Friday, 7 March 2014

Stupid Questions and Stupider Answers: Ask Awesommelier.

About six years into the wine trade, and hosting an average of 3 dinners a month I started to realise that everyone asked the same questions over and over again. I started to parrot responses to myths and statements and thought I could save myself a lot of gyp by writing them out.

Here you are, some of my least favourite questions at tastings, feel free to ask me some of your own.

1. ‘Which is better? Cork or Screwcap?’

I wish I had a bottle of DRC for every time I’ve been asked this. In fact, I would take anything at all. The problem with this question is that it’s usually asked by someone who thinks they already know the answer and are attempting to show off to their mates.

The fact is that cork and screwcap are for entirely different purposes. If a wine is made to be drunk within about 2 years of bottling, then screwcap it. If it’s intended to be aged, then it’s usually put under cork. This is because natural cork lets in a small amount of air over an extended period of time, allowing for maturation and development. Screwcap doesn’t (although some research being carried about by Villa Maria and Petaluma suggest that the wines do age, just very slowly).

Why bottle under screwcap then? If a wine is meant to be enjoyed young, its best to eliminate TCA or cork taint. I estimate that one in ten of all wines I taste which are bottled under cork are tainted. That’s a lot of wine. That’s a lot of money. It makes perfect sense to eliminate this issue with screwcap.

For the record, screwcap isn’t a cheap alternative. The closures cost roughly the same as cork does, and there’s a significant investment which needs to be made when changing a bottling line over from cork to screwcap in terms of recalibrating the line and buying new dry goods (glass, closures, etc).

2. ‘They keep all the best stuff to themselves, though don’t they?’

NO. They don’t. Fuck right off. This is something which complete numpties roll out at tastings all the time. Usually they aren’t asking a question, they’re stating an opinion which they’ve heard from some wine dinosaur in 1985 at a tasting of Beaujolais nouveau.

The UK is the most important export market in terms of exposure for wine companies and it would make absolutely no sense for them to ‘keep the best stuff to themselves’. Funnily enough we have hundreds of merchants selling high end Bordeux, Burgundy, Champagne, Rioja, Ribera, Rheingau etc etc etc. Do they bollocks keep the best stuff to themselves.

I need to admit though, when this ‘question’ is now asked at tastings I look straight at the offending individual, say ‘NO’ and move straight on without bothering to explain my answer, because they didn’t want an actual answer, they just wanted me to agree with them and perhaps give a little braying laugh about how dreadfully clever and insightful their comment was.

3. ‘I had this wine on holiday, can you find it for me?’

Probably not, but there’s this neat little thing called the internet which has an amazing application on it called Google and, hey, you might want to check it out!

4. ‘Your job seems like the best thing in the world, how did you get into it?’

The real question is how come I haven’t got out of it.

In all seriousness I am incredibly lucky to be doing a job with a product I’m passionate about, but there are still days where I’m just staring at excel spreadsheets for 10 hours and want to kill myself. Being a sommelier was kind of fun, but it remains the most dumb job I have ever done, and I’ve done some dumb jobs.

Then again, sometimes I get to drink 250 wines in 8 hours and I snapchat my day to my friends working in offices and they all snapchat themselves flipping me the bird back.

Incidentally, I got into it completely by accident and because there was someone at the beginning who really believed in me. One day I will write a post about this man because he is quite wonderful.

5. ‘Are you drunk all the time’?

No. I can’t be. I also have a rhino-like tolerance for booze and genes from Polish and North Eastern parents so I’m pretty indestructible. Never, ever get into a competition with me because you just won’t win.

6. ‘Why is wine so expensive in restaurants?’

Historically it’s where most restaurants make most of their money. Food costs can be difficult to work out, and a lot of restaurant are quite careless with portion control and food costings, so will just try and make as much back as possible from their wines. Common margins are at 70%, which is ludicrous, but I’m aware of restaurants who charge 85%. That shit’s depressing.

Things are changing though, and more restaurants are working off a cash margin, i.e. charging £10/£15 on top of everything, hence not punishing people who want to drink better, more expensive wine.

Is it a travesty? Awful? No, this is how the whole industry works. The market accepts it.

7. ‘What is your favourite wine?’


8. ‘I think I’m allergic to sulphites, what wine should I drink?’

You aren’t allergic to sulphites. All wine has sulphites in it. If you were allergic to sulphites you’d be allergic to dried fruit too, so stop it now please.

If you feel bad after drinking a bottle of wine, guess what, you may have had a reaction to ALCOHOL. There’s a huge difference in polishing off a bottle of 12.5% wine and polishing off a bottle of 13.5% wine, believe me, I’ve done the research.

9. ‘I’m vegetarian / vegan, is there wine for me?’
Officially, there’s stuff out there. Unofficially, I’ve been around plenty of wineries at harvest time and seen what goes into the hoppers, they’re crawling. No wine is completely veggie or vegan. Sorry guys.

10. ‘What do you think of English Wines?’

I’m off to put my head in the oven.

Do you have a question you’ve always wanted answering? Ask Auntie Awesommelier.

Image taken from sonictk's photostream under the CCL.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. "Common margins are at 70%, which is ludicrous, but I’m aware of restaurants who charge 85%. That shit’s depressing"

    It's also a hell of a lot LESS than the mark-up in most UK restaurants!

    We have just written a post (on about Berry Bros' "Good Ordinary Claret". It retails, from Berry Bros themselves, at £9 a bottle. That's to the general public; presumably there's a trade discount if you buy in bulk.

    And how much do the trade sell it for? Here's a few prices picked up from a Google search of restaurant wine lists. Romney Restaurant - £20; Grocer's Hall - £22; Alexandra Hotel - £21; The Bull Inn, Wimborne, £24.25. I make that more than a 150% mark-up.

