Sunday, October 25, 2009

Quick Myths Busted!

A recent episode of Bored to Death reminded me of a few food/drink myths and half-truths that annoy the fuck out of me.

1. VODKA IS MADE FROM POTATOES. Vodka is not made from potatoes. Some vodka is, but the majority of vodka is made from grain or beet molasses. Many American vodka producers are using grapes as well. Vodka as a beverage predates the potato's introduction to Europe. Potato vodka developed in the 19th century as it was a cheaper alternative to grain and could also be used to scale-up production. Improvements in distilling have rendered the cost difference between potatoes and grains essentially moot, but many vodka connoisseurs still consider potato vodka to be a lesser quality spirit, though I personally like the flavor.

2. RED WINE HAS MORE SULFITES THAN WHITE WINE. Wrong. Incor-fucking-rect. Though many ignorant read-half-the-study douche bags presume this is so because they always get a worse hangover from their shitty red Yellow Tail than from their shitty white Yellow Tail and decide to blame it on the "sulfites" and not on the fact they drank cheap sugar and cogener laced rotgut. Red wine is red because the grape juice remains in contact with the grape skins. Along with color comes flavor and natural preservatives in the form of tannins. White wine has fewer natural preservatives than red so winemakers add a bigger dose of SO2 to maintain wine stability (EU has a maximum threshold of 160ppm for red but 220ppm for white). And let me also say: the addition of sulfur dioxide to wine goes back well over a thousand years. It's not bad for you unless you're in the minuscule proportion of the population with an actual sulfur allergy, which involves an anaphylactic response, not just a little headache and some congestion. The best way to avoid a hangover is to drink less and drink better. I've gone through bottles of good stuff and woken up the next morning none the worse for wear, but I've also had two glasses of Lindemann's Shiraz and woken up with a splitting headache.

3. WHITE WINE HAS LESS ALCOHOL THAN RED WINE. Not true. Perhaps in general the average alcohol content of red wine might be a bit higher than white wine, owing to the existence of some 16+% alcohol bombs, but there are as many 15% burn-your-throat white wines as there are mellow 12% alcohol reds. Just read the labels. Chances are your oaky California Chardonnay has a higher alcohol content than that earthy Cotes-du-Rhone.

That's all.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Shake-Ups in the Wine Business

I apologize for this very business-related post since I think most of y'all probably don't give a fuck. But word on the street is Kermit Lynch Imports, the Berkeley-based importer of arguably the best Burgundies and Southwestern French wines in the country, has left the Henry Wine Group.

Henry Wine Group is one of the largest (if not the largest) California-exclusive wine distributor and s known for having the biggest selection of wines that good restaurants and retailers would actually carry. There are a few bigger multi-state companies, but they mostly carry prestige imports and mediocre mass-produced crap. Henry had the good shit or, at least, the decent shit.

But after having lost Italian powerhouse Winebow Imports last year and Kermit Lynch now (and Spanish oak-monger Jorge Ordonez teetering on the brink of departure), Henry Wine Group appears to be hurting bad.

"The economy" has damaged the wine business, but only kinda. It has damaged the companies that chased prestige wines like Bordeaux and California Cult Cabernets--they've seen their sales numbers plummet. Many of these companies left themselves with few inexpensive wines and the inexpensive wines that they have are so ubiquitous that restaurants and retailers who pride themselves on uniqueness and distinction aren't interested in them, leaving them for chain restaurants and hotels. Distributors who were already positioned for distinctive value are swooping in to take advantage.

Additionally, with better maneuverability, lower overhead, generally better customer service, and more distinction, mid-sized distributors can more easily weather the storm and many are even experiencing singificant growth. People are still going to drink they're just drinking differently. Margins are down but volume's up. They want value across the board.

In my cursory research for this article I stumbled upon Steve Heimoff's Wine Blog and this post in particular about the current financial instability of the wine business caught my attention. What struck me was this quote:

"What California brands will they buy? One clue to that is to see who’s hiring in the sales, marketing and finance areas at The Wine Group. Don Sebastiani & Sons. Henry Wine Group. Bronco. Gallo. Brands, in other words, that hope to be competitive in 2009’s tough economy."

Or maybe these companies are hiring because instability and uncertainty in the corporate structure has seen people leave and get re-organized. Long-time reps are moving to different companies or being forced out, opening up space for newer, cheaper employees. And in a business world where your sales staff is paid largely on commission, there's not a lot of financial risk in hiring more feet on the street as a last-ditch effort to improve sales. Hiring can be just as much a sign of instability, desperation, and flux as it can be a signifier of stability and growth. These could be brands that are doing whatever they can to hold on by the last shred of cotton in their ass cracks brought on by the wedgie that is 2009's tough economy.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Honesty Honestly

Over a pleasant Dine LA lunch with a friend at Water Grill, I think I distilled what's at the root of my disdain for restaurants that I, well, have disdain for.

They're dishonest.

I understand that this is wholly subjective and based in nothing more than my own phantasmagoric knee-jerk opinions. I'm just elaborately and self-importantly justifying my own decisions. But hey, that's food writing.

Take the restaurants I've recently "panned":

LudoBites. Claim? "Combine Old World simplicity and New World imagination in innovative dishes to tantalize diners' taste buds." Reality? Middling vanity operation with more style than substance.

Two Boots. Claim? Cajun-tinged take on classic New York pizza. Reality? Over-reaching and under-performing limp crusted mediocrity.

Akasha. Claim? "New American cuisine offering comfort food with big flavors and sustainable ingredients, for carnivores and herbivores alike." Reality? Decent organic home-cooking in a million dollar dining room for fine-dining prices.

