Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Wine shops and self-centered recommendations

As mentioned in my last post, we recently purchased a bottle of the Viader for our anniversary. The few days prior to our anniversary, I had hit all sorts of wine shops, Internet research, and even Sam's Club for those random good deals in search of a wine that was in our desired price range (75-$100) that wasn’t on the list that would also be ready to drink now within an hour of decanting. Thus, I got a few recommendations.

Well, I have a beef to pick with the wine stores. For the love of god, there are two questions you should ask me, both equally important:
1) Can I help you find something?
2) What do you normally like / did you have something in mind?

Recognize that just because I’m in a store looking for a recommendation on a “nice bottle of red to drink for our anniversary in the $70-$100 range” that doesn’t mean I don’t have a few ideas of my own. And, most importantly, its important to know if I like smoky, cedar box wines, chewy highly tannic wines, or a nice fruit forward California Cab. (In truth I like them all, but I prefer a wine I can enjoy a little bit with AND without food and some work better than others)

But did the wine store person ask me this? No, they just went around recommending what they like, as if I don’t have tastes of my own. Maybe its because you think I don't know anything, maybe its because you have no concept of how others tastes differ than yours, I'm not sure...I just don’t entirely get why you don’t ask me what I like first….the ramifications are really strong if your taste and mine don’t mesh. If I don’t like the wine, then I’m upset I took your word on it. I might not ever return to the store and tell everyone about what a horrible recommendation you made….or if you’re lucky, maybe I'll avoid you like the plague. Either way, your best interest (in a city with more than one wine shop) is to make sure I like the wine, even if you don’t. After all, I’m the customer. Sure, throw out a couple of things “outside the box” of what I might think I like….but overall, tailor what you recommend to things you think I will actually enjoy, or find someone who can.

Luckily I know just enough about wine to know the stuff he recommended is stuff I probably wouldn’t like, so I took his opinions with a grain of salt. (also known as ignored his opinions completely) But if I hadn’t and I had blindly bought something, I probably wouldn’t have liked it and that, my friends, could’ve ruined our anniversary dinner. Disaster avoided, but barely.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Insane wine list markups

Last weekend was the Lush 1 yr Anniversary. We celebrated at Morton’s Steakhouse and it was lovely. They do a good job with making special occasions feel special - they print out a personalized menu and take a picture and put it in a paper frame, etc… The food was great (although very expensive!), they cooked my steak perfectly, the service was great, and the ambiance was good for an anniversary. We had a great time.

However, their wine list is SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO overpriced. Really, a bottle I know for a fact is $27 retail they have on their list for $88. Wow.

Typically yes, we all know that restaurants mark up their liquor. That is a large source of profit for them and its not that I oppose to it any more than I oppose a can of soda costing 75 cents when it really costs less than 30 cents or paying $5 for a $3 item at a gas station - it’s a convenience factor. Its convenient for me to go into a restaurant and have a number of wines to choose from that I don’t need to go find. HOWEVER, I do oppose such an unreasonable markup. Most places would charge around $55-65 for that $27 bottle. The kicker is that Morton’s also doesn’t really decrease the markup percentage as the wine gets more expensive – a $90-105 bottle of Far Niente Cabernet is on their list for $261. I’ve worked in the restaurant business and typically while a $30 bottle might be marked up 50-120%, a $100 bottle is usually marked up 30-60%, particularly if the wine is readily available and usually the percentage markup would level out at around 30-40%, maybe less. (this doesn’t apply to a cellared wine, which could be marked up a significant amount from original retail, which is expected)

I feel this markup takes advantage of two groups…one, is the special occasion group. You go to a nice place and you want to order a nice bottle and you end up paying out the arse for it. The other is the business group – you’re taking a client out to dinner on the company tab and you want to impress, so you order a well known bottle, which is marked up 200% but what can you do? You want to impress! Of course, being in the "special occasion" group and thus having to actually PAY for our own wine, we were slightly unhappy with this knowledge.

So what did the Lush’s do? Well, we were already splurging on dinner and certainly weren’t going to pay that markup! I requested they fax us their wine list – their 11 page wine list – and searched for a bottle that wasn’t on their list. This is difficult, because most read to drink and readily available wines are on their list already and I certainly didn’t want to bring something that is on their list. They were very heavy on California Cabs and light on Bordeauxs, but most readily available Bordeaux are 2005 and I didn’t want to drink a young Bordeaux.

