By Laura Ness
Coming up with one of those enormous mega wine lists that typify the high-end dining experience seems a daunting task. What goes through the mind of a sommelier in putting that together?
If they’re motivated by garnering an award from Wine Spectator, they know the territory they need to cover and some of the big names they need to include. But not all sommeliers and wine directors are driven by awards.
Creating a unique dining experience or providing exciting options for an increasingly adventurous set of wine tasters, drives some. Sharing rare and otherwise unobtainable gems courtesy of their exceedingly good connections motivates others.
Recreating an authentic culinary experience from another part of the world drives many, while the burning desire to share one’s personal passions for a region (Burgundy, Alsace, Piemonte) becomes a religious mission for a handful of zealots.
Whatever the underlying motivation may be, food should be the main focus, insists long-time Sommelier, Chris Sawyer, of Sawyer Somm Consulting. Reflecting back on nearly two decades in the business, he notes, “Gastronomy has changed the face of the restaurant experience. Chefs now are making things we’ve never even heard of before! A great somm shows off the food. People don’t come into the restaurant for the somm. It’s the somm’s job to highlight the food.”
He notes that due to the proliferation of different culinary styles, especially in California, somms now have the ability to pair like never before. Cuisine has become so complex, he notes, that pairing has to be based on every bite you taste, not just on the main component of a dish.
California has become a stage for the world with all the bounty that grows naturally here, and wine is naturally evolving in concert. Sawyer points out there are more and more diverse styles of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to go with innovations like ginger and bacon on turkey and the proliferation of vegetarian and gluten-free dishes. “In California, we’re as diversified as we’ve ever been.”
He observes that Cabernet Franc is a hot topic of conversation, and people are willing to take a chance with a Vermentino or a Trousseau Gris on a BTG list.
According to Sawyer, “What you see in BTG is so much more diverse. People order single glasses for each course. It’s not just a bottle for the table. Good somms match the wine per person.”
Wine and Spirits Director of Bacchus Management Group, Andrew Green, is responsible for wine programs at Michelin-starred Spruce in San Francisco and The Village Pub in Woodside, as well as Pizza Antica (Lafayette, Mill Valley, Santa Monica, Santana Row), Mayfield Bakery & Cafe in Palo Alto, and Café des Amis in San Francisco.
He once worked for someone who wanted a wine list that was all things to everyone: it failed. Not so at The Village Pub of Woodside, where he’s patiently built up the wine list over 15 years from 250 selections to over 2800. Beginning with California and France, he gradually expanded to cover all the classic regions, and now stewards a Wine Spectator Grand Award winning list that caters to the wealth-builders and innovators of Silicon Valley.
“We are specialists in the areas we focus on. This is a relationship business. Our relationships give us access to the finest wines from around the world.”
Such relationships result in him garnering terrific allocations of Burgundy, and being the envy of his peers. Asked how he acquires them, he says, unapologetically, “I’m competitive about it.” He frequently gets treasures from Kermit Lynch’s private cellar.
Consequently, Green is in a unique position to offer what he calls “unicorns:” one-of-a-kind gems like Domaine Leflaive Montrachet (up to $8900 per bottle). Only half a barrel is made yearly. He does a thriving business in retail sales of collectible wines, spending about a quarter of his budget on wines from private collections, auctions, and trusted grey market sources. Recently, he’s been acquiring Napa Cabs from the 1980s, noting, “Everything old is new again.”
Recently crowned a Master Sommelier, Jim Rollston (Cyrus, Baumé in Palo Alto, The Lodge at Pebble Beach), captains the stellar wine list at Manresa in Los Gatos.
We asked him what changes he made since taking over at David Kinch’s three-star Michelin restaurant. Rollston has primarily added mature vintages of classified growth Bordeaux, along with older Barolo and Barbaresco, noting that all have sold through entirely. He has also added more half bottles to complement the tasting menu-only format.
What guides him in building the list? Says Rollston, “My main philosophy is whether or not it is distinctive and unique in the world of wine, an archetype of a classic, or a new and unique voice that deserves a spot alongside our food. While there are plenty of new wines coming into the market that are unique, choosing ones that are also of the highest quality remains the goal.”
