On a different kind of Concentration…

A friend and I wandered in to Acme the other night – a restaurant with which I have a long history – and marveled at just how different this version is from the old “Ok Place To Eat” Acme that opened back in 1986 when Noho was Tower Records and crack addicts.  Back then, my car – which I could ‘park’ at a hydrant, leave the flashers on and not get a ticket for hours  – was routinely broken into, The Bowery was THE BOWERY, and Great Jones Alley smelled…well, let’s just say it didn’t smell like daisies.  Now, Acme is a high end gastropub (I think), Andrew Carmellini continues to expand his impressive empire with a new outpost across the street, and there are day spas (SPAS!!) on Great Jones Street.

In any event, we arrived early and were seated at a really nice corner table and began a very unusual (see below) but really fun dinner.  I asked to talk with the sommelier who listened to me describe what I was looking for – my summer standard “a white wine with some real Body, not too much Acidity and not much oak, if any” – and recommended a Vouvray.  He brought the bottle and I tried it.  It was fine,  it generally fit the description and was interesting enough so  I told him it was fine and thanked him.  It wasn’t quite what I was looking for but for all I know it may have been an objectively great bottle.  My friend and I got on with our conversation and enjoyed our wine.  I suppose it was as good a pairing for ‘Steak and Sardines’ (very unusual) as any other wine I could think of.

So was it a failure?  Not a bit.  We enjoyed the wine just fine, even though it wasn’t exactly what I had hoped for. If I really hadn’t liked it I would have apologized and told the sommelier that it just wasn’t what I was looking for. But if I go back there, I’ll use the same description and then say “BUT THE VOUVRAY YOU RECOMMENDED LAST TIME WAS A LITTLE MORE OXIDIZED THAN I TYPICALLY LIKE”  (it tasted just a little like burnt caramel.)  At that point, the sommelier and I will be engaged in a really cool negotiation between his tastes and mine.  And if he’s as good as he seemed to be, he’ll get closer and closer to offering me wines that I’ll really like.

Fine, but where’s the Concentration, you may be asking?  It was in actually tasting the wine once I’d described what I wanted.  Look, most people walk up to a bar, ask for a red wine, taste it and say “Fine” without actually noticing what it tastes like.  Why?  Two reasons.  The first is simple; they just want to drink a glass of wine and they’ve got better things to do than to fuss over it.  The second reason (what I notice thewinearray is trying to eliminate); they’re too damn intimidated to pause, taste the wine and then say something about it.  To say something like “It’s too acidic”, “Do you have something with a little less tannin?”, “This is actually just what I was looking for.” requires a moment’s concentration, a little less fear of “WINE” and a little vocabulary.

Try this next time you ask a bartender for a glass of wine.  Ask the bartender for a wine but don’t use “Chardonnay” or “Merlot” or “Pinot Grigio”.  Instead, ask for something “Light with bright acidity” (and by the way, I would hate that wine) or “Viscous and oily without too much tannin” (I would LOVE that one).  Make up your own descriptions, or go to thewinearray and use their words.  And when the bartender puts a couple of glasses in front of you because he or she wants you try a couple of options, concentrate for a moment on whether you like them, and then….here comes the scary part…..try to tell the bartender why.  I can’t guarantee you’ll love the wines (I didn’t love the wine at Acme the other night) but I can guarantee you’ll get better at describing what you like and you’ll be less nervous about talking to wine experts.  As I’ve said before, they’re the gatekeepers to wines that most of us will never try without them.