Spotlight: Boston

Boston. Too old school. Too insular, too cynical. Too small-town to compete with major markets. Too, well, Bostonian.

No one knows the blemishes of our beautiful city more than those of us who have struggled through the ranks in restaurants, retail shops and distribution channels, working with laws and gatekeepers that feel like they were put into place right after Paul Revere ran through the night to Lexington and Concord. But in the good traditions of our forefathers, revolution is coming and it’s coming quickly in our city, and it’s happening a lot faster than a lot of people are going to be comfortable with.

Ten, twenty years ago, there were a handful of restaurants that saw fit to employ someone on staff to specifically manage the wine program. (I’ll refrain from using the terms “sommelier,” “wine manager,” or “wine steward” since it was usually an overburdened general manager or ambitious server who handled this responsibility.) The Court of Master Sommeliers had minimal brand awareness, WSET had to work through a local university to administer their programs, and any attempt to introduce people to new wine regions outside of France and Italy was scoffed at since Burgundy, Bordeaux and Barolo were all that the city believed to be quality wine (and they all sounded even better when you drop your “r” and don that nice, nasal Boston accent). We had iconic restaurants like Locke Ober and Anthony’s Pier 4 that did what everyone expected, but wound up becoming extremely dated since most of their clientele didn’t expect, nor want, their dining experience to be exciting. Chowder, baked schrod, steak and baked potatoes. Adequate, but not really memorable, and certainly not cutting edge. However, as the millennium clicked over, our infamous “Big Dig” finished draining the state coffers, and new investments started pouring into the city to renovate and invigorate the waterfront, South End, and outlying suburban areas, a strange thing happened: more people seemed to be paying attention to what they were eating. Farms that struggled for relevancy started finding their produce being used in increasingly finer dining establishments. Monolithic menus gave way to seasonally driven, creatively prepared menus that reflected the personality of the chef rather than the tired expectations of the older generations. And in what is a chicken/egg situation, more technological and biomedical industries saw New England as the place for innovation and quality of life that few cities could match.

Beverages followed in the shadow of the chef- and food-dominated scene (and who could argue, since this is where Julia Child taught America how to cook), but Boston wasn’t perceived as a developing wine city until the last few years. An influx of young, educated wine professionals who entered the hospitality industry not out of need, but out of desire and passion, gave the industry a much needed jolt from its catatonic state. Stuffy dining rooms slowly entered long-deserved retirement, and along with them went a lot of stuffy expectations and monochromatic wine lists. Older establishments that survived realized that they had to become more modern, as they were now competing with local restaurants popping up in trendy, new neighborhoods and throughout the suburbs. Wine and beverage education became more and more relevant, with more people enrolling in CMS and WSET programs and the Boston Sommelier Society emerging as a local resource for wine professionals interested in networking, developing a career focus, and honing their tasting skills.

Now, we certainly haven’t reached full capacity for wine professionals in Boston. There are still a majority of restaurants who are skeptical of hiring a wine specialist, and our laws on corkage, distribution, and licensing aren’t anywhere close to being modernized. But there has never been a better time to eat and drink your way through town! With two newly minted Master Sommeliers in town and a strong bench of Advanced and Certified sommeliers rising through the ranks and ready for the spotlight, Boston is poised to become the benchmark for wine industry growth over the next ten years. So without further ado, let me introduce you to some of the incredibly talented people who are leading the charge.
-Michael Meagher MS

Featured below are Brahm Callahan MS (Beverage Director, Himmel Hospitality Group), Nicholas Daddona (Wine Director, Boston Harbor Hotel), Lauren Daddona (Wine Director, L'Espalier), Jason Percival (Wine Director, Post 390), Christopher Dooley (Sommelier, L'Espalier), Caitlyn Power (GM, Catalyst Restaurant), Sophia Kelley (Sommelier, Ribelle), and William Kovel (Chef, Catalyst Restaurant).

What are the advantages and disadvantages to running a beverage program in Boston?

Nicholas: Boston has a fantastic set of somms up and coming. We have our hipsters with their natural wines, just miles from the old guard pouring their Bordeaux and California standbys. It’s a fantastic environment in which to learn and thrive, with new tasting groups opening almost weekly. One of the disadvantages of the Boston scene is that some of the industry veterans become very stoic in their programs; there are notable exceptions, but no one likes a stick in the mud that is unwilling to try something new! (...maybe it’s just us yankees.)

Brahm: We are closer to Europe than the rest of the country and while this seems stupidly obvious it means that often the entire US allocation for certain wines lands in Boston and as a result there tends to be more of some wines available than in other markets.

