Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Chicago Restaurant Wine Reviews

Chicago has recently seen a surge in wine writing,

Wait. Stop. This is going to need a preface: if you've followed this blog at all you know that at one time I did a ton of wine writing, but when you own your own business two things happen ... your passion and what you're educated in can sometimes fall by the wayside due to the demands of your work, but unfortunately there is another reason to not writing anything when you are a business owner; whether it be on social media, on a blog or even in an email, as a business owner you must walk a fine line between not offending anyone and speaking the truth. When you work with or for the masses, you must edge along the tightrope, between not pissing people off, but also doing what's right for you, your business and your brand. So, I sort of stopped writing, yeah there were a few posts here and there ... but I stopped writing about wine, because if I said anything that someone might disagree with on any topic within the vast subject it could come back to hurt my business. And you know what, that's wrong. We as a wine community in Chicago and beyond should be able to have positive, critical and constructive conversations about the many aspects of our careers without fearing it will cost us business, or create hostile community environments. Maybe I've just been in the restaurant business so long that I'm used to taking criticism, both constructive and abusive (which the abusive part is something that isn't necessary, yet a very real part of our business) ... but for Chicago to graduate from a sophomoric wine market, we must move beyond the realms of the dogma that fill our daily lives, and have conversations that might push us out of our comfort zones, and in the end will make us better sommeliers, beverage directors, and hospitalitarians (it's a word!). In that vein, here goes ... 

Chicago has recently seen a surge in wine writing. While we have been lucky for a number of years to have the writing of Bill St. John in the Chicago Tribune, we're starting to see coverage dig deeper into the many layers on the topic. Emerging is a type of wine writing that is double-sided, critiquing and praising hard working sommeliers and their wine programs. I've been lucky enough to have had a job buying wine for nearly a decade in this market, and the wine trade has been complaining for all of those years, and still today, that there isn't enough wine coverage in Chicago, and now it's happening while meeting resistance from both in and outside the profession. Recently, John Lenart has been added to the roster to cover wine. Is it a major print newspaper, no because newspapers won't even pay people to write about everyday news, let alone wine. Is it online, yes ... but does it matter? In the world where print publications like Food Arts are dying, I would say the answer to that is, no. Food & Wine Magazine, Saveur, Bon Appetite, Wine Spectator all have blogs, why? Because in the media, journalism, and publication worlds if you don't have online, digital presence, you're a dinosaur. And don't we need at least someone dedicated to writing about the wine community, dialed in on the topics and issues that are relevant to this market? Of course we do! Side note: if you don't like what John is writing about, or you're feeling left out as a sommelier, reach out to him, he's quite receptive, he might not even know you and would be intrigued to write about a program he's not familiar with in Chicago, he also welcomes constructive criticism ... so if you're going to criticize, then exercise your "right to vote" and reach out to him. 

John recently wrote a piece on the, that struck me as not only interesting but necessary, and is why I stepped up onto this soap box in the first place. John tackled the topic of why for the most part restaurant reviews leave out wine in any capacity, and he didn't come to the table alone, he interviewed Michael Nagrant (a writer I deeply respect!) on the subject. You can read it here: Where Is The Wine In Restaurant Reviews (Update: the day after this post went up on my blog, John added more to the story with a Part Two, read it here.) There is so much truth behind the words from John and Michael and some will say ... just increase the writer's budgets, but the problem has much deeper issues, yes issues ... plural.

