One wine professional's epiphany: Go your own way

The author in 1995: one of our yearly "Barrel Zinfandel" nights (this one enhanced with a local reggae band in the dining room of the original Roy's Restaurant in Honolulu); re Not Your Daddy's Zin

A rewrite of one of my Bottom Line columns originally published in The SOMM Journal:

Everyone probably has a seminal moment – an epiphany, or sudden clarity of vision.

As a sommelier, mine came in early 1989; after over 10 years of managing wine programs in classic French restaurants and tableside service steakhouses. I’d done the wine lists steeped in French crus and gobs of California wine – and man, I was bored. I had also just begun to work for a chef named Roy Yamaguchi, who infused Asian ingredients – and hot, sour, salty, sweet, bitter and umami laced sensations – in every dish, even with classic French sauces or Latin vinaigrettes. 

I was being challenged, and needed inspiration. So I went to Provence and Italy, ostensibly to immerse myself in more mature culinary cultures. My first stops were Bandol and Cassis; because I'd always loved the wines there, and longed to smell the air and absorb the traditions. This was a followed by a harrowing drive to Tuscany (crazy drivers who don't stay in the lanes), where one of my first meals was at one of those rustic country restaurants in the Chianti region.

The author in 1999 with acclaimed winemaker Riccardo Cotarella in Umbria, source of white and red "house wines" for Roy's restaurants

My hosts were a large local family, not involved in the wine industry; and they ordered the usual litany of Tuscan dishes – crostini with liver paté, white beans in olive oil, tortellini in broth, béchamel laden lasagne, braised chard, rosemary roasted boar, tripe in piquant tomato sauce, and at least a half-dozen more – with which we drank bottle after bottle of a deliciously light, edgy Chianti. The wine flowed effortlessly with each and every course, more like a condiment enhancing each dish, and aiding in the digestion.

Needing a breather, I walked out onto the restaurant veranda for some fresh air; and turning my eyes away for a second from the spectacular view of rolling, green Tuscan hills, I saw hundreds of empty bottles of the Chianti we were drinking, stacked in trays like Coca-Cola bottles against the wall.  I asked my host standing next to me, “Say, is this the only wine they serve here?”  “Of course,” he said, “it’s the local wine, it goes with everything... why drink anything else?”

And it suddenly dawned upon me: what an ideal restaurant wine list! One wine, which goes with everything, has a great price, and is probably as predictably profitable as it gets – why do we even bother with the big, convoluted wine lists we do at home, where most of the time guests don’t even end up with the ideal wines for what they’re eating?

In Umbria's Sportoletti estate; a favorite producer of Grechetto and Sangrantino

I was convinced I found the path, so I seized it upon my return home: implementing my own program of strictly short wine lists (at first, never more than 75 selections), chosen specifically for food (our cuisine), preferably in the $30-$60 range. “Classic” restaurant wines? I could never see the point in, say, Bordeaux (too leathery), Burgundy (too expensive), or Cabernet Sauvignon (too wannabe). 

Call it what you will, but if you came to one of my restaurants, you drank what enhanced your food, not so much what you might have read about in the latest consumer wine magazine. Over the years, I would cross the oceans time and time again in search of more ideal wines for our purposes – finding wines made from grapes like Biancolella in Ischia, Grechetto in Umbria, Rieslings in the Pfalz, Baroque in South-West France's Tursan, Cannonau in Sardinia, Rolle in Corsica, and on and on. A long, strange, satisfying trip.

This was the 1990s, mind you, when consumers were still hung up on Chardonnay and White Zinfandel. Yes, I was often asked, what's up with the strange wines (Kermit Lynch once described our selections as the "dangerous" wines)? I'd always say, these wines are not strange where they come from. In fact, they are more like "everyday." Sambal and papaya may be exotic to someone from Corsica or Germany, but we would never hesitate to recommend our everyday foods to anyone from there. Besides, of course, we were "Roy's," where we still had to take the time to explain ingredients in our dishes. It was never a big jump having to explain wines on our lists.

When we were young (Jan. 1990): with Roy's staff following celebration of our first year anniversary

But somehow we prevailed – our guests drank mostly Pinot Noir or Pinot Gris, not Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. Sure it might have taken some wheedling, but it was that first experience in Italy that gave us the courage to do the right thing for us, for our cuisine. It must have worked, because we eventually opened more than 30 more “Roy’s” restaurants, from Tokyo to New York.

What does this have to do with you?  Maybe nothing, except for the fact that if you are a working sommelier looking to shine in your own light, the best possible advice I can give you is to find your own path. You may have mentors, or colleagues you respect; but unless they have exact same job as you, chances are they cannot determine the style of wine list that works best for you – for your cuisine, your sales objectives, and your motivations as a wine professional.

Don’t do what I did, and don’t do what anyone else tells you you’re supposed to be doing. But unless you’re going your own way, chances are you’re not really achieving something special.

More 1999: Roy's New York opening party with Chuck Furugya MS and Joshua Wesson


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"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk"... specializing in wine as a restaurateur, retailer, wine judge, journalist, frequent flyer and mental traveler. But to me, wine is a food like a rose is a rose. So why all the fuss? Currently: Editor-at-Large/Bottom Line Columnist, The SOMM Journal; Contributing Editor, The Tasting Panel. Awards: Sante's Wine & Food Professional of the Year (1998); Restaurant Wine's Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 & 1999); Academy of Wine Communications (commendation) for Excellence in Wine Writing and Encouragement of Higher Industry Standards; Electoral College Member, Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone.