Sommelier Spotlight: Seattle

"Put simply, the Seattle sommelier scene in 2012 is as dynamic as any in the world. Local favoritism aside, when compared with the great gastronomic cities of New York or Paris or Tokyo or San Francisco (et al.), this sleepy Pacific Northwest “Big Town/Small City” features (on an entirely different scale, mind you) as fine a combination of wine service, beverage scene, food stuff access, chef talent and consumer base as any of them. What we lack at the 'haute-est' levels or in pure saturation of numbers, we make up for with authenticity, humility and appropriate levels of wine service sophistication.

At the heart of the sommelier scene is a relation to a guest (not to mention fellow sommelier) base small enough to force consistent service on a personal level; the skills formed in learning such an array of tastes and figuring out how to exceed expectations again and again cannot be understated.  Given that our concentration of increasingly wine savvy, big industry money (Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon, Starbucks…) and everyday gastronomes attracts the best producers in the world, we are more exposed to the global scene than one might think. Having a local wine production region in the Columbia Valley, which is capable of fantastic, food-friendly, world-class wines, swells pride and creates organic an connection from vineyard to bottle that translates tableside. Our farmers market and our local foodstuffs (oysters, Dungeness crab, salmon, cherries, Walla Walla onions, peaches, Honeycrisp apples, lamb…) inspire with purity and freshness. Chefs (local and from afar) discover a well-heeled, humble market yearning for a lasting impression, and cooking abilities rise. Life style is, on average, very high (once one gets over 9 months of drizzle, no small feat). Trends arrive late and at a lesser pace, with less pomp in delivery and reception, allowing for a longer, more sustainable focus on authentic product and service. Lastly, the slightest of shoulder chips at being just beyond most mainstream, ultra-influential sommelier communities and media outlets creates a jovial gang of brothers-and-sisters-in-beverage-service-arms, driven to show that we belong on any restaurant floor in the world.

Larry Stone MS can recount tales of the Red Cabbage in the early 1980s, and maybe mention a few other restaurants featuring sommeliers at that time. Like every gastronomic scene around the world, the importance and emergence of beverage sales, the resultant investment of our restaurant community in their beverage programs (Canlis Restaurant, Wild Ginger, Seastar, The Herbfarm…), and an accomplished set of wine folk finds us with 20 times the number of dedicated beverage service professionals these days. Rob Bigelow MS, Joseph Linder MS, Erik Liedholm, this writer: we can all point to moments that defined and redefined Seattle’s ascension to the top tier of the sommelier industry in skill and content. What will keep it there will be the willingness of current leaders (see below) to not forget where we have come from, or where we can go, based upon the simplest of drives: exceed the customers’ expectations via a combination of empathy, passion, ability and grace."

-Shayn Bjornholm MS

Featured below are James Lechner, GM/Wine Director of Bastille Cafe and Bar; Dawn Smith, GM/Wine Director of Cafe Juanita; Lisa Rongren, Wine Director of John Howie Steak; Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen, Lead Sommelier at RN74; Thomas Price MS, Head Sommelier at the Metropolitan Grill; and Cortney Lease, Company Wine Director of Wild Ginger.

What are the most exciting wine and beverage trends hitting Seattle now?

Cortney: Seattle is all about locally owned, sustainable, conscious products even at a higher price.  Craft cocktails and microbrews are dominating alongside wine, with a lot of personal investment and overlap between the people selling the beverages and those who are making them.  Many of the bars around the city make their own macerated liquors, spirits, garnishes, and bitters.  A lot of Sommeliers work at wineries, or bartenders moonlight at breweries.  I wouldn’t say one particular beverage is winning out, but the consistent perspective being appreciated by Seattle-ites is a locally based, quality drink.  That, and everyone loves Fernet.

Lisa: I heard a rumor that Aperol is the new Campari... 

James: City-wide wine geek trends are roughly in line with what’s happening elsewhere in the country: Sicily, Sardegna, Greece, Northern Rhône, Burgundy (thank you, RN74), small-producer Sherry, etc. And the cocktail revolution is in high gear, due in some part to the craft distiller explosion in Washington. There are some great practitioners in this town, and the leaders are teaching that balance in a cocktail matters over everything, which I really appreciate.

How would you compare the restaurant scene in Seattle to other major cities on the West Coast--San Francisco, LA, Portland, etc.

