The power of the restaurant industry
Although I went to school for writing, I never had a desire to write a blog. For me, I felt it would be self-indulgent. Who cares what I think about anything? Now that this blog has been going for over a month, I'm kinda getting into it. What I've been enjoying is feedback from you guys -- anecdotes, articles, photographs -- to which I immediately think: "I'm going to post that in my next blog!" So keep those anecdotes, articles and photographs coming! I would much rather have this be a shared experience than just a solitary exposition of my path. A collaboration will make this blog take on a life of its own.
Case in point this week. I had been editing my planned entry on "How My Wine Obsession Began." Then I got a note from my friend Tony, and suddenly I wanted to tell a different story. To quote my father, life is about Staying Loose.
Tony is a friend I have know for years from my Boston days. He is one of the many friends to leave for greener pastures; for him, New York City. Tony was part of a very large and highly-skilled network of restaurant bartenders and servers I had accumulated after years living in Boston. He was one of my favorite people behind a bar, and I think of him as a highly inquisitive man who takes his craft and passion very seriously.
Tony shared that a New York sommelier had partnered with a Southern French winery to make his own 40-oz bottle of rosé -- the "Forty Ounce Rosé." For reference, the typical wine bottle is 750ml, which is about 25 ounces. Forty Ounce Rosé is selling for around $17, the average price for a high-quality 750ml bottle. So do the math on that one. Not only did this intrigue me to venture into this realm one day myself, but I instantly caught a cultural significance. Welcome to the complicated pathways of my mind as I attempt to explain. You have been warned.
I am going to deviate from rosé for a bit. Let's talk about the restaurant industry. I spent eight years behind the bar in my late teens/twenties, was a restaurant photographer for four years and have been in the wine industry for ten. The restaurant industry is one to which I am most intimate, the most comfortable. It is easy, however, to forget that a large swath of the general population doesn't understand what "86" means, know the panic when suddenly there are no forks during dinner service or has dealt with an empty keg while facing tens of thirsty and drunk people.
People in the restaurant/beer/wine/spirits industries don't necessarily eat and drink the same as everyone else. This does not make them/us elite, snobbish or pretentious. Well, at least most of us aren't. It's just the reality of what is readily available. Think about it -- access to a MASSIVE spectrum of options at all time, both in quality and price.
But, but, sometimes, after spending all day tasting and talking about a Premier Cru Burgundy or a single vineyard Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, there is a pull to have something cheap, easy and simple. Something you don't have to think about. I have been there for sure. Give me a Corona and lime: I don't feel like analyzing, thinking or talking about this Corsican red made from a grape I can't pronounce. That sounds something like "Chaka-Khan." Ok, maybe not a Corona and lime. But, you get the point.
So, "off the clock," these physically and mentally exhausted restaurant workers may want the complete other end of the spectrum. Again, easy and with little thought. Like say, a Pabst Blue Ribbon. PBR. Cheap, cold, no thought, refreshing. Perfect. Another option? A delicious, cold 40-oz bottle of Colt 45, a malt liquor. Best served in a paper bag and drunk outside next to a dumpster after a long shift with a cigarette. You think of these as low-quality, swill beers? Well, maybe. But, actually they are fantastic/perfect after many hours dealing with inebriated people. Something to toast together and celebrate getting through one more intense, crazy, wild ride of a shift.
I don't overstep my bounds in the alcohol business; I stay in my lane marked "WINE", sometimes cautiously veering into the "BEER" or "SPIRITS" lanes. But I quickly return back as I know I can easily get in over my head.
I am going to veer into "SPIRITS" only to share a story. Let's talk about another phenomenon created directly by the post-shift, nocturnal behavior of bartenders and servers -- a little Italian digestive called Fernet Branca. San Francisco proudly claims the highest Fernet consumption in the United States and holds the title of making it mainstream. One San Francisco Fernet urban myth is that cases of this at-that-time obscure digestif ended up a couple restaurants. A close-out? An experiment? Someone was Italian? I have forgotten the specifics. Since during that time most servers and consumers were not familiar with aperitifs or digestifs (say, like, French rosé today in most cities), it just languished in the back room.
Languished until some adventurous and serious bartenders discovered that a quick shot of Fernet could get them through a shift. And suddenly it became a quiet, in-the-know after work shot instead of a shift beer, instead of that PBR or Colt 45. (Or with it!) Now, in no way would I consider Fernet cheap, easy or simple as say, PBR or Colt 45. Fernet was an obscure bottle to grab and have a shared experience with other like-minded co-workers. In this case, one could geek out and talk about its depth, or just take it at face value to clink shot glasses together. The fact that most people didn't know about Fernet made the experience together even more intimate.
