?), but changing varieties is a distinct gamble. Sticking with what you know can be judged, perhaps unfairly, as the action of the avaricious grower instead of the passionate grower who is obsessed with and less willing to throw over half a lifetime’s dedication and knowledge for mere whimsy.
We grow mostly Pinot noir (34 acres), some larger plantings of Chardonnay (7 acres) and Syrah (8 acres), and a few acres of “experiments.” In our pursuit of trying to find what grows well where, we have not continued to try new varieties as we are quite keen on the varieties we already grow and feel we are only scratching the surface of what there is to know about them. I am still daily impressed with these new discoveries and feel I am learning everyday how I can best coax the ideal expression of our vineyard in the wines.
So, no Poulsard experiment is in the pipeline, no Lagrein on the way, and, no, there won’t be any Peay Agg-ouzoum. Sadly, for that you will have to head to Daghestan.