Thursday, October 18, 2012

Does every palate matter?

At a recent dinner with several Houston-area wine bloggers, an interesting aphorism came up: Every palate matters. Does that hold when it comes to opinions about wine? As with almost anything, the answer is somewhere in the middle, but overall the notion that every wine drinker's palate matters is a valuable concept.

What wines go off in your head like a light bulb?
The easiest way to understand that is to concede that we live in the information age -- or at least during an epoch in which information, its volume, and its accessibility are of central importance to our society. Indeed, the very notion that more-is-better when it comes to information seems to be hardening into theorem. Setting aside the need to sort through various degrees of how reliable that information is, there is undeniably something appealing about the information economy. You can crystallize this in a way easily understood during this election season: we like polls because they let us know with a reasonable certainty what likely would happen were voting to take place on any given day. The more data a poll has, in theory, the more accurate it is. And the same is true for this information society. Dump everything into a central input -- the Internet, broadly speaking -- and you're going to get an increasingly accurate read on things the more good information you include.

Obviously, the paragraph above is an over-simplification. As acknowledged, it doesn't account for bad or blatantly misleading or false information. (One might argue the Internet excels at the blatantly false.) But drilling down on this idea a bit further reveals that it is useful. We like to rely on experts in this country; you might argue we're obsessed with doing so -- in politics, when it comes to advice on parenting, in litigation, in almost every life situation you'll find an expert telling you what to do. What you don't often get, however, is a meaningful glimpse of the raw data that lie behind the opinion. And that's where the pure-democracy free-for-all of the Internet is such fun and holds so much potential.

Large-format bottles at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago.
To bring the focus back to wine, you can readily see how the proliferation of information enhances and frames expert opinions. Many wine consumers are familiar with the 100-point-scale of ratings employed by Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and the Wine Spectator. And a portion of those consumers are lashing back against the "tyranny" of slapping a purportedly objective number on wine, a beverage lauded for its nuance and singularity of expression. Of course it's silly to think that anything as subjective as wine could be reduced to a number. It's also silly to think that an "expert" taster's opinion, such as that of Robert Parker or James Laube or James Suckling, should be given dictatorial deference. Each of them is, however skilled, just one taster. And it is the Internet and the ease with which it allows information proliferation that has enabled consumers to make terrific inroads against this tyranny of experts in the wine industry.

The best example of this CellarTracker, Eric Levine's invaluable web-based wine software. (Though it is worth noting that bulletin boards such as Wine Berserkers -- although not Parker's miserable online forum -- are also worthy venues.) Apart from being an intuitive and comprehensive tool for managing your wine cellar, CellarTracker allows user to post public tasting notes, and it has become the single finest repository of data on individual wines in the world. It also tethers in various expert reviews -- either automatically, in the case of the International Wine Cellar, Burghound, and others -- or via manual input for Parker and Spectator.

Riesling at Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas is one of life's pure pleasures.
To understand why this is part of CellarTracker's genius, you have to understand generally why wine tasting notes matter. Rarely do two wine drinkers' palates mesh perfectly, if at all. As a result, when you read a tasting note, you have to calibrate your own palate to that of the writer. One person's "black cherry" might be another person's "blackberry." One person's perception of sweetness or tannin might differ dramatically from that of another. When widely available tasting notes were relegated to a handful of critics, it was difficult to calibrate your palate to that of a critic (not to mention the lingering fear that disagreeing with a critic's expert assessment might make you "wrong") because drinking a wine and comparing it to a single, fleeting tasting note is perversely inexact. Believe it or not, critics like Robert Parker get wines wrong; they have off days; they don't like certain wines or styles. These are biases inherent in every wine drinker, so the margin for error with fewer voices in the tasting note chorus is much greater.

CellarTracker, however, provides more data points for wine drinkers than ever before and, as a result, makes this "palate calibration" easier because the amount of data significantly reduces the prospects that information about the wine will be an outlier. (Naturally, when CellarTracker has fewer data on a wine, the less reliable it is.) The net result is that wine drinkers win because there is a more transparent, democratic community. Expansive forums like CellarTracker also enhance the usefulness of professional critics by giving them greater context -- it's easier to see when they get wines wrong or how they compare to someone whose palate coincides more closely with yours. This helps break down a lot of the old snobbery that has intimidated people from appreciating wine and have remained obstacles for too long. And, yes, it also means that every palate matters.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

How much money is wine worth?