First and foremost we as a wine community have to work harder, and for every sommelier that just finished a fourteen hour day, and wants to complain that you already work too hard, you're also the same sommelier that's complaining that you don't get press ... you want press? Do the work, in your building and in your community. Find out who the new, as well as seasoned, writers are about wine AND FOOD. Forge relationships with these writers, help them have a better understanding of a topic that is beyond vast, and assist them in assembling written work that may in fact be for the greater good of the subject that helps pays your bills each month. Also, if you don't know who the writers are, come see me, SHAMELESS PLUG: Vera is now open for coffee, tea, studying and cool pairing menus during the day, I'll tell you who you should be pitching, I'll even give you ideas to pitch ... want to know why? Because I care about the greater good of my wine community and all I want is for there to be more wine coverage, no matter which sommelier or what restaurant gets the press. It's called humility. Check it out. Because if wine writing gets the "clicks" you know who pays attention? Media. And advertisers. You know how the rest of that story goes ... but, no one will write about wine if a dramatic shift doesn't occur in the restaurants. Restaurateurs do not want to pay for sommeliers, they want to save a penny to lose a dollar on that salary and as a business owner, I get it. So, what ends up happening? Wine becomes an order taker situation, in many restaurants below the super, fine dining threshold, and then everything about the interaction of ordering wine, just becomes a transaction, an unmemorable, sales transaction. Michael brings up price and mark-up in the article as a deterrent for not buying or writing about wine in restaurants, another topic for another time, however the one thing he is right about is that restaurants don't make money on food, they make it on booze, if you don't have a dedicated beverage professional handling your wine program, and you have a dedicated chef you're losing money. As a business owner, your restaurant doesn't have to be fine dining to justify hiring a sommelier, in the end that dedicated wine professional will help you make money and give your guests (and writers) a unique, memorable experience that can translate in reviews and press. So, maybe you're saying "I do have a sommelier", great, are they working the floor? There are a million reasons why a sommelier might not be working the floor, both wine related and not, and sommeliers can't work seven days a week. But I know a lot of people in Chicago, both sommeliers and not, working in restaurants that don't want to work the floor, and this may come as a newsflash, but you can't sell wine from the office, that's not how this works. Sommeliers have to work a program from morning until night, and some of the best in the business clock fourteen hour days more than five days a week. As a sommelier you need to be creating memorable experiences with writers, and all guests for that matter, and you also can't do that if you leave the restaurant at 8:30pm. If the kitchen is open the sommelier, and/or a dedicated and trained wine team member should be on the floor. There is another facet, like it or not, that comes into play here ... background, I used to work in public relations and have nothing but respect for my friends and colleagues who still work in the highly competitive and demanding field within sports, media, radio, music and more. Working in that field gave me an advantage to see what most restaurant PR looks like, and the associate that is talking to press outside of New York and San Francisco probably doesn't know a whole lot about our beloved beverage, so the wine part of the story, more often than not, isn't getting pitched. And if you think reviews aren't about at least some writers getting pitched, then you are naive. In an instant gratification, social media, five second read kind of world, wine directors and sommeliers have to be their own best pr advocates, if we're not telling the story, no one will do it for us.

If you want wine to be included in reviews, and see more coverage in general on the subject there must be beverage professionals working the craft on the floor of restaurants, as well as retail and doing the work outside of their own walls to not only help educate writers on the vast topic, but make wine as exciting and memorable for writers as it is for those in your inner circle, because in the end writers need to deliver content to their readers that is relevant. If you are a sommelier, you are story teller, and it's time to take that gift and apply it well beyond your table side chats. Now, help me off this soapbox, it's kind of lonely up here.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

I'll Drink to That

There's an absolutely fantastic new tool and resource available in Chicago for the beverage community called SevenFifty and I can't encourage the buyers in our city to utilize this asset enough to enhance your wine and spirits program. SevenFifty also sponsors one of my favorite podcasts I'll Drink to That hosted by Levi Dalton. To celebrate the launch of SevenFifty in Illinois, Levi did a series of podcasts featuring sommeliers, retailers, distributors and more from the Chicago market. To say that I was beyond honored to be included in the Chicago series would be an understatement. I'm not going to lie, listening to yourself on "the radio" is strange, but I also wanted to listen to the episode to ensure that I represented the community that I am very much trying to not only encourage but to change. We have work to do in the Chicago wine community to become more united and stronger, for the greater good of growing our city into a destination for wine, along with the already extraordinary food, cocktail and beer scene. Check out my perspective on the past, present and future of the wine and restaurant culture in Chicago ... and thanks again to Levi for having me on the show!

Photo Booth: Portugal

This past spring I had the opportunity to travel to Portugal (and Madeira), and this beautiful country gave Spain a run for it's money in my heart. See why ...

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Small Town

Cue Mellencamp ... I grew up in a small town, was born in an even smaller town. Every stereotype about being a kid in a small town is darn near true, especially when you're from Indiana. City life is always exciting and has it's own teachings, but growing up a small town kid translates to an ethereal state of mind as one moves from wonder to wisdom years. Those wonder years can keep you from realizing the special nature of being from a small town, maybe even make you want to run from it as you shed your youth. But as you creep into the wisdom side of your years, you'll follow the road back to the foundation of a small town upbringing and how it plays a key role in what you view as important today. So, what did growing up in a small town teach a little girl, that I'm finally realizing makes a difference ...

