Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Truth - 100% Ad Free

People occasionally ask me how I landed a gig writing this wine column. Was it my encyclopedic knowledge of wines? My finely honed writing skills? No, it was nothing like that. I got this job the Chico way: nepotism.

As a result, I never really bothered to actually read the paper or learn much about its editorial bent. I had a cush job with a fat paycheck, so what did I care? But for some reason (boredom), that changed this week and I actually flipped through the paper.

First thing I noticed was the editorial “poem” about the raise given to Dr. Zingg, President of Chico State. Suffice to say, it wasn’t flattering. Now, I actually really and truly know Dr. Zingg, so my point here is not to comment one way or another about the virtues of the poem. For the record, I have no opinion one way or another (I have a day job, and if you follow the org chart up far enough, his name and mine are connected, if you get my drift).

My point is to contrast that poem with what the Chico New & Review wrote about Dr. Zingg. Dr. Zingg is a nice guy – I know this from personal experience – but what the CN&R wrote could only be characterized as fawning. Their three-paragraph piece praised his leadership with words like “skill”, “flair”, “style”, “grace” and “sincerity”. Skill? Fine. But “flair” and “style”? He’s an administrator, not a hair stylist, for God’s sake.

Where the CN&R regularly fawns (I’m beginning to like that word) over local businesses and only pretends that it’s not salivating over another Walmart, the Beat regularly skewers self-important local business organizations and decries the imminent demise of Chico at the hands of the big box companies. Editorially, reading the Beat side-by-side with the “Snooze and Abuse” has been something of a revelation.

So what does this have to do with wine? Nothing per se. But I’m beginning to see the editorial differences between the Beat vs. the CN&R. The CN&R kisses up to everyone in Chico and gets tons of ads; some from obscure local businesses that I’m not sure actually exist. The Beat alienates everyone in Chico by trying to tell the truth and gets – at best – a dozen ads.

Cool. It’s all beginning to make sense.

I can alienate people, and I bet I can help get that ad count into single digits in the process. All it requires is telling the truth. For some reason, a lot of local businesses hate that. Let’s start with local restaurants.

Actually, let’s start with a chain restaurant to soften the blow a bit.

Last week for some inexplicable reason, my partner wanted to go to the Olive Garden. Normally we eschew such places in favor of locally owned establishments, but we were over by the Mall, it was a Monday, and Sierra Nevada and Kramore Inn were both closed.

Now, the Olive Garden just won a “Persons of the Year” award from Wine Enthusiast magazine for their efforts to educate Americans about wine by offering a “wide” selection of wines as well as giving free tastes of wine to every customer. Laudable…at least until you take a look at their wine list.

Remember the column I did on the really, really, really cheap stuff? Yeah, the one where I drank Thunderbird. Well, Olive Garden carries the worst of the wines I tasted. That’s right, they feature the Riunite Lambrusco right on the menu - the stuff that I said smelled like “an intriguing combination of raspberry fruit rollups and paint thinner”. It sells for $2.99 a bottle at Albertsons, but the Olive Garden has the huge hairy balls to sell it for $4.50 a glass, or $15 for a bottle! That’s a 400% markup! 400%!!! For crap that makes better furniture polish than wine!

And you know what? The Olive Garden isn’t that different from any other restaurant in Chico. I know that I’ve bitched about this before, but the biggest rip off in town is a bottle of wine purchased at any “fine dining” establishment. No matter how bad the wine is, you’re going to pay 100% to 300% markup in virtually any restaurant in town. It’s complete highway robbery.

Most restaurants in this town assume that you’re a wine idiot (you certainly are if you buy a bottle from them) and offer crap, generic, boring wines at usurious, outrageous prices. Come on! I can buy Sterling Vineyards and Beaulieu in the grocery store! Offer me something I can’t get elsewhere, and offer it to me for a price that makes me want to try it!

Quit being lazy and quit buying your wines at Costco. Learn something about wine dammit, and offer us some interesting, good wines, at good prices! We’re not as stupid or ignorant as you think. Sure, Chico’s a hick town where franks and beans are considered haute cuisine, but not all of us are ignorant of wine. And we’re not going to let you rip us off.

So, what can you do to throw Chico restaurateurs up against the wall? I’m glad you asked.

  1. Get educated. Go to a restaurant and take note of their wine list (or look it up online). Then find out what their wines retail for. The next time you eat there, tell them exactly what their wines cost retail and exactly where else you can buy them in town. Straight out tell them their wines are over-priced and that you know it.
  2. Bring in a bottle of wine that’s on their list and ask to pay only the “corkage” fee. Typically, restaurants charge $10-15 to open a bottle you bring in. But if you bring in a bottle that they sell, odds are that they’ll make much less on the corkage fee than they would selling you the wine. They really, really HATE this. They may get nasty if you try this, but it sends a message.
  3. Bring a bottle of Two Buck Chuck. Sure, paying the corkage on a bottle of Trader Joe’s finest will turn it into a $14 bottle of wine, but that’s still cheaper than what you’d pay for a bottle of the generic swill they’re selling. And nothing sends a clearer message than Two Buck Chuck.
  4. Bring a bottle of something that you like, happily pay the corkage fee, but make a point of telling them that you’d love to buy off the list if it had anything interesting or reasonably priced on it.
  5. Ask them why they don’t carry your favorite wine, French wines, Italian wines, local wines, anything other than the generic garbage they get from some distributor. Tell them you’d appreciate it if they expanded their selection. Be specific about what you’d like them to carry, so they know that you know what you’re talking about.

This Valentine’s Day, my partner and I are going to Spice Creek. But we’re bringing our own bottle. I haven’t even looked at their wine list, and honestly, I’m pretty sure I don’t have to. So be forewarned, Spice Creek, when you see that bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape come in the door, and remember that I personally know the president of Chico State!

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