Sommelier-- "som mul yare" in TX dialect, soms for shortLast weekend, I had the pleasure to attend Texsom 2012, a sommelier's conference in Las Colinas. I spent 3 days listening, observing, and learning about wine and wine professionals, and the experience reaffirmed my enthusiasm for Host & Toast.
As I sat in the conference on the first day, I looked around the room and wondered to myself, "Am I the only one who doctored my six year old's bug bite this morning?" And I was curious if anyone else wrote notes for their blog with purple crayon because that's all they could find. I listened to the suits in the room for 3 days talk about Chateau Blah Blah Blah, and I found myself questioning what world these people live in because it's certainly not where I live. Between doing dishes and wiping bottoms, I don't think I can find time to travel the world, compare vintages, and take soil samples.
Please don't mistake my meaning. I loved the conference. (3 days vacation from being mom- a full-time job in itself. Yippee!) Everyone at the conference was very nice. But between the soms in business suits, the terrior, and the '83 Blah Blah Blah, collectively, the group is pretty intimidating. In my limited experience, it seems winemakers are a pretty eclectic group. Wine salesmen aren't even that stuffy. So why do soms have to look so corporate?
When I opened Host & Toast, I thought for a very long time about the brand I was creating. A statement I used repeatedly was "somewhat aspirational, but definitely attainable." I felt like I was ahead of the curve in terms of branding and marketing as I listened to a panel of experts acknowledge they speak a different language than the general public because the language of Chateau Blah Blah Blah becomes a clique with little entry to outsiders quite quickly. Very little of their wealth of knowledge is attainable because there is a disconnect with regular people...you know, the dishwashers and bottom wipers.
Host & Toast is about helping people develop a comfort level with wine while helping them venture into quality wines from well known and uncommon varietals and regions. I want to meet people on their level and help them find something they will enjoy. Examples of my common wine descriptors are kick ass, yummy, and so smooth you can drink it for breakfast. If I ever start selling the terrior of Chateau Blah Blah Blah, feel free to punch me in the face.
While it was nice that the soms acknowledged a disconnect from the public, few seemed willing to make changes to solve the problem. Losing the suits would be a start. But many on the panel seemed to explain why they are the way they are, rather than listening to suggestions, new trends, or new approaches to selling what they love. Several mentioned that wine is personal, but how can a group of people who all look the same way and speak the same way help a person experience wine on an individual level?
Thus I titled this post Full Disclosure: I don't know that much about wine. But I think I do know something about building a brand and relating to people. And maybe it takes an outsider to question the norm and give a fresh perspective to an industry. At one of the sessions, an Italian wine made by an old Italian guy was the grand finale. It was made from grapes that were almost raisins. Of course, I don't remember the proper term to describe this style, and I had never tried anything like it. I turned to the guy next to me and asked if it was spoiled, and I quickly learned that the wine was supposed to taste that way. It also happens to cost over $300 a bottle. At least my classmate was really nice about my silly question. And after I heard someone talk about what a treasure the winemaker is to the industry and the decades he has been putting so much love and craftsmanship into the bottles he makes, I felt that I appreciated it. But I seriously thought it was spoiled the first time I tasted it.
I had several little missteps such as that, but hopefully I faked my way through it well enough. But if I, a wine business owner, felt intimidated to ask questions or embarrassed to do the wrong thing, imagine how a first time wine drinker might feel. What is the industry as a whole doing to convert a first-timer into an enthusiast?
Overall, my experience at Texsom was amazing. I had the opportunity to taste so many wines that were new to me from some common and some little known places. I opened Host & Toast because I wanted to offer something different to people in Lubbock, but it seems I might have stumbled on a way of thinking that is different industry-wide. It's OK that I don't know that much about wine. I can learn as I go, but as I do, I hope I don't lose the hospitality and the relationships that make wine and Host & Toast so special to me.