Lauren: Boston is a town that is forward thinking while maintaining a high regard for tradition. There is a home here for very classic lists, for wacky lists, and all that exists in the middle. That range is very refreshing! I also like being equidistant from Europe and the West Coast—lots of opportunities for vineyard travel. Boston's size is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It's easier to make a name for oneself but there are also very few dedicated sommelier positions available. Most restaurant wine jobs require that one also manage or have another role in addition to beverage. I would like to see that change down the road.

What are some of the best value wines you are working with right now on your list?

Christopher: We have a number of wines that drink way above their price! Right now I’ve really been digging the RPM Gamay Noir from El Dorado. We do a lot of pairing menus, and many people want one red to go with their 12-course menu—I’ll inevitably take them to Gamay, whether it’s in El Dorado or in Beaujolais. On the white side I like to expose people to Santorini with the Gai’a Wild Ferment Assytriko. If they’re feeling extra adventurous, we’re pouring a ‘95 Poco do Lobo Arinto that’s rockin’. Though it definitely requires a bit of an introduction!

Sophia: One of my favorite wines lately is Hobo Wine Company’s "Folk Machine" Chenin Blanc. Mendocino County fruit, made at an urban winery in Santa Rosa, CA: delicious juice that doesn’t need a special occasion.

What is your barometer for customer satisfaction?

Lauren: Body language—if they stiffen when I approach the table, they likely aren't happy with the wine.

Nicholas: Our front line is always our staff. They are very good at communicating what the guest wants in a basic and blunt manner. We believe engagement at this level, from all staff—managers, somms, servers, backwaiters—can shed light on a guest's comfort with every aspect of the experience, from water service to high-end wine selections.

How much time do you spend training your staff?

Christopher: A day doesn’t go by without guidance. We do formal wine training on Fridays, but we take time out most other days to help the staff better understand beverage and service. We’ll sit with new staff members and taste through our BTG wines and explain our wine list philosophy. We also have a number of staff members going through Court exams that look up to Lauren and I for advice, so we’ll often put them through the ringer with blind tastings and mock service while guiding them with their studies. 

Nicholas: Staff training is one of the most important things in our program at the Boston Harbor Hotel. The short answer is: never enough. As a director of a hotel, there are lots of moving departments, much like managing a restaurant group. We have a weekly blind tasting/wine briefing that can focus on a variety of topics in the fine-dining restaurant. We conduct a weekly basic tasting for our all-day dining team and monthly tastings for our sales and catering team. 

Which local Sports Team fanbase or University has the most adventurous drinkers?

William: We love our MIT guests—they order the "Undecided" and keep coming back for the bartender's choice!

Nicholas: We have a tradition in Boston called the "Beanpot" hockey tournament. It pits Boston University, Boston College, North Eastern and Harvard in round-robin matches. BU and BC always end up in the finals. BU is hammering wine, liquor and beer while Catholic BC just drinks beer—and they fire off the better insults across the ice: Sunday School!!! Those poor BC Catholic school kids have to hit the 10 am Sunday classes...

Lauren: Boston University is the most fun—they're less careful than the Harvard or MIT types and often have an overseas parent's budget to play with.

Sophia: Red Sox fans are the most adventurous!

Jason: Red Sox fans just drink Bud Light.

Which restaurants and beverage programs around town excite you and inspire you?

Jason: No. 9 Park and Menton set the standard for professional, polished service and great food. Eastern Standard and Hawthorne are serious cocktail bars, and both have late night menus. The wine lists at Grill 23 and Boston Harbor Hotel are benchmarks for the city; both wine lists I admit to bringing up on my computer when doing research for my own! For a neighborhood place with a cordial-only license, Coppa in South End gets pretty creative with flavors in their cocktails, and that limitation actually adds interest to their list. Their menu is small and very focused, and they excel at charcuterie and pasta. 

Lauren: So many!! The Legal Seafoods wine program is amazing, always tons of great BTG options with crazy pricing. They have Taittinger Brut "La Francais" for $12.75/glass right now and that's just happy. Eastern Standard is always a great treat, lots of diversity—Colleen Hein from ES just won Best Sommelier 2015 from Boston Magazine & she deserves it! The monthly themed BTG offerings at Meritage are a lot of fun, the Bandol rosé flight was an August favorite! Of course, my husband runs that program so I might be biased...

I'm very excited about Select Oyster Bar, right around the corner from my restaurant. Chef/Owner Michael Serpa is super passionate. (I love to see chefs at trade wine tastings; it's a great indicator.) A hidden gem up on the Northshore in Gloucester is Market at Lobster Cove—it's run by a married couple, both ex-Chez Panisse, with a tight menu that's incredibly fresh. Market's wine list leans a little natural for my taste, but there are always some good options and the whole experience is beyond charming.

What’s your guilty pleasure for eating or drinking in Boston?

