5 Interviews with Top Sommelier-Chef Dream Teams
Wine Enthusiast sat down with the top sommeliers and chefs at some of this year’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants to get the inside scoop on what happens behind the scenes of the busy eateries.
—Compiled by Nils Bernstein, Alexis Korman, Christina Pellegrini and Ari Bendersky
Chef and Partner & Beverage Director, Spiaggia, Chicago
Tony, your wine staff—including Rachael, who came on board last year—is youthful. Why is it important to have young blood overseeing the wine program?
TM: It’s absolutely important because the wine world is constantly evolving. There are new styles, new producers, new grapes being discovered, and you have to have that enthusiasm to find out what’s going on. I taste wines with Rachael, and I thought I knew a good amount about wine, but I’ll try something and wonder how I didn’t know about it—Nascetta, Timorasso and Croatina from Piemonte, Vitovska from Friuli…
So let’s say you have a younger table or one that’s less experienced with wine, but is eager to learn, how do you encourage someone to try something different?
RL: Basically I create trust with the diner, but also gauge what style they like and offer something a little more out of the box. For example, if a guest asks for a Pinot Noir, I’ll point them toward a Sicilian Etna Rosso and tell them it’s like a cross between Pinot Noir and Grenache.
TM: There are all the different Italian varieties they’re turning into sparkling wine, like sparkling Ribolla Gialla. It could be a hard sell in many restaurants, but a lot of people here expect to try something new.
Rachael, what’s the most fun thing about collaborating with the kitchen?
RL: I love navigating new menu items and tasting wines with them along the way, finding those aha moments between the dishes and the nuances of the wines.
RL: We’re playing with international wines in our pairings, and a couple favorites have been the rye chitarra pasta with Taleggio, ramps and morels, with the savory, nutty, mushroomy López de Heredia 2005 Viña Gravonia Rioja Blanco. And the Austrian Schloss Gobelsburg Tradition Riesling with a casoncelli [stuffed pasta], which includes purple artichoke, nettles, almonds, pecorino and dandelion honey. It’s a dry Riesling, but it’s ripe and unctuous, which complements the honey and almond, while the acidity and minerality intermingle with the earthiness of the vegetables and cheese.
How do you keep Spiaggia relevant after three decades?
TM: A restaurant isn’t open for 31 years if it doesn’t evolve, and we pride ourselves on that. Also, travel is the number one thing that keeps us in touch with what’s happening around the world. It’s about changing and staying current. –—Ari Bendersky
Chef/Owner & Wine Director, Oleana, Boston
Tell us why your list is now almost exclusively organic/ biodynamic/ natural?
AS: Good ingredients are a core value. We all really care about the quality and skill that goes into growing and making food and wine, and we constantly challenge ourselves to raise our standards with the ingredients that we work with.
SR: I’ve found that wines made in the most natural way in the vineyard and cellar are truer in form and have more character from vintage to vintage. Often now a lot of wines try to be something else and I don’t think there’s much value in those wines.
Any tips on pairing wines with strong Middle Eastern flavors?
AS: Anything that has natural spice, vegetal or mineral qualities—most Mediterranean wines work naturally! I love drinking Chateau Musar with our food, but as long as the wine isn’t too tannic or overpowered by oak, the possibilities are endless.
SR: Think about the dominant flavors and spices and find wines that have that same flavor profile. Then look at the structure of the wine to see what can hold up to the dish but not overpower it.
How has Sarah’s recent arrival informed what you’re doing in the kitchen?
AS: Sarah has an urge to learn new styles of cooking, and she brings new perspectives on flavor pairing through her eyes. She hasn’t had much exposure to flavors like sumac, pomegranate molasses and dried spearmint so it’s a whole fresh perspective that I’m enjoying watching unfold.
SR: I’ve brought on some new wines from regions and varietals that Ana is not familiar with; she’s as excited as I am to explore new things. Ana pushes me to think outside the box and continuously question. Recently we were so excited about how delicious Sauternes or Tokaji is with her spinach and chickpea falafel. You won’t read about that pairing in a textbook.
How do guests respond to wines being organized by the exotic flavor profiles found on your menu?
SR: I find this approach gets guests out of their comfort zone. It’s something I’ve loved about Oleana’s wine program since the beginning; I’d always try something I had never heard of before. That’s something I want to expand on.
Chef de Cuisine & Sommelier, The Grill Room, New Orleans
Daniel, You moved to New Orleans in 2007, and John, in 2008. How have you seen the wine and food culture evolve?
DC: Katrina was a tragedy and influenced New Orleans’s consciousness forever, but in terms of wine and food, it gave the city a renaissance.
JM: There are so many little wine and food microcosms—small, casual concepts here with focused wines and food. I think it strikes people who are visiting from out of town.
DC: New Orleans has always had this standard of elegance, but it’s also offered us some leeway, some opportunity to do something a little more modern and progressive at The Grill Room.
How do the two of you collaborate on wine pairings?
