Get High And Drink Better Wine | A Manifesto By A San Diego Sommelier

April 11, 2018
A manifesto by Woody van Horn

I would like to start a discussion with a group of sommeliers about drinking better wine and smoking cannabis.
Over the last ten years, as the minimum wage has increased and occupancy costs have gone up, the saving grace of the brick and mortar restaurant has been beverage, to the detriment of quality.

Due to these circumstances, the majority of sommeliers and beverage directors have been forced to compromise quality for COGS in their programs, especially in the by the glass category.

The effect of this ripples throughout the industry. Owners set budgets for Prime Cost. Operators then set pour cost budget. Buyers are then expected to meet that budget and incentivized to hit pour cost, so we are always looking for the best BTG pricing to carry the rest of our program. The wine reps then focus on these types of wine movements and the importers/distributors react to what the market wants. So we now increase the importation of lower quality wine in higher volume due to market demand.

Here is my pitch. Let's get high and drink better wine. People have been doing it for a very long time.

I have been in the wine industry since right before Sideways came out. We used to sell amazing wines by the glass regularly. But as the economy has shifted over the years, the general public is no longer served great wine, except the 1% who can afford it. Many of the Baby Boomers with expense accounts are now in retirement with fixed income. We no longer have these clients. Things have changed over time, and so has the sommelier.

If you take the history of the sommelier, in its most basic form, it’s someone vouching for the product and recommending it for consumption.

600 BCE, The Greeks would have someone mix wine and water in the krater relying on the alcohol to make it safe for consumption and then serve it at the symposium from the cylix, as did the Romans at convivium. In fact, Homer’s Odyssey describes a steward drawing wine from a krater at a banquet and then running to and fro pouring the wine into guests' drinking cups.

This was a sommelier.

The next era of the sommelier was when the king would have a trusted servant taste all his food and drink to make sure nobody was trying to poison him. Along the travels, this person would catalog and maintain the safety of the kings food and beverage, as well as back home as the cellar master for the wine and Garde Manger for the food. This is where the kitchen term Garde Manger comes from.

This was a sommelier.

1789 CE, French Revolution, down with the king, shortly after in 1791 CE, the guilds disbanded, down with what was. After the French Revolution, the hospitality industry was born. Without the infrastructure of the monarchy, guilds collapsed and entrepreneurship took its place. Rotisseurs, Charcutieres, Garde Mangers, and Sommeliers all needed to get their hustle on. People started inns, that served a multi-course house menu, and you drank the local beer, wine, booze, whatever was there. Without the influence and agenda of the royal family, common people adapted their trades into careers. More people traveled and cuisine and beverages spread throughout the world. Someone who had a wealth of wine knowledge, who had previously served the king, now had to develop his profession into the new free market. So they would travel, collect, and bring back booze from all over the world, to stay competitive as an inn. Sommeliers have been going on wine trips for a long time :) Weary travelers would stay at these inns to rest and restore themselves, hence the word “restaurant”. As competition grew, You wanted to be known as the inn with the best F&B to attract more clients.

This was a sommelier.

Over time, restaurants became independent of the inns and this is when distribution started. As the import/export market grew due to trains, planes, and automobiles, sommeliers adapted and expanded into a whole network of distributors, importers, suppliers, and buyers, always with the passion for wine and a discerning palate.

This was a sommelier.

The Court of Master Sommeliers and Guild of Sommeliers have done an amazing job of promoting the wine industry and setting the standard for service and quality for professionals like ourselves. I have been proud to be a member of the Guild for many years now.

This is a sommelier.

My point is that a sommelier, who has dedicated their career to the service to the guest, has adapted with the times and with our clientele.

As the economy has shifted over the last decade, the wine industry has resorted to selling and making cheaper and cheaper wine, because that is what restaurants have needed. Sommeliers study amazing wines and are usually lucky enough to drink amazing wine all the time. But the majority of restaurant sommeliers are not able to say with a straight face, “I would drink this by the glass pour”. Because the truth is we wouldn’t. We like fine wine, that is why we do this.

But what I can say with a straight face is, let’s smoke a preroll and pop a bottle of Champagne. It’s literally the best bang for your buck.

Speaking as a sommelier, and advocating for my guest, this is not poison, it’s just a plant, and I highly recommend this as the best apéritif you can pair at the beginning of a meal.

I have been a cannabis user for many years now. I never considered this industry as an option, because the majority of my career has been working for very well established properties, which from a corporate level have always been anti-cannabis due to the baby boomer politics of the last 50+ years. That is all changing and I see an opportunity to support the wine industry.

