Is it possible that an area like the North Fork of Long Island could become the next serious wine region of the country? What differentiates the Napa Valley, Paso Robles and Sonoma County of California from the Willamette Valley of Oregon, Walla Walla, Washington from the Snake River Valley of Idaho, and the Finger Lakes…
Allow me to paraphrase from a really great documentary I just viewed: “Whenever you open a bottle of wine you are introduced to a year of weather, generations of history, and thousands of years of biology and geology.” With all of the discussion and interest in farm to plate, we do not pay enough homage…
It would be accurate to state that there is more to do in operating a restaurant kitchen than most any chef can effectively deal with. Writing menus, testing recipes, ordering product, connecting with farmers and vendors, hiring, training and evaluating staff, maintaining standards of sanitation and safety, monitoring production and filling in wherever needed equates to more hours than there are in a day. Yet, if the chef is not in tune with and very knowledgeable about wine, beer, distilled beverages, service, marketing, cost control and image building then their job is incomplete. The food is absolutely important, but it is only one part of the formula for a great meal.
In this article I will only touch on one of those components: wine. There are three ways to view a wine list in your restaurant: the menu drives the complementary wines you want to sell, the wine drives the type of menu you want to offer, or, the wine list is independent without real thought given to how it fits. Obviously, the first two options would be preferred, providing there are certain menu list parameters that are always considered.
The chef must be actively involved in the selection of wines that will add interest and depth to the menu being developed. To be able to do this, the chef needs a breadth of knowledge, a competent palate and the resources necessary to make an intelligent decision with wine purchases. This cannot be a front of the house decision alone, the wine footprint for your restaurant helps to build your restaurant signature and as such is part of the culinary focus.
The chef needs to understand the source for wines (country, region, vineyard, grape and terroir) just as he or she must know the source of ingredients used in building the food menu. The quality of the grape, climate, make up of the soil, and topography are just as important, if not more, than the expertise of the wine maker.
Just as a cook is trained to taste – season – taste, so too must a chef learn to sip, swish and drink wine with the foods that it will most likely accompany. It is the chef’s palate that drives a menu even after consideration for guest preferences. Each restaurant chef must know the wine list at a similar level to the food menu. What are the characteristics of a cabernet sauvignon vs. a merlot or zinfandel. When is a French Chardonnay preferred over one from Northern California. Why are Pinot Noirs from Oregon recognized as comparable to those from France and wines made from the same grape in other parts of the United States not so lucky? What makes a particular vintage so spectacular and another so-so? When are tannins a good thing and when are they not?
A chef’s food palate may take decades to fully develop, so it may take some time to build a similar palate for wine, but professionals cannot defer on this important task. When the guest arrives they are in your hands. The chef can sculpt a guest experience providing his or her breadth of knowledge goes beyond the flavor profile of that braised veal shank.
The chef may never have the scope of wine understanding of a sommelier, but he or she must be able to talk the language and stand up to decisions regarding what will be sold as an appropriate food pairing. Collaborative sessions leading to wine dinners, designation of new wine by the glass candidates and tasting sessions with clients for group events are all integral parts of a chefs job.
A reasonably expansive wine inventory in a restaurant can easily be valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Though some may be inclined to collect wine and speculate on it’s eventual inflated value, most restaurants hope to turn their wine inventory over every six to nine months. This goal requires that the chef and wine manager work together in an effort to find ways to attract enthusiasts and build complementary wine sales. Neither the front nor back of the house will reach their sales goals without collaborative understanding and marketing efforts.
There are certainly great examples of chefs who have taken this task to heart. Thomas Keller, Alice Waters, Mario Batali, Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud have sophisticated wine palates and their wine lists demonstrate this love and understanding. But, this appreciation for, and knowledge of wine should not be limited to the relatively small percentage of high-end restaurants with celebrity names behind the range. When one considers that alcoholic beverages still account for the most profitable items on a restaurant menu it behooves chefs in every full service restaurant to build a repertoire of wine knowledge and create lists that work with food in a complementary way.
Wine consumption has grown steadily over the past few decades as consumers built an appreciation for quality and became more adventurous. Even with this substantial growth, wine consumption in America pales in comparison to Europe (although wine is losing some of its attraction to younger European consumers). This demonstrates a significant opportunity in our country to build on a fresh interest in wine and its ability to balance well with food. Knowledge is power for a chef and wine should be a part of that knowledge base.
For those interested, here are a few examples of great references that can help with developing a solid wine knowledge for chefs.
WINDOWS ON THE WORLD COMPLETE WINE COURSE
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting, Training and Coaching
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Behind every great restaurant wine list is a team (sometimes just one person) with the passion for wine, depth of knowledge about the product, interest in chefs and connections throughout the wine and food world necessary to make that restaurants cellars stand out. Understanding the process of making, valuing, thoroughly tasting and pairing wine can take a lifetime to master. Those who appreciate great wine understand the role of the sommelier in top end restaurants, but even those refined “experts” need to lean on the true masters behind the scene; the individuals who touch the grapes, communicate with winemakers, take part in the blending process with owners and travel the world to create partnerships with distributors and restaurateurs in an effort to build a wines brand. These “ambassadors” for wine have made wine their lives. These are the spokespeople whom everyone in the wine industry truly listens to, the ones who help restaurants shine with those perfect pairings.
The job is not easy and requires years of study, an exceptional palette, a worldly persona, and a Rolodex of connections that would be the envy of any food professional. The individuals who have made wine marketing and wine knowledge their calling are only known to those people who depend on their skill set to bask in the restaurant headlines. Behind every great chef, restaurateur and sommelier are these troubadours of wine, the walking and talking “live” Wikipedia sources of wine knowledge, the marketers of the vineyard.
I imagine there are very few people who at an early age decide that wine will be their calling (unless of course you are born into a wine family). More often than not, they fall into this role by first having an interest or career in restaurants or maybe even agriculture (wine is, after all an agricultural product). To be truly successful, these individuals will need a very responsive palette, just like the best chefs. It is this ability to pick out the small nuances of flavor and taste that set both exceptional chefs and exceptional wine professionals apart from the rest of us.
Like chefs, these wine professionals lead a life that has its glamorous moments but through far too many weeks of 100 or so hours, takes its toll. These professionals have chosen to pay this price and must have understanding families and friends as a result. This type of commitment goes with the turf. The vineyard ambassadors do get to travel to places that most serious food people would give their right arm to see, but those who have had to travel for work, waiting in airports, moving from hotel to hotel, and dining solely on restaurant food know that even this can become a less than positive experience. Yet, without these dedicated ambassadors, your favorite restaurant wine list would lose its sparkle.
Jack Edwards is the consummate vineyard ambassador. Currently the Vice President of Sales at Somerston Wine Company in the Napa Valley. Prior to taking on this position, Jack held a similar job with Miner Family Vineyards just down the road. Jack held this position for 16 years before moving to Somerston. I have known Jack for decades; first as a hospitality student at Paul Smith’s College and then through our wine and restaurant connections over the years. Jack agreed to this interview so that you might better understand the dynamics of this position and the important role that wine plays in the restaurant business throughout the world.
1. What or who influenced you to pursue a career in food and beverage?
“Anthony Knapp Paul Smith’s College Alum and former owner of the Black Horse Inn of Mendham, New Jersey”. Anthony Knapp bought the 18th century Black Horse Tavern in 1965 and ran it for 42 years. He was known by many as Mr. Hospitality and was able to continue the reputation of this property as the restaurant “where everyone knew your name”. The property was sold in 2007.
2. Who mentored you in your pursuit of this career?
“I had a few mentors but the one who stands out is an old boss from Marriott named Joe Cozza who encouraged me to pursue a career in the beverage field.”
3. How would others describe your style of management?
“Probably laid back. Maybe sometimes too laid back, but generally effective.”
It is interesting how some people do not see themselves as strong as they are simply because they are kind and calm. My experiences with Jack (granted I did not work for him) were that through his calm demeanor it was easy to sense his competence and the respect that others had for his approach. This is a trait that so many managers are unable to master.
4. Do you have a business philosophy that drives your operational decisions? If so, can you describe this philosophy?
“Wine business is generally a social business. I try and establish great relationships and try to work with my distributors and customers as a team. There are a lot of good wines on the market. Buyers prefer to work with people they like and trust.”
Trust, as we all well know is not easy to achieve. Trust is built on actions not talk and those who are able to deliver what they promise will always attract followers. This “trust factor” is something that comes through loud and clear from all who work with Jack.
5. Can you name a particular food experience in your life that was your epiphany? An experience that stands out as the moment when you said, yes, this is what I need to do.
“For me it was a wine I tasted that changed my mind about my future. I was working an event and tasted a 1980 Simi Reserve Cabernet that changed my mind about wine. It was an experience that I won’t forget. It was a pretty good wine but the first I ever tasted that made me say wow!”
6. What is your pet peeve about working in the food and beverage industry?
“Sommeliers that buy wine that they like instead of what their customers are looking for.”
