We are all familiar with the chef-as-rock-star designation but what about the lesser-known people that get the liquor all right at our favorite restaurants and establishments? Sommeliers and beverage directors are really the heartbeats of everyone feeling copasetic, right? They are there to help lubricate your meal just so, and are very often wildly funny with academic brains and big personalities to match their chef counterparts.
In this three-part series, meet a few good men doing great work across the country, including Josh Nadel, beverage director at NYC hot spot The Dutch, David Lynch, wine director at Quince and Cotogna in San Fran, and Chris McFall, sommelier at Austin’s Paggi House.
When and how did you pursue the sommelier calling (or did this line of work choose you)?
I came to this somewhat by accident, after collaborating with Joe Bastianich on “Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy” (Clarkson-Potter; 2002). Joe and Mario [Batali] were still in the early days of their empire-building, and took a chance on a magazine writer with no restaurant experience (me) to take over the wine program at Babbo in NYC. The list was (and is) all-Italian, and I had just come off this full-immersion, year-long wine tour in Italy researching the book, so I just walked in there and started spewing out all this information I had just gathered. Other than being a good communicator I was completely unqualified for the job and certainly couldn’t have gotten a job as a wine director at a French or American restaurant. Babbo was a unique situation, and it was pretty bold of those guys to let me step in there and kind of find my way. And I’m still finding my way.
Being a sommelier/wine director seems like one of the most fun jobs in the world, but there is a decidedly academic dimension to this line of work. What do you find most fun about the job personally? And, what do you find the most challenging?
Well, I have no “official” sommelier accreditation, but I do enjoy the academic side of the job–I love maps most of all. Then again, I also like the physical stuff: unpacking cases, organizing the cellar.
Obviously the most fun part of the job is picking out cool wines, sharing them with people, and having them agree with you. The most challenging part of the job is when they don’t agree. I remember one night at Babbo a while back when a certain female rock singer/compulsive tweeter/train wreck looked at me petulantly and told me that the wine I had chosen for her was “common.” She actually used that word, “common.” I had little choice but to slink away and retreat to the cellar to bellow profanities in private. Service may ultimately be a noble calling, but sometimes you’re just a servant.
Tell us a little about how you see your interaction with a chef. What’s your favorite dance with the godhead who cooks?
“Dance” is a good word. It’s like asking a girl to dance for the first time. You first have to get up the nerve, and then when the music starts you actually have to dance. Obviously it depends on the chef, but most of them are very prickly and sensitive about their creations, so I tread lightly. I’m happy to be the bassist or the drummer, not the lead singer–that’s how it should be. Batali didn’t have much use for my wine-geek musings, but Mike Tusk [Quince/Cotogna] really enjoys the process. He was doing a risotto with sea urchin and passion fruit and we tasted a bunch of wines with it, very scientific. We got to a dry Austrian Riesling from the Kremstal and it was like one of those moments in the movies where eyes lock and “Dream Weaver” starts playing in the background. It was a great bonding moment, proving my chops to the chef.
Tell us something that would surprise our viewers and readers.
Champagne is the best cheese wine there is (maybe that’s not so surprising, sorry).
Can you give us a recommendation of a wine or spirit you are in love with for this holiday season?
Vermouth, specifically the artisanal stuff such as Carpano Antica Formula or Cocchi Vermouth di Torino. These are traditional “sweet” vermouths but have a bitter, botanical edge. They smell like liquid spice cake and they have nice bite to them without actually being very alcoholic. Antica Formula on the rocks with a big orange peel is basically grog without the hangover.
What booze do you think is a fail-safe, inexpensive buy every time?
Beer: Negra Modelo
Spirit: Maker’s Mark Bourbon
Wine: Barbera d’Alba/Asti (Producers: Vietti, Brovia, Vajra, Braida)
What’s the best advice for your restaurant patrons vis-à-vis interacting with a sommelier?
Pretend you’re really interested in what we have to say. Most of us are hopelessly insecure.
If I weren’t a sommelier, I would be a _________.
guy with some kind of real job.
What is your favorite late-night bite?
What is your favorite pairing?
Barolo and white truffle risotto
What is your favorite thing between two buns?
Look for David's new restaurant St. Vincent, to open in the Mission in early 2012.
Hankering for a glass of wine now? Meet the youngest master sommelier Laura Maniec and join her at her new wine studio in New York City [New York Post]. Corkbuzz Wine Studio 13 E. 13th St / 646-873-6071