Angelo Gaja certainly has been quite the controversial figure in his neck of the woods & for many reasons. Still, he certainly has brought Italian nebbiolo to the world-class stage (with a huge cross over potential for Cabernet & Bordeaux drinkers) AND set the pace for top echelon prices & therefore a completely new standard for quality. The wine media have, for the most part, enthusiastically jumped on to the fast moving Gaja train, which is reflected by the perennial big scores & high praise. One would have thought with such a high profile meteoric rise to superstardom, there would have been a hitch, stall, or some kind of decline along the way. No such thing. The Gaja Piemontese train seems to be running at full steam & these 3 wines showed why.
Gaja produced some interesting red wines in the 90’s. I was, however, apprehensive about how his showy, flambouyant style would do in a big, ripe vintage like 1997. I knew the press would certainly love the wines, I just wondered if I would. Furthermore, I had recently had the 1998 & found it to be quite closed down & a shame to have opened the bottle at this atge of its life. It is so intense with a massive structure & quite a tannic grip. The 1997 in comparison, although also quite closed, is decidedly riper, with much more lavish, opulent fruit (MUCH rounder) & darker base notes than the 1998. A very powerful, mega-concentrated red which, in this case, can be quite the cross over wine for avid Bordeaux & California Cabernet collectors. You will be thrilled with this one, that’s for sure!
“Gaja’s Conteisa, although the grapes are grown in the Barolo appellation, is classified as Langhe DOC due to the 8% Barbera that is added to the Nebbiolo. Much to the chagrin of the local cognoscenti, Angelo believes the Barbera addition adds acidity and freshness to the wine. He also firmly states that this is no indication of a trend towards making Super Piemonte wines and his relatively new approach is used only in vintages that merit the addition. The wine is named for the medieval ‘conteisa,’ or quarrel, between the zones of La Morra and Barolo over the prime vineyard land of Cerequio“. Quite a different take on Nebbiolo than what I had previously experienced through his Barbaresco–seemingly more masculine, muskier & leaner. I have not had many Conteisa, so cannot make any broader statements, but will say I don’t think this 1997, as resounding as it is, is of Grand Cru kind of quality, at least in its youth.
I liked this wine alot. I remember thinking upon release how tight fisted, seemingly lean & mouth puckering this wine was. It has really started to open up again, even in comparison to 5 years ago when I last had it. It is pretty, has enticing perfume, wonderful fruit, structure & balance, done with class & superb craftsmanship.
In our ongoing search for “good” classical wine, here are FOUR from Burgundy. I use these as standards, not only for blind tasting, but more importantly to measure others by. Yes, just another really good opportunity to learn!
One of our all time favorite Beaujolais producers.
“While many critics attribute Michel Chignard’s success to the soil, Kermit would argue that his traditionalist stance on vineyard management and winemaking is essential to craft such great wines. As ardent defenders of traditional Beaujolais methods, the Chignards take a minimalist approach in both the vineyards and the cellar. The Chignard’s have recently started making wine from another Beaujolais cru, Juliénas, which produces a beautiful, high-toned wine in keeping with the style of the domaine. La Revue du Vin claims that the aromas from their wines evoke memories of the great Chambolle-Musignys from Burgundy, to the North…but who’s to say, maybe they got it reversed”.
2011 Henri Perrusset Macon Villages
A favorite, absolutely tasty, delicious, ‘country” styled Chardonnay. Not everything has to be aristocratic or grand. I also find “genuine” quite a fine attribute!
“For decades, the Mâconnais has been dominated by the banal bottlings of cooperative cellars; not the sort of quality that leads novices to explore the wines of the region. Henri Perrusset’s vineyards and home are located in the small town of Farges-les-Mâcon, on the northernmost spur of the limestone subsoil that characterizes the appellation of Mâcon. Farges is not far away from the village named (believe it or not) Chardonnay. The limestone in Farges is more marly than the compact limestone farther south in Pouilly-Fuissé. It is hard and intensely white, but breaks apart into small pieces and it is loaded with quartz and marine fossils as well. This type of soil is easier to work despite all the stones, provides great drainage for the vines, and gives the wines their grainy minerality. Our Mâcon-Villages is a custom blend of all his other holdings around Farges”.
