October 9, 2013

Joe Appel on Wine: In the wine world, Portland's knowledge base is lacking.

A decade or so ago, a New York City food-world luminary told me proudly that a handful of her city’s restaurants were starting to list the names of their farmer-suppliers on menus. This was a sign of NYC leading the next stage (it hadn’t yet been ubiquitously adorned with the “farm-to-table” badge) in American food culture’s recognition of the importance of closer connections between food production and food consumption.

I gently replied (and silently rejoiced) that Portland, Maine, had been drawing those connections, on menus and elsewhere, for years already. Because of its relatively small size and small national profile, and its inherent restraint in self-advertisement, Maine wasn’t widely recognized for its long-held appreciation of the value in a truly close-knit food community. I felt, and still feel, that Portland is a humble leader in this regard.

But I won’t say the same about its wine culture. In that, we lag. There is almost-great, getting-better-but-still-frustratingly-limited diversity in the wines available here. I’m grateful for the exciting wines we can drink, even if the distribution system curbs wine democracy by favoring regulators over drinkers.

What’s worse, though, is how few of the area’s food professionals know enough and – more importantly – love enough of the most interesting wines. There is not enough wine passion, not enough wine experience, not enough wine understanding among enough cooks and servers, whose job it is to use eating and drinking as vehicles for appreciating and presenting the bounty and diversity of the natural world.

Another group due for a scolding is our local food writers (in print and on blogs) whose apathy and ignorance about wine is shameful. Half a sentence in the last paragraph of a review, something about “a crisp Sauvignon Blanc” by the glass, is just embarrassing. A restaurant beverage list is ideally constructed to present wines, beers, ciders and other beverages that ennoble, enrich and expand the flavors in the food. Whether it does so is essential to an assessment of whether the restaurant is any good. (Not that there are many Portland food writers who ever offer a single critical statement about a restaurant here, but that’s another subject…)

There are two plausible reasons for this passivity: chefs, servers and critics don’t know anything, and/or they don’t care. The new program being offered in Portland by American Sommelier, a New York-based wine-education institute that hosts seminars and course series, is a terrific step toward addressing the former problem. The latter challenge has a more complicated but not insurmountable set of solutions, and more on that below.

I attended the introductory session of the American Sommelier series, “Viticulture, Vinification and Tasting”, held at Cinque Terra Sept. 29. Although the six remaining sessions will be led by Chris Peterman, a blessedly passionate and informed exception to the rule my frustration above addresses, this first one was kicked off by American Sommelier’s president and co-founder, Andrew Bell. (Peterman will serve as wine director at the soon-to-open Central Provisions, on Fore Street.)

Bell’s two-hour presentation was quite informative, although its initial emphasis on physiology and anatomy of the tongue raised for me this dichotomy between education and empathy. I agree with Bell that “it’s about ‘do you understand your own palate?’ ” In order to get that, you need to know how to use your nose and tongue as tools for understanding.

It helps to know how to hold a glass, stick your nose in it, swirl, stick the nose back in, touch the wine to your tongue, hold it there, then release. It then helps to have a cognitive framework to help assess what just happened. This is how one moves on from “I-know-what-I-like” blinders. I was exhilarated to hear Bell say, “It would be psychologically disadvantageous for you to be dismissive of a wine you don’t happen to like.”

Yet amidst the discussion of how acidity, bitterness and salt are sensed, and the relationships among yeast, sugar, alcohol and carbon dioxide, I scribbled in my notes, “There’s no talk here of grokking.” I mean that if this is all going to stick – this attempt to professionalize the profession, and get servers to know how to help diners choose an interesting, enjoyable wine – we need not so much “demystify wine,” in that overused phrase, as get people see that wine is worthy of full-body engagement and full-soul love.

Chefs need to taste more, or at least hire a bar manager, or somm, or wine director, or whatever you want to call it, who has time to taste, time to educate staff, time to interact with diners. Then the wine lists need to be written with heart and soul (and yeah, intelligence) to appeal to a broad spectrum of diners, from merely curious to well-versed. If front-of-the-house staff don’t already have wine love, they need to be led to wine love, and taught to speak about wine as engagingly as they speak about food.

Obviously, all of this is tied to compensation, which is tied to the cost of the meal. It’s a subject for another time, though my vote is for restaurant owners to prohibit tipping and pay servers real wages, rewarding the ones who excel.

Incidentally, the wines tasted at the initial American Sommelier session were exceptionally well chosen, not only because they illustrated well the components of the pedagogy – acidity, sweetness, body, aroma – but also most happen to be terrific wines, by which I mean wines you could fall in love with. In the end, if Portland’s wine culture is to keep pace with its food bonanzas, we’re going to have to fall in love.

Information about upcoming sessions is available at americansommelier.com/maine, or by emailing office@americansommelier.com. Single sessions cost $60, but multi-session discounts and group rates are available. This is how it should be, since the ripest candidates are those servers and cooks (and non-pro wine explorers) who are ready for a full plunge.

Their bill should be paid by restaurant owners who give a damn whether their shop coasts on “Portland-is-foodie-heaven” propaganda, or pushes toward that special realm that offers a truly distinctive – and truly comprehensive – experience.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market, but not all the wines mentioned in this column are necessarily sold there. His blog is soulofwine.com, and he can be reached at: soulofwine.appel@gmail.com

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