I have witnessed first hand the amount of work that goes into making a restaurant profitable. It’s just not like it used to be. The wine we are able to pour our guests for $11 a glass is horrible for the most part. If I am true to the legacy of the sommelier, there is no way I can ethically say this $11 Pinot Noir is great wine at our great restaurant. It just can’t be done. Fine wine is a thing and is not cheap to make. At this time in history, the numbers don’t pencil out. So as a society, we need to accept that and evolve. Entry level wine from the liquor store is fine for the college kids to get their drink on, sommeliers have never really tried to sell people on Barefoot Bubbly or Two Buck Chuck. But working in the restaurant industry as wine lovers, and professionals, we need to sell and support fine wine.

Now let’s put this into context. Party of four coming in for dinner. Dining is a lot more fun after loosening up. So let’s start with an apéritif. We look over the wine list and we are stuck with the concern of ordering a white or red, or everyone’s budget, and whatnot. But we do know a few things.

Conversation is better when we are little “warmed up” if you will. We would like to get the convo going with booze, but we have to keep price in mind because there are four of us, we are not ballers and if we want to keep this party going, we are going to need a few bottles. By the time the conversation gets going, we are in a few bottles. But which bottles did we buy?

With the goal of keeping the restaurant in business let’s suggest we need to sell $25-50 of alcohol per person. That puts our budget in the range of $100-200 for the table.

Option A)

Sell them three bottles of mediocre wine at the average price of $65. The table will have a good time, but the wine is sub-par and we as sommeliers are all just rambling on about wines that are not that exciting. And bad wine equals a bad morning.

Option B)

Your table has a little puff of sativa and you sell them some grower Champagne or Burgundy for the same $100-200. Sativa is a stimulant and will get the conversation going. They will definitely be ready to order some amazing food. And you have a really cool opportunity to talk about terroir, food, wine, Gastronomy, and pairings with a captive audience. You might go higher than normal on the average bottle, but there is no rush to slam it because we already calmed our nerves with the pregame party before walking in the restaurant.

I would rather be hanging with the people who chose option B. And I know I’m not alone.

As sommeliers, we know the markups for this bottle category are not the best deal for the guest. The restaurant needs to hit a certain per person average and specific COGS, especially with entry-level bottles and the by the glass program.

As sommeliers, we have a responsibility to our guests to sell them better wine. I truly believe this could be a very huge shift in our industry, and if we all got on board and supported it, we really could make wine fine again.

  • Sell higher quality wine 
  • Stop the floodgates of horrible swill
  • Support the new cannabis industry and work together for a better future 
  • Don’t lose top line sales, just change the demand for low price SKUs
  • Giving guests a gastronomic experience
  • Sharing amazing wines with guests
  • Less crappy BTG means, less inventory, fewer hours, better prime cost
  • Fewer bottles to store, pack, ship, count, receive, return
  • Less trash and glass to landfill and recycling 
  • Better budgets and margins for winemakers to make better wine
  • Drastically improved distribution efficiency 
  • Less ABV per person and better wine means less hangover 
  • A great effort to shrink our carbon footprint as a whole
  • Fewer reps wasting our time carrying a bag of wines we don’t want to taste or sell. 
  • More time discovering new quality wines with reps
  • More time with our guests drinking wines we would actually drink ourselves
  • I have never had an issue with someone too high at my restaurant
  • I have had many issues with people who were too drunk
I agree, not all people in our industry, are focused on bringing quality wine to the market. Sometimes the responsibility of your position with a company is to stay profitable. As a restaurant GM for many years, that was definitely the biggest part of my job. As professionals, we have to champion profits, for the overall health of the industry. Businesses that are not profitable do not help the wine or hospitality ecosystem.

But wine sales help, and higher priced wines that move, really help.

I don’t know if many young sommeliers know this, but the CMS used to include cigar service and theory. As tobacco fell out of fashion, the expectation of the sommelier changed. As the cannabis industry grows, consider learning about it.

My hope is that sommeliers consider this industry as an opportunity. Let’s bring our wealth of knowledge to this industry. They are desperate for white collar professionals. Let’s help shape the laws, distribution, market, and advocate for a quality product being served to our guests. Let’s also help normalize this conversation. The baby boomer era is over. Let’s move forward.

If you think this makes sense, and you identify feel free to share.

If you want to learn more about cannabis quality and typicity, check out my new venture We are holding an Introductory Interpening Course on April 25th in San Diego. Promo code woody10 for 10% off.