    85% mark-up is depressing? Over here it would be cause for celebration!

    1. I have to admit my experience is the price is normally around the double-mark of what you'd pay for it outside of a restaurant, as a general rule, but less than that the higher the wine's value. I've always tried to buy the wine at the limit of what I can afford (rather than picking the cheapest) as the value does seem to get better with the higher priced wines.

      I love the idea Frances mentioned about some restaurants adding a blanket £10-15 - that's a step in the right direction in terms of getting people buying better wines.

    2. I'm not sure, but I think you're operating off a different calculation. I'm talking GP?

      Dunno is that helps.

  3. Maybe you should learn more about winemaking than wine service before giving answers which reinforce the myths and statements which give you "a lot of gyp". Just to pick on two examples, don't get me started on the huge variance in sulphite levels which could answer question 8.
    1. ‘Which is better? Cork or Screwcap (sic)?
    "If a wine is made to be drunk within about 2 years of bottling, then screwcap (sic) it. If it’s intended to be aged, then it’s usually put under cork."
    So, just to pick one example, Jeffrey Grossett's (amongst many others) Clare Valley Rieslings which are intended to to be aged should be drunk within two years of bottling or put under cork?
    2. ‘They keep all the best stuff to themselves, though don’t they?’
    "The UK is the most important export market in terms of exposure for wine companies"
    Sorry to break it to you but it's not. The US remains the world's biggest market (so most exposure) for all colours of wines - Vinexpo study January 2014. China is the biggest market for red wine, with 1.86bn bottles sold in 2013 - that's more exposure than the UK...
    Because you ought to know more than your customers you should answer their questions with good grace. You work in wine, they don't. So questions, boring as they may be to you, like "how did you get into it?" and "what is your favourite wine?" show an interest in you and deserve more of a response than "BORE OFF"

    1. Hi, "Anonymous"! Thanks for your comments. Just to clear a few things up:

      1. It's possible you took Frances' words slightly too seriously. It was a tongue-in-cheek post about the frustrations of being asked daft questions every day, often by people who are showing off/very opinionated for someone who obviously doesn't know much. You get these sorts of people in every industry. I don't think anyone else is under the impression Awesommelier actually says 'Bore off' to customers or indeed anyone that asks! She probably wouldn't have such a cool job if she did... and from personal experience, she's really very lovely indeed.

      2. I think her arguments about screwcaps and the UK being a massively important export market definitely stand up when answering questions for people that perhaps don't know the industry inside and out and are looking for a quick and more 'general' answer. Which, as you pointed out, is her audience. It's also the point of the post - it wasn't supposed to be an in-depth analysis into screwcap usage/which export market wields the most weight. They're weightier topics for different scenarios to this one - and what I said in point one covers why.

      3. It's probably worth noting that the fact you've posted such strong opinions anonymously sort of devalues your entire argument. Just my opinion - but I'm wondering why someone who is clearly passionate enough to reply in detail would be too scared to put their name to their opinion. Healthy debate is good - in fact, we love it - but posting anonymously doesn't really allow for open discussion.

      Thanks again for commenting! :-)

    2. Anonymous, I almost ignored you, as if you're going to hide behind internet anonymity your comments are pretty meaningless.

      NEVER MIND. Before writing off my knowledge, I'm an MW student with ten years experience so I do have some authority on the subject. I'm also not writing technical essays here, I'm writing a bit of fun for a young market to give them some confidence when they're talking about wine. If you're worried about my knowledge, then that's cute, but I promise you it's pretty solid. MW educator verified.

      1. I'm talking in general about screwcap. There are plenty of people bucking the trend, but I'm talking in general here because that is the audience we have here, I can give you hundreds of examples of winemakers using screwcap and their wines ageing well, but this isn't what the majority of the market uses screwcap for. I could have written a technical essay, but these exist already and this isn't the audience for it, I could have talked about Pieropan bucking the trend and forgoing the Slave Classic accreditation because they believe so firmly in screwcap, but this is neither the time nor the place.

      2. True, Chine buys a lot of red wine, but it's more or less from 3 countries and it isn't consumed by as varied a demographic as in the UK. We still import from the broadest range of countries and it's enjoyed by all sectors of society. So I'm still correct, really. SORRY ABOUT THAT.

      3. I don't have an easy 'favourite wine', it's amorphous and changes a lot. I can talk to you about my favourite wine if you like, but you seem like an asshat so I'll leave you to it. It was tongue in cheek anyway, and I'll answer these questions with plenty of grace when I think people actually give a crape rather than waiting for me to ask them what they do or what their favourite wine is.

      I think it's fabulous you commented though, because it allowed me some space to qualify some statements and demonstrate my general enthusiasm for a brilliant profession.


  4. Hi guys! Lackadaisical blog contributor and fan of healthy debate here. I thought I'd throw in my unsolicited two cents - this is the internets after all.

    Anonymous, I think you probably have taken an obviously humorous post rather more seriously that it was intended. That said, I agree that if a blog purports to be about a particular subject, it's not unreasonable to expect some degree of technical accuracy - no matter how whimsical or humorous the presentation. I think this is doubly important for subjects that actually matter / are of interest to consumers: closures are a perfect example.

    However, opening you comments with the suggestion that an MW student should learn more about wine-making struck me as particularly silly and somewhat belligerent.

    Laura, I thought your response was mostly measured and fair. However, I disagree with the notion that debate cannot be both healthy and anonymous. Anonymity is sometimes the only way a subject can be broached without risk to the participants. It's disingenuous to reject an argument's value just because it was made anonymously, and does a disservice to your otherwise well-crafted response.

    Can we all just go to the pub now?

    1. Joe,
      See my response above.

      Mine's a large G&T and no dickheads in the pub please.