7. Who are your most valuable players in the operation where you currently work? “The Vineyard manager and Winemaker: without them we have nothing.”
Stephen Brook stated it very clearly in his book: Wine People, Vendome Press: “ Wine is more than a business, it is a culture that binds together the aristocrat and the peasant, the producer wedded to his soil and the sharp-eyed city merchant, the cautious grower and the extravagant consumer. It is a major source of conviviality. A raised glass can bring down, if only temporarily, national boundaries. Wine unites continuity and flux. It remains essentially the same product enjoyed on the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains and around the Mediterranean shores four thousand years ago and yet it is constantly evolving, steadily improving in overall quality and gradually shifting in style to meet the supposed tastes and expectations of consumers. That is what makes wine so fascinating a topic. A simple product of nature, the fruit of the vine, it is none the less molded by humankind. No two vintages are identical, giving wine its infinite variety, and even the most skilled oenologist needs to adapt his techniques from year to year to extract the very best that the vintage has to offer.”
This is why Jack’s response is so true, simple and to the point. Somerston wines are a reflection of the person growing the grapes and the skill each year of Craig Becker; Miner wines are a reflection of that uniquely different skill set of Gary Brookman and the palette of Dave Miner. Jack added: “I am lucky to have Craig as both winemaker and vineyard manager and that he and Dave both provided me with a great product to make friends with.” These are the craftsmen who place their gift of wine in the hands of ambassadors like Jack Edward’s to respect and introduce to others.
8. If you had an opportunity to provide some guiding light to young cooks, bakers or hospitality students looking to make their mark in this business, what would you tell them?
“I would tell chefs to learn a little about wine. It can change the way your food tastes; sometimes the impact is good, sometimes not. The real challenge is to know why.” The wine list in a restaurant should never be independent of the food menu. Both should be designed with the other in mind thus the importance of wine knowledge to the chef and food knowledge to the sommelier. Appropriate wine makes the food experience better.
9. When you hire people to work in your business what traits are you looking for?
“People in the wine business must be energetic, passionate and easy to like”. The truth of the matter is that in sales, a decision to buy is based to a large degree on likeability. More often than not, the purchasing decision is made at the point when the sales person introduces him/herself and shakes your hand.
10. If you were not working in food and beverage, what would you choose to do for a career?
“Golf course management.”
This is another business that requires a keen sense of hospitality, a high level of competence, and likeability.
11. What would you like people to know about your current business and the products that you produce or sell?
“Since Somerston Wine Company is new, I would just like people to taste the wines: they speak for themselves. We produce sustainably grown, hillside vineyard wines from Napa Valley.”
“The Somerston property is the foundation of everything we do. The property is 1628 acres of natural beauty, with over 200 acres of sustainably farmed vineyards, winery, and a developing ranch and farm Our two valleys are split by the highest point on Sage Canyon Road, topping out at almost 2800 feet in elevation, the valley floors rest at 800 feet above sea level. Somerston is 8 miles east of Rutherford east of the Chiles Valley appellation in Napa Valley. Its diverse soils, microclimates, and exposures are perfect for growing world-class grapes. This remarkable property has several spring fed lakes, natural soda springs, and several acres dedicated to farming of fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, and gardens.”
from Somerston Webpage
“Jack’s extensive national and international experience at Miner Family Winery will allow him to facilitate our growth plans and elevate the level of service and support to our distributors, wholesalers and importers,” noted Becker. “Jack’s extensive contacts and long-term relationships will increase market awareness of our brands. He is very well regarded throughout the industry and we share similar values. I am truly excited to welcome Jack to our team!”
Craig Becker, winemaker at Somerston
Although Somerston Wine Company produces and distributes a full portfolio of wines including Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Syrah, and Pinot Noir; it is their Cabernet Sauvignon that Jack proclaims as their signature wine.
The beauty of Facebook is the ability to follow friends and acquaintances through various stages of their professional and personal lives. I look forward to the posts from Jack as he travels the world bringing the message of wine to others. He may be in Japan this week, France the next, New York City shortly afterward, on to the South Beach Food and Wine Festival, Aspen and then back on an international flight to China. His bucket list of great restaurants is far broader than mine and he is progressing through that list at a much faster rate than I.As an ambassador, this is the price to pay.
If you are interested in wine, visit the websites of Somerston Wines and his previous employer: Miner Family Vineyards.
I am far from a wine expert, however, as is the case with many things in life – I become more knowledgeable and appreciative as the years go by. I know what I like to drink, I know which foods I enjoy with certain wines, I am very open to trying anything new, and I have become very enthralled with the people who dedicate their lives to the grape.