How much is that wine in your glass worth? Seriously. Cover up the label. Wipe away the memory of what you paid for it. What is it worth to you? If only it were that simple. From the objective standpoint of pure dollars, wine is grotesquely overpriced. Wine costs, roughly, between 20 cents an ounce (for a $5 bottle) and $100 (or more) an ounce. To put that in context, organic milk at Central Market costs roughly 4 cents an ounce. Fancy bottled water might run as much as 15 cents an ounce. The most expensive beers at Spec's here in Houston might tip the scale at 50 cents per ounce (with the usual Miller Lite or Bud Light coming in at about 8 cents per ounce in a 12-pack).

Before going further, however, a preliminary note: this isn't one of those screeds about "authentic" wine or excoriating those who pay a lot for bottles of wine. Those are traps. Terms like "authentic" and "a lot" are so relative, they have little fixed meaning. At the same time, the "worth" of wine isn't necessarily as simple as the cost of the grapes, oak barrels, bottles, labels, corks, etc. that go into making the wine.

So where does that leave the question: How much is that wine in your glass worth? Probably never more than about $50. At that point, other factors start playing havoc with the amount you pay. Chief among those are prestige and scarcity. That is easily enough understood. There are roughly 500 cases of Domaine de la Romanee Conti's Romanee Conti made each vintage, centuries of legend behind the wine, and tens of thousands of people who would gladly pay to drink perhaps the greatest trophy among all wines. Put that all together, and you can grab a 750-milliliter bottle of 2009 Romanee Conti for $10,000 if you're lucky (almost $400 per ounce).

That's an extreme example, and the slope of prestige and scarcity that reaches its apex at Romanee Conti is much more difficult to discern at its earlier stages of incline. But here's an example you may have encountered: Have you ever drunk Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio? If you drink wine, you probably have tasted it. Six or seven years ago, it retailed for $15. Today, you're hard-pressed to find it for $20 or less. On a restaurant wine list, you might have found it for $25 to $30 in 2005. Today? Try more like $40 to $60. The wine hasn't changed. Its rapidly increasing popularity has. You're paying 30% more for the same wine. (Or, some may argue, lesser wine, as production of it has increased steadily over the years, too.)

In any case, it's not difficult to understand that prices increases with popularity. That's simple supply-and-demand. Pinot Noir prices in California jumped after the immense popularity of the movie Sideways. Popularity is only one factor in the price, but this doesn't tell us much about how much wine is worth.

The real bottom line here isn't existential or even complex. To determine what wine is worth to you, ask  how much you are comfortable paying. It doesn't matter if you're willing to spend $5 or $10 or $20 for a bottle. Whatever fits in your budget and tastes good to you is what wine is worth. The larger point here is that more expensive isn't always better. You pay for a lot of things besides what's inside the bottle as prices increase. Today, there are more higher quality wine options across the board, which means there is even less reason to have label envy.

One final note: this shouldn't be taken as a condemnation of expensive wines or trophy bottles. Splurging can be fun. But wine connoisseurs have a terrible habit of making less sophisticated drinkers feel inferior or inadequate by showing contempt for less prestigious wines or those that have some esoteric point of interest. That can be intimidating, but it's a silly game to play. Not every occasion calls for a trophy bottle -- a hot day on the porch with a $10 bottle of Sauvignon Blanc is a recipe for a good time -- and just because a wine is rare and prestigious doesn't always mean it's the best. There are dozens of $100-plus Napa Valley Cabernets to prove this point.

There is nothing gained by drinking wine to impress others. You should drink for yourself.
You don't drink wine for the pleasure it gives others; you drink it for the pleasure it brings you. So the wine that fits your budget and makes you happy? However much it cost, that's how much a wine is worth.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Houston, we have a problem ... with criticism

Most of what's happening on the Houston food thing is positive. The Houston Dairymaids greatly extended their warehouse hours, further expanding this city's most important cheese source. Underbelly just opened to great fanfare. Uchi has arrived from Austin. Oxheart joins the fray next week.  There's real buzz around new restaurants here. But let's not forget that traditional favorites, such as Da Marco, Hugo's, Backstreet Cafe, Tony's, and so many others keep on trucking along. This is a vibrant, even burgeoning food metropolis that has legitimate potential to become a culinary destination in the next decade.

