Update: Read Charles Olken’s response: “Wine List Snobbism: Real or Made Up by ‘Old Guys’?” 

“Hipster sommeliers.” “Dim somms.” Oh no! Arrogant youngsters are forcing helpless diners to consume weird wines! Save us from this horrible trend! This is one of the top memes for ancient wine writers this summer.

It’s also complete bullshit.

W. Blake Gray

Let me name some names here: Wine Spectator‘s James Laube. Steve Heimoff, who once wrote for Wine Enthusiast and now sells Kendall-Jackson. Charlie Olken from the Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine. I’m calling you on your bullshit.

I’m naming names because I’m tired of the anonymous straw men in the “dim somm” articles.

Laube can pen a screed against In Pursuit of Balance, and if he wants to say Raj Parr has no taste, fine. People disagree. But these old men always go too far and attack this supposed nationwide trend of hipster somms and their consumer-unfriendly wine lists. For God’s sake, Heimoff compared sommeliers to ISIS.

These arrogant “hipster somms” — terrorists with corkscrews — don’t exist.

Earlier this summer on my blog, I asked readers to name restaurants where they encountered such hipster sommeliers. The title of my post was “Let’s Name Names: Restaurants where sommeliers recommend bad wines.” I wrote NAME THEM BELOW in large, bold capital letters. So it wasn’t vague. The post was reasonably well-read, with more visitors than when I posted a naked photo of a porn star, but fewer than when I last wrote something mean about Robert Parker. (What’s the real porn, eh?)

I got one (1) incidence of a sommelier pouring a wine that the commenter didn’t like AND refusing to take it back. One. From thousands of readers. I got a few other incidents of sommeliers being rude or ignorant. This happens. Some servers are bad too; so are some chefs. But just because the somm is rude doesn’t mean he’s making you drink swill. 

Heimoff blogged about this issue last month and the comments quickly deteriorated into some people complaining about some restaurants that don’t carry California sparkling wine. I like California sparkling wine as much as anybody. And I’m a huge proponent of restaurants carrying local wines, especially if they brag about local food sources. But if a restaurant doesn’t have one type of local wine, that hardly makes them dictatorial hipsters. It’s a straw man.

I’m a diner. I don’t have the right to tell a restaurant they must carry some specific wine, or they can’t carry some other wine. My right is to eat somewhere else.
Consider the restaurants where these old guy writers (and they are ALL guys) don’t like the wine lists. Charlie Olken wrote this comment about Commonwealth, a restaurant in my neighborhood, on Heimoff’s blog: “Commonwealth restaurant, an otherwise interesting place to eat, has just such a list of unknowns. When asked about it, the somm responded, ‘What the customers want is not important.'”

I ate at Commonwealth last week, and its list is obscure, especially by the glass. And it’s not perfect. I didn’t consider the California Riesling/Pinot Noir white blend as delicious as it was interesting. The Austrian Gelber Muskateller was too herbaceous for me. But I didn’t go there for a burger and fries. My favorite dish was “sea urchin, trout roe, potato, little gem lettuce, sea bean, lime cream, pickled wasabi.” We also really liked “squid and pork belly, soft cooked egg, hay smoked potato, fine herbs, yuzu aioli.”

You know what I first drank, by the glass? Pouilly-Fuissé. Then I had a Canary Islands red. Nobody offered me a Rodney Strong Chardonnay or Robert Mondavi Cabernet. But nobody forced me to drink swill either. I told Commonwealth’s beverage director about Olken’s comment and she hit me on the arm, she was so furious. She went into the office and searched it on the Internet. Then she came back, equally furious. She says she would never say such a thing, and I believe her. Just don’t hit me again.

This is one problem with the old guys’ complaints. It’s exaggeration. It’s bullshit. But even then, it’s not the main problem.