2009 William Fevre Chablis Grand Cru “Valmur”
Chardonnay in it’s purist form! Precise……pure……ethereal……sophisticated! In addition, these wines are certainly capable of aging, but for me, the real fascination is how these wines work at the dinner table. Furthermore, when one actually sees how small of an acreage the Grand Cru vineyards really are, perhaps they will appreciate the wines even more.
2006 Lucien Boillot Gevrey Chambertin Premier Cru “Les Cherbaudes”
Classic RED Burgundy.
“Pierre Boillot is a rare master of both the Côtes de Beaune and the Côtes de Nuits–not only does he have the vineyards but also the savoir-faire and skill. He inherited very old vines from his father in the Côtes de Nuits, including a parcel of 94 year old vines right next to the Grand Cru, Chapelle Chambertin and some in the Côtes de Beaune from his great-grandfather Henri Boillot, who was originally from Volnay. Every wine is a classic representation of its appellation–from Volnay and Pommard to Gevrey and Nuits-Saint-Georges, as Pierre’s work in the cellars is geared towards transparent, terroir-driven wines of purity and finesse”.
I remember, for instance, a group of us, back in the 1970’s tasting lots of German wines–Rauenthaler Baiken; Rauenthaler Gehren, Erbacher Marcobrunn, Steinberger & Bernkastler Doktor, just to name a few. Yes, these were some of the standout German vineyards of the time & tasting the 1971, 1975 & 1976 was truly awe inspiring. & me being the youngster I had to write down the names phonetically, so I could try to remember each & its pronounciation. Today, I wonder how many here in the Islands know what each of these names represent? It has, in fact, been a while since I have even seen a bottle of any of these locally.
Back then, I think many insiders would say each of the above sites could be considered Grand Cru, if there ever was such a thing in Germany.
I was also reminded how much the climate has changed since then. At least on the top echelon of producers, a Kabinett back then was VERY different from a Kabinett today in terms of weight, extract, physiological ripeness & potential alcohol. Part of this is due to the generous sunshine, but something can also be said about top producers looking to make much more impactful styles of wine. I just tasted, for instance, through a line-up of Kabinett from the 2012 & 2013 vintage. I was astounded to see that most of these were harvested somewhere around 90 to 93 degrees Oechsle, which in the old days would have been labeled as an auslese. For me, then, the window of suitable food pairings changes significantly. Not better or worse…..just different.
And what has happened to the Syrah grape variety? It seems to have fallen off in popularity. What a sad state of decline. Syrah was once at the top of the quality pyramid.
The Chave family, as an example, was & still is, one of the world’s all time iconic wine families, mostly because of their grand Syrah based Hermitage red wine. Yes, the family has been working their magic on this legendary hillside since the late 1400’s. We just tasted a 1987 tonight & it was truly majestic & full of pedigree. 6 nights ago, we tasted another standout Syrah based red wine, the 1996 Noel Verset Cornas, & it too was an unforgettable experience we will treasure forever. So, what’s up? Why aren’t more people getting it?
It probably has, at least partially, something to do with deliciousness. The same can be said about Italian Nebbiolo based red wines–Barolo, Barbaresco & Gattinara. I would have also readily said the same kinds of things for St Emilion red wines several years back, but the garage-ists, Christine Mouiex & Michel Rolland has helped changed all of that, just as Angelo Gaja has done in Piemonte & Guigal has done with Cote Rotie.
Hopefully, Syrah based wines will not become an “endangered species” kind of thing, where wine lovers report rare sightings of the nearly extinct–rustic, typical, authentic wines of the world such as traditional styled Hermitage, Cote Rotie, Cornas, Barolo & Barbaresco, just to name a few. I am hoping we as an industry look to appreciate, celebrate & sell BOTH the traditional & more modern styles of each. In the field of music, after all, isn’t there a niche, appreciation & occasion for Bach, Mozart, Frank Sinatra & the Beatles still, in addition to the new tunes?
Lastly, we have also seen a whole generation of winemakers change……maybe even 2 generations. Who keeps track? Marius Gentaz, Gerard Chave, Wilhelm Haag, Noel Verset, Aldo Conterno, Giovanni Conterno, Bartolo Mascarello…the list goes on & on. The remembrance of a young boy creating a chalk drawing….& many years later…. 3 months before his passing…..scribbled his name below. This picture sits above our hostess stand at Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas & I am reminded daily of those game changers who have brought us here.
