Adventures on El Camino: Agave

The Cochinita Pibil at AgaveI am obsessed with a traditional Mexican dish from the Yucatan called Cochinita Pibil--slow-roasted pork marinated with achiote paste (a savory and flavorful spice derived from the seeds of the Bixa orellana tree). You eat it with corn tortillas and top the taco with pickled red onions (and habanero peppers if you can handle it). We had it every day when we first went to Playa del Carmen back in 2005 and we've been eating it at Manhattan's La Esquina each time we visit New York. While I knew there must be some Bay Area restaurants that feature Cochinita on their menu, I hadn't heard any feedback from anyone I knew, until a customer at the store (also obsessed with Cochinita) told me about Agave in Mountain View. I don't often get further south on the Peninsula than Redwood City, but since I had to hit up Palo Alto Medical Facility yesterday to get my Guyana immunizations (they had pulled the list for Ghana and almost shot me up with five extra boosters), I figured why not continue on down El Camino and give this place a shot?

The decor at Agave is modern with a traditional twist. They have flat screens in HD if you want to watch the game, but high-end, gourmet-esque dinner plates if you want to get fancy. Their list of agave spirits is expansive and impressive and they have a menu with dozens of different margarita variations depending on which tequila you use. My wife and I opted for the lime-guava margarita with macerated jalapeno. It was tangy, tropical, spicy and perfectly balanced. I was impressed. For a starter, we got the fiesta shrimp cocktail, which uses the standard bay shrimp with tomato/horseradish, but adds lime and pico de gallo as well. Delish. 

The Cochinita Pibil was dead on--exactly like I remember it tasting in Mexico and just as good, if not better, than La Esquina's version. I was in hog heaven. My wife opted for the prawns with garlic, spinach and corn, along side a salad of pickled vegetables.

If you don't feel like going high-end, however, Agave has a lunch menu of $10 options that include gigantic wet burritos and a number of interesting variations. I could spend all week just going down the list and ordering each one (not to mention all the margarita variations). This place has its act together.

I highly, highly, highly recommend checking it out. The patio out back must be an amazing locale when the weather is nice. It might be the perfect place to do a K&L tequila event. I'll be heading back soon, if not tomorrow, to try the other fantastic selections.

Another great joint along the El Camino corridor.

Agave is at 194 Castro Street in downtown Mountain View.

-David Driscoll


Why Not Sell?

In what wasn't big or important news to most people, what I thought was one of the most significant spirits stories of the past year occurred yesterday in the Pacific Northwest: my friend Steve McCarthy decided to sell his beloved Clear Creek Distillery to Hood River Inc. I was completely caught off guard; especially as I had just done an interview earlier that week about craft distillers where I said most producers will eventually fold or sell, except for a handful of long-established guys like Clear Creek. I didn't see a distillery that centered itself around locally-sourced fruit and esoteric eau-de-vies having much value to a larger company. Nor did I think Steve was looking to get out. And I'm not sure that he was, actually. Hood River might have just come in with an offer that was too good to turn down. I haven't talked to Steve yet, so I don't know for sure.

The money is still flying out there for small producers who have proven they can create a cult following. We're nowhere near the end of this trend. I don't know how many of you noticed that Diageo and P. Diddy bought out Deleon tequila a few weeks back (then completely revamped the staff). Deleon was a family-owned operation that, ironically enough, I thought was Puff Daddy's brand when I first tasted it in 2010. Now it's the Mexican Ron Zacapa. While craft brewing has really put a dent into the international corporate beer business, with a group of die-hard, integrity-focused producers looking to stick it to big cervesa, the craft distillation game seems much easier to co-opt. It's a lot like the model of the Silicon Valley start-up game where a few guys get together, start a tech business, and then sell it to Google for ten million. The costs are higher for a distillery, as are the taxes and the restrictions. It's tougher to get traction in bars and restaurants that are dominated by larger distributors and their numerous perks like extra ad revenue for product placements.

So after working so hard to establish yourself, if a big company comes calling with a big check, why not sell? Especially if you're getting older and your children have no interest in carrying the torch. Many of us on the Peninsula were extremely sad when Joe's of Westlake, a legendary and historic local diner, sold the restaurant and closed down this month. However, the family didn't want to operate it anymore. It wasn't a matter of rent or financial issues. They just wanted to retire and enjoy what years they had left in life. Sometimes selling makes sense--especially right now when people are paying big bucks for distilleries and real estate.

If Clear Creek can be purchased, then anyone is up for grabs. Anyone.

-David Driscoll


The Return of Michel Couvreur

It's funny that in this age of internet access and extreme whisky fandom there are still a few single malt outliers that fly under the general radar.  The malt whiskies from Michel Couvreur might be one of the best examples of high-quality hooch that few people have ever heard of. We've carried his products on and off for years, as the portfolio bounced around between a handful of local distributors, and availability would come and go. Then, last year, we heard the tragic news that Michel had passed away and the future of his estate was unknown. We weren't sure if there would be more Couvreur products coming or if his passing marked the end of an era. However, a few weeks ago, we learned that his son-in-law (who is 69 years old) had taken up the mantle and soldiered on in the name of the label. We immediately placed an order when we heard the whiskies were once again available in California.