James: Seattle is most like Portland and least like LA, with some things in common with SF. The biggest difference I see is the Pacific Northwest’s unending desire for micro-restaurants; open with less than 40 seats on a shoestring budget with a hipster vibe, and you’ll be the talk of the town. Don’t get me wrong, I love some of these restaurants; my point is that Seattle is just now getting comfortable with the idea that you can have 150+ seats and be lovable. Like Portland, Seattle has been very successful with the focus on local product, and this should be the case because of the natural bounty we have at our footsteps. That has made us the subject of parody (a la Portlandia), but I’ll take all the teasing if our chefs keep seasonally sourcing fresh chanterelles, oysters, salmon, and hoofed creatures, etc.

Dawn: We have an abundance of local talent and I find that they are the most successful at opening up new projects. The national “chains” at the fine dining level don’t do as well here as in other markets. Loyalty to the local talent is strong.

Washington residents are fiercely proud of the state wines!  When running a wine program in Seattle, how important is supporting the WA wine industry to you, and to your guests?

Cortney:  Washington winemakers and Seattle Somms are a very tightly knit community. Sommeliers always help out at harvest with triage, bottling, internships, you name it. And I always see winemakers hanging out around the city in new restaurants and lounges, usually drinking a cocktail or showing their new release. It’s such an intermingled scene, that it’s almost impossible not to focus on and support Washington wine.  For my restaurant, I make it a high, but balanced, priority to show off Washington’s hand-crafted and individual selections. In a central location, we get a fair amount of tourists, and I like to show them what Washington can do. Without leaving the city, guests can taste the Washington wine countryside, and it’s important to have that opportunity available.

Thomas: At The Met, we are the preeminent on-premise supporter of Washington Wine in the state, just won the WWC restaurant of the Year Award, and I think the wines are really fantastic and versatile across the board! Its very important to us, and huge to our guests…It is a provincial town, and our sports teams all suck – we lost our basketball team – so we are very supportive and protective of local things.

Lisa: I try to have a list which gives options from around the world, but by far my guests prefer to support their friends in the Washington wine industry. 25% of the selections on the list are local, but more than 33% of bottles sold are from this state. It’s really fun to talk to guests about all the local winemaking characters, and hear their stories of time spent wine tasting in our backyard. I also find that a lot of business travelers are curious about the local wine scene and are willing to try something new.

Who are the real names to watch in Washington wine today? 

Cortney: I haven’t given up on Syrah, and neither has the rest of Washington! My current favorite is Reynvaan Family Vineyards Stonessence, In The Rocks Vineyard Syrah. Mike and Gale Reynvaan started their own winery in 2004, and have been making Syrahs, often co-fermented with other white Rhône varietals, with tremendous earth and character. For whites, my hands-down favorite is a’Maurice Cellars Estate Viognier, The Sparrow. Anna Schaefer pulls her fruit from her family’s vineyard to make a wine with surprising minerality and concentration, but it remains textured and light on its feet in the same moment.  It’s pretty hard to get: she only made 37 cases in 2009, but it is absolutely worth it.

James: Gramercy John Lewis Reserve Syrah: not just a nod to the chairman (!) . . . this wine is stunning.

Jeff: Waters Forgotten Hills Syrah is probably the most distinct site in Washington for Syrah and is an amazing wine when produced. Rhone varietals are finding their footing and with some vine age they are starting to show the dynamic terroir of Washington's different vineyards and AVAs. Grenache has not quite come into its own yet, but it is going to be amazing in another 5 to 10 years.

Dawn: Gramercy Cellars, Pepper Bridge, Abeja, Leonetti, Buty, Va Piano, Waters, Long Shadows, Cadence

Thomas: Love Brennon’s wines at EFESTE, Chris at Sparkman is rockin’, Greg’s Syrah and Tempranillo at Gramercy Cellars are fantastic also…Probably the Inigo Montoya Tempranillo from Gramercy for somm wow factor…Honorable mention to Jeff at W.T Vintners for some killer Gorgeous Syrah!

Favorite (non-WA) wine to sell to fellow somms at $100 or less?

Jeff: Seattle is so red wine-centric, that any excuse to pour more Riesling or Grüner and interesting, off-the-beaten path whites is a delight.

Cortney: Karthäuserhof Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Riesling ($65-$80), of any Pradikat level and most vintages. There’s just something about that site, I can’t get enough of the wines. Extra bonus: you’ll be hard-pressed to find something that pairs better with literally the entire menu at Wild Ginger.

How do you approach selecting wines for your program?

Cortney: It starts at whether the wine would work with our food. I like to think about what dishes and flavors I’d pair with the wine in my glass. Next, I veer toward smaller production, estate selections, boutique, crafted wines; I like to think my guests can find something unique on my list that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to try at every restaurant. I want an interesting list with something for everyone, and diverse representation. And of course, I have to like the wine!

