Was there a specific wine or moment that made you pursue wine as a career?
I knew less than nothing about wine before I attended the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park at the age of 29. I spent the entire time in that class trying to figure out how to become a sommelier. This was an entire world within the restaurant industry I knew nothing about, but I knew at that point that it was the only thing I wanted to do. The instructor was an Advanced Somm who was entirely unorthodox, and presented that course in a way that really resonated with me. I took a few serving gigs after graduating to get my feet wet in the FOH, and have been a somm for about five years now.
What traits or skills are required to be a successful sommelier?
A sense of awareness and realizing their role in the restaurant; too many somms (and bartenders for that matter) lose focus on their guests needs by getting caught up in putting together an impressive presentation. I think a great somm has a keen sense for building a list based around the guest and understanding that “making your mark” is secondary. There are wine lists that are pedestrian and lack creativity, and there are some lists that are so entirely esoteric even other somms get lost in them. I think a really great somm is someone who can achieve a balance between those two extremes, while still maintaining a compelling, diverse, and most importantly, a profitable program. That is, after all, what we are paid to do.
Selling wine is also much more than just being the geekiest geek in the room. Rote regurgitation of facts does not sell wine, ever. Reading your guests, understanding your audience, and relating to them in a language they understand is the most important skill for a somm in my opinion. A good somm knows when to make someone feel great about their value conscious purchase of a $35 bottle and when to offer up their $1000 Grand Cru burg’ that’s off-list.
How many selections do you oversee at Juniper & Ivy and what is the philosophy that guides your wine program there?
At the moment, we pour 34 wines by the glass and our bottle list has 125 selections, with another roughly 40 “reserve” wine off list. We have more than 30 varietals from 9 countries, ranging from 1964 Gran Reserva Rioja to 2016 current release South African Chenin. San Diego is a Cali-centric crowd, so our focus is on offering some of California’s greatest hits while enticing our guests with our favorite B-Sides from France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Spain. I think we do an outstanding job offering great diversity of varietals, locations, and vintages.
Which wine regions you have recently caught your attention and why?
I’m really into Spain and Italy right now. I came from a 1 Michelin-star French Bistro. I’d love to sell Burgundy all day, but San Diego isn’t necessarily interested in drinking it, or paying the premium prices Burgundy commands. I find incredible value and vintage depth from Spain and Italy and those are the wines I’m most excited about.
What is your favorite bottle of wine right now?
My favorite bottle on our list right now is the 1995 R. Lopez de Heredia Tondonia Gran Reserva, $222. It is without question the best value in our program and possibly the entire city. These wines from Lopez are the epitome of old school, which I love. They maintain an almost unbelievable freshness for their age and bring as much complexity to the glass as a bottle of $900 Burgundy. I recently sold a ’64 Tondonia I picked up from a consignor and it was one of the best wines I’ve ever had the privilege to taste.
What are your thoughts and or approach on the pairing of food and wine?
I think it’s very important when it is important to the guest. Some people want to drink what they love, and sometimes trying to create a great pairing is actually doing the guests a disservice, because they really just want something comfortable. Having said that, wine and food are meant for each other. There are fewer things more satisfying to me personally than when a guest has an eye opening experience with a food and wine pairing. When someone realizes that wine can intensify the flavors in food, and that food can reveal different flavors in a wine, that is a really special experience. Foie gras and Sauternes, Riesling and spicy Thai, Rhone Syrah and grilled lamb. This is why we have taste buds. These are things that make me smile.