In the end, we purchased a $90 bottle of Viader cab sauv/cab franc blend and paid their $25 corkage fee. We had them decant it immediately upon being seated and enjoyed a pre-dinner martini (extra dirty, of course!) while it opened up. The wine was fantastic, of course and of course we offered our server a sip. I didn’t give them a chance to offer a decanter – after she asked if we wanted her to open it now or if we wanted a drink, I said both, please open it and decant it now and I’ll have a martini. I’m not sure if she would’ve offered the decanter – probably not - but she brought it promptly and we never had to pour our own wine, so overall I was happy with the wine service.

We might pick up a bottle of Bordeaux and save it for our 5 year anniversary and go back then. We’ll see. In the meantime, consider this a Wine Public Service Announcement - bring your own wine to Morton's!! (and consider getting a copy of the wine list prior to going out!)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

When does "Its o.k. – don’t worry about it" mean more?

Lets talk about the various meanings of “Its o.k. – don’t worry about it”. It seems like it would be a simple phrase, but it has many meanings. For example, if you break my $1 stemless glass at a BBQ at our house and I tell you its ok, don’t worry about it, I mean it. Really, I have no interest in you giving me a dollar or trying to find a replica. I’m serving wine out of $1 glasses because I don’t want to care if they get broken.

But what if you broke a special commemorative glass that I got from a winery, a signed bottle, or even just a decanter? Would I still say “Its o.k. – don’t worry about it” as you fell over yourself apologizing? Probably, but the meaning is different. In the $1 stemless scenario above, I mean please do not worry about replacing it, its really ok. In the scenario where the item costs significantly more than $1 or holds some sentimental value, I mean don’t worry about as in don’t stress about it, stuff happens, I’m not going to be mad at you for breaking it (well, not for long anyway). But the underlying thought is “you broke something of mine, please replace it”. Often in that scenario I really don’t want money, particularly if it’s a gift or a commemorative item –because its just strange to receive money from friends, but that's me.

Now, the next question is at what price point does the ““Its o.k. – don’t worry about it” really mean “don’t worry about it as you quickly go get me a replacement”? I’m not sure but I’m thinking $10+, because if I was at your house and I broke something of yours that had an appearance of $10+ in value, regardless of how many times you told me “Its o.k. – don’t worry about it” I would still get you a replacement or a bottle of wine - something. Accidents happen but I don't want you paying money for my clumsiness. I’m not sure how I would handle a commemorative item, so please don’t let me handle them after drinking! ;)

If you’re reading this and are wondering what of mine got broken that I’m whining about - nothing. My decanters, bottles, and glasses are intact. Well, I broke my own glass by clicking my teeth on it last Saturday which ended up in a near glass chewing incident, but that doesn’t count. :) I’m just musing about wine social niceties.

What do you think? When does “Its o.k. – don’t worry about it” really mean more than that??

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Still a good deal and other misc good news

So, I'm sure you've heard from your other friends, colleagues, family, etc that they are getting great deals online- even to Europe during the summer. Well, as you know, we booked our trip 2 months ago and I was nervous that maybe we jumped the gun. I've been avoiding checking online, but finally bit the bullet and did a "deal check" today, which is around our original booking plan. Whew. Its still a good deal - actually about $100 cheaper than it is now. I don't need it to be the best deal ever for all time, I just would hate to see that I could've saved $250 if I'd waited. I'd rather see, as would all of us dealhunters, see that we made the right decision on the right deal, but I'll be happy if it doesn't go down more than $100. As of now I'm safe, so I'm happy.

Other good news - last week we got a letter from our mortgage company saying our ARM is up and they are lowering our 4.85% interest rate to 3.25% and no further action is required. Uh, ok, we'll take it!

We did our taxes and I thought we would owe a smidge but we got some money back, yeah for Europe! Well, yesterday I recieved a letter from the IRS. Great. I panicked - did I do something wrong?? Well, I guess yes and no....they corrected our tax return and we will get another $300 back. Something about line 70, I could spend time and look up what it was, because of course the IRS letter is about clear as mud, but who cares, I get money back so I'm happy!