Community is key. No small town can survive without the coming together of a community and you learn this at a young age when you're at the local grocery store, acting up and a parent ... not your parent, puts you in your place and tells you to mind your manners. Now of course, there are a million other ways that a community works to keep a small town thriving, but they help raise each other's kids, that's small town. Learning to drive long before you're 16, because you've been driving a tractor, golf cart, dirt bike, ATV, pontoon boat, heck even a horse ... and more since before you reached your double digit birthday, and you learn the consequences of going too fast, too soon, that's small town. You play basketball, because you can always shoot hoops on your own when there is no one else to play with ... but more importantly you'll learn how to shoot free throws, and why free throws are not only important in the game, but their life metaphor in terms of fundamentals and practice, that's small town. Going home is always the most important part of the day, it may be cheesy, but almost every single one of my friends had some sort of picture or plaque on the wall of their house that said 'Home Is Where The Heart Is' and that's the truth, because your home is your sanctuary, where you feel the most safe and happy, where your family will help you learn to pick yourself up after defeat and not to gloat in triumph, that's small town. There is nothing like an in season tomato from your grandmother's farm, the one she picked because she knew it was ripe, because she had been picking ripe tomatoes her entire life, and then she slices it, and serves it to you plain with a hint of salt, and that tomato gives you joy, because that's the only tomato you've ever known, that's small town. You learn at a young age that literally jumping off the bridge into the lake or pond will turn into figurative leaps that you will have to make again and again in your life, sometimes it will hurt, but you will always find a lesson and embrace the thrill of the jump, that's small town. Accountability. When you're from a small town, and you pick the flowers from the old lady's lawn three doors down from your house ... everyone in town will know, because there is nowhere to hide, and you will have to knock on her door, apologize and mow her lawn for the rest of the summer ... for free. The literal aspect of not being able to hide, will teach you later to own up to your mistakes, so you can stand up for everything you believe in, that's small town. Courage, to be the David and go up against the Goliath, no matter the fear and pain, because you never want to let anyone down, because they are your community, they are your friends, they are your family, that's small town. When you see someone you speak, you say hello, when they leave you say goodbye, it's called manners, and that's small town. And most of all what being from a small town will teach you is that your family, whether it's yours by birth or by choice will always have your back through good times and bad, because that's what family does, that's small town.

(Photo: Marvin K. Albright)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Writing Impossible

Thoughts are so jumbled that it becomes impossible to write without error ... error of my mind, error of my fingers, error of my heart. I'm an over thinker, to the point of obsessing. My grandmother used to tell me not to worry about things that I don't have control over ... but that's why I'm worried, because I don't have control. Uh oh, and now there's that split second of over thinking my existence as a control freak. Keep the brain on emergency mode for every waking moment, and the mind and many times body pay the price ... including your brain, which delivers the Mission: Writing Impossible. So, why so much stress?

I'm what you might call a self starter. I thrive on stress. It's my adrenaline rush. Not only rarely afraid to take the leap into a new endeavor, but seeking out the jump off a cliff moment. Even as a kid and later as a young adult I was all about finding new challenges and climbing whatever mountain presented itself in my path, usually a mountain that I built for myself. College was probably the first time that this became a realization, when I left Indiana University to go to DePaul University (best decision!). I wanted to attend Indiana University my entire life (in a Bobby Knight walks on water kind of way), there were no other options, because I didn't want other options. Two years later, bored. No stress. No adrenaline. Bored. DePaul was a rush, Chicago was a rush. Something different and new. It was always challenging (the quarter system will keep you on your toes, semesters give you too much time to get ... bored). But DePaul was expensive (still paying for that education today) and I needed a job, one where I could make more money than any 21 year old should ever make ... my thrill seeker soul got a job in a restaurant, and the rest is sort of history. Adrenaline junkies love the restaurant business, no night is ever the same, every guest presents new challenges and needs. But then I graduated and waiting tables and bartending wasn't enough, not enough stimulation for the brain. Speaking of being a junkie, I used to be a statistics junkie, usually following baseball, it's probably one of the reasons I got hooked on wine, besides all of the blah blah blah that people tell you about why they're into wine, those who have a successful career in pushing adult grape juice are usually some sort of geek ... statistics, geography, language, chemistry, music ... whatever it is, sommeliers usually geeked out about another subject first that later spurred an interest in wine. Wine lead to management, then beverage direction, then consulting, then opening my own restaurant. And even for this stress ball, opening a restaurant has been the hardest work I've ever chosen. But I still choose it, as many floods, blown hvacs, people leaving you in the middle of a crisis, lack of sleep, health and well being ... I still choose it. And now, I want more ...

A second restaurant. It will happen. But I'm working to turn in my stress thriving, rushing adrenaline, jumping off a cliff moments. It's taken three years for me to realize that no restaurant is more important than my friends and family. No amount of covers in a night will be more important than talking to my mom. No VIP will ever trump hugging my Goddaughter after she graduated high school. The joy of cheering on my friend as she runs a marathon far outweighs having a clean desk. My moment of clarity almost makes the stress of owning a small business less stressful ... almost. Time to shed my brain's emergency mode and move from writing impossible to Mission: Possible.