I’m not going to get into the polemics of wine styles because like the old guys, I am a fan of well-balanced, barrel-fermented Chardonnay, something more California winemakers have mastered. I love La Follette Chardonnay, and Ramey, and Grigch Hills. They’re delicious wines. I don’t need to drink them every night. I don’t need to drink anything every night, any more than I need to eat the same meal. And I certainly don’t need to drink from the well of ordinariness at a restaurant where I go for daring cuisine I hadn’t imagined before it appeared on my plate.

This is the main problem with this bullshit about whether or not polemical sommeliers are telling diners what to drink. Whether these somms are unicorns (non-existent) or platypuses (exceedingly rare), they don’t work at House of Prime Rib. They’re not getting in the way of a steak-loving diner who’s looking for a big-ass Napa Cab. I’ve never yet heard of a complaint about too many weird wines at a classic French-style bistro.

If you are the kind of diner who enjoys restaurants that serve squid and pork belly with hay smoked potato and yuzu aioli, it’s not unreasonable for that restaurant’s wine director to assume you might want to try some wine you haven’t seen before. If you don’t want a creative wine, why are you eating creative food? Go to a steakhouse. Or that solid place downtown that’s been good for 20 years. Or bring your own bottle of wine and pay corkage; I’ve done that at Commonwealth. Geez, just be happy. 

Or not. Frank Bruni did a brilliant piece for the New York Times a few years ago in which he spent a week as a server. A fellow server told him, “Some people are interested in having the experience of being disappointed.” That does sound like someone who goes to a trendy restaurant and complains that he can’t get Cakebread Chardonnay.

What should matter is if the wines are good. That’s a subjective opinion, but so is food. With food, it’s one we make every day, and we don’t over-reach it into a political issue. I go to new restaurants sometimes and think the noodles are too bland or the fish is overcooked. I don’t then write a column saying, “These hipster kids today, all across America, they can’t cook a fish.” I simply go to a better restaurant. Why is wine any different?

Thirty years ago, top restaurants had Bordeaux and Burgundy and Champagne and not much else because not much else in the wine world was really good. Now there are great wines from Turkey and Slovenia and Uruguay. Some people don’t want to try new things, and that’s fine; steakhouses are still more popular than pho shops. But old men can’t tell the rest of us not to eat pho.

I’m going to frame this argument as simply as I can:
If you think a restaurant’s wine list is too weird for you, you are too old to eat there. Eat somewhere else and stop your bullshit.

25 Responses

  1. Paco Weldon

    While I agree with much of what the author says, he is missing one important factor about why, for example, there may not be a California sparkler on the wine list and why “avant-garde” wine lists are much in vogue.

    Presenting wines that the average diner has never heard of provides an opportunity to optimize pricing (I am purposely avoiding the use of the word gouging). It’s easier to sell a $20 retail Cremant d’Alsace for $60 than a Domaine Carneros Brut for the same price when the diner likely has seen the DC on sale at Costco for $20. There is a resistance to triple retail pricing by restaurants (as there should be), but it’s a lot easier to pull it off when the diner has no idea how much the retail price is.
    And then, of course, the Somm can exclaim about the intriguing flavors of the Auxerrois grape variety used in Alsace as opposed to the oh-so-common Chardonnay.

  2. Mark Wisnovsky

    I agree with the general premise other than I don’t believe that only “old guys” have an issue with this situation. You had one sentence where you mentioned support for local wines if they also brag about local products. When did you last go to a trendy, gourmet, “hipster somm” restaurant that did not brag about all their local stuff? They all do and then predominately featured obscure, highly marked up wines from halfway around the world yet the micro-brews are local! There are a couple issues here, you can feature less known producers, regions, varietals/blends locally and regionally without having to go to the Canary Islands. And the real reason is mentioned below, they make more money selling unfamiliar wines. Local people usually know what local wines cost and will accept a reasonable markup but usually not three times or more, hence the main reason why cities like Portland are micro brew centric. There is a vast middle ground between serving KJ chard and some obscure Romanian white wine. But, be aware, it may not be as “cool.”

