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 was saving money to go back to Grad school for Printmaking in Glasgow, Scotland, waiting tables to make the dough. Just about when I had saved enough cash for one year of tuition (and was ready to take the plunge), I got really interested in wine. Believe it or not, the first winery I ever visited was Peachy Canyon, producer of many a fine Red Zinfandel (wines we Somms all hate on). Just goes to show, don’t be a hater. I also like to drink and read, and have no qualms about doing these two things in unison, alone.
Being a sommelier seems like one of the most fun jobs in the world, but there is a decidedly academic dimension to this line of work. What is the most fun part of the job for you? What do you find most challenging?
The fun part? Mentoring, turning entry-level green-ear types into Jedi masters. An ancillary benefit of this business is the stories we have about work and play. One of the biggest rubs of the business [is] constantly relying on those who, by definition, possess less of a long-term commitment to the craft or business at hand. I am not judging or faulting, but it’s a fact. Having a bottomless well of motivation and inspiration can get exhausting. Additionally, I cannot, under any circumstances, take my dog to work. I explain this to her every day, yet she still tilts her intelligent black Labrador head (sideways), expressing her thorough disapproval each time I leave the house.
Tell us a little bit about how you see your interaction with a chef. What’s your favorite dance with the godhead who cooks?
I spend a good amount of time in our kitchens. I used to work in kitchens as a kid, and I feel comfortable there, jumping in to help expo, run food, and coordinate firing times. That being said, I like it when I have a good run of a few weeks when there is no threat of “face-melting” from an irate chef about some front-of-house shenanigan. In general, I seem to get along with chefs, I imagine because I bring them tasty drinks. It’s a cheap and dirty road to success, but I’ll take it every time.
Tell us something that would surprise our viewers and readers.
Fire Island kicks ass. Keep thinking it’s “all gay” though. More beach for me.
Wine and spirits related, you ask? I believe anyone can do this. It’s like fine arts. Human beings have a natural inclination to describe and relate to the world around them. Some draw, some write, some sing, some destroy…. I believe being a wine and spirit enthusiast is the same--you simply have to find the right approach. Putting up with the restaurant biz? That’s another story.
Can you give us a recommendation of a wine or spirit you are in love with for this holiday season?
I am a strong advocate of white wines which pair well with seasonal meats and such, Alsatian whites in particular. Unless it’s red meat, there is no reason not to consider an Alsatian wine if the selections have the necessary depth. Bottles of Donson & Lepage Blanc de Noirs drunk straight to dome also make for a happy, happy bear.
What booze do you think is a fail-safe, inexpensive buy every time?
Rum! It’s so cheap for how delicious it is. El Dorado 15 (Guyana), Santa Theresa 1796 (Venezuela), Mount Gay XO (Barbados)… the value is just silly, and aged Rum makes amazing fall/winter/holiday cocktails.
What’s the best advice for your restaurant patrons vis-à-vis interacting with a sommelier?
Be as straight forward as possible. Be nice. We want to make the absolute perfect decision every time, for every single diner, and we put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves to do so! Please don’t be intimidated--every single one of us knew jack shit at one point.
If I weren’t a sommelier, I would be a __________.
printmaker, a dog trainer, a third or fourth line winger for the Rangers, a politician, or the next food critic for the New York Times (Seriously, I kind of want to do this and think I would be great at it…)!
What is your favorite late-night bite?
New York Noodletown! Keep it classic San Diego.
What is your favorite food and drink pairing?
Oh man, so many… Lately it’s been Kabinett Riesling with Sausage/Pancake German breakfast.
What is your favorite thing between two buns?
Coming soon to Madison Square Garden… Sausage Boss changes the game.