Who was Michel Couvreur, you ask? Let me tell you. Michel Couvreur was a Belgian wine dealer who moved to Beaune (in the heart of France's Burgundy region) in the 1950s. Always an avid outdoorsman, he took frequent trips to Scotland where he enjoyed the quality hunting and fishing--and afterward, a fine dram of whisky. In the 1960s, he actually moved to Scotland to become more involved with the Scotch whisky industry, as he had developed a taste for sherry-aged single malt. He worked out a few contracts from suppliers and began purchasing whisky to mature in his own sherry butts that he secured from Jerez. In the 70s, Michel decided to move back to Beaune, in order to focus more on quality cooperage (Beaune was closer to Spain and easier to work out of) and that's when he decided to mature his own casks, in his own cellar, built deeply into the side of a nearby hill. Michel would contract whisky from Scotland, barrels from Spain, and make his own expressions of single malt whisky from the heart of French wine country.

Michel Couvreur tasting from barrels in his Beaune cellarFor four decades now, there have been whiskies aging in the hillside of Bouze-les-Beaune. I'm absolutely dying to get into that warehouse, personally, and see what's left. Couvreur was a big fan of PX sherry butts, as well as ex-Palomino casks, which he used to make a whisky called the "Pale Single." While I'm sure there are still some incredible barrels lying around in that 500 foot tunnel, Michel's real skill was evident in his blending. If you're a fan of sherry-aged whisky, you might want to check out the 12 Year Overaged Malt Whisky, vatted from 54 whiskies aged more than 12 years (up to 27 years, actually). It's a rich, textural, sherry-laden delight with depth and complexity--reminiscent of the best Glenfarclas and Glendronach expressions.

Michel's whiskies were never popular with the SWA, however, who were litigous in making sure Michel did not call his whisky "Scottish" single malt. The whiskies were definitely made in Scotland, but they weren't aged there, which disqualified Michel from using the term according to the association. Today the label says "Distilled in Scotland, vatted from various over 12 year old whiskies, traditionally ennobled with sherry oak casks and bottled in our French Burgundian caves."

We're heartbroken that Michel has passed on, but we're happy his whiskies will continue to honor his memory. For how much longer, we're not sure, but let's enjoy them while they're here.

-David Driscoll


Customer Service - Part II

K&L is so accommodating when it comes to customer concerns that it's hard to imagine much controversy surrounding our policies. If you buy something you don't like and you want your money back we're almost always going to give you a gift card for the full amount. We're willing to bend over backwards to make consumers happy, so how could things really ever go wrong? Nevertheless, dealing with wine and spirits is one of the most sensitive public relations subjects I've ever worked with; it's almost like talking about religion or politics, where everyone has their own strong opinion and can easily take offence to yours. You have to be very careful about remaining sensitive to the feelings of others when dealing with consumer wine issues.

Let me give you an example:

If a customer walks in with a corked bottle of wine, hands it to one of us and says, "This bottle of wine is corked. I'd like a refund," what do you think the right move is?

a) Grab the bottle, open it up, and take a whiff.

b) Ask the customer why they think the bottle is corked.

c) Tell the customer, "I'm sorry, we'll take care of that. Would you like to try another bottle instead?"

If you chose C then consider yourself a customer service expert. Absolutely no good can come from option A or B, regardless of how nice or understanding you are as an employee. If you smell the wine for yourself to verify the customer's story, you're basically questioning their intelligence or their version of the truth. If the bottle of wine is actually corked, then you're obviously going to issue them a refund. If the bottle of wine isn't corked (and whether wines are actually bad or spoiled can be an incredibly controversial subject with wine geeks), then what are you going to do differently? No matter if the bottle is spoiled or not, we're still going to issue the customer a credit, so there's no point in checking. Because if you do check and you think the wine isn't corked, there's a part of us that wants to educate--to explain the situation and tell the customer they might want to avoid wines like this in the future. Not to be mean or snarky, but to sincerely help guide the person towards a better experience. To do that, however, is to play with fire.

Another sensitive issue is personal preference. What if I recommend a bottle to you, the consumer, and you end up hating it? Does that mean that I lied to you to get your money, or does that mean we just have different tastes? Maybe it is good and you just don't like it. Maybe it was spoiled and you didn't realize it. Or maybe it just wasn't for you. It's tough to know sometimes. There are people who understand that we don't always bat 1.000 here on the sales floor, but there are always a few who think the world is generally out to screw them over and that we purposely sold them a lemon. And what about our sales pitch? Did we give you our own personal take on a subject, or did we use a Robert Parker review to add some credibility? Tasting notes can often create a Catch-22. If we use Wine Spectator points or a Whisky Advocate review in the product description, then we're relying on the industry critics and their scores to help sell a bottle. Not everyone approves of that. However, if we take matters into our own hands, write our own tasting notes, and offer our own personal review, how can we be trusted when we're the one selling you the bottle?