Today, who will represent the new generation in the Hall of Fame?
Mourvedre is a grape variety grown in many parts of the world, most notably in Spain & southern France. Many wine lovers today, however, might know this grape as the “M” found in many of the popular GSM blends coming out of warmer climates such as Australia & California. We put this tasting together to show, while Mourvedre is not a mainstream grape variety, it is capable of producing some VERY interesting, provocative masculine red wines which are truly like no other, especially in certain parts of France. We, then, served several of these French bottlings to help tasters see & hopefully better understand what potential this grape variety has. Just another really good opportunity to learn!
2011 Chateau La Roque Pic St Loup “Les Vieilles Vignes de Mourvedre”–“This is unique terroir. Garrigue, the aromatic scrub brush that dominates the landscapes of the South, asserts its presence among these vines”. Terraced hillsides, clay-limestone soils, 50 to 60 year old vines, organically/biodynamically farmed. Though quite masculine & sultry, the wine is thankfully done in a much more delicious, “country” style.
2010 Domaine du Joncier Lirac “Les Muses”–Here is a wonderful discovery from the village of Lirac of France’s southern Rhone Valley across the river from the more famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape. This unique cuvee is predominately Mourvedre, biodynamically farmed & pounded by the fierce mistral wind. The inky black color will tell you it is Mourvedre, but the surprising refinement & suave-ability, will tell you this is crafted by a female vigneron, which all makes for a very different & unique perspective on what this grape variety can do.
2010 Domaine du Gros Nore Bandol–As importer Kermit Lynch once wrote—“Magnificent Bandols made in the simplest manner, très franc de goût, with a whole lotta soul”. The vineyard is but 16 hectares of clay limestone soils located right down the road from the iconic Domaine Tempier. This is a much more masculine, robust, earthy style of Mourvedre with a dark, more sinister personality. We find this wine to be especially well suited for wild game & aged meats. Furthermore, it gets even more provocative & intriguing with a little bottle age, so we suggest you put a few bottles stashed away to enjoy later.
2008 Domaine Tempier Bandol “Cabassaou”–one of the true iconic wines of southern France! Tempier produces 3 single vineyard Bandol–La Migoua, La Tourtine & Cabassaou. Cabassaou used to be a lower, old vine parcel of LaTourtine, but was produced & bottled (at least commercially) as single vineyard with the 1987 vintage. This cuvee is typically 90-95 % Mourvedre & is therefore very masculine, dense, powerful, highly vinous & soulful.
1997 Domaine de Terrebrune Bandol–this domaine is located in Ollioules, east of Bandol, at a higher elevation than Tempier with terraced hillside vineyards. The soil is still clay limestone with some marl. I find their Bandol wines, eventhough produced from at least 85% Mourvedre, to be more ethereal & more refined than those of Tempier or Gros Nore in its youth. I was very surprised at how wonderfully perfumed & mesmerizing the nose was when we popped the cork. It almost had an apricot/nectarine quality, along with underlying floral nuances amid the earth & rustic character. Even on the palate, this wine also had a deliciousness & a prettiness, which are not qualities I would normally associate with Mourvedre. I only wish I had bought more! This is definitely a Mourvedre in all its glory.
1985 Domaine Tempier Bandol “La Migoua”—typically, this is the Tempier bottling which speaks to me the most. For my palate, La Migoua is the most forward out of the gates, the most masculine, the most rugged, the most stony & the most soulful, if soulfulness could ever be defined. In terms of rusticity, which the Tempier Mourvedre red wines are well renown for, La Migoua has more base notes, deep, bordering brooding, with a musk character underlying the resounding earthy nuances. Interestingly, the vineyard is at the highest elevation of the 3 (270 meters), an almost ampitheater like setting with red, ochre, blue clay & limestone soils. It also typically has the least % of Mourvedre to the blend of the 3. Tasting this 1985 was like tasting a bit of history….when all of the Peyrauds were healthy & working at the winery……when Domaine Tempier was a more country-ish kind of Camelot–full of magic & romantic notions, all done in a very “down to earth ” Provencal way. In its youth, I remember this wine had a VERY rustic character, which many New World wine drinkers might consider too rustic & off-putting. With this kind of bottle age, however, the perfume is truly captivating, as the sun baked rocks, surrounding wild shrub, herbs & pine trees again make an encore appearance in the nose & taste, amongst the cedar, tobacco, smoke, dried cherries, leather & li-hing-mui smells. Tempier magic!
