Why We Need a Radical New Approach to Wine
The interaction between sommeliers and customers doesn’t have to be the way it’s been. If we pour you an ounce of wine from a bottle that you purchased, you should not feel uncomfortable or be afraid of asking questions.
It all started when I grew weary of wine culture and the experience of drinking wine in general.
Drinking alcohol should never make you feel dumb or belittled. It should never make you think, What the fuck is that? You should be able to pick up a wine list and feel comfortable and find things that are relatable, regardless of your prior wine knowledge. It's just alcohol in a glass, after all. This level of casual comfort when ordering wine is what I have achieved with my wine menu at Hatchet Hall.
I think it's the "less is more" philosophy with my wine list. Simplicity is preferable to complexity. Not understanding one word [on the wine list] is much easier and understandable than not understanding seven words.
The interaction between sommeliers and customers doesn't have to be the way it's been. If we pour you an ounce of wine from a bottle that you purchased, you should not feel uncomfortable or be afraid of asking questions. This goes against the values of being in the hospitality industry, since making you feel at home and relaxed while you wine and dine is our business.
What can be different about this age-old ritual? Doing away with the concept of sommeliers altogether. This will definitely be an unpopular opinion, but it's the truth, whether we all like to admit it or not.
Wine culture needs to evolve like everything else.
Yes, I am a sommelier and working at restaurants has gotten me by, but it is not my ambition to maintain the vicious cycle of 5-percent profit margins and getting paid on commission for every bottle of wine I sell. Nobody will tell you this, but a large part of having a wine menu at any restaurant is negotiating deals with distributors and buying as much wine as cheaply as possible, [and] then selling it for as much as you can. I am over this model.
After years of working in some of Los Angeles' most celebrated restaurants—like Bestia and The Tasting Kitchen—my colleague (who has worked at Trois Mec) and I have learned that wine culture needs to evolve like everything else. This means improving the communication between wines and customers and empowering diners through better terms to describe wines.
Wine is such a volatile business to be in, and it depends largely on the concept of luxury to sell high-priced bottles. So nobody wants to hear that luxury isn't necessary, and you don't have to pop off bottles of Cristal. You can pop off bottles of $10 Prosecco and be fucking happy, too. Heaven forbid that normal people drink the wine of the 1 percent! Take pét-nat [pétillant naturel wines] for example. It is like the Miller High Life of wine because it is an inexpensive sparkler that is easy to drink and accessible, yet it has gotten popular because of a few writeups. Have you noticed the price hike on that wine style alone over the last few years? It used to be $15 retail a bottle, and now that same bottle goes for $30.
What is the point of all of this sommelier business if wines can't be enjoyed by everyone? This is what it really comes down to. It is not about trying to be edgy, hip, and esoteric, like I have been labeled as in the past. It is just about streamlining and simplifying the wine ordering process as much as you can to cut costs and make wines affordable. All I want is for there to be an open conversation about wines in restaurants.
The recent boom of craft beer and cocktail culture have scarily affected wine sales, so we are combating this by finding ways of keeping diners interested in wine. Like our #Kistler16, which is neither a wine cocktail [nor a] wine spritzer, but just a simple wine-based mixed drink that tastes like one of the most amazing white wines. All we do is rinse a wine glass with bourbon. Add a sweet-tasting white wine, and at first sip, you will think that you are all of a sudden drinking a glass of Kistler that normally retails for around $100 a bottle. However, we charge $11 a glass.
Hearing all of this might piss some people off, but a lot of the real and honest winemaking families that we work with love what we are doing because we are making their Old World beverage timely again. Wine sales may have plummeted recently, but the dumpsters at our little restaurant are filled with bottles every night. Now we have groups of people every day who come into the restaurant and literally say, "OK, show us what you got."
This means everything to me. Always remember that wine is all love, peace, love, unity, and respect.
Adam Vourvoulis contributed to this story.
As told to Javier Cabral