During this same time, some of these people were at the forefront of the massive craft cocktail revolution sparked 15 or so years ago. These little habits and industry-shared experiences spread to like-minded bartenders and servers throughout the country -- like Boston -- and eventually filtering down to interested consumers such as myself. I specifically remember my first Fernet shot handed to me by my brilliant friend Misty at Green Street in Cambridge. I was highly suspect, but as Misty is part of this small nationwide group changing how we view and drink cocktails, I took the shot. To which I hated. But overtime began to enjoy.
Again, how does this filter down to us as consumers? The next time you are out at your favorite "cool" restaurant or bar (for don't we all use that one adjective to describe them?), look at the back bar. Look at some of those weird bottles that have never caught your attention. Chances are you will see a bottle of Fernet proudly. Or Averna. Or Ramazzotti. All Italian digestifs suddenly becoming more prominent nationwide, spurred by the excitement of young SF bartenders a decade ago. The power of a few can most certainly influence thousands. Because, for example, people like Tony, Misty and the sommelier who created Forty Ounce Rosé are the ones who both sell the products and create the very cocktail and wine lists that end up in your hand.
Bear with me. This will lead back to rosé.
Now this was not my experience bartending . I worked in the late 1980s and early 1990s at places like the Salty Dog and Sea Ketch in New Hampshire. I was pouring Bud Lite by the kegful while making thousands of blender drinks. As for wine? Please. Bottles of forgettable red sitting sadly on the shelf, having been open for days. And my "craft cocktails" were Fuzzy Navels, White Russians and Woo-Woo shots. I went behind the bar to make a lot of easy money and have a trade. I had no interest in becoming an industry visionary.
That is not the experience behind the bar now. These people are not only highly skilled to perform service duties, but their education goes deep deep deep. Many of these beverage enthusiasts are on their own personal quests such as myself with wine. They want to find the most unique flavors and experiences to both personally enjoy and then, ultimately, educate a larger consumer base. That discovery of Fernet opened an entire new sub-section of European aperitifs and digestifs, many of which make it into those interesting cocktails you are enjoying. All started, again, by a few young restaurant bartenders and servers enjoying a shot together after a long night at work.
Tony had shared another tidbit with me a few months ago, when he knew I was going deep into rosé. Apparently today, in some NYC bars and restaurants, the shot needed to get through the shift or the post-work shift drink is not Fernet. It's not PBR. Or Colt 45. It's rosé. Yup! a *shot* of rosé. Tony knew I would make the correlation between a shot of Fernet and a shot of rosé, between a 40-oz bottle of Colt 45 and a 40-oz bottle of rosé. Rosé could be the next Colt-45, the next PBR, the next Fernet. For rosé is starting to get increased prominence in the hands of beverage industry leaders: the ones who make the wine lists, the ones who do the ordering. The ones who start beverage revolutions that can filter down to your very own cool neighborhood bar.
Do I think I am on to something with my rosé vision? Of course. I would not have gone this far so publicly if I did not. However, do I sometimes wonder if this is all in my own head, because of the specific circles to which I run, because of my own specific experience? Has rosé become my own personal Fernet, only seen by the like-minded people I surround myself with? Unfortunately, at times, yes, I have these thoughts. I wouldn't be human if I didn't have moments of doubt. But part of my process is going to be sitting with those doubts and letting them dissipate. I have my vision and need to stick with it. That's the whole RISK part of starting my own importing company. So to get that note last week from my friend, that gift of validation, was a great shot in the arm. And for that, Tony, you get the dedication of this post. Santé!
I do need to send some love to the big pile of South Jersey who barreled into town for almost a week. These guys had an intention of enjoying California wines during their stay only to be hijacked by my French rosé agenda. Some of these guys had no idea what I was talking about regarding rosé, but all were open to try. And, my master plan was a success, as I now have them all bringing "#roséallday!" back to Jersey. I plan to continue infiltrating with my guerrilla rosé tactics on the Jersey shore this summer. And anywhere else I visit.
Ok, I realize this blog post is a bit scattered, and I don't feel I truly communicated why what Tony shared resonated so much. Will bring focus next week! Unless, of course, one of you send me another anecdote to which I'll switch up my schedule. Keep texting, FBing me, and sending pictures and stories of what you guys are enjoying!
P.S. Coincidentally, my SF friend Greg, who is very deep in the restaurant industry here, sent me a picture of the 40 Ounce Rosé. This ship is coming you guys.