Notes from the Cellar blog
Once around the block and just like magic, a parking place appears where there was none a mere moment ago. A good sign, I’m thinking.
The sidewalk glistens in that dull, wet cement sort of way, courtesy of the streetlights and a mid-February drizzle. I make my way up the street, scanning the numbers on the doors. In less than 50 paces I find 5905 Airport Way, just another Georgetown storefront, with nothing to distinguish it from its neighbors but a glaring lack of anything luminescent, fluorescent or otherwise visually loud. Except for a waist-high, lace curtain of multi-colored paper cut-outs, cavorting muertos encircling the expanse of plate glass facing the street. The cast of animated, grinning skeletons goes about “life” with a unbridled mirth that the living seldom muster. On the glass door, a hand-painted sign modestly states “Fonda la Catrina.” Not quite your basic beer neons. I’m getting a good feeling.
Reaching for the door, eyes sidestepping the reflections in the glass, I see that the place is packed with living, breathing, eating, drinking people who seem to be having nearly as much fun as the dead dancing by the windows. Hmm. So far so good.
I open the door, step inside, inhale. Oh, my. This is good. Who knew that heaven could smell so fine? So deliciously…earthy? We’re talking tortillas, real tortillas. And spices, chiles, limes -- maybe a little spilled beer and a drop or two of quality tequila. No wonder the muertos seem so damned happy.
The menu and the list of potables are concise but so lusciously appealing from top to bottom that I want one of everything. A wise person recently told me: “You can have everything, just not all at once.” So much the better. I can already envision becoming a “regular” here. So I order an IPA (thinking later that perhaps a Carta Blanca might’ve been just a tad better, but …) and start at the top of the menu with the Sopa de Garbanzos. It’s delicious, a heady whirl of tomatoes, coriander, ancho and pasilla chiles making a bright complement to the garbanzos. Next to me at the bar, plates of enchiladas verdes and an array of tacos arrive, followed by exclamations, oohs and aaahs of satisfaction.
Though my restraint is severely tested, the aromas permit me to taste vicariously. While these dishes have the vibrancy of Oaxacan cuisine, there’s a subtler interplay of flavors, a nuanced sort of richness that’s probably been simmering for millennia. Beyond that, there’s no fuss, no fancy-pants, self-aggrandizing bs about this food. It’s the kind of food that’s meant to sustain life, while turning the daily, necessary act of sustenance into a celebration. It’s the kind of food that makes a person damned glad to be alive to eat, to share with friend over a beer, a glass of wine and maybe a drop of mezcal or three. It’s real.
The prospect of tomorrow’s early alarm bolsters my resolve to be moderate. I’m out the door and into the heart of Saturday night, knowing full well that I can’t long resist the call of Alambre or Cochinita Pibil tacos, or Pollo Enchilado, Puerco en Salsa Verde or Rajas con Crema Y Papas. I’ll be back, that’s for sure. This is food to die for.
Fonda La Catrina
5905 Airport Way S.
The essence of a thing, the soul of a person or character of a place isn’t expressed so much in its striking qualities, its notoriety or its shining moments as it is in it the everyday, “normal” aspects of its nature. Or put differently, real magic -- true extraordinariness – is woven right into the fabric of ordinariness. Think about that…
In terms of wine, this idea is probably no better expressed than in Corbières, one of the largest appellations. Interestingly, Corbières lies in the heart of southern France’s Languedoc region, which, until the late 90’s was renowned as France’s “wine lake” the source of oceans of mass-produced, generally unremarkable wine.
Although it’s been in just the past couple decades that the reputation of wines from both Corbières and the Languedoc have changed, the evolution in quality began several decades earlier, as many independent, family-owned growers began to make wine, rather than sell their grapes to cooperatives or corporate producers. While the Languedoc and Corbières are still the source of significant quantities of bulk wine (the Gallo company’s now infamous “Red Bicyclette” for instance), the reputation of both is steadily growing as a source of terroir - driven wines of particularly great value. Meanwhile, a growing number boutique producers are pushing the proverbial envelope with ultra small yields and intensive viticultural practices.
