When it comes to food and wine pairing, there’s a mantra that is repeated by sommeliers everywhere: Versatility. Sommeliers favor grape varieties that lend themselves to multiple wine styles and those that possess an abundance of natural acidity. They opt for lighter tannins in red wines or powerful wines with less influence from new oak and often give an extra nod to wines that are made relatively low in alcohol. If food is being considered, varieties that work well with the restaurant’s style of cuisine are also likely to find a place on the menu.
Many guests are more likely to experiment when the pairing comes recommended by the sommeliers. “It’s a scenario that we see fairly often,” says Joseph Phillips, master sommelier and sommelier at Michael Mina at the 3,933-room Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. “Guests who don’t typically order white wines are more than willing to experiment when we pair them with a tasting menu.”
Michael Flynn, wine director at Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, sees similar reactions time and again. Customers who often choose heavy reds are often surprised how well some of the suggested pairings work. “The wine pairings on our tasting menus are chosen to create a broader range of experiences.”
While grape varieties and wine styles may fall in and out of fashion, it often takes opinion leaders to convince their customers to try new wines. Sommeliers and well-trained staff serve as gatekeepers who not only speed the adoption of lesser-known and under-utilized grapes and styles, but they also cultivate customer loyalty for their favorite domestic and international wine regions.
Chris Deegan, wine director at Nopa, a restaurant focused on organic cuisine, in San Francisco, confirms, “If the staff like [the wine], people will listen to them and drink it.” Likewise, Bobby Stuckey, the powerhouse master sommelier behind Frasca, created as a tribute to the food of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, in Boulder, Colorado, took his entire staff to Friuli, in Northeastern Italy, and has since successfully sold a fair amount of the region’s esoteric white wine.
Here’s a closer look at some of these top sommeliers’ pet regions and grapes and why they are so passionate about them.
Long a proponent of the Italian food and wine aesthetic, which dictates that what grows together goes together, one of Bobby Stuckey’s favorite varietal wines is Nebbiolo, which he knows is often challenging for the American palate. “Most of the world-class red wines we’re drinking whether they are domestic or imported, have been aged in small oak barriques,” he observes. “That’s not always the case for Nebbiolo, some of the greatest wines never see new wood….and without food, they can seem to be more tannic.” He’s educated his clientele about Nebbiolo and the Piedmonte region of Northwest Italy through exposure to winemakers at the restaurant and sells a lot of the wine at Frasca. “Our clientele has fallen in love with Nebbiolo; it’s a very different animal, one that’s high acid and higher in tannin and alcohol with lots of aromatics.”
In pairing wines with chef Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson’s Northern Italian cuisine, Stuckey gravitates towards fresher, vibrant wine styles and he has a great respect for traditional pairings. “Some of the great pairings have been around forever and they’re a good reason for knowing the basics inside and out.”
There’s still plenty of room for innovation at Frasca, which offers a contemporary take on the hospitality and cuisine of Northern Italy. “Wine styles evolve and the Piedmontese have improved modern Nebbiolo in the same way that we tweak traditional dishes.” Stuckey likes to pair veal and beef dishes with Italian reds like Nebbiolo. “There’s a lightness to Barbaresco [also made from Nebbiolo] that is elegant and pretty. This is food wine and dishes centered on beef work to sweeten up and lengthen the tannins.”
For the last several years, Stuckey has made an annual pilgrimage to Friuli with up to twenty members of his staff, a practice that is an exception when it comes to training. “We were open nine months before we made our first trip and without it, the restaurant would not have survived.” The trip enabled the staff to get to know and describe the food and wine pairings as Frasca’s menu remaines largely unfamiliar even to Americans who have traveled in Italy. “Americans are not familiar with Northern Italian culture because they rarely venture beyond Venice.”
Nopa, San Francisco
One of the first things you notice about Nopa, which gets its name from the acronym used to describe the restaurant’s north of the Panhandle location, is the role that the beverage program plays in its success. Whether it’s beer, wine or cocktails, drinks are a vital part of the dining experience and can be seen at almost every table.
Wine director Chris Deegan is influencing a generation of younger palates and has a strong industry following of chefs and restaurant workers who frequent Nopa’s late-night hours. Deegan points to Chenin Blanc as one of the single most versatile wines on his list. “Nothing tastes like French Chenin,” he says of the Loire Valley wine, “its typicity is hard for other varieties to duplicate and it’s made in styles that pair well with virtually everything from very hearty to light dishes.”
Gamay is another variety that over delivers in Deegan’s estimation. “Gamay is a versatile, low-alcohol red wine that acts like a white wine,” He says. His list offers several Beaujolais Crus, none that top $57 including Fleurie, Chénas and Moulin-à-Vent which he considers a good alternative to Pinot Noir. “You can drink the very best Gamay for $60.”