    • Lenny Pepperidge

      The reality is that American palates are maturing, and almost all California wine is overblown and horrible on the table. For all the attention (and scorn from people like Parker and Olkein) that the “New California” movement is getting, it’s still a tiny fringe movement. Most of California is still arrogantly producing the same overly ripe, overly oaked fruitbombs as before while expecting the market to see the error of its ways and come crawling back to them. Proof is in a chart of average brix at harvest for the main California varietals that I recently saw. Average sugar at harvest has increased for all varietals every year since 2008. That tells me that the New California movement is an outlier.

      And even when these wines are available, there are still better European versions at less cost. I can drink the best small production Albarino from Galicia cheaper than I can drink Abrente. For less cost than a bottle of Gavin Chardonnay, I can drink great Premier Cru (maybe even Gran Cru) Chablis. That small production California wine is the worst bargain on the planet is not the Europeans’ fault, not is it the fault of the restaurateurs.

  3. Charlie Olken

    Well, Blake, you have done it again. Looked before you leaped. The last time you tried that, you later blamed your public attack on me on caffeine rage. What is your excuse this time?

    Writers who do not do their homework before they spew all over themselves are the bain of the Internet, and you, sir, have just joined their ranks. It does sadden me, because you are a friend, but this latest bit of utter balderdash now makes me wonder.

    I have said, and I meant it then and mean it now, that local restaurants that go out of their ways to trumpet their locally sourced cuisine, who bent over backwards pat themselves all over their backsides, and then have virtually no CA wines, are not worthy of my tribute. I don’t visit them. That is my way of treating them. That was the point of my editorials on the subject.

    Here, starting with the poor, downtrodden somm at Commonwealth, is the real truth. Not some crap you have made up

    The sommelier at Commonwealth has pulled a fast one on you. I will paste in a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle as proof. You remember the Chronicle, don’t you? You used to work there until one day you didn’t.

    —–> “She stopped worrying about timid diners.”

    —–> “I thought, ‘Well, I should have something to make these people happy,’ ” she says, “and then I realized, ‘No, I don’t have to do that at all.’ ”

    Funny how that works. She did not have to worry about them at all. NOT AT ALL.

    So, Blake, I found that quote, which I referenced in my blog and you have said is made up, in one search on Google. About three seconds, two and half of which were my slow typing.

    Now, let’s turn our attention to the sparkling wine issue. One of the most outspoken locavore restaurants in these parts is Slanted Door. A great place. Love the food. Only go there now when out of town guests feel the need to eat top SF food. We have so many great restaurants in SF that I don’t need them. Today, there is one CA bubbly on their list from a winery that no one has heard of. That would be OK, if there were anything else locally derived. There are a half dozen or more French products, most of which are Cremants and not Champagne. And, Blake, when I criticized them in print, back a year or two ago, there were ten Cremants on the list, one or two Champagnes and zero CA bubblies. Apparently, you just do not get it. It was a blatant anti-local statement totally at odds with the restaurant’s loudly expressed credo.

    And then there is Spruce. I took a visiting friend from Boston there for lunch. I have liked the restaurant when I have attended several CA winery events there and so off we went for lunch because its location out of the downtown on a Friday meant that we could get in. I tried to order a bubbly for lunch, but found fifty different Champagnes and zero CA bubbles. We ordered a still wine instead, and when the somm brought it, I asked why there were no CA sparkling wines. And here is her answer, “We don’t carry them because they are all sweet and have low acidity”. Talk about bullshit. There, Blake, is the real thing.

    Apparently, this self-identified MW candidate had never tasted Schramsberg or Iron Horse or Domaine Carneros. All of them run acidities, pHs and dosages similar to those found in Champagne.

    So, Blake, old buddy, old pal of mine, when can I expect your apology? This is beneath you.

