Not so long ago wine was the hottest thing in town. Indeed, for many it was the reason to go to town, where newly licensed restaurants beckoned with their innovative idea of drinking wine with your evening meal. Wine waiters were the glamour guys (there were no wine girls) of the restaurant scene, gate keepers to a fascinating world of Sparkling Burgundy, Blue Nun and Cresta Doré, but their position has been taken by a new generation of bar tsars, star mixers who really can innovate while they enthuse over the classics of their trade. If you want a hot night in the city these days, look to the bars and their tsars of demonic creativity.
Maybe wine’s fall from the hot spot has come because we take it for granted now, what with our international success as a wine producing nation and all that. But I suspect that is not the reason for a distinct lack of enthusiasm in the wine trade right now, rather it is the authority that those who serve us wine assume, an intensification of the gatekeeper role that wine waiters once held.
This was made perfectly clear to me when I wandered into a wine retail outlet in Auckland’s Elliot Stables recently. Although empty of customers, it did look to be the sort of place where an interested wine buyer could make discoveries, but I soon found out why it was empty. The owner, who was also the sole service provider, quickly made it clear that he thought I was an idiot, but if I would put myself in his hands he would ensure that I bought something intelligent.
Fat chance. After he had finished explaining the grape varieties that were used in making Northern Italian wines, that Lindauer was beneath a serious wine drinker, and that his illegally labelled ‘vintage’ cognac was the real McCoy, I had been put off buying anything and just wanted to leave. He didn’t want to sell me anything, he wanted to show me how bloody clever he was, but instead he illustrated the opposite.
Not that he is alone in his vino-narcissism, as the big noting sommelier is now as firm a fixture in our smart restaurants as wine ignorance is in our cafés. The first skill a sommelier seems to acquire in New Zealand appears to be the ability to look down the nose at guests, and quickly becomes too busy either sneering or showing off to actually provide meaningful service.
The other skill sommeliers seem to value is their ability to find obscure wines that are obscure for a reason and deserve to remain so. A cynic would be tempted to explain this as a blunt effort at profiteering, and that may indeed be so, but it does nothing to deliver a thrill factor to the dining experience. If I am offered another jammy, volatile, minor Italian red as the new ‘best partner’ with anything vaguely toothsome I will probably throw something. Up.
In a professional sense we find the air of self-certified wine authority whenever sommeliers gather together. Usually they are too busy preening themselves and flaunting their boundless wine knowledge to actually apply it to tasting wine or contributing intelligently to matters that should engage a professional.
This is not the case with a similar gathering of cocktail professionals, whose ability to share knowledge and engage creatively is invigorating. No wonder cocktails are now hot while wine has faded to mere warmth. No wonder cocktails and spirits are attractive to the new generation of drinkers, and why the beer that shares bars with these professionals is now more sophisticated and stylish than it ever was. Indeed, craft beer is as hot now as wine once was, for a very good reason.
The fundamental difference between our wine environment and that of the professional bartender is one of attitude. Wine service has become mean spirited, while bar tsars reveal a sense of generosity that engages their customers in the best of social behaviour – sharing enjoyment.
Another advantage of these recent developments in professional barship is that New Zealand has a sophisticated market in which well crafted spirits can thrive, and local producers are stepping up to meet the challenge. Consequently, spirit exports are on the way up and New Zealand is gathering a reputation as a place worth going for a decent drink. Today, on the 45th anniversary of the end of 6 o’clock closing, that is something worth celebrating.