The Recent Comments From Huon Hooke About Sommeliers
The recent comments from Huon Hooke about sommeliers (at date of writing the article was online www.smh.com.au, in the executive style section) and the robust criticism of them from the likes of Dan Sims, Peter Healy, and Rob Walters (www.thewineguide.com.au) provide food for thought. Hooke talks of sommeliers whose “conversation is all about the rarest, most obscure imported wines they've tasted lately”, while Sims talks of wine articles that “fail to inspire and engage.” The question that has them at odds, if I have it straight, is whether or not sommeliers at top restaurants are too enamoured with European wines at the expense of local wines. Sims also points out the lack of focus from Wine Australia on the domestic market, a problem that I know is now being addressed by the promotional body.
As someone who manages wine lists, who has been an importer, and who is now employed in the dark arts of marketing and selling Australian wine, the debate has particular interest. The key point in my view is that sommeliers, and writers for that matter, make choices to buy, review, recommend, and drink certain wines. It is appropriate for Huon Hooke to speak his mind on the state of wine lists, but for a local producer/seller/marketer, getting upset with those choices that sommeliers make is a waste of time. Trying to understand why they make those choices, though, is time well spent. To get persnickety about a sommelier who is going through a bout of enthusiasm for mencia and godello is to take one’s eye off the proverbial bull, and is just as dangerous. As Huon mentioned in his reply to the blog outrage, he remembers the bad old days before the rise of sommeliers, and I remember those days too. To come across people who cared about their wine list was a rare treat. Now they really care, and if that means getting carried away and listing a verzontal of Agiorgitiko then bring it on, as long as the wines are good. If we have people who are motivated to taste and learn and pass that on to their customers then we are lucky, and if we have something interesting for them they are likely to check it out sooner or later.
Back, though, to understanding the choices that sommeliers are making. I don’t see any evidence that the importance of the relationship between sommeliers and their ‘reps’ is diminishing. Sommeliers buy from people who give them good service, who have interesting wines for them, and whose wines fit their business needs. And very high in any business’s needs is margin. Large parts of our restaurant industry use wine margins to subsidise food prices that don’t provide adequate margins on the labour and produce. With margin return from a wine list so important, diverse and at times obscure wines can help a restaurant to provide both value and the perception of value.
One point that Rob Walters made was that “we have a remarkable wine culture in Australia at the moment”, a sentiment that I agree with wholeheartedly. It also makes me think about that culture, how we nurture it, how we want it to develop. If part of that culture is that we want our local product to be valued and revered and supported by the restaurant trade, it is our job to make that happen, rather than our right that it should come to pass.
Dr John Herron is the Chairman of the Australian National Council on Drugs (ANCD) and he has written to school principals urging them to avoid alcohol related fundraising, including wine offers to parents and friends. It struck me as a wrongheaded idea the moment I read of it, but it took Tyson Stelzer (see www.clearaboutwine.com.au) to articulate just why it is so wrong. His description of Herron’s call as “naïve and dangerous” is spot on, and he goes on to explain the importance of young people seeing “responsible and appropriate contexts of alcohol use in our society.”
In my case becoming involved in the wine business taught me that alcohol could be far more interesting than being a pathway to inebriation. Ironically, the wine business helped me to develop a healthier attitude to alcohol, and reduced my tendency to drink to excess.
It is at times like this that organisations like Wine Australia need to step up and present a mature and considered response that emphasises a commitment to responsible consumption, but doesn’t tolerate dopey thinking from a body like the ANCD, which has the ear of the government. In the meantime, a thank you note to Mr Stelzer wouldn’t go astray.
First published in WBM - Australia's Wine Business Magazine.