Although the nouvelle vague of artisanal growers are producing wines that are intriguing expressions of the appellation, it’s heart and soul are found in the small, independent domaines familiales¸where the focus is on producing wines that are an honest, but affordable taste of their individual terroirs. We’re talking wines that pay the bills for the growers, everyday wines for ordinary people who have bills to pay, honest wines with soul that bring plenty of character to the table. Wines that are literally the blood of the earth, made by people who are the salt of it.
(Lucky for you, I just happen to know where you can find lovely examples of affordable, delicious Corbières). Château Maylandie and Château Ollieux Romanis both produce an array of outstanding white, rosé and red wines that range from the aforementioned “ordinary” offerings, to small cuvées of ultra-quality wines from select vineyard parcels. You’d be hard-pressed to find more everyday dinner companions more interesting or possessing more character than the “appellation” wines from either. Both offer generous aromas and flavors of dark berry fruit, with the sweetness of ripe fruit nicely balanced by notes of grape skin that segues to notes of garrigues, dusty minerals, Mediterannean pine, savory herbs and white pepper. To drink either is to experience the soul of Corbières – wild, heady, a little bit racy, simultaneously verdant and arid, scoured by the icy Northwest wine in winter and Mediterannean breezes in summer. But why take my word for it when you savor for yourself? After all, it’s the next best thing to being there!
In his column in last Sunday’s New York Times, Eric Asimov makes this astute observation:
“To drink only the best-known wines from time-honored regions is a little like eating in the same restaurants over and over. You can’t go wrong, perhaps, but without the rewards of exploration, you are missing out on so much more.”
-- Eric Asimov, The New York Times, 15 January, 2012
It’s one of those things that should go without saying, but that’s still a great reminder — even (or especially) for those of us whose métier and avowed mission it is to boldly seek out new flavor frontiers, to boldly go…
Pick your metaphor — restaurants, movies, books, music, hotels, roads, vacations…. It actually takes an “act” of consciousness, a little thought, to open the doors and windows in our brains. It’s easy to get so hell-bent on the daily trudge, so dialed in on the stuff that’s supposed to be “important,” that we forget to look around, to ask questions, to see, smell, hear and taste even an nth of what’s within reach, not to mention just around the next bend. Far too easy to just go with what we know, reach for the assurance of the same ol', same ol' tried and true.
It also requires a little extra effort and attention to bypass the freeways of “time-honored” and renowned, keeping instead to the two-lane where homegrown, bedrock flavors grow and the dialect is purely local. But you can’t beat the scenery. Not to mention the broadening of perspective, deepening of lexicon and plain old, amazing pleasure of honing your senses with new adventures.
January doldrums? Sure, if you want. But winter, like anything, is what you make it. So, make it a vacation, every bottle is an opportunity. Whether it’s godello from Rias Baixas, garnacha from Catalunya, gamay from the Val d’Aosta, tannat from Argentina, Negrette from Fronton, encruzado from the Dão — or any of literally thousands of flavors just waiting to be discovered, all you need to do is choose.
It’s a mighty big world. Lace up your shoes, get out your map and corkscrew, get outta the door, light out and look all around … the glass is empty — fill it!
It’s a new year, a fresh page, a temporal tabula rasa, time to boldly set forth on a whole new set of adventures. I’m on the case — as soon as I get a little bit of old business off my figurative desktop.
I’ve taken to keeping a list of topics worthy of expository effort, things that arouse everything from adoration to ire, and about which I fully intend to chime in with my two pesetas worth. Someday. So, herewith, fresh from 2010’s litany of brilliant things and bright ideas postponed…
Awhile back, probably sometime early last fall, in his weekly Seattle Times column, Paul Gregutt sang the praises of mourvèdre, going so far as to predict its rise to the dizzying heights of Next Big Thing. Hmmmm. Interesting idea, but I’m not so sure.
Not that I don’t adore mourvèdre, too. When it’s good, it’s capable of a singular level of profundity, a deep, purple-flavored, animal earthiness infused with layers of pure, crystalline fruit — and terroir, garrigues, et cetera, as the particular case may be. At its best, it pulls no punches. It’s serious stuff, capable of weaving a brooding funk with floral elegance. Mourvèdre makes a statement. There’s nothing like it, and it isn’t for everyone — unless it’s dumbed-down, ripened up, stripped of character and otherwise made to fit the profile of wine-like product that qualifies any given grape as a Big Thing.