Nicholas: SIlvertone near Beacon Hill. Great little subterranean spot with a wine-loving proprietor who keeps great Champagne about $15 over cost. Ask for the reserve list.

ps. Also the coldest High Life in Boston.

Jason: It’s a learned skill to be able to go to Silvertone and still walk out on two feet, while Chinatown offers the best (and virtually only) food for those who don’t get out until 1 am. And it’s not crappy Chinese! You can load yourself on salt and pepper shrimp at Peach Farm and dumplings at Gourmet Dumpling House. We’re not New York, but you can still eat and drink well until the morning hours. 

Christopher: The closest bar when I get out of work is Uno’s, which is where I wind down, catch up on Sportscenter, and have a Harpoon IPA.

I’m embarrassed even typing that out. 

What's your favorite season for food and wine pairing?

Lauren: Spring—because I hate the cold and when I see that first fiddlehead, I know it will all be okay.

Nicholas: Summer, hands down. And not just for the great New England offerings, but for the rosé! For eight years I've been preaching rosé in Boston, and the market is turning (finally!) to offer the thing on a more regular basis. Bandol Rosé with an entrée is especially perfect in the summer. (Next up: the February rosé pairing.)

Jason: Fall. Fall fall fall. Late in the summer, when it starts to cool down and the end-of-season vegetables are coming into the market, I get excited. This is when I can drink reds again and pair with a fuller, richer, more flavorful menu. It’s like a different color palette. We start to see braised meats again (hey Piedmont!), and older Riesling and Vouvray demi-sec have that honeyed richness that play well with caramelized, roasted flavors. Nutty wines with body like Soave find their place, and smoky Syrah is a natural with grilled meats. This is the time of year I wax poetic in my descriptions on the beer list. Then winter comes, and we bury ourselves behind the wall and drink anything that will give us warmth.

Christopher: Late autumn and early winter. Truffle season, yo.

What are the most important and least important aspects of wine service in your opinion?

Lauren: Eye contact and smiling are the most important. It puts guests at ease and makes them your friend. I think the steps of service are incredibly important, but only if they can be executed with visible ease. Being comfortable tableside is much more important than flawless "correct" service. 

Brahm: Don't let formality get in the way of hospitality—we aren’t saving lives here... Least important is cork presentation. It's just silly most of the time.

Nicholas: Sommelier tasting service has been a bit of a controversy, even on guildsomm forums. I believe it is one of the most important things we do every day. Even if it makes my corked bottle inventory a bit more daunting then before! I believe there can be no better wine service than going to a table and telling them that you rejected a bottle that is not "correct" because it is not showing the expression that you would expect. This can be difficult for a region like Burgundy, but it creates a connection between your sommeliers and guests. It is one of the most important things we do. 

Christopher: Listening is by FAR the most important aspect of wine service. No one cares how much you know about wine X; they care about getting the best wine that pleases them. Some want to get on the hype train, but some just want a delicious Napa Cabernet. You give them what they want, not what you want them to have. Which brings up the least important aspect of wine service: your ego. It’s not about how big your pin is, or how much you paid for your wine key—it’s about making the guest feel welcome and important. Ultimately they are the only reason you’re there.

What’s the strangest request you have ever had from a customer?

Lauren: We had a customer once who was "allergic to red"—not only red wine, just anything red. Tomatoes, meat, red peppers, etc... Does watermelon count, or is that pink? Unclear. Very odd. 

William: There was that time when a guest asked us to saber a bottle of still white wine...

Christopher: I had a woman tell me she wanted a light red, but was allergic to Pinot Noir. I started to chuckle, because I thought it was a joke.

It wasn’t a joke.

What are the main considerations you take into account when adding selections to your program?

Nicholas: Two things come to mind when building a section of our 800-bin, comprehensive wine list in the fine-dining restaurant Meritage: price-to-value ratio and time on the shelf. Looking at how much time your inventory will sit on the shelf before becoming profitable makes you deeply reflect on your ego. A great question to ask when I make buying decisions is: Why has this wine earned a spot on my list? Who will buy this? What will it take to sell (or hand-sell) this wine? If the effort to make this wine move is herculean, then that fifth Valais selection might not be necessary.

Lauren: Value always is first, followed by diversity of selection. We taste every day to ensure new selections perform above their peers in the given category at a similar price. Reputation of producer is also a consideration, especially with highly allocated wines. As mentioned earlier, the mix of classic and cutting edge is important for us in Boston—our program is broad enough to support a wide range of styles and to ensure that there is something for everyone. We also try to represent the world of wine accurately. We tend to aim for bottles that are closer to the archetype, not the outliers.

Sophia: Is it delicious, how is it different from other options on the list, does it fit with the menu, how is it made, and does it tell a story? 

