Friday, July 27, 2012

New York Post vs. New York wine lists

I usually only read the New York Post once a year. While the back-biting in the Boston media is enjoyable after every Red Sox loss, even in April, it gives me tremendous pleasure to read the Post's characteristic mixture of arrogance and outrage only on the day after the Yankees are eliminated.

But Dr. Vino tipped me and many others off yesterday to an interesting column by Post restaurant critic Steve Cuozzo, who complains that he doesn't want to drink anything exotic: he just wants a "nice, affordable Bordeaux to go with chicken and summer greens."

I hope he meant white Bordeaux; he doesn't say, but that's a great value and great chicken/greens pairing. What he doesn't want is anything he hasn't heard of. He doesn't want Sicilian wine in a Sicilian restaurant, or Greek wine in a Greek restaurant.

It's easy to mock Cuozzo: he's supposed to be a professional food critic, yet he's uninterested in discovery?

What he's doing, though, is representing a certain mindset, and that's what any publication's columnist should try to do.

Think about who reads the New York Post. Not well-employed or well-educated people. And, significantly, not young people.

Cuozzo's attitude is a typically aggressive Post-like distillation of a huge generational gap. Older US diners didn't experiment with wine in their 20s and they're set in their ways today. Cognitive research shows that people become less open to new ideas as they age.

I urge wine producers and importers to read his column not to be amused or outraged, but to imagine what many people in their mid-50s and up are thinking, so you can better allocate your marketing budget. I adore Assyrtiko, but if these people aren't going to buy it, I don't know how you can make them.

(By the way, here's the wine list in question. There are some things on here I'd look forward to trying. But it's almost all French and mostly obscure.)

Sommeliers too: if you want customers like Cuozzo and his readers, you need to have some recognizable wine brands for them. I'm sure hip Brooklyn restaurants are perfectly happy to have these customers walk away in disgust. But in other towns, with larger seating areas to fill, the strategy might not be the soundest.

I completely agree with an important point Cuozzo made when he visited Dr. Vino's blog to comment on the piece: it's often not possible to talk to the sommelier. This is a huge pet peeve of mine, and something I wrote about last year for Sommelier Journal.

Unlike Cuozzo, I love wines I haven't heard of, but it's not enough to put them on the list, leaving the server to say, "People really like that one." I always ask for the sommelier, I live in a city that has them, and I'd say the somm gets there within 15 minutes of my request about 20% of the time.

A good wine list should have an explanation of some kind of every unfamiliar wine. 

Cuozzo also complains on Dr. Vino's site about high markups, and of course I'm with him on that. Double retail price is too old school and too steep for the wine-savvy urban crowd this restaurant seems to be trying to attract.

It's easy to mock Cuozzo. But I won't. Certain truths aren't pleasant to the ears, and the fact that many people still hold his point of view is one of them.

See you again in October, New York Post. Hopefully, early October.

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David White said...
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David White said...

This is quite a comment:

"Think about who reads the New York Post. Not well-employed or well-educated people. And, significantly, not young people."

The NY Post is the 7th largest newspaper in the entire country. Spend on morning on the NYC subway, and you'll see plenty more people reading the Post or Daily News than the Times or the WSJ.

I, for one, love the Post. I love the tabloid journalism, sensational headlines, entertaining writing, etc. And I think I'm well-employed and well-educated!

W. Blake Gray said...

Yes, David, but it's your day job to read publications of all types so you can learn to influence the readership. You have professional interest. It's different.

W. Blake Gray said...

BTW, I'm hardly writing something new or different about the Post's readership. Read this:

Joe Janish said...

NY Post demographics:
Average Age: 51.5
Male/Female ratio: 54.4%/45.6%
College Educated (I+yrs): 59.2%
Employed: 59.4%
Average HHI: $108,450
Average Home Value: $595,666

NY Times demographics:
Average Age: 49
Male/Female ratio: 52%/48%
College+ 65%
Employed: n/a
Average HHI: $99,645
Average Home Value: n/a

Just sayin'

W. Blake Gray said...

Joe: Nothing I love more than real data. Thanks for it.

I guess Mr. Cuozzo should read this. One of the reasons I don't want to mock his position is it so perfectly espouses the New York Post attitude. Keep in mind the meta-story: Either Cuozzo writes this way because he's trying to appeal to the expected reader base OR the Post puts a guy who thinks like Cuozzo in that position because they're trying to appeal to the reader base.

If you read David White's comment above, maybe well-employed people like David enjoy blue-collar rants like Cuozzo's and it's still good marketing.

Your demographic data raises questions I can't answer.

Patrick Frank said...

Blake, I think the kind of narrow-mindedness that Cuozzo shows there is by no means limited to the over-50 set. I speak as a guy over 50!

Joe Janish said...