(Photo: Marvin K. Albright)

Friday, March 7, 2014

Friday Night is Alright ...

Friday night. The night the line cook should never call off, but he does, and it doesn't just sting, it cold cocks you so hard it's makes you dizzy. You don't have time to be dizzy, you were already in the weeds, before shithead called in sick, now you have to double time. Thank the food lords that chef is on the line, prepping with us or we'd be screwed. But that's what chefs do.

Friday night. When the sommelier and cellar master bust ass for three hours putting away the day's orders, so servers can waltz in five minutes late (hey, late is fucking late. And, ya know what ... on time is late.) so that those dedicated wine professionals get to repeat themselves about tonight's wine specials, and these aren't everyday wine specials, these are extraordinary wines, brought in for a chef's dinner. But we'll wait, while you take off your coat and get settled. I'm sure Vega Sicilia doesn't mind your disrespectful ways. Plus, our arms need to rest because they are tired from making sure we stocked the wines, to set you up for success on Friday night.

Friday night. You have to miss your sister's wedding rehearsal dinner, because by some sort of miracle you've been gifted the opportunity to have a rare Saturday night off, to attend your sister's wedding because your General Manager does in fact care about your well being, and doesn't want your family to hate you for not attending said wedding. How does your GM know that your family will hold it over your head for your entire life that you missed the wedding? Because your GM has paid her dues, worked her way up from hostess, to server, to bartender, to assistant bar manager, to manager, to sommelier to general manager, and made huge sacrifices in her life to be in a position to offer you a Saturday night off. Cherish that shit, there's no complaining about missing rehearsal dinners, it's Friday night.

Friday night. All of your training is about this night. It's the end of the week for the "real world" jobbers, and they've spent the week either being told what to do or telling someone else what to do and that equals stress. Major stress. Stressed guests. Because no one takes Friday night yoga. More drinks. Not eating. Now eating. Full book of reservations. Walk-ins. Regular's last minute plans. Dishwasher breaks. Toilet over flows. Kitchen needs hands. Bar needs hands. Front door needs hands. Dish pit needs hands. Weeds. Weeds. Weeds. Friday night.

But ... Friday Night is Alright ... because this is what we do. We survive. We thrive. We don't quit. We're stubborn like that, quitting is easy and we don't like easy. The toughest guest, in the end, is our favorite guest, because we're pleasers, we're here to please you, take care of you, in every way possible that we know how. And we like it. Because we're pleasers. We want to feed you. We want to pour you a drink. We want to take the edge off your week. Because we're pleasers. Through all of it ... no show line cooks, entitled servers, awesome dedicated servers, rockstar line cooks, requests off, schleping cases of wine, serving you, pleasing you, having each others backs, getting each other out of the weeds, breathing deep when we're out of the weeds, selling exceptional food and wine, and locking the door at the end of the night on this place we call home ... we love it. Friday Night is Alright.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Thank you, for the Lessons in Excellence

Charlie Trotter changed the restaurant game, he was a visionary on the culinary cutting edge, but it didn't stop in the kitchen. Chef Trotter was about the ultimate guest experience, and you felt it every time you walked into his restaurant.

We all have a debt a of gratitude to pay to Chef Trotter, our dining scene in Chicago and throughout the hospitality world would not be where it is today, without his dedication to pushing himself, his restaurant and his staff in a direction that in our current climate many think is commonplace. The man was a wizard with vegetables, among other proteins and delicacies, and was farm to table before any of the media and marketing gurus hated or over used the phrase. Chef Trotter cared about every aspect of your dining experience, from the moment you walked in the door to the pouring of the last pairing, he never wanted you to forget your time in his namesake brownstone, and you didn't.

As one friend said after Chef Trotter's passing, the role of the modern sommelier would not be where it is today without this man. Chef Trotter was masterful at teaching his staff empowerment, self-motviation, discipline, leadership and a toughness that you need to achieve success in a grueling business. We as a community have all benefited from Chef Trotter's teachings as many of his disciples moved on into the food and wine world, and shared his tenacity from front to back of house. Upon hearing the news of his passing, I was stunned and didn't really know what to say to anyone about such a loss. As I remembered my meals and wine tastings at the famed restaurant, I reached for one of the many books in the library behind my desk, and within reading a few sentences, I knew exactly what to say ... thank you. Chef Trotter's lessons reach far and wide and I want to thank Joseph Spellman, Linda Milagros Violago, Robert Houde, Paula Houde and Serafin Alvarado for conveying those lessons and making a one time young and inexperienced girl care about every aspect of service to a degree that I never thought possible. Thank you Chef Trotter, for the Lessons in Excellence.