Jason: Is there an immediate spot open on the list for that item? If not, do I have the money to tie up in inventory? Do I have the physical space in the cellar for it? How long will it sit on a shelf before it’s ready for the list? How long will it take me to sell the case? Will someone buy it at the price I need to charge for it? Does it fill a space on the list stylistically and at a different price point, or will it conflict with similar products at a similar price? Will it stick out like a sore thumb on the list or blend in with the rest of the selections? Can I find it on every other list and store shelf in the area, or is this something more exclusive? Has anyone heard of it? Do I have an existing category on the list under which to place this item or will I have to create a new one? Does Torrontes pair with anything on my menu? 

How does the local sommelier community work together to become better?

Nicholas: We have grown so much in the last seven years as a community. The biggest influence in my wine career has been Michael Meagher, who has just passed his MS as one of the first Masters based in New England. He founded the Boston Sommelier Society, the first of its kind in Boston, a tasting group which grew to encompass tasting, testing, educational seminars and more.

Jason: We are a tight-knit community. Boston is small. We all know each other. Some keep close to their restaurant community and help them grow from within, bettering their group. Others have opened their doors to everyone and anyone interested in wine, conducting tasting groups around the city. This is how I got my start, and if it wasn’t for such an open community I might not be working here today. One thing we have in common is that we all want to push Boston forward and gain more recognition, so we open our restaurants to winemakers who want to hold lunches or symposiums. Those who can, give space to larger tasting groups. We also form smaller groups for tasting and study. Being a small city, we see each other around town and after work, which makes it easier to connect. 

What pairs best with Boston Baked Beans and Boston Cream Pie? 

Sophia: Boston cream pie screams Bual or Malmsey Madeira—something a little sweet, just a touch funky, with a hint of savoriness to balance the sweetness of the cream, the vanilla notes of the cake, and the chocolate. 

Brahm: Malty beer works with baked beans, and Boston cream pie is fantastic with Bual Madeira. (And because I’m a fat kid, I have actually done that). 

Jason: We don’t eat that here—tourists do! But beer is the answer, not wine. Boston cream pie is good with a banana ester-laden Belgian Tripel. Baked beans? They eat those over a campfire in westerns, right? Whiskey! Pour them a shot and leave the bottle. Check your guns.

  • A big thank you to all those who have blazed a trail in my adopted city of Boston. There is so much excitement alive in Boston today which gives me such motivation and desire to grow. From my brief experience working in such an intriguing industry, I have always felt at home and welcomed especially by some of those featured in this article. Without such a great community in place perhaps I would have taken my adventure elsewhere. Thanks and here's to following in your footsteps!

  • Boston Strong has never been more evident in the Somm world. Great summation Michael and awakening to others that New England's wine talent has a strong community of movers and shakers. Seeing Brahm and Michael get pinned in Aspen and then Jason following for his Advanced a month later creates such excitement for this town and becomes a beacon for other surrounding cities i.e Portland ME  etc .  Like Shayn, my heritage hails from MA in the mill town of Lowell. Coming home has never been so rewarding knowing how the Boston scene is in such good hands with all these young visionaries. The laws and distibution channels are still stuck in reverse but if Drew Bledshoe can influence changes for direct shipping then Charlie can and will return home on the MTA.. The Revolution is on in Beantown !

  • Very entertaining and informative article. Jason-I've asked myself the same Torrontes question. The answer? Nothing but despair, and we don't serve that.

  • There cannot be more pride in this Lexington boy! Remembering back just 8 years (almost to the day) of tasting with Michael Meagher MS at Eastern Standard, meeting with Sandy Block MW at Legal Seafoods, eating at Uni and toasting Erin Elizabeth...and thinking: what in the world??? I grew up here, and can't believe how "tight" it all felt. There was just a sprinkling of actual "sommeliers" and, outside of ES and Espalier and Grill 23 and Boston Harbor Hotel and No. 9 Park, I didn't see any imagination in any of the wine lists. Tastevins couldn't have been but 3 years removed from some of the folks roaming the dusty dining rooms of the "tried and true". There were some cool wine bars and some young 'uns like Michael were eager to jump forward. But I thought, "Man...the wines they have access to here are insane. The chefs are as serious as the winter blowing in off the harbor. Let's get some vigor and push some boundaries and see what happens!" Lo and behold, it blew up because it was ripe to! The food there is delish, the somm scene is serious, the Nantucket Wine Festival is stretching boundaries while attracting the best in the world to a lil' island (with 30+ billionaire vacation homes), the local foodstuff is finally getting its due....and chefs/owners are realizing the profit margin of "dah juice". Great to see, read about...and come back to. Baked beans? Who the *&^% asked that? How 'bout, "What goes with a Santahpio's 'Roni and Barbequed Sausage?"