Case in point, although I am not that fond of white wines, I am very enthused with Sauvignon Blanc, and in particular, those grapes that wind up as a Sancerre. Having visited the town of Sancerre many times and having built some familiarity with the Loire Valley, I consider myself to be a bit of a Sancerre advocate.
I have enjoyed the privilege of tasting wines in the private cellars of noteworthy wine makers in Sancerre and in particular that of Daniel Chotard. After many years I now consider Daniel to be my friend (even though his English is almost as shaky as my French – almost). I have hosted Daniel and his wife in Saranac Lake, have worked diligently with my other French friends: the Weissberg’s – to get Chotard’s wine on regional lists, and have had the pleasure of breaking bread in various bistros throughout the Loire with Daniel and a cadre of enthusiastic chefs and wine afficandos.
I read the following review of Chotard’s Sancerre; in this case a 2009, by the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker:
“90 points Wine Spectator: “Super fresh, with lots of chive, fleur de sel, lime and chalk notes backed by a strong flinty note on the bracing finish, which really stretches out. Drink now.” (12/10) 89 points Parker’s Wine Advocate: “Daniel Chotard’s 2009 Sancerre is diversely scented and flavored with papaya, grapefruit, cassis, and passion fruit. A distinctly saline overlay – along with bright acids – helps convey a sense of invigoration and refreshment and offsets the relatively bitter cast to a persistently zesty finish. I suspect this will be best enjoyed over the next 12-18 months.” (08/10)
Not a bad review; one that certainly would help Daniel move his wine into certain American restaurant circles, however it really doesn’t tell the whole story. There is something else about wine that is more social that taste, flavor and aroma. Certainly anyone who enjoys Sauvignon Blanc would find Chotard’s to be quite exceptional, but to me it is impossible to separate the wine from the person.
Daniel Chotard, and now his son to follow, is 100% dedicated to the grape and his wine. Whether it is Chotard, Mondavi, or Helen Turley, that passion is what really makes a wine sing. Whatever the situation, it is the grape that comes first. To a wine maker caring for the grape is comparable to caring for a child. It requires so much time, knowledge, passion and luck, that it becomes quite apparent that the wine maker must pass on some of his/her own characteristics to the end product. Just as a parent influences how the child evolves and the type of person they become, so too does the grape reflect this caring relationship.
Daniel Chotard is a wonderful, hard-working, dedicated, caring person who in turn produces a wine of unique character. As is the case with those who are as dedicated to wine making, as a chef is dedicated to cuisine, Chotard represents all that is right in the world of wine.
I would certainly encourage anyone who can find a bottle or two of Chotard Sancerre to saver it, but more importantly I would encourage you to plan a trip to the Loire and pay my friend a visit. I guarantee the wine will become more than a great beverage, it will become a reflection of the man and a memory for life.
Harvest America Ventures will be planning a Educational Adventure Wine Vacation to France in September of 2013. Daniel Chotard is one of the program contributors. Visit our website for more details as they unfold:
click on Wine Vacations
In the fall of 2013, Harvest America Ventures, in partnership with The Weissberg Family of Paris and Chef Sarah Steffan of the Lake Placid Lodge, will present a vacation opportunity of a lifetime.
Unlike most wine tours that focus primarily on tasting, this educational wine immersion program is designed for wine lovers, restaurant professionals, cooks and chefs, those who appreciate the connection between wine and culture, and adventure tourists who are drawn to the beauty of Burgundy, France.
Participants will tour regional vineyards and wineries, walk the vineyards and touch the vines, chat with wine makers and renown chefs, taste various wines from the rich regions of Loire and Burgundy, visit Middle Age and Renaissance castles, enjoy the aromas and flavors of traditional French food, become a part of French village life, enjoy the musical talents of a renown French pianist, and bike through the most picturesque and peaceful French countryside.
Your home base for the wine experience will be a 16th century stone building: “The Maison des Adirondacks” in Entrains sur Nohain, France. This beautiful property is in close proximity to Beaune, Vezelay, Sancerre, Pouilly sur Loire, Chablis and Auxerre.
All of your meals, in-country transportation, wine tastings, classes, immersion activities, and lodging are included in the price of the week long, life-experience.
Watch for additional details as they unfold by checking our website at: http://www.harvestamericaventures.com. The anticipated dates at this point are September 23-29, 2013. Mark your calendars! The program is limited to four couples (8 persons) this year.
Harvest America Ventures, LLC