Dawn:  Our menu is inspired by Northern Italy with an emphasis on seasonal, locally sourced ingredients whenever possible. Our wine program as well is built on Italian selections, but we complement this with a large selection of local offerings (Washington and Oregon). With that said, my first priority when selecting wine for our list is whether or not it complements the food.  The second priority is whether my guests will like it and if there is a desire for it. 

James: Our program is dominated by French wines, though we do pay homage to the people making great wine locally as well. For us, value-driven wines are key; Bastille is a moderately priced French café, so I don’t think it makes sense to place too much emphasis on the high end. We do offer a small selection of “fancier” wines, but the focus is on value. I’m looking for balance and freshness in the wines I choose for our program. With few exceptions, I want the wines to be consistent with the general profile of the appellation from which they come. If they are organic/bio-d, great, but those are not defining principals.

Thomas: It is all about the guest’s preferences at The Met…we have been around for so long...I slowly try to sneak in new things like Rioja and Brunello (which are well received) but at the end of the day, Washington Red and Cali Cab are the kings….I do have a fairly serious burgundy habit that I am trying to share with my guests…

Lisa: Managing a wine program for a steakhouse requires a LOT of big, heavy reds. I try to have a good mix of iconic wines, familiar names, and some esoteric labels to keep things fun. I find that people are craving comfort and familiarity in a steakhouse so I try to keep the list as non-intimidating as possible. One challenge with a lot of the familiar wines are their astronomical prices, so I spend an enormous amount of time trying to find inexpensive wines that don’t taste cheap. Buying vintage verticals of Silver Oak and Quilceda Creek are easy – finding a killer Cabernet Sauvignon for under $30 on the list is the real challenge. I hope to have an option for everyone who walks through the door.

At your restaurant, how do you approach food and wine pairing?  And do you have a favorite wine/food match from your menu?

Lisa:  If I only had a nickel for every time I heard, “I’m having steak tonight. What Cabernet would you recommend?” I always follow up this statement with, “what steak are you having?” John Howie Steak has so many cuts to choose from, that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all Cabernet for all of them. One of my favorite things is to suggest Pinot Noir with our filet combination plate; some of the Wagyu filets get walloped with a giant Cabernet. My team of captains are all certified sommeliers through the Court, so I prefer we give personal attention to every table rather than have printed food and wine pairings.

Cortney: At Wild Ginger, we have a huge selection of spices, herbs, textures and culture. The food has origins in Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Myanmar. We have a lot of curries and interesting, unique dishes. As a result, wines with good acidity and natural body or weight are instantly the best pairings. First comes Riesling, in all its forms. Our list is heavily influenced by the grape. Also, Rhône varietals, both red and white, have the texture and diversity to interact happily with the fare of Wild Ginger. My favorite pairing is a braised pork shoulder satay lightly marinated in soy sauce and Chinese 5-spice, with Josef Leitz Rüdesheimer Magdalenenkreuz, Spätlese 2003 Riesling.  While we do tasting menus and pre-set pairings on occasion, these decisions are largely determined by the Sommelier working on the floor, talking with the guest.

James: Outside of special events, we don’t do much pre-determined wine pairing. My approach to wine pairing for our service team is to teach the principals and lay off the specifics. Fatty foods and high-acid wines, protein dense dishes and tannin-driven wines, salt and fruit/RS, that sort of thing. Seattleites tend to favor red over white for whatever reason – maybe the climate, maybe because red varieties have been more successfully planted in WA – so we’re often faced with the dilemma of pairing hearty, rich, full-bodied reds with, say, mussels. In this case, rich Pinot Noir from the US of A ain’t gonna cut it. So I often go to clean, precise examples of Grenache from the Southern Rhône. It works – not perfect, but given the circumstances, I feel as if I’ve gotten us out of the inning, so to speak.

Strangest Custormer Request?  (wine-related, mind you.)

Jeff: Right after we opened last summer we had a guest that was absolutely irate that we  did not have "Menage a Trois" on our list as it is "the best wine." I explained our focus was on the wines of Burgundy and small local wines. Despite the best efforts of me and the server she ended up drinking water.

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

James: Most important: Honesty. We don’t have a huge list with old vintages, but there are things on the list that servers are not going to be familiar with. I publish info sheets on every wine via google docs, so in the rare instance that there isn’t someone on the floor who can address a guest’s questions (late night bartender, for instance), I encourage them to look it up. I’d rather help the guest make well-informed decisions than sacrifice that for the sake of formality.

Least important (at Bastille, anyway): Formality. Bastille is not a formal restaurant, and I don’t want servers/somms doing laps around the table. We adhere to general wine service standards – we need to be professional – and weed out steps that don’t apply. Servers know how to properly decant, open a bottle of sparkling, etc, but you won’t see them wheeling out a gueridon.