The sad thing is that Houston faces a serious threat to its ascent up the national food ladder. A startling number of those in the restaurant, bar, and beverage scene here apparently believe they are immune from criticism. Recently, newly opened Liberty Kitchen got in a flap with Alison Cook, the Houston Chronicle's long-time and well-respected food critic. (After Cook had been tossed, seemingly with provocation, by another restaurant owner in 2010.) Just a short time ago, Hubcap Grill's owner went ballistic over a tepid review from a Dallas critic, in a torrent of profanity and violent threats. Regardless of the subsequent apology, this sort of behavior makes Houston's restaurants come off as immature, petty, and, most important, unwilling to strive for the improvement that will allow them to shine on the national stage. And these incidents have not been relegated to professional critics.

Look no further than the lightning-rod of the Houston food community's ire -- Yelp -- and the vitriolic, out-of-hand dismissals of it to understand that Houston's restaurant scene, evolving each day, is in the midst of adolescence. And there is a lot of growing up to do still.

Before going further, however, all the Yelp critics can just take a deep breath. The point here is not to say Yelp is the end-all, be-all. Or that there aren't tons of unfair comments and reviews on Yelp. (Just go look at one-star reviews of the French Laundry to see preposterous unfairness.) It's important to realize the fundamental positive that Yelp represents. For the first time, the Internet and its accessibility affords restaurant owners, chefs, staffs, and anyone involved in the industry with an unprecedented reservoir of data. As with any significant amount of information, there will be outliers. In the realm of Yelp, these outliers are mean-spirited reviews of whatever ilk or sycophantic raves. There is worthwhile information in places like Yelp, even if it isn't written in the most articulate way, and this information isn't worthy of outright dismissal. The restaurant-going public is a massive, diverse body, and doubtless the Wisdom of Crowds applies to some extent. Recurring themes in reviews and feedback, regardless of the source, should make a restaurateur perk up his ears.

Granted, any sort of feedback open to the public, such as Yelp or Google reviews of the Chowhound board, provides unfiltered information. You'll run into various types of criticism, running the gamut from constructive to unwarranted, even malicious. It's serious work to filter through the feedback you get and determine what can make you better, but that is the nature of a service industry. It's a positive thing that the amount of information you receive from customers is at unprecedented levels. It's hard enough to just run an establishment, much less figure out how to improve it. Your customers are giving a torrent of information that is readily accessible. Why reject any avenue that might provide hints on how to get better?

Restaurants are humbling. That's the nature of putting yourself on the line, every day, in an endeavor as personal as food. In many ways it is like art or writing. But if you want to be the best -- or simply better than you are now -- how do you expect get there if you turn your back on people who care enough to tell you what worked and what didn't? As it stands right now, Houston's food community is defined by the largely (at least publicly) friendly relations among its members. But given how violently a surprising number in this community have reacted to criticism, one has to wonder whether Houston's ascendant food scene believes it is beyond reproach.

Naturally, it's good to see people have a positive attitude and build up one another, rather than fall victim to petty in-fighting and cynicism. Constructive criticism, though, is an essential part of a positive environment. Offering it means you care enough to want someone or something to get better. Being called names, shouted down, or shooed away as if you don't know anything gives a clear sign not that a reviewer was unfair but that an establishment is too scared to improve or more interested in resting on its laurels.

If you close off to constructive criticism and only respond to positive reviews or feedback, the only thing you have to rely on to reach that elite level of restaurant greatness is your internal drive. It goes without saying how few people can achieve greatness alone. What's worse, though, is that a dismissive attitude like that shuns the larger group that wants to see you succeed. It also creates an us-versus-them mentality that runs contrary to the collaborative spirit cultivated among so many in Houston's industry.

At the same time, there is the difficult problem of dealing with unwarranted and malicious criticism or even outright lies. As said previously, restaurants are a service industry. Interactions with customers, regardless of how wrong they may be, must be handled with decorum. Show fundamental respect and be professional. Don't let emotions dictate your response, no matter how tempting social media might make it. Handling obstreperous customers with tact will always earn you more points with the restaurant-going public.

Elevating Houston as a culinary destination is a collaborative effort. And that effort extends to patrons, regardless of the venue in which they voice their opinions and regardless of whether they are articulate or knowledgeable enough to be considered "foodies." Customers who take the time to come out for a meal or drink speak with the most important voice: their wallets. That's worthy of respect, just as the passion, time, and creativity those in the industry is worthy of appreciation.