2007 was a pretty good vintage for Pinot Noir up & down California. Even before any wines were actually released, several of the wine media were hyping the vintage as one of the best ever for Pinot. That was 8 years ago. We did this tasting to see how a few are doing today. Yes, just another opportunity to learn.
2007 Roessler Pinot Noir “Alder Springs Vineyard”–the founder, Roger Roessler, had a real fascination for Pinot Noir (& Chardonnay) & sourced fruit from some pretty interesting vineyards in his search for excellence. Alder Springs, for instance, is made up of rolling hills with many different sun exposures in the northern part of the Mendocino county near Laytonville. It is very remote & quite breathtaking in its scope. Owner Stu Bewley is a vineyard fanatic with all kinds of viticultural & farming techniques/experiments going on there. I also recall that Wells Gutherie at one point was helping Roessler produce the wines, all making for a very intriguing wine project, which insiders have kept an eye on for some years…..that is until Roger sold the project. I am not sure what to make of this 2007 today. It might have been in a dumb stage, as it was really dominated by oak nuances, even in the taste with the alcohol really poking out in the finish. We have 1 bottle left & will look to retaste again in the near future.
2007 Cobb Pinot Noir “Rice Spivak Vineyard”–the Cobb family own the highly revered Coastlands Vineyard. Son, Ross Cobb, has his own label & also made the wines at Hirsch Vineyard, after a stint working at Williams & Selyem. The roughly 6 acre Rice Spivak vineyard is a combination of Dijon clones & the Swan heritage selection, all planted in sandy loam/volcanic ash soils. Wild yeast fermented & the juice spent 17 months in French oak, 30% new. This is a very graceful, classy, suave style of Pinot & is showing really nicely right now, with harmony & wonderful balance.
2007 Brewer Clifton Pinot Noir “Ampelos Vineyard”–here was an opportunity to taste a BC Pinot with some age on it. Because they typically use a lot of stem inclusion, the resulting wines need some bottle age to resolve itself some….& this wine has finally started coming out of its shell. Yes, this is a surprisingly big, flambouyant Pinot, with the minerality definitely there in support, which by the way also helps with the wine’s buoyancy as well. Well worth checking out! Ampelos is a hillside vineyard on the eastern side of the Santa Rita Hills. The 2 acre parcel which BC works with is 828, planted in 2004.
2007 Scherrer Pinot Noir “Big Brother”—Fred Scherrer produced his first “Big Brother” Pinot Noir with the 1999 vintage. His next one was the 2006 & here we are with his 3rd. The fruit is mostly Dijon 777 grown near Annapolis out on the true Sonoma Coast. This very cool spot is why there is much structure & hutzpah in the wine. Amazingly, even though this wine is 8 years old, one wouldn’t even notice on first taste. This is a gorgeous, delicious, well balanced beauty with a long way still to go. Save your bottles for another day. You will be glad you did.
On this occasion, we showcased 4 red wines from France’s Loire Valley. The goal was to highlight the Valley’s 2 most prominent red grape varieties–Cabernet Franc & Pinot Noir.
Chateau d’Epire Anjou “Clos de la Cerisaie”– we began with this seemingly charming, fruity, gulpable “country” red wine from the appellation of Anjou. If one were to look a little closer, one can smell the more masculine, gunflint character under the surface, which comes from the rocky schist oriented soils its vines’ roots grow in. Schist is one of the main soil types of the Valley & this wine will give one an inkling of how it shows itself in a finished wine.
Alphonse Mellot Sancerre Rouge “La Moussiere”–we poured this wine next, so tasters could more readily see the difference between Cabernet Franc & Pinot Noir (the grape variety used to produce this wine) Cabernet Franc has an innate masculinity, seemingly firmer structure & is underlyingly more tannic in nature. The other facet we wanted to show, was this wine comes from soils that are lighter & in this specific case more chalky. These kinds of soils help to create minerality & ethereal-ness in the wines, rather than the dark, flinty nuances one gets from schist. It is hard to really pinpoint a classic Sancerre, whether it is white or red wine. Eventhough Sancerre is a small appellation, relatively speaking, it seems to be a special crossing where limestone, marl, clay & sandy soils converge…..& therefore the wines will have many different soil expressions in the finished wine.