Hey, its not Powerball winnings, but I'll take it all. Lets buy some wine to celebrate! (oh wait, I just bought 3 cases last week - I think I'll be ok!!!)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Food friendly chardonnay - no, really I mean it!!!

Recently in our wine clubs we’ve gotten some nice Chardonnays - $35-60 each. Well, we certainly don’t want to hold on to them for a long time, so I decided we needed to drink one so I bought a practically pre-prepared meal centered around what would be great with one of our Chardonnays. (I had a lazy “pamper myself” day – got a massage and got my hair done and didn’t really feel like cooking, but wanted a nicer meal at home) Since most nicer Chardonnays tend to be more food friendly and less butter bombs than their cheaper counterparts, I bought a ready made salad kit with a sweet Dijon vinaigrette, pre-made lobster ravioli and a jar of Alfredo sauce.

I glanced over tasting notes of the two $35-40 chards and picked the Michaud Chardonnay from Chalone, which tend to be more minerally and food friendly. In addition the notes said it went well with cream sauces, which some really buttery chards won’t.

It was pretty golden, but don’t let that fool you – it wasn’t a butter bomb at all. At first taste, neither Mr. Lush nor I were all too excited…it was a bit tart, not so much green apple, but more like a not-quite-ripe-stone fruit...but it went great with the salad and great with the pasta. (Probably a smidge better with the salad than the pasta, but it was really much better with food than without - it had just enough acid to cut through the cream sauce but not too much - it really complemented the lobster inside and it went great with the garlic bread)

We were overall excited with the wine, the food, and how well they paired together. We do love Chardonnays but often they aren’t food friendly, but this one certainly is. I wouldn't say this is a chard for Chardonnay haters, but its certainly a good complex, not buttery, food friendly Chardonnay that was delicious with the food.

By the way, I got the lobster ravioli at Sam’s Club, it was $9 or $10 and was really good – half of the package was enough for both of us and Mr. Lush’s lunch with the leftovers. It took about 6 minutes to boil and I just transferred it to the warmed up jar Alfredo sauce and gave it a quick sautee together. It was good and quite lobster-y for the price. All in all, a quick, easy, relatively cheap meal – which is good if you’re spending $40 on a chard to drink it with!!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

To ask or not to ask?

Here’s the scenario: you’re at a friend’s house having a glass of their wine and think its great and you wonder how much it is – do you ask? To me, how much a wine costs is a direct relationship to how much I like it. Loving a wine that’s its $60 a bottle or loving a wine that’s $10 a bottle will inspire two very different reactions – the latter being “do not pass go”, go directly to the wine shop and buy this wine!!!

But is it rude to ask? I mean, what if their wine is a great value and thus is less costly than yours? Will they be embarrassed to tell the truth? What if there is more than yours? Will you offer up your price? Would you lie? Would you launch into a long discussion about why you grabbed it? Maybe make it up to them next time by bringing something more expensive? Does all this cause a panic and so you just forget it and hope your not so photographic memory will work after a few glasses of wine only to be disappointed when you stroll into a wine shop and find that the random things you remember happen to be on 15 other similar wines?

Well, I like to think that among wine friends we all understand that we will bring wine of slightly varying price ranges and will try to make it up to each other at the next outing. I don’t mind if someone asks me how much a bottle is, particularly if its something they haven’t seen here. (which happens somewhat often, since I order things through wine clubs) After a while, the price of wine you bring to a friends house will settle into a standard Tuesday night range and a Saturday night range, (likely cheaper on Tuesday) so don’t stress too much about it.

When it comes to asking, here’s my thoughts: while everybody likes to discover a good deal, most people don’t want to find that good deal when they brought a wine that’s $20+ more. I do normally ask, not only because I want to know for personal re-purchase reasons, but because I personally try to even it out in some manner. For example, at dinner with friends not too long ago they brought a more expensive bottle than we did. We insisted on giving them “our portion” of the difference – even though they insisted it wasn’t necessary. While the wine I brought was indeed a great deal and tasted a caliber or two above the price, I don’t want to take advantage of the fact they happened to have some nicer wines in their cellar.

Possibly I worry about this sort of stuff too much, but my thoughts are that good wine and good friends are both hard to come by, so why mess up either one??

