In Defense of Drinking More

In this season dedicated to spiritual, physical, and personal improvement, let me suggest one easily attainable goal: drink more.  You can stretch your liver and exercise alcohol metabolism while lounging comfortably on your couch, remote in hand.  The calories exerted pulling the cork with a traditional corkscrew are sure to offset the calories of at least the first sip.  And if you own a fancy Rabbit wine opener, forgo the calorie nonsense altogether; just top your triple cream cheese with a lardon.  Tally wine’s heart-healthy resveratrol against the artery-clogging motorcade of unpasteurized brie, and you’re still ahead.  Tone your biceps and deltoids by drinking exclusively from large format bottles, like jeroboams or methuselahs.  The buzz dissolves stress and obviates the need for yoga.  Personal finances seem rosier.  Your kids’ abhorrent behavior feels tolerable.  And interpersonal dramas evaporate into the stratosphere.  Most importantly, the more you drink, the better you’ll hone your personal wine preferences. It’s true that the best way to learn about wine is to drink more.  A buddy recently confided she finally understand what a “hot jamnmy” zin tastes like, after successively tasting three or four different zins from different producers over a couple of days.  I ran into a gym acquaintance at the supermarket yesterday who asked for a chardonnay recommendation.  After she disclosed her penchant for buttery and oaky, I targeted my advice.  I suggested a $40 option and a $20 option.  She opted for the latter, reinforcing the market trend towards value-priced wines.  It’s a sobering stat for those of us sweating it out in the overstuffed premium marketplace.  Still I champion her willingness to impulse buy an unknown wine, just for the fun of it.  Go team chardonn-ebriated! 

Drink more to fill your home with wines that you love to savor.  You are the best advocate for the wines you want to drink.  Become your own at-home sommelier and carry that confidence into restaurants and wine shops.  You’ll need it.  This week, two articles by well-known wine industry experts warned restaurant patrons against eager but inexperienced somms and to stand firm in combating “the upsell.”  In the first, Jordan Mackay explained that restaurant wine programs are evolving faster than the pool of experienced, trained sommeliers.  As a result, restaurants are hiring folks who may lack the grace or experience to provide a top notch wine experience.  These zealous young guns may ignore the constraints of your price point or simply proffer some precious bottle that reflects their preference, not yours.  It’s unclear whether these lapses in service emanate from some hot hipster’s burgeoning ego or earnest, misplaced energetic passion- or both.  A spirited puppy will jump up and knock you over, not from malice but uncontrolled exuberance.  Buyer beware of overeager somms hawking esoteric varietals, weird unfiltered sludge, or anything pre-1950. 

Lettie Teague’s WSJ column exposed the wily sales tactic known as “the upsell.”  Say you request help selecting a $45-$60 bottle of wine.  Then the server or somm winks and suggestively whispers in a conspiratorial tone that she/he has something really special in the cellar.  When the tab arrives, you discover you’ve been saddled with a $160 bottle of wine that you never even wanted.  Some way to foster consumer confidence in a burgeoning wine program.

Luckily Brian and I have never felt hoodwinked by the terrific and highly knowledgeable somms in the restaurants we frequent most.  We implicitly trust these guys to educate and expose our palates to new, exciting stuff.  But we are creatures of habit and rarely dine beyond the rarefied confines of our zip code.  Maybe our experience would be different if we ventured somewhere new, where our smiling visages are unfamiliar to the front-house wait staff.  So in a radical move of forethought and unprecedented motivation, we visited two downtown San Diego joints that were new to us.  The first, a wine bar, upheld the rancor of exclusivity with a “hidden door” so frustrating to locate that I circled the entry three times before calling the bar from my cell phone to confirm their hours.  The phone attendant alluded to the trompe d’oeil grass door.  Seriously?

“A glass door?” I yelled into my iPhone, perplexed.

“No grass.”

“What?  I don’t see any glass.  Just graffiti.   And it’s locked.”

“No grass.”

This played out like a classic riff of “Who’s on First.”  I’m too old for this BS.  Once inside, we missed the sign directing us to order at the bar and seat ourselves.  After wandering aimlessly for 5 minutes, I asked one very cool bartender if I should seat myself.  Exasperated, he reiterated the protocol pasted above the entryway.  Oops.  Shame on me.  On the plus side, the bartender offered up tastes of what we’d selected before we had to commit to a glass.  However he didn’t seem terribly passionate about what he was pouring, either.  The advice he offered to two wine novices sitting beside me was pretty barebones and insipid.  A second wine guru skulked around in the back, attending to the banquettes.  But he didn’t bother with us saps up front.  It was managed health-care for the wine set.  You had to pass a “gatekeeper” before access to the specialist.  In concept the place was grand - mellow, wine by the glass, yummy nibbles, and cushy pillows.  Unfortunately the artifice was too much for me to bear. 

We continued onto a stylish, contemporary dining space attached to a boutique hotel.  This would be a true test of service since we were dining on a gift certificate, and the staff knew this in advance.  Eating for free on a pledge that predated the recession is the fast track to restaurant neglect.  Undeterred, I perused the California-centric but well selected wine list and opted for a glass of Barth white pinot noir from Germany, something totally novel and cool to me.  When I asked our waiter to send over the somm to tell me more about this nifty find, she appeared moments later.  Excited and eager to teach me about this unique selection, she detailed the production background and divulged where it could be purchased locally.  Unfortunately, we didn’t see her again because she was basically running the joint (and literally running around).  Victims of cost-cutting initiatives, the front house included just a skeleton 3-man waitstaff plus the sommelier cum manager-food runner-ticket caller-water refiller.  Unable to justify the cost of a full-time dedicated wine director, the somm earned her keep wearing multiple hats. 

Here in San Diego, the restaurant biz seems to be rebounding, with hot spots popping up all over town.  Unfortunately, to ensure a quality wine experience, you may have to be your own advocate.  To that end, please drink more.