Charles Joguet Chinon “Les Varennes du Grand Clos”—in this part of the Valley, the river over the years has done alot of work eroding the soils from the surrounding hills, leave the limestone bare to the surface with not too much topsoil. Closer to the river on the flatlands, sand seems to be more prevalent & the resulting wines much lighter & more quaffing in style. Les Varennes du Grand Clos is a 4.61 hectare vineyard of siliceous chalk & clay at the foot of a gravel terrace with an eroding limestone slope. The vines were planted between 1962 & 1976. I thought jumping back from Pinot Noir to Cabernet Franc would again remind tasters of the difference between the 2 grape varieties. Yes, Cabernet Franc has a very virile acidity in its structure AND the skin tannins are much more evident.
1997 Domaine Chanteleuserie Bourgueil “Vieilles Vignes”–we finished the tasting with a 1997 Bourgueil, a village located across the river from Chinon. The main parcel for this bottling was planted in 1970 (although their site says 40 to 80 year old vines) in sandy-clay-limestone soils. I just wanted to show tasters how these wines taste when the pieces & edges are more resolved from bottle age. Though much more harmonious from beginning to end, the masculinity once again comes through (nothing light & feminine here) with a darker, sinister nuanced core & structure. I would further say, these Cabernet Franc based reds are tasty, rather than delicious.
Here is a tasting we put together recently for a group of young sommeliers.
As I have noted in previous writings, one of my jobs as a restaurant wine buyer is to provide expertise…….enough so that I can sift through the myriad of wine offerings & better & hopefully smartly determine what we will buy for the restaurant.
I therefore think to get better at this skill, it really helps to establish & grow a strong foundation. In the case of sommelier-ing, this includes having a bank of really solid, “good” wine choices. By doing so, you have a base to measure others by.
Several of our chefs are headed for Japan, mainly on a food inspiring trip. When asked what restaurants they should look to eat at, my comment was to find smaller, unique “hole in the walls” who have garnered a niche & respect from true foodies for serving solid foods which come from passion, hands on dedication, culture, heritage & authenticity. I think then one can taste & experience more traditional ingredients & techniques & therefore better understand a sense of purity & of where they came from culinarily.
From this base, we can look to add our touches.
Why would one want to morph already morphed foods?
One can apply a similar thought to wine. I therefore look to establish a base of well made, pure, more traditional styled wines of any given category. From there I can create different sub-categories such as “internationalized”; “superstar”; modern; “country/food friendly” or whatever.
Over the years, there are at least 8 Sauvignon Blancs from France’s Loire Valley, which really standout to me amongst the crowd. Interestingly, I would have thought that at least a few would have been replaced by now. Here are 5 of them–
Domaine du Salvard Cheverny–Sauvignon Blanc (& some Sauvignon Gris with up to 16% Chardonnay permitted) grown in sand-chalk-limestone soils. This cuvee typically showcases exotic fruit nuances, passion fruit & even guava in some vintages (perhaps from the Sauvignon Gris), with a rounder middle & a distinct minerality on the palate, much more so than in the nose. I generally refer to this wine as being more “country”ish in style–meaning delicious, unpretentious, light, food friendly, gulpable & perennially over delivering for the dollar.
Trotereau Quincy “Vieilles Vignes”–sand, silex, pink limestone soils. This vineyard also still has a surprising number of 100 year old vines I am told. As a side note, Quincy was but the 2nd AOC granted back in 1936. The old timers must have known there was something special or unique in the soils here. I poured this wine next, because, it has a more flinty character in the nose & seems more nervier with more bracing acidity.
Regis Minet Pouilly Fume “Vieilles Vignes”–clay, limestone, marl at 750 feet elevation. We adore this wine’s purity & cleaner, fresher, minerally approach. This was one of the first true artisan, “boutique” Loire Valley wines which caught my attention as a young professional. I really find it so incredible that in all of these years I have yet to find another which has at least equally caught my fancy. Deliciousness certainly has something to do with that.