Show me mourvèdre as a Big Deal, mourvèdre as a market force, mourvèdre as Money … and I’ll show you mourvèdre that ain’t mourvèdre. Remember merlot? Once upon a time, merlot was poised as the Next Big Thing, then it was THE big thing, and finally, synonymous with non-descript-red-wine-that-sucks. Then it was syrah, with the big, fat, juicy Australian treatment serving as the model. We all know how that story ends. Say ‘syrah’ (shiraz) to your average retailer and you may as well say (shizzle). The market had a fling with pinot (perhaps a little too … precious … precocious?). Malbec seems to be the current darling, but you can already see its demise in the tea leaves as a flood of insipidity labeled as malbec rises to prominence on grocery store end displays and wine lists everywhere.
Merlot, of course, never changed, as such, in the course of its rise and fall. Neither did syrah, nor pinot, nor malbec — and neither will mourvèdre, should it become a commercial “success.” But like any good thing in the employ of those for whom the bottom line is the bottom line, merlot (and syrah, and malbec…) could only end its brief career as wine-biz darling as a washed-up has-been. Dress any good grape in full-on, big brand raiment and you can bet the vineyard that there’s no virtue that will go unsullied, no reputation untarnished.
Moral of the story? Try to be everything to everybody and you end up being nothing at all. Big Things? Why would you bother, when small can be so mighty? While I’m generally loathe to make sweeping generalizations, in the current case I’ll happily make this exception: If you want to live large, think (and drink) small.
Words fail me. No, wait, scratch that. Let's try again. It’s not that I lack the words or any number of topics at which to employ them. Unh – uh. Got those aplenty. Today, it’s a lack of good old gumption that’s got this cat’s figurative tongue. I’ve been sitting here for the last little bit, staring at a list of things about which I’ve been itching to spill some ink, but just can’t seem to muster the volition to tease the words into anything resembling a coherent sentence—to say nothing of a paragraph.
That doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate (and share) other’s words. Yesterday evening, I was thumbing through the “Food” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly (imho one of the most splendidly intelligent periodicals in current circulation) and found the following gem, from Anthelme Brillat – Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste. With the exception of couple gender-based role assignments typical of its era (1825), it’s a timely and timeless set of observations on the civilized satisfaction of one of humankind’s essential needs. Problem solved. I’m going to have a beer (Bayern Pilsner, damned fine stuff) and make like Bartleby. Enjoy.
I: The universe is nothing without the things that live in it, and everything that lives, eats.
II: Animals feed themselves, men eat—but only wise men know the art of eating.
III. The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves.
IV: Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.
V: The Creator, while forcing men to eat in order to live, tempts him to do so with appetite and then rewards him with pleasure.
VI: Good living is an act of intelligence, by which we choose things which have an agreeable taste rather than those which do not.
VII: The pleasures of the table are for every man of every land, and no matter of what place in history or society; they can be a part of all his other pleasures, and they last the longest to console him when he has outlived the rest.
VIII: The table is the only place where a man is never bored for the first hour.
IX: The discovery of a new dish does more for the human happiness than the discovery of a star.
X: Men who stuff themselves and grow tipsy know neither how to eat nor how to drink.
XI: The proper progression of courses in a dinner is from the most substantial to the lightest.
XII: The proper progression of wines or spirits is from the mildest to the headiest and most aromatic.
XIII: It is heresy to insist that we must not mix wines: a man’s palate can grow numb and react dully to even the best bottle after the third glass from it.
XIV: A dinner which ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.
XV: We can learn to be cooks, but we must be born knowing how to roast.
XVI: The most indispensable quality of a cook is promptness, nad it should be that of the diner as well.
XVII: A host who makes all his guests wait for one latecomer is careless of their well-being.
XVIII: He who plays host without giving his personal care to the repast is unworthy of having friends to invite to it.
XIX The mistress of the house should always makes sure that the coffee is good, nad the master that the wines are of the best.
XX: To invite people to dine with us is to make ourselves responsible for their well-being for as long as they are under our roofs.
New releases! Big scores!
Rant of the week...
New releases! Big scores!