Deegan pairs a Gamay-based wine like Fleurie–named after the village where it is produced—with roasted rabbit loin and lighter meats from Nopa’s wood-fired menu. His eclectic list emphasizes small producers that respect the restaurant’s philosophy of “under promise and over deliver.” He explains that, “We list wines from most of the well-known, high-profile regions but we try to focus on the smaller, family-run domaines within these areas.”
Wine plays an important role in differentiating Nopa in San Francisco’s competitive dining scene. “Whether you’re sitting at the bar or dining, my goal is to create a defining wine moment and a memorable meal.” For Deegan, getting his staff excited about these wines is essential to influencing guests. “We have weekly staff tastings where we open a few bottles off of the list, taste through them and talk about them. We discuss why they are on the list, how they will go with food, and what gets us excited about them.” In short, Deegan and his staff hand sell their favorites by being on the floor and interacting with guests and it’s an approach that ultimately works. “We’re selling a lot of [wine].”
Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, Dallas
Michael Flynn accepted the position of wine director for Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek just as the property embarked on a two-year renovation of the 127-room hotel which was completed this year. Flynn reoriented the famous cellar with more emphasis on Spanish reds and southern Rhône wines to better reflect the culinary vision of Chef Bruno Davaillon whose repertoire at the Mansion Restaurant focuses on American cuisine with French influences. He also added more Riesling and Grüner Veltliner and beefed up selections of Chablis, other Loire Valley whites and unusual Spanish whites.
Flynn finds Grüner Veltliner in dry, almost peppery styles to be a versatile, savory white that pairs well with the spring vegetables like asparagus, artichokes, root vegetables and celery leaf found in Davaillon’s seasonal cuisine. “Vegetables require restraint; artichokes are perfectly balanced of themselves and pungent wines can make them assertive,” He explains. For reds, Flynn prefers a more forgiving tannin structure and likes cool climate Pinot Noirs from the extreme Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley wines that have a vivid expression of fruit with some earth and spice as well.
With a 30-year tradition of fine dining, the Mansion Restaurant’s clientele has gotten steadily more open to experimenting. Flynn helps manage their wine experiences by offering guests a glass of crisp Champagne while they select their meal. “This encourages them to consider wines that will compliment the food they are eating and gives us an opportunity to guide them in their choices.” Flynn has succeeded in selling lesser-known wines by pairing them with the chef’s tasting menu, a place where he has total say in what works best with each dish. As a result, “the staff learns more about these selections and why they work so well with the food. In time, they recommend them on their own.”
With a large percentage of return clientele, Flynn and his staff are often asked to select wine pairings. “We know that we’ve established a level of trust that let’s us be creative and create an element of surprise for the guest. That’s what I consider the ultimate compliment.”
Michael Mina at Bellagio, Las Vegas
Joseph Phillips is one of four master sommeliers at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, a property that employs the most sommeliers with this qualification and for good reason.
“Our guests are really looking for direction,” says Phillips. With the restaurant’s signature tasting menu offering a trio of tastes based on a single main ingredient for each course, Phillips often relies on three different wines made from the same variety but with very different flavors. “Riesling is probably one of the most versatile grapes on the planet,” he said. “It reflects the terroir where it is grown and is made in a multitude of styles from bone dry to super sweet and everything in between.” Germany, Australia, Washington and New York States are Phillips’ primary sources for this variety and he likes the different flavor profiles found in each region.
When it comes to educating the staff about these wines, Phillips likes to present a global picture. “I recently conducted a comparative tasting of Rieslings from Germany, Alsace, Washington and Australia for the staff of Michael Mina’s Las Vegas restaurants. Tasting the wines side by side provides a very clear picture of the different flavor profiles of Riesling grown in different parts of the world.”
A pairing that illustrates the success of his mono-varietal approach is a trio of crudos titled “Roots, Shoots and Fruits” that is composed of fluke with nori and sesame seeds, sea salt aioli and shaved radishes paired with a Clare Valley Riesling; Hamachi and red beet pickle garnished with roasted beets, frozen grapes and sorrel with a Mosel Kabinet or Spätlese that has just the right level of ripeness and residual sugar for the dish; Snapper seasoned with fresh wasabi, diced cucumber, micro cilantro, sweet lemon geleé and wasabi Tobiko with a German Beerenauslese.
“Even without the tasting menus, the dishes for most tables are all over the map,” states Phillips. “I’m looking for wines that will work with shellfish, meat and vegetables and in most cases, the sauces are going to dictate the direction for the wine.”