Sommelier Spotlight: Atlanta

What cities across the U.S. have the most vibrant, up-and-coming wine scenes?  This time around, the Guild takes a look at the emerging scene in Atlanta through the eyes of five of the city's top sommeliers.  

Why Atlanta?  In the words of Eric Crane, one of the city's (tireless) advocates: "Few cities in the country offer the same diversity of dining and drinking choices as Atlanta does.  While Atlanta is “smack dab” in the middle of a part of the country known for its traditional stance on being anti-alcohol, the city has emerged (as it always seems to) from this mindset.  While there have been successful and highly regarded local restaurant groups dating back to the 1970s, the real explosion happened in the early 1990s during the lead-up to the Centennial Olympic Games in 1996.  For a few years in the late 90s, Atlanta actually had more restaurants per capita than cities like New York and Chicago.  We’re still pretty high on the list.  That time around the Olympics also led to an increase in the diversity of wines, spirits, and beers that were available to the drinking public.  The city has always allowed for growth, and despite the economy it seems that there is always a new place to grab a drink or glass of wine.  The past five years have seen a boom in the restaurant scene with shows like Top Chef making many chefs “household names”.  Looking outside of the kitchen, wine programs, sommeliers, and mixologists in the city have become equally famous from critical recognition, competitions, and creativity.  Most importantly, there is a greater focus on service and education being offered by the beverage directors of Atlanta.  Instead of a competition, it has become a community.  There’s a movement in Atlanta right now, and we’re proud to be a part of it." 

Should your city be next?

Featured below are Steven Grubbs, Wine Director of Empire State South and Five and Ten; Justin Amick, GM and Wine Director of the Spence; Matt Bradford, Wine Director of Canoe; Jacob Gragg, Sommelier at Aria; and Linda Torres Alarcón, Sommelier at the Ritz Carlton Buckhead. 

What are the current wine- or beverage-related trends or fads in Atlanta right this minute?

Steven: Cocktails and craft beer, all day long, and neck-and-neck to matter most.  Wine is a distant third.  Trying to change that.  We are starting to feel like we are closing the gap, at least.

Matt: The current trend in Atlanta is for restaurants to have smaller, focused wine lists with a LOT of by the glass options.  Some restaurants have limited their selection to a specific country or region (i.e. Spain or Southern Italy) and offer 50-75 wines.  This can be a great way to introduce new wines to guests as they are forced out of their comfort zones.

Linda: Restaurant concepts are taking their beverage programs way more seriously over the last 4 years. Craft cocktail lists, boutique spirits, and interesting wine/beer lists have now become the norm for local proprietors.

For $100 or less, what is your favorite wine to sell to fellow sommeliers?

Matt: André Perret St. Joseph Rouge for $60.  André Perret took over just 1/2 an acre in the Northern Rhône in 1982 and has expanded production significantly in the last twenty years.  His wines are relatively non-interventionist, and while he is best known for Condrieu, his St. Joseph rouge is one of the best values in the Rhône.

Justin: Its so warm right now in the ATL, so I like serving sommeliers some super bright whites, like Jacques Puffeney Savagnin 2007 for $56.  It has the most unusually delicious aromas of blanched marcona almonds and really reminds me of fino sherry.  It is potently nutty and savory due to the partial oxidation it is allowed prior to bottling.  Puffeney is one of the legendary producers of the Jura region of France, which is famous for oxidative styles like Vin de Paille and Vin Jaune.  Savagnin is part of the Traminer family.  I also am loving the Cave du Vieux Moulin Amigne 2010 from Vétroz in the Valais region of Switzerland, for $70.  It is arguably the greatest Swiss grape from Romain Papilloud.  I believe there were only 110 acres planted in 2009.  The Valais boasts two millennia of grape-growing experience--Vitis aminea is mentioned in the writings of Columella in De Re Rustica.  Amigne is generally full and aromatic with an abundance of stone and citrus fruit, herbs, and nuts; the grapes are typically dried before pressing.

Steven: 2011 Domaine du Bagnol Cassis Rosé, $56.  The rosé fad can only get so played-out as long as pink wines this pleasurable continue to exist.

Jacob: I love to sell other sommeliers the wines that I really truly love to drink. Number one on my list is Secco Ca'del Merlo (labeled as Bianco Secco everywhere but the US), the white wine produced by Guiseppe Quintarelli. It is a delicious Garganega-based blend that also features Trebbiano di Soave, Sauvignon, and Chardonnay. The wine is an intensely aromatic mineral driven wine that shows extremely well after a few years of bottle age. After the passing of Giuseppi Quintarelli in January of this year we wanted to feature one of his wines by the glass and the Bianco Secco was a great choice--it allowed us to tell the story of this amazing winemaker to many guests who would have otherwise never experienced his wines.