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Supercute wino apron

Ok, well as you know, I'm a winelush. Through my quest to better my knowledge and my palate, I might, just might, have become a bit of a wine snob and might, just might, not appreciate all wines and might, just might, look down on people who think Beringer White Zinfandel is an example of a good wine. Down might be a strong word, but really, I don't respect your taste in wine if you're going on about how you love White Zin and its such a great deal (really, you can get much better wines for what White Zin sells for). I know- how could I? I feel almost ashamed. The important thing is that you enjoy wine in whatever capacity suits you and your lifestyle, right?? I don't need to like your wine for you to like it and by all means if you like Beringer White Zinfandel, drink up - just don't expect me to share a glass with you and please don't be insulted when you see me with this apron:
Here it is close up: I love it, absolutely love it. I don't have it yet because I can't get over the fact it $19.99 with $8.13 shipping. I'm fine with the $20 for the apron, although I'm sure its flimsy and not worth that much....but really? $8 shipping for something that probably weighs 1 or 2 lbs and doesn't require special packing? I'd pay $25 total for this apron, tops.
Please, Target, get the program and do a "Site to store" or get a reasonable shipping policy.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Where did all these mosquitos come from???

Yesterday after working in a cube for most of the beautiful March day (75+ degrees!) we sat outside for a pre-dinner cocktail and to enjoy the weather. It had started to cloud over, but whatever, it was still nice weather.
Except for the mosquitos!!! WTF? They were HUGE and so bad we really went inside rather quickly. I mean really, a)its MARCH b) its been warm for like 2-3 days and before that it was around freezing temps and c) its not like we have tons of standing water around. Because I'm a dork who likes to read up on things like this, I found that the life cycle of a mosquito is anywhere between 4-14 days from egg to adult, depending on species and weather. Either way, 4 days is in hot warm weather and we didn't have hot warm weather for 4 days, so where did these little suckers come from?? (pun totally intended)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Excellent, I mean excellent Zinfandel Value

Last year Lucy profiled Cameron Huges wines - although they are not readily available in many stores, luckily I have a membership to Sam's Club and the Luces have a membership to Costco, two stores that carry a few of the CH Wines.

We recently had the Lot 111 Zinfandel from Paso Robles....

"Taste: Sweet raspberries on the nose made complex with tobacco notes and sweet cigar smoke. Beautiful on the palate with mature, fine tannins, rich raspberry and blackberry fruit. Full bodied and super smooth with a nice long finish, this Zin is big and bold with great balance to boot.
Cameron Confidential: We seem to be getting quite a bit of these deals lately. Wineries restructuring their inventories in anticipation of a slowdown of high-end wines. This wine comes to us from a winery in the heart of Paso Robles from fruit sourced from 30 year old vines on the west side of Highway 101 (much better soils there) and retails for $22 in their tasting room. This is their bottling blend and the exact same wine you would find in their bottle. It’s a classic California Zin, rich and full bodied without being over-extracted."

As with many Cameron Hughes wines, it didn't disappoint and in fact it was great. And even better news - you can pick up a bottle at Sam's Club for $8.88. No, I didn't forget to the put the "1" in front of that.... $8.88. Run, now, and pick up at least 3-6 bottles, you won't be disappointed!!!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Thank you Sideways

Last night my wine club had a merlot meeting - "Merlot Madness". Every person brought a bottle of Merlot priced $15-20. (unless you were a couple, then you brought one bottle $30-40)

Some contenders were: Tobin James, Franciscan, Wild Horse, Chateau Julien, Jacuzzi, Robert Sinskey, and Selection Delas Merlot. All except the Sinskey were $15-20 and all were very different - some had more spice, some had more cholocate undertones, more oak, etc. But all, every single one, were something I'd drink again and several were quite delicious and complex and are on my shopping list. In general, while everyone had their favorite (or a tie of 2 favorites), everybody agreed with me - we'd happily drink all of them again.

So, thank you Sideways, for leveling the Merlot market and making it so I can get solid good bottles of Merlot in the $15-20 price range. I'm sure eventually the market will go back up, because really, these were stallar examples of solid values and eventually the fact Merlots are good isn't going to be a secret for much longer. But until then....next time you see one of these, feel confident that you'll be picking up a good bottle.