Roger Neveu Sancerre “Clos des Bouffants”–a relatively new star on our radar screen. I am always so amazed at how many diners easily recognize the word Sancerre on the winelist, yet it has been so challenging for me over the years to find really good Sancerre. My “go to” rendition is by Hippolyte Reverdy, because of how ethereal & delicately refined it can be. Now, of course, the Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre is quite allocated. Leave it to wine importer, Kermit Lynch, to thankfully find yet another jewel. The Bouffants parcel is roughly 700 to 850 feet in elevation, with a steep, southern exposure & a limestone bedrock (40% active limestone). Here is one you can make lots of friends with.
Denis Jamain Reuilly “Les Pierres Plates”–The village of Reuilly is also located in the Central Vineyards of the Loire Valley. I poured this sauvignon last because I typically find it the most ethereal of the five. I am told the soils is Kimmeridgian limestone, very similar to what one can find in Chablis, complete with fossilized oyster shells & other sea critters. My wife Cheryle, in fact, noted in this blind tasting how much it smelled of seashells in the nose. Plus, on the palate, it is more refined & ethereal with a lime edge & definitely not flinty like those above who have more marl to their soils.
Quite an interesting learning opportunity AND on several different levels. Thank you to all who came.
One of the most tantalizing facets of wine I have appreciated over the years is the synergy created by planting the right vines in the right terroir. Especially in the skillful hands of a masterful winemaker, this can create a much more interesting, intriguing wine.
California has an abundance of vin de fruits & vin de climats. No judgements here, that’s just the way it is.
It is, therefore, quite a thrill to find wines from California which can marry the soil & the grape variety & then create oenological magic.
Such is the case at Neyers.
The Neyers 304 Chardonnay bottling, for instance, is a blend of Shot Wente, a heritage selection, planted in parcels of rocky soils. The resulting wine truly has the unique aromatics of the Shot Wente & just as important……. the stones, which makes for a far more interesting wine than those that just showcase Chardonnay fruitiness, clonal or otherwise.
In addition, the stoniness/minerality really adds to the buoyancy of the wine, making it seem lighter than it really is. We truly love this naturally lower alcohol, mineral driven, crisp, complete Chardonnay & find it ideal to serve by the glass, because of how delicious, light & much more food friendly it is.
Another stellar, interesting Neyers wine to offer by the glass is their Sage Canyon Cuvee. The base is Carignane & Mourvedre from 130 plus year old vines out near Oakley, with some Grenache & Syrah added in. This wine is foot stomped, wild yeast fermented & bottled unfiltered & unfined.
One could say, this is a homage to the wines of Maxime Magnon, a standout winemaking renegade down in southern France, who is really championing the Carignane grape variety AND a very, almost radical, au naturale approach to grape growing & winemaking..
In both cases, the wines are certainly interesting & provocative, but at least equally as important, they are delicious. Now, if we expect the foods we serve to be delicious, shouldn’t the wines we serve by the glass be delicious too? And, tonight…..not 20 to 40 years down the road?
Yes, these are 2 wines I would definitely order at a restaurant who was serving them by the glass.
In addition, as a professional, I also believe it is important to support these kinds of projects—those who believe in heirloom/heritage grape vines, which are farmed sustainably & thereby having a “living” vineyard.
And if the BATF ever required a disclosure back label, the Neyers’ very short list would only include the grapes used & perhaps a tiny bit of sulfur before bottling. How pure is that?
If you have a moment, this is a pretty good read that I feel translates into our current state here in Hawaii.
The last sommelier standing — where are all S.F.’s wine pros?
Here is an article I received from a friend, which I think you might find interesting. Even if it were only partially true, I would still find it quite unsettling.
I believe we should look to applaud & grow the concept of a TRUE sommelier in mid to upper tier restaurants.
In the old days we had sommeliers here is the islands at top echelon restaurants such as Bagwell’s 2424, Michel’s, Third Floor, Kahala Hilton, Kapalua Bay Hotel & later the Halekulani just to name a few. Times have really changed since then. Part of the reason is for many restaurants, food, ambiance & service are the top priorities & wine usually is further down the priority list. The upper echelon of operations, therefore, took the labor dollars (inclusive of commissions) & re-allocated them.
In the late 1980’s, the culinary phenomenon, Roy’s Restaurant, created quite a splash here is Hawaii because of the unique, dynamic & ground breaking cooking genius of visionary chef Roy Yamaguchi & a very thought provoking, well selected wine program spearheaded by Managing Partner Randy Caparoso. They certainly set a new standard with their highly innovative food & wine program, not only locally, but nationally & internationally as well.