More importantly, how do you react when someone calls you out on that? That's where it can be tough as a retailer. I get called out all the time, as do our other wine buyers, from people who don't agree with our opinions on whiskey. At least once a week there will be an email in my inbox from someone who feels it's their duty to tell me what a hack buyer I am and how much they hated one of my recommendations. That's one of the hardest things to get used to when your reputation is your word, but that's part of the deal when you work in this business: you're going to be criticized. Like a certain quarterback who last Sunday maybe should or shouldn't have thrown a fade pass to the endzone with :31 seconds left and two timeouts, when you fail to come through the people who depend on you for part of their happiness can be easily disappointed. It's a lot of pressure if you take your job seriously, which I do. There are a lot of people investing hard-earned money in the hope that we'll guide them in the right direction. It's enough to keep you up at night (which is why I will often drink myself to sleep).

And then, every now and again, you do crack under the weight. You don't feel like letting it bounce off you anymore, so you stand up for yourself and issue a defensive response to the criticism. It's never worth the repercussion, however. Like Kanye West doing his best to ignore an antagonistic paparazzi, you have to remain calm and collected in the face of fury (Kanye is usually calm, right?). The best customer service people are the ones who never let their ego get in the way. And, really, that's what good customer service is: making sure you're taking care of others before you take care of yourself.

At least that's what I think it is.

-David Driscoll


Customer Service - Part I

I was reading an article the other day about Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and the incredibly irate responses Uber's new surge pricing is drawing from consumers (an algorithm that raises the cost of a ride if it's rush hour or the weather is bad). While many were simply mad about not having a fixed rate for transportation or the potential for increased costs, this author was more upset about the response from Uber in light of the criticism. The author wrote:

My problem with Uber doesn't stem from a lack of understanding as to the basic principles of supply and demand. My problem is the condescending attitude they display for their customers, combined with their naked embrace of profiteering.

It was bad enough that Uber was engaging in practices that some customers found rather exploitative, but even worse to find that the complaints were falling on deaf ears. Kalanick's stance has been pretty cut and dry, from what I've read; it's basically: we're responding to the market, so if you don't like the price then don't pay it. In essence, it removes Uber from any blame concerning higher-than-usual fees and transfers it towards people who don't understand the functions of capitalism. That reaction made some people incredibly upset because typically that's not the way a business is supposed to respond to consumer complaints; they're supposed to be sorry and apologetic in the face of customer dissatisfaction, not smug and confident. It's a role reversal that many are frankly uncomfortable with.

There's a certain understanding that's engrained in American business practices and has been in operation for so long that consumers are practically flabbergasted when it doesn't function properly. It's a little phrase known as "the customer is always right." As Americans, we're used to a business listening to us when we're upset about something and valuing that input because they value our patronage. To a certain extent, a business is expected to remain curtious while listening to what we as consumers are here to tell them--these are our needs, so please make them happen. We've gotten quite used to that model here in the states. We want to know that we're appreciated and we like to remind the business world that we always have the right to shop elsewhere if we're not. However, when a business decides to stray from that philosophy and turn the tables, people get completely disoriented and easily agitated. The only thing that could make it worse, from a consumer perspective, is to watch that business thrive in the face of that contempt.

Yet, it's happening. Uber is growing and customers are still using the service despite the outrage from a few unhappy riders. It reminds me a little of the current anger I see towards whisky companies due to the rising price of collectable bottles. So far, the market is responding to these increased costs without a hitch and, as consumers, all we can really do is take our business elsewhere if we're upset about it. But sometimes walking away simply isn't enough. We want to make sure that our loss is being felt, that our complaints are being heard, and that ultimately the company will be sorry for losing our business. More importantly, we often want others to join us in that crusade. That's why the "Soup Nazi" episode of Seinfeld is so beloved by fans of the series. It perfectly characterizes this sea change in the balance of power between business and consumer and how infuriating it can be when that happens.

Personally, I've never been interested in using superior service as an excuse to blow off customer relations. I'm far too sensitive to what other people think and I can get seriously bent out of shape when we mishandle a tricky customer service issue (I've definitely flubbed a few in my time). I want everyone to be pleased with their experience at K&L and, ultimately, I derive more happiness from that satisfaction than from any increase in profits we might see as a result. I absolutely do care when our customers are upset (probably more than would be considered healthy for someone in this line of work). However, as an observer I find it interesting to watch other business models and see how their approach plays out in the long run. It's almost like watching an episode of Downton Abbey, where everyone is expected to know their role and play their part. The exciting drama always stems from the characters who choose to function outside of these expectations and dare others to do something about it.

-David Driscoll