    • W B

      Do your research more thoroughly, and you would see that that is NOT the same sommelier listed in the article. The one mentioned was a barely-experienced neophyte, they’ve since turned that position over twice.

  4. section 34

    Hi Charlie! This is Blake, I can’t figure out how to get my name on the comment system.

    Let’s name names. The Commonwealth wine director who says she never said what you claim she did is Francesca Maniace. She was working there in August when you posted your comment (which I add is different in an important way from the Chronicle quote.) The wine director quoted by The Chronicle was Sarah Elliott. Now, did you talk to Sarah Elliott before she left Commonwealth, and you just have a long memory? If so, it’s a shame to keep punishing the restaurant for something a former employee said.

    By the way, here’s what you wrote in 2012 in response to Sarah Elliott’s quote in The Chronicle, which was about assembling a wine list for $7,000 total and deciding not to worry about timid diners:

    “The “show off sommelier” set and their sycophant friends in and about the wine biz no longer care about their customers/readers. It is as simple as that.”

    — You didn’t write that a very experimental restaurant decided initially not to worry about “timid diners,” or that “timid diners” would be among their customers. You wrote what you wrote.

    Charlie, I am completely on your side that restaurants should have local wines on their list. You know I have written this before, and sometimes taken flak for it from sommeliers. But you are focusing too narrowly on sparkling wines, which aren’t made by a lot of wineries here. It makes you too demanding to say, “I’m not satisfied with California Sauvignon Blancs and Grenache Blancs and Pinot Noirs and Syrahs and (etc. etc. etc.). You have to have THIS California wine also.” You can bring your own or eat somewhere else.

    I can’t speak about Spruce, but you’ve got a bunch of Schramsberg and Iron Horse samples, right? Why not take a bottle in there for corkage and offer her a taste? Or eat somewhere else? My God man, this is San Francisco, there are choices.

    Love and kisses,

    • Charlie Olken

      Blake, the very punch line of my comments is that I choose to eat somewhere else. I do not expect, nor do I want, wine lists that are only from big wineries, no matter how good their best wines may be. Nor do I want wine lists that are so abstruse that most wine writers have never heard of anything on the list. Lists bulit in that latter style simply prove, as Sarah Elliott said so clearly, that they do not care for their customers. And, Blake, the food at Commonwealth, which I have praised in my editiorial, is nowhere near as unheard of as thier wine list.

      It’s nice that you agree. It’s crap that you had to blow up over a lack of homework. And, the sparkling wine issue is not the focus of my comments so stop pointing to it as if it were. My full comments on the Slanted Door did not and do not stop at bubbles.

      • Lenny Pepperidge

        As usual, you’re polemics are completely wrong. Anybody able to read the least bit in context understands that she’s saying she “doesn’t need to make EVERYBODY happy. She needs to make the restaurant’s core audience comfortable and happy, and it seems as though she and her successor accomplish that. Restaurants like Commonwealth are not there to pander to the lowest common denominator either in their food or their wine.

        Stick to the Cheesecake Factory, Charlie. I’m sure that you’ll be quite comfortable with their list. And BTW, the current Slanted Door list has far more grower Champagnes than Cremants. You probably just don’t recognize them as actual Champagne because you never step outside of your Calijuice comfort zone to actually learn about the big wide wine world out there. You are the caricature of the old steakhouse guy demanding his Domaine Chandon and Cakebread.

      • Charlie Olken

        NIce try, Lenny, but did you really need to put down competent producers? I don’t know anyone who puts down the unusual in wine. It is the blatant put down of consumers, as described in the San Francisco Chronicle for what it was, that is not appropriate. Oh, and I do subscribe to the notion that they can construct their menus and their wine lists any way they want. And I can criticize them and choose not to eat there. Better to choose a place with more balance like a Francis or La Folie or, in this town, you name it.

        As for the Slanted Door list, when I criticized it in print, it had ten Cremants and zero CA wines and just a couple of Champagnes. Again, they can do what they want, and I can call them out for it. What’s your bitch anyhow? That folks do not agree with them?

