While I was in New York for vacation this past week, I did mix a little business with pleasure (and a little Singani 63 with lemon juice, sugar, and Prosecco). Since meeting director Steven Soderbergh almost two years ago he and I have kept up a correspondence, discussing our thoughts about various business analytics via email, and we’ll usually make plans to have a drink when we’re in close proximity. Because I was on his turf this time around, Steven hosted my wife and me for cocktails at the Brandy Library in Tribeca where we met him Thursday evening. We of course discussed the parallels of the booze and film industry while sharing our sentiments and opinions along the way, but the theme of our conversation was always precision; namely, that talent and ability is a timeless inspiration. “People will always stop to watch others who do something incredibly well and with precision,” Steven said. “It’s why we watch sports.” Yet, ironically, it was my view that as an industry we’re getting into the habit of settling for mere competency rather than real skill. Precision, in my opinion, is exactly what’s lacking from a segment of today’s trendy food and alcohol business. Too many folks have been led to believe their skills are more advanced than they really are and too many consumers are paying for that exercise. No professional basketball fan wants to pay to watch two forty year old lawyers go one-on-one at the local gym after work. Why would serious fans of wine and spirits want to pay for the equivalent?
Why is precision so important? Because it's where quality begins. You’ve surely heard the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none.” Personally, I know that saying all too well because it encompasses my abilities most accurately. I’ve always done a lot of things decently; to the laymen it might appear I’m more talented than I am. I can speak three foreign languages, play a number of sports, carry my own on the guitar and piano, belt out a few tunes at karaoke night, and I have a few advanced degrees, but I’ll be the first person to tell you: I’m not really, superbly, expertly good at anything. I was never disciplined enough to achieve excellence. Anyone who speaks fluent German, Spanish, or French will instantly recognize my limitations. Anyone who has played serious ball will spot my weaknesses on the basketball court. Any virtuoso of any kind will put me to shame in a duet. Yet, it’s amazing how cultivated those skills look on a CV or resume and that’s exactly the problem: American kids have been told since junior high to sell themselves and cultivate a wide range of activities in order to stand out from the crowd. But by doing so, we’ve spread ourselves too thinly and I think we’ve actually handicapped ourselves against real and proficient experts. For some reason we’ve mistaken versatility for skill. We say things to ourselves like “it can’t be that hard,” but when push comes to shove many of us can’t actually deliver the goods the way a true professional can; our weaknesses will ultimately be exposed in the company of true skill and precision. In the wine and spirits industry there are scores of new faces, many that are good but not great, and a large number of which are overpriced for the quality they provide. I think it’s safe to say that a day of reckoning is most definitely coming.
Not everyone I know in the food and wine business has come to that realization, but they will soon enough. It's inevitable. You can’t keep calling yourself a master chef and expect others to go along with it when really all you do is put organic vegetables on a plate. You can’t keep calling yourself a master distiller when what you really do is rectify grain neutral spirit that someone else distilled. You can’t keep calling yourself a food and wine critic when really you’re an amateur hobbyist with a Squarespace blog. You can’t keep calling yourself a sommelier when really what you do is take selfies of your friends drinking wine. You can’t keep calling yourself a mixologist when what you really do is memorize recipes out of the PDT and change one or two ingredients. Eventually precision will win out. But that doesn’t stop people from playing expert, convinced of their own significance at this point. I see it every single day. People do it to my face and I smile and nod; my silence an apparent recognition that I’m participating in the façade when in reality I’m suffocating inside my brain. In the new world of young and high-achieving metropolitans we’re all instant professionals with loads of experience. We don’t know the meaning of “I don’t know.” Everyone’s an expert at every single thing they do. Until, of course, you realize they’re not. Precision isn’t something that can be faked, unfortunately; the end result reveals all. There are humble guys in Scotland and France who have been picking grapes and distilling alcohol since they were fifteen, while here in California I’m meeting “master” brewers who took a fifteen day online course on fermentation basics.
It’s because so many of us (myself included) lack a world class talent that we are fascinated by the precision of true professionals—we live out our own fantasies through them—but those with real talent and ability are often equally captivated. Steven just returned from a trip to Bolivia where he spent time with the distillers from Casa Real, the producer that makes his delicious Singani 63. “These guys are incredibly serious,” Steven said to me. “You can’t help but be fascinated by their commitment.” This admiration meant that much more because it was coming from an artist of true precision himself; from one incredibly talented person towards another. You can tell Steven genuinely appreciates the fine mechanics of what it takes to create Singani—from the vineyards to the still room. That’s what I love about his brand: that it isn’t just another celebrity-endorsed exploitation in a bottle. It’s a spirit of real character and heritage that’s being financed 100% by Steven himself, simply because he loves it. And it’s exactly because Steven understands and respects true precision that he isn’t out there trying to convince anyone he’s a distillation expert, which—let me tell you—is incredibly refreshing these days. It’s part of why I enjoy talking with him so much; he’s got nothing to prove.
As we left the Brandy Library and said our goodbyes, I was struck by some of the newer skyscrapers gracing New York’s downtown vista. These towering buildings are just incredible and they force you to stop and wonder at the engineering. I thought instantly of one of my favorite novels: Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. I loved that book when I first read it and I still relate to a lot of the frustrations experienced by Howard Roark; many of which are similar to the ones I’ve laid out above. What I never liked about Rand, however, was that she seemed to look down on those without talent or precision as less than; as if the world was annoying because it didn’t understand or appreciate her genius. But I still enjoyed her books. I think ability and talent will always be appreciated as long as there’s an appreciation for precision, even if you don’t like the people themselves. Howard Roark was cold and egotistical, but at least he was committed and as a reader you had to admire that. Like Steven said to me at one point, “When you watch Day of the Jackal, you can’t help but root for the Jackal even though he’s the bad guy, simply because he’s so good at what he does.” As a society we have a long history of tolerating and supporting bad behavior so long as the perpetrator is incredibly gifted in some way; talented athletes, movie stars, musicians, and politicians alike have often received a pass from those who admired them for their skills rather than their controversial personalities. That respect is a testament to their abilities.
Instead of celebrating and recognizing that same level of precision when it comes to food and booze, our boutique industry is handing out medals like youth league soccer trophies. We’re literally kidding ourselves.