No need to read any further; the subject line says it all. It could be any of dozens of press releases, newsletters and other assorted promo “stuff” that daily pack my inbox. The drill is familiar: read the subject line, delete, done. If I haven’t glazed over at the first exclamation point, the word “score” or “rating” will do the job, every time.
But today, maybe it’s my wine curmudgeonly crankiness baring its gleaming canines, maybe I should’ve had that one more cup, who knows, but I just tasted through the lineup being touted with the owner-winemaker a few weeks ago — and well, here’s my snort of derision, in a few hundred words, give or take.
They were all winemaker’s wines. As in made. Manipulated. Over-extracted. Over-oaked. Over-hyped. Overpriced. A nursery rhyme played through a phase-shifter, a digital delay and a stack of Marshalls. Loud, with a cool light show. There really isn’t much else to say. Now, I like the guy, don’t have an axe to grind. But bs is bs, no matter how many cases you sell out of, no matter how you pander to the paparazzi, no matter that you’re one of the hipster darlings of the Washington wine biz. The emperor gots no clothes, baby. That dude is nekkid.
Funny, as we were tasting the wines, the WineMaker really didn’t have much to utter, either. Just some tech stuff, brix levels at harvest (huge), cases produced (not many, “get you a small allocation, but don’t wait, these are hot, hot, hot…”), pH, alcohol (plenty o’), et cetera, etc., &c. And don’t forget last year’s scores! (This year Parker’s sure to rate ‘em even higher. )93 points WA, 95 points WS, 91 points Enthusiast, blah, blah blah…
So, tell me then, what’s 95 taste like? Huh? "In your own words, please describe…" Other than that it’s a bigger number than, say, 89, what do the digits say, daddio? Here’s a hint: It says that some guy who can’t be troubled to articulate what he tastes likes it a lot, gives it an “A,” that he was in a good mood, the producer schmoozed him, bought an ad in his magazine. Take your pick, but at the end of the day, it just says that Joe Blow likes it x much, it appeals to his very human, very fallible palate, for any of a bazillion, often quite subjective reasons. Does the fact that Joe Blow says it’s a 95 mean that you should like it? The difference between you and Jo Blow is that Joe knows that people are often supremely underconfident when it comes to wine, and they’re happy to pay for someone to show them the way, to tell them what they ought to taste, as it were. If Joe Blow were a book reviewer, or a music critic, how far would the numbers fly?
(Let me add that in my unapologetic, purely subjective assessment, 94 often has just about as much character as a number.)
The English language is going to hell in an on-line hand-basket, and right along with it people’s ability to think in anything deeper than marketing content or a sound byte. Our conversations already pack all the depth we can pack into a text message, while we construct our “lifestyles” with “products” purchased on the advice of a few lines of “content.”
So, why even bother with the fuzzy white bunny puff piece when a simple number will do? No need to waste actual words on what the over-priced glug in question actually tastes like. Just say that King Bob or Shankin’ Marvin said “93” and that’s good enough for the demographic who prefer chest-beating one-upmanship to character and conviviality. Prose is for bleeding hearts and novel-reading liberal arts types. Cut to the chase, damn the guesswork and the nuanced nonsense. Full speed ahead. Read the numbers, hire a consultant — let the data do the talking.
The data, man. No matter how objective the numbers are purported to be, scores are the product of fallible, self-interested humans, making a living telling us that they’ve managed to turn a subjective pleasure into an objective quantification — and that their subjective experience packs more value than yours. Uh-huh.You bet.
Fine, if that’s what you like. If you don’t’ have the time or the attention span to actually think, taste, savor — to take pleasure, well… I’m sure that this little screed will generate more than a little ire — and a few howls of righteous indignation. Whatever. Bring it on. But let me add (once again in my very subjective, humble estimation), that when it comes to wine, numbers generally aren’t for people who trust their own palates, their own judgement and who are happy to form their own opinions. Numbers don’t just let you keep up with the Joneses, they tell you what to think so you can be the Joneses.
Remember PT Barnum?
Drink well, enjoy, Life is short.
Beaujolais. Nouveau. Let us fill our glasses and sing its praises. Really. No, not the Beaujolais - like product that the corporate wine factories foist on the world. Unh-uh, not that.