Blake, understood, and I agree with everything in your article. My only dissent is I think the NY Post readership represents the average, typical diner / wine consumer. In other words, the "certain mindset" you allude to is, more or less, THE mindset of the average person ordering from a wine list.

Jack Everitt said...

"I'd say the somm gets there within 15 minutes of my request about 20% of the time."

I'd say my success rate for the above is in excess of 95%. Do you not really convey (with words) that you want to speak with the sommelier, or you only dine at restaurants where 4 out of 5 days the sommelier is away on vacation/junket?

W. Blake Gray said...

Jack: I eat in San Francisco. Maybe somms just look at you and know you're not a man to be kept waiting?

W. Blake Gray said...

Joe: Say it ain't so!

But no doubt you're right. I get a wakeup call any time I'm on an airplane and strike up a random conversation, and the person learns I write stories about wine. Many don't realize there are stories about wine. Most, yes most, ask, "What's your favorite wine?" which is never an easy question to answer. Sometimes somebody has been to Napa Valley. I don't think I've ever struck up a conversation with a random neighbor about orange wines or natural fermentation, much less Bonarda.

DAPZ said...

"A good wine list should have an explanation of some kind of every unfamiliar wine.'

I agree 100 %; but how about food? The menus are getting so sophisticated( which is a good thing) that I find that a lot of diners get intimidated to ask their waiter for the meaning of food terms.

An average diner goes to a casual place and sees words like gastrique or remoulade or en saor. The menus have a list of ingredients without a description of cooking methods. I see a lot of people getting confused when dining out these says...

DAPZ said...

Sorry, I meant these days.

W. Blake Gray said...

Dapz: That's a great point. The difference is that the server *should* know the dining terms, but you can't expect the server to know the wine list.

When I first moved to San Francisco I was amused that menus here were harder to understand than in Japan, where I moved from. (Granted, I had learned Japanese.) It seems that a San Francisco restaurant isn't cool if it doesn't have at least one unfamiliar word on the menu.

Now I've been here a while, I write about wine and food, I read a lot -- and there are STILL plenty of unfamiliar terms on menus. Chefs just love to be obscure.

DAPZ said...

It makes me happy to know you still come across unfamiliar terms here; I'm not the only one :)

McSnobbelier said...
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McSnobbelier said...

My old Boss (21 Club Bev Director) used to read NY Post every day and he is very liberal.

What many Sommeliers & Wine Directors forget is that wine lists are a marketing tool and the staff including Sommeliers are sales staff or a combination of both

If a list is very esoteric than it is either for the ego of the wine staff & department or to make it hard for consumers to discover a restaurants mark-up.

What I always teach and talk about with Sommeliers is what do you do when your slammed on a Saturday night and a table can't find a comfort wine to order in that $40-$70 price range. Spend minutes explaining the list and wines while another table gives up waiting for help and orders Silver Oak Cabernet instead of ordering a great Bordeaux or Burgundy...

This was my argument when Sonoma-Cutrer was loosing restaurant placements and their distributor Winebow was trying to figure it out.

Busy night, a Sommelier should be able to smell the whales and tell the 60-80$ Chard or Cab drinker that yes Sonoma-Cutrer is fine or Beringer Napa Cab is fine. 3 second conversation versus 5 minutes that could be used at another table.

So Blake, you must go to a lot of restaurants with esoteric lists so the Sommeliers are always busy explaining the finer points of $40 wines.

Douglas Trapasso said...

I hope none of you are eating dinner while you’re reading this. But seriously, as someone who is newly discovering wine (and seriously daydreaming about my Future Wine Career while at my precarious day job), this NY Post column and some of these comments are very disheartening to read. Maybe that’s why I need to read them.

I just joined a tasting group in my city. These folks are very knowledgeable and serious. They all want to testify in front of the Supreme Court of Wine. They are studying nuances about wines I’ve never heard of (sometimes from COUNTRYS I haven’t heard of!)

And yet NY Post restaurant expert says don’t even bother. And McSnobbelier states (I’m sure, quite accurately) that my restaurant manager will be happier with his/her P & L if I can just learn how to spot a whale at thirty feet.

It’s all enough to make me rethink my Sommelier Dreams and get back to writing Excel formulas. Anyone want to meet up for some Bonarda (or maybe a beer) after five p.m.?

McSnobbelier said...

Hey look... Eric noticed your blog!!! Very cool.

Chi Pinot. Don't worry there are many out there that love wine for what it is and in order for a sommelier to pick great fun gems for the real 'wino' it helps to be funded by the whales that are just looking to be impressed or impress. A killer Bonarda or Bonarda Blend like Alma Negra from Ernesto Catena.

Douglas Trapasso said...

Thanks for the wine recommendation, McSnobbelier! I look forward to trying some Bonarda.