  5. Lenny Pepperidge

    Absolutely spot on article. These guys are blowing smoke and creating strawmen because the reality is a lot harder for them to deal with. The wines that are forcing the Calijuice off of wine lists aren’t the obscure Romanian varietal. They are traditional European wines that are simply better balanced, more complex and more food compatible than the latest Napa fruitbomb. And this approach sure seems to be working because I don’t see these restaurants closing down. I see new ones springing up every day. I don’t see restaurants with “steakhouse lists” opening up to fill the void in the market. Rather, I see the actual steakhouses adding to their import sections. The market is rejecting California wine for a lot of very good reasons, but that is too bitter a pill to face up to head on and with open eyes. It’s oh so much more soothing to create these “gatekeeper” caricatures to explain away everything. They’re like the villain at the end of a Scooby Do episode when exposed for the frauds that they are: “and I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for these damned somms.”

    Heimhoff even recounted some ridiculous story about the brave, plucky customers of an unnamed SF restaurant braving the withering scorn of the sommeliers to brown bag their beloved Napa fruitbombs into the restaurant. Speaking of Heimhoff, he has become a real nutless gimp since taking that KJ paycheck. He doesn’t even have the testicular fortitude to attack the MS and wanna-be MS crowd by name for fear of any blowback against KJ. Rather, he makes his ridiculous attacks against the MWs who are few in this country and in no position to do any damage to his employer. Sack up, Steve.

  6. Alan Robertson

    As an “old guy”, I found this article inflammatory. Replace “old guy” with “asian”, “african american” or maybe “young hipster” and see how hard to read it is.

  7. Damien Chase

    All this would be fine if customers knew what they were letting themselves in for. Most restaurants don’t publish their wine lists online before you visit, and once having made the reservation and turned up, those “too old to eat there” are probably also too old to be arsed having to walk out and pay a cancellation charge.
    I would’ve thought that a truly good wine list should be able to cater to all types of customer; and that’s where the whole debate originated.

    • section 34

      No Damien, the whole “debate” is a straw man. These “hipster sommelier” places don’t exist.

  8. David Everett

    Mr Gray,

    While I see where you are going with this take (and I agree with you to a point) I do take offense to the “old guys” assertion. I’m an “old guy” and I consider barrel fermented chardonnay about as interesting as beige paint. I actively search out unique, odd, unheard of and overlooked varietals from all over the world and purposely avoid the “norm”. If it is not a “wine of interest” it’s like a movie you’ve seen over and over again. No matter how good it was you already know how it ends. If I see something I’ve never tasted on a wine list, I order it.

    Be careful where you go with “youth is knowledge”. Most “informed” young consumers would tell you they are drinking sav/blanc when you serve them an un-oaked chardonnay. If you ask me, they’re all a bunch of posers who would rather be drinking a 9% alcohol “craft brew” with their buddies.

    As someone who has put together more than his share of wine lists, it is never recommended to stuff it full of wines that only “you like”, It’s always been about balance and complimenting the cuisine. First and foremost SELL WINE and get people back into the dining room.

    • section 34

      David: When it comes to wine, you’re only as old as you act. Kid.

  9. Peter Morrell

    Ouch! As an “old guy” retail vintner with 50 years of wine exploration now under my (ahem) belt, even I I take offense to W., as the term was clearly meant to be offensive to all the more experienced wine advisors who disagree with W.’s perspective on this matter. Poor poo here W!
    I remember, about 13 years ago, a new restaurant opened in New York by a young Chef Rocco di Spirito, called Union Pacific. I note that was 13 years younger (then I am “old” now) and hosted my daughter and wife for dinner, however, when I got the wine list, I was perplexed as little or nothing there was familiar, even to knowledgeable middle aged(?) me! I asked and took the Somm’s advice, but I remembered the line from the long running fun musical, “The Fantastiks”: “Please god, I don’t want to be ordinary. Make me special.”
    We are all creatures of habit, built over time…so yes, lets keep our minds and taste buds open to exploration (best done by the glass in a wine bar, but when I want an “old” reliable wine/friend to complement my food, please allow me to enjoy what I want, as I am your customer too. P.S. I never went back to that restaurant again. I wonder why?