Think instead in terms of the sheer loveliness of real, honest Beaujolais, married with the heady, virtually carnal energy of harvest. Pour that in your glass. You’ll see. Yep, voilà.
Beaujolais. “… bright, perfectly ripe red fruit, walking a taut tightrope of exuberant freshness. Lush, generous, muscular berry flavors with a lazer, razor edge of tartness. Not voluptuous in its richness, not “big.” Supple, lean, muscular, flexible. A ballet dancer of a wine… Think of the joyful, bursting-with-sunshine, meaty, satisfying sweetness and texture of perfectly ripe cherries and raspberries, with a crystalline edge of tanginess and the firmness of cool granite.”
Harvest. How do you even come close to adequately describing the pure, heady, racy excitement of harvest? Take a year’s worth of energy, the alliance of earth and sun stored in juicy ripe berries, add the sweat of human brows, hope and desire – unleash it all in the intoxicating alchemy of fermentation, and well…yeah, carnal kind of sums it up.
If real Beaujolais is essentially exuberant beauty without pretention or veneer of sophistication, then real Beaujolais Nouveau is naked beauty, pure, unadorned loveliness with the racy energy of unbridled passion and the reckless abandon of the harvest.
(Surfing that riff all the way to the beach--if honest Beaujolais is the vinous equivalent of impassioned lovemaking, then the industrial-grade sham perpetrated by certain corporate types is essentially little more than wine pornography.)
Alors, I can’t describe it any better than that, there just aren’t adjectives enough. But you can pick up a bottle of Pierre Chermette “Primeur” or Domaine Dupeuble Nouveau at your friendly neighborhood PCC wine department. Then you’ll see.
Fill your glass. Give thanks.
Any reasonably sophisticated, discerning consumer knows that Rome is Italy and Paris is France. Italians eat lots of garlicky spaghetti (occasionally clam linguini) washed down with Chianti in those cute straw-covered bottles. Arrivederci, baby. The French, on the other hand, are little more of a riddle. Beneath those charming berets, they’re pretty grouchy, perhaps from all those rich cream sauces and snails they eat. They’re serious about their wine, too. Way expensive, hoity-toity Bordeaux and Champagne are pretty much the sine qua non for all wine, everywhere. But those are for the upwardly mobile (the Chinese, some corporate executive types , etc.) Those without the means for the real stuff (the ones that are on strike all the time) spend their leisure time in cafés, listening to accordion music, smoking a lot and drinking Beaujolais, that charming but déclassé little red that Georges DuBoeuf made famous. It’s fun stuff, and good for a frivolous buzz (especially that kool-aid like Nouveaux version that comes out around Thanksgiving every year), but not for people who like real wine.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. You can put the conventional wisdom about Beaujolais right there on the shelf with sweet rosé and riesling, soda pop Lambrusco, California “Chablis” and the Gallo Hardly Burgundy. If think you’re too “sophisticated” for Beaujolais, well… enjoy, I guess.
Of course, like anything else, there’s plenty of less-than-stellar Beaujolais to be had. There’s even a good amount of absolute crap. Funny thing is, much of the dreck on the market, as well as Beaujolais’ tarnished image can be attributed to the aforementioned Monsieur DuBoeuf. But that’s another story and we’re here to sing the praises of real, honest Beaujolais.
So, how does one describe Beaujolais, in its essence? While it approaches pinot noir (especially Burgundy) in its precocity, that indescribable, agile lightness that even the most powerful Burgundies can possess, it really can’t be described in terms of anything else, can’t be approximated or imitated. Beaujolais is Beaujolais.
Think of bright, perfectly ripe red fruit, walking a taut tightrope of exuberant freshness. Lush, generous, muscular berry flavors with a lazer, razor edge of tartness. Not voluptuous in its richness, not “big.” Supple, lean, muscular, flexible. A ballet dancer of a wine.
Think of the joyful, bursting-with-sunshine, meaty, satisfying sweetness and texture of perfectly ripe cherries and raspberries, with a crystalline edge of tanginess and the firmness of cool granite. Our friend Oliver Beck nailed it when he called Beaujolais “granite candy.”
Granite candy. Hold that thought – there’s more to follow. In the meantime, pick up a bottle of Domaine Dupeuble Beaujolais at your friendly neighborhood PCC – a glass is worth a bazillion words.