Fortunately, since then, we have seen a resurgence of the sommelier position in bigger mainland cities such as New York, Los Angeles & San Francisco.
The article linked above, however, intimates otherwise in San Francisco.
Although quite controversial to say the least, especially after viewing other blogs & comments from sommelier friends on the merit & credibility of his assessments, his article does bring up some pertinant & valid questions.
Here are some of my thoughts on sommelier-ing, for whatever it’s worth.
How many sommeliers, for instance, truly provide expertise rather than just salesmanship?
As an important as a chef is in providing expertise, so is a sommelier (& a mixologist) today, in addition to providing another viable revenue source for the restaurant.
Expertise is the key word .
Let’s first consider the wine list.
I try to always remember that as a wine buyer for our restaurants, my job isn’t to find & select wines that I like. I can do that for my personal home use. The goal would be to create a list which offers a smartly selected matrix of wines which can appeal to as wide a spectrum of potential buyers as possible…..another words try to have something for everybody.
The foundation would be selecting good, interesting wines. In this day & age of how important marketing & branding is, the art of a restaurant or retail store selecting “good” wines is getting lost to the concept of large, totally recognizable brands. I suggest we as an industry should therefore spend more time understanding and sharing the concept of what a “good” wine is.
From there, I would want to make sure I spend my budgeted dollars wisely & smartly. That for every dollar that I spend the restaurant is getting as much quality as possible. This is especially important in the value oriented categories, so that one can offer a better balanced list, in terms of price to quality, as opposed to one which is stacked mostly with high priced wines or the hottest, new labels.
Since we have 8 different restaurants in our group, hopefully we can create a list which fits in with the schtick & targeted clientele of each restaurant AND, at the same time we also include & look to grow the number of wine selections which are better suited for our foods.
I also believe a sommelier should really work to be more effective in training the staff and looking to nurture & grow a following of both staff & potential & existing clientele.
There really is an art to nurturing customers into better understanding & appreciating what is good wine, and/or what goes well with the foods they are eating.
Sommelier-ing is therefore a craft, a skill, just like a plumber or carpenter is & therefore this skill should shine on the job site, which in this case in the restaurant floor.
Part of that skill set is the ability to make a connection with the customer, which includes creating a comfort zone/trust with each guest. This to me is even more important than being an encyclopedia of knowledge.
Sommeliers are, after all, part of a service industry. How many sommeliers think of themselves as experts on wine & often act more like professors, rather than servers?
Can you imagine a caddy telling Tiger Woods, “no you shouldn’t use the 9 iron”? Or a butler telling their host, “no you shouldn’t have coffee after 10pm?” The caddy’s job is to serve Tiger. He should know when to talk, when not to; when to walk 5 feet behind or right next to him; when to wipe the ball, etc, so that all Tiger really needs to concentrate on is striking the ball with the right swing & tempo. That takes experience, astute observation & much preparation.
I am hoping those working in a restaurant understand a similar thought.
The wine list then can be as creative as your food menu is. And, therefore, if a server can sell a highly innovative sushi or fish dish, then they (or a sommelier) should have the ability to make some interesting recommendations so that at least some of those who ordered the dish, will try a wine with it & therefore enjoy a more complete dining experience.
How does serving a brand X Chardonnay, which sells like crazy at Costco or Safeway, work equally with a fish dish done with a tomato sauce, teriyaki sauce or a butter sauce?
I suggest & hope we as a professional community here in the Islands, will look to band together & help nurture wine (& food) to more & more people, just for pure enjoyment, not only the latest hottest wine or the most recognizable label, but more along looking to have a glass with the next meal.
I grew up in this industry working with & around more classical fare. With the advent, however, of fusing Asian & European cooking styles, it was a time to think out of the box in order to better understand what worked & what didn’t with this dynamic new culinary frontier.
What became more evident over time & much experimentation, was what Asian foods clashed with most was alcohol, heat & saltiness. Essentially, alcohol became much more glaring; oak seemed bitter & bitterness seemed somehow even way more bitter.
We found that wines lighter, fresher, more fruity, less extracted & lower alcohol levels worked much better with a wider gamut of Asian influenced foods.
More recently, we have also been quite fascinated how aromatic grape varieties can add a whole ‘nother dimension to the pairings. The challenge, of course, is finding really good ones.