Linda: We have an incredible half bottle selection at the Ritz Carlton Buckhead. Right now the favorites are Chateau d’Epire Savennières 2001, 375ml ($55) and Mongeard-Mugneret Vosne-Romanee 2002, 375ml ($89).

How do you approach selecting wines for your program?

Justin: For my current list at The Spence, I only select wines that I truly find unique and interesting.  I love wines with balance and acidity.  I actually list my wines in a natural progression of acidity on the wine menu.  For my "Tried & True" section the wines must demonstrate varietal typicity and classic grape markers.  For my "Leap of Faith" section the wine has to ignite just enough curiosity to be a talking point, so my staff can actually sell these more obscure and esoteric selections.  I love to curate wines that have great stories behind them, whether it relates to the vineyard, vintage, grape, or winemaker.  I find it so much easier to sell wines in general (and especially so for more adventurous selections) when you have a story to tell about that wine.

Matt: I generally choose wine that I like.  There is not a lot of Barossa Shiraz or Paso Robles Zinfandel on my list as a result.  However, I like a range of wines so the I don’t feel that the list gets too out of balance.  In addition, I try to maintain wines that pair well with our menu and offer value.  I borrow a trick from Rajat Parr: I taste wine without the prices and pick a price point in my head for what I think the wine should cost.  If the actual price is much higher then I almost always pass on the wine.  If it comes in about the same or lower than it is much easier to buy.

What do you consider the most (and least) important aspects of wine service?

Matt: Proper wine service is very complicated.  I believe that proper mis en place is the most important part of service.  For example, a clean wine coaster, a clean serviette, a sharp wine key, and an appropriate decanter are essential to perform correct wine service.  The least important aspect of wine service in my opinion is presentation of the cork.  This has become increasingly irrelevant over time as producers have moved to screw-caps.  In addition, many consumers are confused as what to do with the cork.  A slight fault with the cork that has no effect on the wine can cause a bottle to be returned for insufficient reasons, and a perfectly good cork is all to often picked up and smelled when the guest should be focusing on the wine. 

Justin: The most important aspect of service to me is listening to your guest.  It's all about extracting information to best service your guests when selecting a pairing or bottle.  Often times sommeliers get too caught up with themselves and what they are excited about, instead of listening to what will make that individual guest and palate happy.  I also think rationing of wine is extremely important.  I see it too often--a bottle is burned so quickly due to improper over-pouring and inefficient allocating of the juice.  To me, the least important aspect of service is carrying everything to the table on a tray.  In my restaurants, we want to give the same level of traditional wine service without all of the formalities and pretention.  If my staff can look polished and graceful while performing the sequence of service, that is all I care about.  I find that tray service slows us down.

What is your barometer for the guest experience?

Justin: I don't have a specific barometer per se for my customers' experience.  I rate my performance and my staff's performance by happy guests.  There is nothing better than a guest that calls you over to the table to tell you how much they enjoyed my wine selection, or pairing, or my list in general.  It also doesn't hurt to see good sales numbers--high wine sales are a nice, profitable validation that we are doing something right.

Linda: We move heaven and earth for our guests.

Steven: If I've done my job correctly then the guests start acting like normal, warm, open human beings who are smart and interested in the details of this stuff they are paying good money for.  Usually I'll tell a weird oblique story about a wine.  Sometimes they return in kind about some other experience.  If this is what's going on then I know they're having a great time.

Matt: The highest compliment to my wine program is the guest that tells me that he or she finds it difficult to choose a wine because of all of the interesting selections.  Whenever I visit a restaurant where there are not many options that I want to drink, I assume the person writing the list doesn’t like wine very much.

Currently, what is the best cocktail your establishment is pouring?

JustinMy favorite cocktail on our list right now is a spin on the classic Sazerac.  We call it "the Methodist", and make it with a house grapefruit-infused rye whiskey, peychaud's bitters, a smoke rinse, and a marshmallow absinthe cube.

Jacob: I love a cocktail we are currently doing called "Clear Silence", a slight variation on the Last Word. We mix equal parts Chartreuse, Luxardo Maraschino, Lime Juice and White Whiskey. It's delicious in the warm southern weather we have right now, but is equally great in the colder times as well! 

Steven: It's called "Allons-y!", and it has strawberry-infused Death's Door Gin, Aperol, Dolin Blanc, and soda.  Super simple but delicious.  We were hand-bottling it there for a minute.  Then they recalled the bottling machine, ostensibly because it was exploding and injuring its tender human handlers.