Finally, the “Primeur” (nouveau) wines of both Dupeuble and Pierre Chermette arrive on Thursday, the 17th. These wines deliciously shatter any myths about both Beaujolais and Nouveau. Fill your glass with the lovely truth. Enjoy.
Sometimes, amidst the daily rolling-the-stone-up-a-hill, nuts, bolts and grinding of ergonomic gears, you get little gifts. It’s those delicious epiphanies that remind me why I love this gig — and stoke the fires to keep at the Quixotic business of evangelizing nuance, character and soul (when pre-digested “content” is the going concern). Harrumph. In any case, ‘tis the season, I guess and serendipity delivered, right on time, a couple aha! moments vis-à-vis bubbles and Beaujolais…
Illumination Numéro Un: Illumination indeed, (at least I feel pretty bright). Champagne was once upon a time referred to as a “rain of stars.” While that’s a pretty damned smart description, it doesn’t come close to seizing the astounding depth and elegance possible in truly great Champagne (note that “great” doesn’t necessarily have a financial correlation). Perhaps nowhere are the various misconceptions that surround wine, sparkling wine, French wine, and French sparkling wine more at work than in Champagne. For blue collar and blue blood alike, price and marque are overwhelmingly the undisputed benchmarks of quality. (Let’s not even get started on the tyranny of the masses, or questions of might making right).
Now, I’m not suggesting that the grands marques don’ make some mighty fine fizz, far from it. But I am saying that for the most part, they’re neither the most interesting, the most elegant, the best expressions of Champagne’s diverse terroirs, nor even close to being worth the money (price and value being relative).
It’s hard to express something about which you have no idea, in any genre. The big houses are run by people who are in the luxury goods business, people who have as much connection to vineyards as bankers have with farmers. Luxury is for those who prefer to be insulated from the reality of dirt and that’s what big-name Champagne is all about. With deep pockets and the entire array of winery technology and tools at their disposal, the big boys have the ability to manipulate, adjust, augment and otherwise process purchased wine into the buffed, fluffed and polished product that’s guaranteed to flatter the consumer with the means. We’re talking luxe — no questions posed, no ellipses, no statements even — just caresses and respectfully whispered assurances. Which is wonderful, if that’s what you’re after.
But enough of that already. If your musical tastes have been formed on a playlist of Muzak, Mozart is going to blow your mind. And the more you listen to Mozart, (or Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Ravel, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington … take your pick) the more amazed and entranced you’re likely to be.
Take away contrivance, preening, posing, crafting — the [biomatter] that goes hand-in-hand with trying to be everything to everyone… reduce a thing to its essence, factor in love and an almost primal urge to express and explore that essence, and you have character, in all its delicious integrity. In music, there’s the composition, an idea, a theme explored, an composer’s expression of the world — and there’s the interpreter, the conductor, the soloist, the bandleader who takes the composition and offers a new perspective on just what the composer was saying. In Champagne, there’s Champagne, that ever-so-special mosaic of terroirs, exposures and microclimates; there are grapes — pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot meunier (the band, as it were); and there is the arranger-composer who appreciates the genius of the idea and brings it to expression in the voices of vineyard and grape.
The point? I’ve had the great pleasure of tasting through Terry Theise’s incredible Champagne portfolio on several different occasions now, and find that each time serves not just to provide a greater understanding, but to deepen my appreciation and amazement for the incredible range of flavors, texture, tonal color and dynamic range that can spring from the incomparable dirt of the region.
I could of course, spill endless ink describing what I’ve tasted — all of which would amount to little more than a crude, second-hand accounting, much like trying to reproduce the Mona Lisa in house paint, with a broom. A far better course is to invite you to taste for yourself. The wines of Chartogne-Taillet, Gaston Chiquet and Pierre Peters are now available in all PCC stores. We feel that this selection offers a nice synopsis of different styles and terroirs from three superb growers. It’s also worth pointing out that these wines won’t set lighten your wallet any more than the stuff you see in the fancy-pants advertisements (in most cases, you’re going to spend less — and get way more) — as the prices are a reflection of just the costs of production and getting them here and don’t include huge marketing budgets and legions of spread-sheet readers.