DC: Usually when I put a new dish on the menu, I’ll bring it to John first because I trust his opinion the most. If something is not working, he’s great at suggesting something I can do.
JM: The food is the canvas and I’m just looking to add aspects of color to it with a flavor profile. Tasting dishes and wine together solidifies that the selections are on par.
DC: Coming from the other direction, I can reference John’s tasting notes. When he’s talking “earthy” or “berries,” I can use those notes as a jumping-off point for combinations of flavors to think about what I’ll do.
How do you go about choosing wines for your list?
JM: Putting together the wine list is no different than what Dan does: talking to farmers about what’s in season, hearing “these carrots are showing really well, this is what you should focus on.” At the end of the day, we want to showcase great vines and vintners; for me, it’s a collection of producers. It’s like collecting anything, like comics or baseball cards: You want to get the best ones that are also the most interesting.
DC: John’s style is that he’s not just collecting Captain America or Spiderman, he’s collecting the best issues or stories within that genre. It’s not like he’s got Fantastic Four, issues 1–100, it’s the best issues he can find in between.
Executive Chef & Advanced Sommelier, laV Restaurant and Wine Bar, Austin, TX
What are the challenges or advantages of being a female-led team in a male-dominated industry?
AJ: I see more advantages, really. I’ve never been treated differently as a woman. I think sometimes male chefs are more flashy or use different ingredients. It’s a generalization, but female chefs tend to maybe not rock the boat so much with ingredient choices. The challenge is to be competitive with that mindset.
VM: To me, it’s challenging only in the sense that there are so many great professionals out there.
Have any surprising or favorite pairings?
VM: A leek spaetzle with scallops and red wine syrup paired with Olga Raffault Chinon from the Loire. The dish had richness and herbal tones which paired so well with Cabernet Franc. We also did a Champagne dinner with angel hair pasta in lemon cream sauce and caviar paired with Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs Champagne. It was so good! The creaminess and saltiness of the dish worked so well with the wine’s acidity and rounder texture.
AJ: Or the curry oyster with apple chutney.
VM: We paired it with an Albert Boxler Sylvaner from Alsace—it had richness and great acidity, it worked so well with the curry spices.
How does the wine list inform the menu—and vice versa?
VM: I look at wine as another ingredient— it’s always important in creating a dish to leave a little space for wine. If you have too many ingredients, it can be very difficult to pair.
AJ: To have Vilma describe to me the texture of the wine, its characteristics, then I can really imagine the pairing. That guides the way the dish is going to go, the way the sauce will finish. Being able to taste a dish and a wine side by side and talk openly from our particular point of views, it’s easy to make food from the perspective of wine. Wine is a component of the whole experience.
VM: Allison’s food is simple; there’s always balance, her flavors are elegant. As a chef, sometimes not overcomplicating things is the hardest thing to do. Similarly, I look for harmony in every wine; I look for balance. Her food speaks to my wine sensibility.
Why is wine so important to the dining experience?
DB: Wine is essential. It’s indispensable to a meal. We cannot conceive a restaurant without thinking about the wine. It’s not only a complement; it’s the satisfaction you bring to the customer. It’s a different satisfaction than you bring with food. Wine becomes more cerebral. It’s very personal. I think wine can be an emotional connection. People have memories of wine, and they want to go back to…that greatest bottle—that vintage, that bottle, that winemaker.
DJ: There is no chef that I have ever worked with that has had the same interest and respect for wine as Daniel. He understands that the experience is about the guest’s enjoyment, and the guest is there for the wine and the food.
How have consumers changed over the years?
DJ: Today the sommelier is perhaps the most influential voice in creating trends and movements because they’re really in contact [with wine drinkers]. I think the customer will go on that journey and trust them. At least today, people are willing to take that chance and try wines from all over the world.
How do you execute wine lists for both high-end and casual restaurants?
DB: DANIEL is very strong in Burgundy, Rhône, Bordeaux—I would say 60 percent of it is the French classic region. And the Champagne is fabulous. Going to DBGB, it’s about the sausage, the burgers…The food is very affordable, casual.
DJ: At a restaurant like DBGB you can really let your hair down, explore some of the more creative or innovative wine regions of the world.
Have you seen any unexpected wine pairings?
DJ: Often wine people like casual dining for a really great bottle of wine. They’ll say, “I want a burger, I want a bottle of Château Latour.” You’d be surprised.
DB: We had this customer coming to get the db Burger once a month from Baltimore. They would come to New York to have a meeting, then have lunch at db Bistro and spend $1,200 on two burgers and a bottle of wine—a great vintage.
What’s the secret to creating the perfect pairings served at your infamous wine dinners?
DJ: When you have these classic wines, the food has to be commensurate to the wine. It has to be on equal footing. So it’s not just about the wine or just about the food. It’s a partnership.
- 1Tony Mantuano & Rachael Lowe
- 2Ana Sortun (right) & Sarah Rivero
- 3Daniel Causgrove & John Mitchell
- 4Allison Jenkins & Vilma Mazaite
- 5Daniel Boulud & Daniel Johnnes