Here are some examples of pairings we have recently done in Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas, which hopefully help you better understand what we mean.
WINE: Domaine Skouras “Zoe”–to make this dish more wine friendly, Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas’ Chef John Iha added a potato puree for richness. Furthermore, the infused lemongrass, not only heightened the dish itself, but also really connected with the wonderful, innate aromatics of this wine, which is a blend of Roditis & Moscholfilero (both indigenous grape varieties to Greece). The Mediterranean minerality also worked well with the squid ink. Another insight is how Chef John toned down the needed heat by making the chili pepper water into an “air” & therefore far less confrontational.
Pastrami Cured Ahi “Nicoise” Salad with buttered fingerling potatoes, Mari Garden mini greens, Ho Farms tomatoes, long beans, marinated onions, sunnyside quail egg & adobo vinaigrette
WINE: Hans Wirsching Scheurebe Dry–normally we would have looked to a PINK wine for this pairing, but on this occasion decided we needed more aromatics because of the adobo vinaigrette. Yes, we marvel again & again how these aromatic style wines really can a whole ‘nother dimension to a pairing. The challenge is finding the good ones.
WINE: Strub Riesling “Soil to Soul”–yet another aromatic wine, because of the fragrant, uplifting galanghal-scallion pesto. We chose the Strub (from Germany’s Rheinhessen) because it is rounder, deeper yet still remarkably light & refreshing.
WINE: Hofstatter Weissburgunder–yes, another aromatic, minerally white wine, this one from the hills of northeast Italy. The wine’s minerality helped keep the palate fresh & alive while navigating the dish’s unusual (at least for wine pairing) components such as seaweed & daikon.
WINE: Birichino Malvasia Bianca–currently one of our absolute favorite “go to” wines when pairing with Asian inspired foods. We seemingly use this wonderfully perfumed, lime edged white wine in so many of our pairings & am therefore continually re-amazed on every occasion at how wide of spectrum of foods this wine can readily work with. By itself, I think the perfume may be too strong for most wine drinkers. But then, I watch how it remarkably synergizes with aromatic sauces or uplifting herbs. It really is an amazing food wine to say the least. Pure genius. Who would have thunk it?
WINE: CF “Euro-Asian” Riesling Medium Dry–Riesling works well with the oiliness of salmon. Yes, there is lushness to its fruit & the rounder acidity when physiologically ripe. We also love how minerality livens things up in the pairing too. The CF Euro-Asian is produced for us by Weingut Gunderloch. A special thanks to Fritz, Agnes & Johannes Hasselbach for making this dream come true. The grapes come from hillside vines grown in red slate soils, which creates that stoniness/minerality, which is VERY different from the black/gray/blue soils of the Mosel, Saar, Ruwer river regions. And, because this wine is medium dry, it has just enough sweetness to buttress the fruitiness for the pairing. FYI–there is a marked difference in this cuvee, beginning with the 2012 vintage. Thankfully, the extract, bitterness & alcohol levels seem more moderate, despite the growing frequency of real sun drenched vintages.
WINE: Maxime Magnon “La Demarrante”–this is a fabulous dish from Chef John Iha, as he thinly sliced the pork & then reconstructed the many layers before panko-ing & deep frying. To, however, make sure this dish was red wine friendly, Chef Iha, created a peppercorn-brandy sauce, instead of the VERY oriental slanted one he originally planned. La Demarrante is a wonderfully delicious, refined Carignane & Cinsault blend from southern France around Corbieres. Owner/winemaker Maxime Magnon studied with Jean Foillard, a true master/game changer in the Beaujolais Cru village of Morgon. That influence can be seen by the carbonic maceration used in the making of this wine, making it more fruity, fresh without the typically rustic, often hard edges of many “country” red wines of the area.
WINE: DR F Weins Prum Riesling Feinherb “Graacher Domprobst”–we chose a Feinherb for this pairing because of tiny bits of refreshing ginger & shiso used to accent the unagi, as well as the kabayaki drizzle which ties everything in the dish together. Owner/winemaker Bert Selbach has such a fine touch & his resulting Riesling has such a magical, spellbinding purity, ethereal & aristocratic perfume & taste. Furthermore, its precision & finely tuned sweet-sour teeter totter is exactly what this dish needed.