Dawn: The most important aspect to me is getting the guest the right wine, one that meets or exceeds their expectations for flavor and budget, and compliments their meal. Because our list is driven by Italian selections that many of our guests are unfamiliar with, I get to interact with them a lot. It’s the best part of my job. Presenting that selection with proper service technique and appropriate, quality glassware is my second priority. I also want to ensure that both the assistance in the selection and the final service of the wine is done in a friendly, de-mystifying manner. I really dislike sommeliers that over-communicate. The goal is pleasure, not conveying to the guests the extent of your knowledge long past the information they might have actually needed to make a selection.

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

Cortney: Saturation. I love to read and discuss, and not just about wine, although that’s my primary focus. I love to learn about the history of wine, cocktails, beer, pretty much anything fermented. I’m curious as to how and why these products came to be where they are. For me, it’s all about the story. Part of learning that story is also multiple tasting groups a week, Court of Master Sommeliers, Wine Spirit Education Trust, study groups, talking to my customers, and working in local wineries during harvest and bottling. All that training aside, it’s about connecting with your customer and bringing them in on the story as well.

What is the value of certification (through the CMS, or other bodies) in your market today?

James: Certification is certainly valued in the Seattle market, more so for the under-40 crowd. CMS is at this point the favored body, with ISG and WSET fairly distant seconds. That’s not because they aren’t valuable resources, but in the case of the ISG, expense is a factor, and in the case of WSET, the lack of presence in the local market until fairly recently certainly has kept them out of reach. I think ISG and WSET are very attractive to people just coming to wine, as they offer a course of study and teachers. The direct value of certification is that I can hire someone with a certain level of certification and know where their strengths are (and that they have strengths). The indirect value is that Seattle residents, and importantly, visitors to Seattle will see a restaurant scene that has its act together regarding wine service. We’re working on creating a Seattle study group led by MS candidates to get more people involved at the entry-level and to boost the overall quality of wine service in Seattle. We have a (well-earned) reputation for being a tight-knit, supportive community, and we need to continue to grow in a thoughtful, organized manner. The more certified and advanced sommeliers (and Masters) we have in this community, the better off we all are.

Jeff: At this point there are a dozen or so advanced sommeliers in Seattle but barely enough true sommelier jobs. Certification has become very important as a means of standing out in our competitive field locally. 

Not-to-be-missed cocktail bar in town?  Best serious coffee?  Favorite local brew?

Thomas: Zig Zag for drinks, Anchor for coffee (Guatemalan Pour-Over), Manny’s Lucille IPA for beer

Jeff: The cocktail culture is blowing up. Favorites would be Canon, Tavern Law, and Bath Tub Gin. 

Lisa: I’m head-over-heels in love with Stumptown Coffee. Yes, it’s Portland-based, but they roast coffee in Seattle too. I’m not sure I could have the energy to taste wine without Stumptown there to fuel my day.

Cortney: Outside of the most excellent Zig Zag and Canon, my favorite FAVORITE place is Vessel. Bar owner Jim Romdall just re-opened at a new location, and his focus has been to bring in all the local great bartenders, each with their own cocktail menu, on different days of the week. It’s definitely a bartender’s bar. As you can imagine, there is a lot of serious coffee in Seattle. I like the local company Lighthouse Roasters.  My favorite brewery is Odin Brewing Company; their Freya’s Gold is the perfect fall beer.

Dawn: Vessel or Canon for cocktails. Herkimer Coffee is the best. Hilliards’s Saison.

Nice statue of Lenin, comrades.  Favorite bizarre Seattle landmark/establishment to take your friends?

Cortney: Seattle’s most notable statue is the Fremont Troll, which rests under the Aurora Bridge, with a rusted out VW Bug in its grip. Personally, I like to hang out at the Ballard Locks. Locals and tourists both love to visit as it’s the primary canal for boats coming in from Puget Sound to Lake Union. There’s an underground fish ladder, a park built around it, but mostly I like to watch the boats go by while drinking a Vitamin R (known outside of Seattle as Rainier Beer).  Very Lazy Sunday

Dawn: Paseo Caribbean Restaurant - the word restaurant is a stretch, more like a shack, really - but hey, its their name. Best Cuban Sandwich EVER.

James: Hatties’s Hat, classic Ballard dive bar.

Thomas: Giant Margaritas on the deck at Ray’s Boathouse on Shilshole Bay, or a visit to Bruce Lee’s grave on Capitol Hill…Sante!


Cortney Lease

Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen

Thomas Price MS

James Lechner

Dawn Smith

Lisa Rongren