(As an aside--would LA restaurants please stop putting their business plan mission statements on their websites? Holy crap, no casual visitor to your site cares that the Westside Tavern is: "
An expansive, social and urban-minded restaurant, Westside Tavern features chef-driven yet affordable interpretations of California Tavern Cuisine alongside a complementary selection of fresh cocktails, craftsman beers and thoughtful wines. Encompassing 10,400 square feet and 300 seats, Westside Tavern is open for dinner daily and is designed to be used as a casually upscale gathering place by a broad cross section of Los Angeles professionals.")

The restaurants that I like are honest. They either make no claim to be anything in particular or they make a claim that they live up to. Bar Pintxo claims to be a reasonably authentic Basque tapas bar. Done. CitySip claims to be a friendly neighborhood wine bar. Done. Wurstkuche serves sausage, fries, and beer. Done. Church & State claims to be a French brasserie/bistro. Aces. All these places do what they do and they do it well and fairly.

That's all that it takes. Really. No high-falutin' concept. No crazy cushy chairs. No booths full of lithe models and swarthy men in stripy shirts and designer jeans. None of that.

Just be honest.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Tha Dolla' Dolla' Billz Behind Wine Pricing Y'All

An answer to the question you've never asked but always thought. How is wine priced?

Retail Shops:
The standard margin for independent wine shops is net 33%. So 50% over wholesale. If they pay $10 a bottle from the distributor they sell it for $15--when you consider general boutique retailers (jeans, skin care, shoes, et al) run a net 50% or higher, wine shops are giving you a deal.

Grocery stores will generally run a tighter margin, as they do with all their products. It's usually a net 10% give or take. When you couple that margin with huge volume (buying 2000 cases of a wine for regional distribution will get you better price then three cases for a stack in a small shop) then you see how grocery stores can fill their shelves with <$10 wines when most independent shops can't.

There're also a handful of independent "discount" wine shops that run out of warehouses, shop around for close-outs, and generally keep a lower overhead. Here you'll find wine at a net 15% but you'll have to travel pretty far afield and/or not get the hands-on customer service that you'll get from a neighborhood shop. Worth it for big ticket items maybe, but not to save a buck or two on an everyday wine. Some big hybrid discount/specialty retailers run a net 20%-25%.

Finally there are some shops that specialize exclusively in close-outs, odd lots, and grey market direct imports. Trader Joe's gets most of their imports on this market. Here you'll find wine at crazy low prices and it'll often be wine you don't see any place else. But just because it's cheap doesn't necessarily mean it's a good deal. Distributors and importers will close-out wines for pennies and since there's nothing else around to compare against, the store can pretty much fix its price. And grey market direct importing means cutting out the middle man and quasi-legally sidestepping California regulations.

In my opinion you should do most of your shopping at your neighborhood boutique wine shop and hit up your local discounter, Costco, or Cost Plus for your pricey gifts if you want to save a few bucks or you're buying for a party. Generally speaking, grocery stores don't sell wine worth drinking.

It used to be that margins were pretty standard. Neighborhood spots marked up their wine about 3x wholesale, upscale restaurants closer to 4x, and fine-dining could be as high as 5x wholesale. Glass price was generally set at 1/4 or 1/5 bottle price depending on the size of the pour.

In Los Angeles, all that is out the window. Some nice restaurants have really aggressive wine prices and some neighborhood dives are running French Laundry prices on wine. Particularly interesting is the "glass first" approach where a glass of wine is priced at the wholesale bottle cost and then the bottle is priced at triple the glass price. It makes for fair bottle prices but freaking expensive glasses of wine.

At the same time I'm seeing a trending toward lower bottle prices with new restaurants like Bar Brix and Noir Cafe pricing their wine at just over 2x wholesale. A shrewd move in my opinion--sell two $24 bottles of wine instead of one $36 bottle. The customer gets more variety and the business moves more product and makes less margin but more real cash. That's what all businesses need to look to do right now.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Great LA Pulled Pork Face-Off

I love pulled pork. Really, I seriously fucking love pulled pork. It's the coming together of my favorite meat, the fatty delicious pig, and my favorite cooking technique, slow-roasting. The added practice of pulling the meat off the bone in delicious, fatty tendrils of gooey transcendent tastycakes is merely a bonus.

I had the pleasure of sampling a few different LA pulled porks recently. A critique:

The Oinkster: A super meaty style. Thin shreds of pork with minimal embellishment on a nicely baked bun. At the Oinkster they hedge their bets by having all the sauces available on the side instead of committing to dosing the meat in just one sauce. The price can't be beat and the meat is of excellent quality. That's right, I used beat and meat in the same four word phrase. The Oinkster's fries with aioli rock, too.

Lou: Killer fatty Niman Ranch pork with cabbage slaw on, again, a great bun. Lou opted for a heavier dose of sweat and spicy sauce than at the Oinkster. That's not a bad thing. I'm a firm believer in a chef not being afraid to lay on the sauce as long as its good and adds to the quality of the dish. The Lou pulled pork fits that bill.

The Park: This wasn't a pulled pork sandwich, but rather a pile of pulled pork with cabbage slaw and a sweet corn pudding. The Park uses fattier Kurobuta pork and it's not a waste. Their pulled pork has a richer, fattier quality to it. The slaw, using Napa cabbage, was very nice.

So in the end? I still really like the pulled pork sandwich at T-Rex in Berkeley in terms of quality for the price. Lou's sandwich was delicious but not much more so than the one from The Oinkster and The Oinskter's sandwich is half the price. The Park's corn pudding rocks but I can't really compare that one to the others since it's not a sandwich.

The Oinkster is the closest to real Carolina pulled pork that I've had and, as long as you're willing the go nuts with the a la carte sauce, you're in good shape. Go for it.

The Oinkster

Lou On Vine

The Park Restaurant