Again, enough. I digress — and we haven’t even gotten to the part about Beaujolais. Guess that’ll have to wait for another day. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile — life is short, drink well.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the more you try to be all things to all people, the more you become nothing at all. There’s a word for this phenomenon: homogenization. Those of us old enough to remember what milk tastes like (the old-fangled kind, delivered to our door, complete with that deep, delicious cap of cream at the top) will attest that the homogenized product sold in the dairy case of groceries everywhere bears only the faintest of resemblances to real milk.
Speaking of milk and homogenization, it bears pointing out that Starbucks isn’t really about coffee so much as it’s about milk. Milk as delivery beverage for various flavorings – primarily coffee, true, but let’s not kid ourselves. Starbucks figured out right from the get-go that adults are really just big kids. Give ‘em a hot chocolate in the guise of a sophisticated quasi – Euro beverage, slap a cool logo on it, and well, you know the rest. Think about it, how often do you ever hear someone even bother to say “caffe” when they order their double-tall butterscotch extra-whip latte?
But I digress, sort of. As consumers are increasingly, incessantly bombarded with messaging and marketing , the lion’s share have become conditioned to be less concerned with the contents than the package – and most importantly, the brand that package wears. As the average American becomes more and more distracted by competing sound-bite calls for his or her attention the most effective means of attracting a consumer’s attention (read: dollars) is pretty much reduced to being the shiniest shiny thing or yelling the loudest (and I mean that both literally and metaphorically). Done effectively it’s not the sort of thing that invites contemplation or anything resembling reasoned consideration.
So…HEY! It’s all about the brand. Get the prospective buyer’s attention, give ‘em a package they‘ll feel good flaunting, one that flatters their self-image -- and all that remains is to make sure that they come back for more. No rocket science or hocus - pocus there, either. It’s not even a matter of putting anything particularly impressive behind the brand – in fact, if it’s mass market appeal you’re after, the less impressive, the better.
Back to the milk riff for another chorus… Real milk actually tastes like something, has character, a very particular flavor. When it’s at its best, it’s the sort of thing that you either like or you don’t. Like great wine, real milk can even take on the character of the place it’s from. High mountain meadows, sweet alpine grass, coastal pastures, maybe a kiss of salt breeze, folded into a marshier kind of grassiness. More defined, more particular – and appealing to an even more specific customer. When it’s the goods, everybody doesn’t necessarily love it. Great stuff for the discerning milk drinker, but not the sort of thing that builds market share.
Music? Play it again, same deal, Sam. For the dialed in urbanite, Jazz is a cool word to fling around and makes a nice bumper sticker for the public persona. But Miles, Coltrane, Blakey, Ellington, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, et al aren’t necessarily always pretty. It’s music that comes from real, living, breathing, feeling, suffering, joyous, sad, elated , longing, melancholy, happy, hurting, exuberant souls in all their messy rawness. Hard to ignore, hence not the best choice for background music. Not to mention that to really get what’s going on in music like that requires actual listening. And maybe even thinking. Not a recipe for big sales. Wanna sell records and make money? Think Kenny G. Nice, saccharine little melodies that require neither attention nor participation. Sonic wallpaper. You need not be present to win.
Wine? Same basic idea (with a few fun peculiarities that’ll be fabulous fodder for future forays --stay tuned!). Get the bottle on the table with nice graphics. Keep it there by making it a nice, friendly, lush, innocuous alcohol delivery beverage. Update the package from time to time to “keep it fresh” and viola! You’ve got yourself a brand. Thirst-quenching wallpaper, complete with a buzz.
Is that a bad thing? Nope, not really. We all like what we like – and sometimes, all we want is a little refreshment, a cocktail, as it were. But the world is your oyster -- or oysters, as it were. The array of flavors, shades of nuance and cast of characters out there is as astounding as it is endless. And it’s all just waiting to be discovered, tasted, savored and to broaden the lexicon that makes up your story of the world. Best of all, you get to choose. If you like the homogenized kind, well, that’s just fine. There’s plenty of it and plenty of folks who’ll be happy to sell you some. Nothing could be easier.
If, on the other hand, you want something that actually IS something, has a story to tell, real flavor, character … soul – well, all you have to do is open your eyes, ears, mouth and mind. Must be present to win.