  10. John Cesano

    I have to say that a restaurant that offers up wines I have never tasted to go with dishes I have never imagined, with a sommelier to help guide me into wonderful pairing opportunities, sounds a bit like Heaven.

    At 53, I am an old guy, old-ish at least, and it does seem some established writers are wedded to orthodoxy. A wine must be Parkerized; if from California, that means high alcohol, over oak, over tannic, over sugared, fruit jam bombs, ideally from Napa, and expensive helps. There often seems to be no need to open minds when opening mouths to taste wines from areas off the heavily over-trod paths, varietals other than the recognized most popular, or styles that vary from the ordinary.

    Of course, there will be countless exceptions to my sweeping generalization; but I do think there are some writers who seem to discount nearly every wine from entire areas and there are often 4-10 point swings in ratings and brickbats instead of bouquets when comparing some reviews of the same wines from different reviewers; not occasionally, but consistently.

    It seems to me that Jon Bonne at the Chronicle and Jim Gordon at Enthusiast are more open to a wider variety of wines, and often review affordable wines favorably, and do not immediately discount wines of balance for wines of concentrated intensity.

    As a timely example of what too often passes for exciting and comprehensive wine reviewing, I looked inside the October 15 issue of Wine Spectator that arrived in my mailbox yesterday, and all 27 print reviewed Cabernet Sauvignon from California were from Napa and ranged in price from $65 to $850, and averaged $184.

    Orthodoxy maintained. Yawn.

  11. Johnny Johnsonson

    Friend just sent me this, thought it was funny:

    Wikipedia ISIS:

    The Islamic State is an unrecognized state and a Sunni
    jihadist group active in Iraq and Syria in the Middle East. In its
    self-proclaimed status as a caliphate, it claims religious authority over all
    Muslims across the world and aspires to bring most of the Muslim-inhabited
    regions of the world under its political control beginning with territory in
    the Levant region which includes Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus and
    part of southern Turkey.

    Steve Heimoff:
    Steve Heimoff is an unrecognized wine aficionado and
    “liberal lap dog” wine writer. In his self-proclaimed status as a
    wine critic, he claims taste authority over all wine drinkers across the USA,
    and aspires to fill the last chair on every boring wine panel and symposium to
    now push the company he works for beginning with Kendall Jackson Family Wines in the Napa/Sonoma region which includes Stonestreet, Mt. Brave, Arrowood, Freemark Abby, Lokoya,Carmel Road and part of Southern California with Byron.

  12. lucy0825

    Holy shitballs! I now know I’m old strictly b/c after reading all that utter nonsense (from every side!) I need a goddamn nap! It’s not life and death people, it’s fucking wine. Get over yourselves.

  13. Wine Mule

    I’m 64 and I’ve probably drunk more weird shit than you’ll ever see. Fuck off, punk.

  14. Big A

    A guest in a restaurant wants good (wine) service. The ONLY thing that matters to them is that they are given the ‘opportunity’ to choose a wine in their price range, that goes w/ their meal, is served at the proper temp, in the proper glass, in a timely manner. When that happens they tell 2 friends. When it doesn’t happen, they tell 10 friends. A great Sommelier is able to READ the table and provide the experience that that individual table wants. So be a “hipster” if that’s what the guest wants, and don’t be one if the guest doesn’t want one. That’s the Somms JOB!!! (I am a certified Sommelier since 1989, and am still on the floor 5 nights a week at age 60) btw….Elitists abound in all walks of life, incl. Somms. Some folks should check their definition of “hipster”, when Elitists is the word they s/b using.