In a wine-related setting, what has been your strangest customer request?

Matt: I had a gentleman call to make sure that a special bottle would be available for his upcoming dinner.  He wanted first growth Bordeaux, specifically Rothschild.  However, he was unfamiliar with the difference between or existence of two Rothschild wines: Mouton and Lafite.  He wanted a great vintage: either 1982,1999 or 2005.  I offered the 1999 Mouton-Rothschild from our cellar which was priced fairly at $785 and he stated that he wanted something better.  I told him that I could acquire a 2005 that would be priced at $1800.  While the 1999 vintage was not to the level of 2005, the gentleman was choosing simply on price as I feel the 1999 would probably be drinking better at that point.  For a lot more money I got him a wine that was probably not drinking as well.  Go figure.

Linda: A guest once asked me to add Rose’s Grenadine to a glass of Chardonnay.

When you are off work, where in town do you go for wine, beer, or cocktails?

Jacob: We are lucky to have a lot of great places in Atlanta for late night food and drinks. Some of my favorites are H&F Public House, Octopus Bar, Fellini's Pizza, and this crazy little Mediterranean place called Cafe Agora.

Matt: Tomo is the best for sushi and sake.  I go to Leon’s Full Service for the best cocktails in Atlanta.  Aria is the best place for a nice dinner out.  But most of the time, we go closer to home and casual: El Jinete is the hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant that we visit most frequently.

Steven: Most often probably this bar called The Bookhouse Pub.  It's Twin Peaks-themed.  And I'm like, "You had me at 'Twin Peaks-themed'".

Linda: Top Floor, The Spence, Leon’s Full Service, Cibo e Beve…

What is your guilty pleasure when it comes to wine, beer, or spirits?

Steven: An ice-cold, dumb, corn-fed Budweiser, either in a can from an environment-unfriendly styrofoam cooler or out of a frosty draft mug in a dying chain restaurant at happy hour; preferably with fried seafood which was recently in the deep freeze.  It's good the way Steely Dan is.

Jacob: I don't know how guilty of a pleasure it is, but I love beer, all kinds of beer. I have a different beer just about every night. My go to style is Flanders Red Ales, I love them!

Linda: Fernet Branca, Fernet Branca, Fernet Branca.

Justin: New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is definitely a guilty pleasure of mine.  Its the farthest thing in the world from what I typically enjoy or display on my lists, but there is something really refreshing about drinking an ice-cold glass of NZ Sauvignon Blanc on a hot day by the pool or beach, or on the patio.

What measures do you take to improve yourself as a sommelier?

Matt: I blind taste with our tasting group at least once and often twice a week.  I try to travel to new wine regions as often as possible.  Nothing beats actually going to the wine region to gain perspective.  I read a lot too.  If I’m not reading about wine then it is often about sake or coffee or cocktails. 

Justin: I try and make myself a better wine and service professional every day by learning something new each day.  Knowledge is power--in anything in life--and the more knowledge that I can take in the better I'm going to make everyone around me, including my staff and customers.  I try and set aside at least an hour out of my day to read about some sort of wine, beverage, region, law, or anything that can improve my overall beverage knowledge.  Its always fun to add another stack to my mountainous display of notecards that I live with.  I study wine as if I'm taking the Masters exam tomorrow and I think that will continue to do so, even if I'm ever lucky enought to wear the red pin.  I'm also lucky enough to be in the best tasting group in the country.  We have a great group of talented and humble sommeliers that are all trying to make each other (and ourselves) better, as we share the same ultimate goal of wearing the red pin.  Becoming a Master Sommelier is a task that cannot be taken on without the support and motivation of others with the same goals and ambitions. 

Steven: Read as much as possible.  And not just about wine itself, but about anything that might come up: history, botany, philosophy, everything.  Then figure out how to boil that stuff down into utilizable forms.  Tools in the bag.  This becomes a constant stream of surprisingly relevant material with which to increase the scaffolding being built in your brain.  If you know the Pythagorean theorem then the fact that Pythagoras is from Samos somehow makes Samos Muscat more interesting.  I don't know why this is the case.  I guess the mind likes making associations.  It helps the world feel smaller, more manageable.  A working, living system, and not bare chaos.  I think maybe chaos is the sommelier's enemy. 

What does your relationship with Eric Crane mean to you?

Jacob: Eric Crane is the sunshine of my life.

Steven: Trust-falls and ropes courses.

Matt Bradford

Linda Torres Alarcón

Jacob Gragg

Steven Grubbs

Justin Amick

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