Rollston adds, “We do price the top wines with a different markup, so that our guests can enjoy a top wine from Roulot, Coche-Dury or Clos Rougeard at a price that is not usually seen in a restaurant.”
When Wine Director, Andrew Burnham was assembling the wine list for Kinch’s latest restaurant, The Bywater, also in Los Gatos, he followed cues from the New Orleans-inspired menu to drive his selections.
“We started by looking at the savory menu, which ranges from fresh, unadorned shellfish to complex, highly-spiced and seasoned recipes with ingredients both from the land and the sea. We decided on varietals we thought would work with the food and defined the places from which those varietals best express themselves. With the regions (and sub regions and vineyards) and grapes in mind, we sought out thoughtful farmers and winemakers to populate the list.”
Are there common characteristics shared by the wines he chose for the list? Says Burnham, “The wines we like typically clearly express their place, varietal and vintage. The people making these wines believe that the majority of their purpose, the majority of their effort, is done in the vineyard as opposed to in the winery. And acid. We like wines with structure, so they can work with the food.”
Due to the seafood-centric menu, the wine list is generally 60% white/rosé vs. 40% red. Says Burnham, “It’s a list that’s chock full of honest wines from really exceptional producers, many of which, unfortunately, are tightly allocated.”
One of them is 2013 Weingut Gantenbein Switzerland Pinot Noir, of which only two cases entered the US. Another is Landron Atmospheres 80 Folle Blanche/20 Pinot Noir, an organic, hand harvested limited production cult wine.
Wine director, Eric Lecours, of Donato Enoteca in Redwood City, is proud to have a totally focused wine list that, like the food, is 100% Italian. He thinks most diners are unnecessarily overwhelmed by the girth of wine lists that frankly contain a dearth of relevant names for the majority.
“99% of restaurants don’t need long wine lists any more than they need long menus! I prefer short lists where everything is thought out: where the staff has tasted everything and can recommend each and every wine for a different reason.”
His list is max 125 wines, of which 70 change frequently, with selections by the glass, half/carafe and bottle. Some are rare, like the 2011 Sandro Fay Valtellina Valgella Lombardia ($70): he liked the winemaker and the wine so much, he bought out the entire vintage of 100 cases. It’s a top seller.
“I can talk about every wine on the list intimately,” says Lecours. “We want to give people an authentic Italian experience. We originally had California wines on the list, but people wanted to try Italian wines. You don’t need Caymus when you’re having Italian food.”
Sommelier James La Mar worked at Michelin-star Madera (Rosewood Resort) under Wine Director Paul Mekis before moving to Michelin-star Chez TJ in downtown Mountain View. The audiences couldn’t have been more different.
At Madera, in the VC-laden area of Sand Hill Road, people wanted big Chardonnays, big bold Cabernets and big Burgundies. In Mountain View, Chez TJ, captained by Chef Jarad Gallagher, offers a Chef’s menu that changes weekly if not daily, along with a very popular wine pairing menu. It attracts a younger, more adventurous crowd.
Says La Mar, “They go for romantic stories and eclectic wines. Our clients like stories, and I am constantly reading about people in the business, like chateaus that have been in production for a hundred years.”
For the past two and a half years, he focused on expanding the list from 120 selections to over 500, bringing in more rosés, for their food-friendliness, along with a rich array of Rieslings, plus interesting reds like German Spätburgunder. He even had a local producer, Big Basin Vineyards, make a custom Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot for them. The local angle made a very good story.
While he loves Riesling, he admits Chenin Blanc is his favorite white, but cautions, “One of the cardinal sins of being a somm is to let your personal preferences dominate the list!” Still, he couldn’t resist the temptation to add some lovely Vouvrays.
Le Mar has since left Chez TJ in the capable hands of Sommelier, Erika Szot, to work for one of the boutique wine brands he discovered while building the list there, Big Basin Vineyards. You might say he bought into the story.