“I’ve loved these wines for a long time, and this vineyard is special, and the 2014 magnum is rare!” Patrick Cappiello said excitedly. He grabbed the Dard et Ribo Crozes-Hermitages “Les Rouges des Baties” off a table in the basement of NYC’s Peking Duck House, a favorite BYOB party room of area sommeliers. “I’ll pour you a giant glass.”
That Northern Rhône wine made sense. The occasion was a dinner for producers visiting for a Rhône wine festival. It wasn’t the only thing that the wine director of Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Café was sharing that night. Jolie Laide Trousseau Gris Rosé, PAX Gamay Noir, PAX Sonoma-Hillsides Syrah — Cappiello had also brought a trio of California esoterica to share with the vignerons in attendance. It was an opportunity to show off the homegrown talent he distributes through his company, Renégat Wines. “We’ve been drinking French wines for a long time, so it’s about f*cking time, right?”
Sharing for pure pleasure, or sharing with an agenda? Pouring the tried and true, or busting out a maverick? As we tasted through the wines that Cappiello and other sommeliers had pulled from their personal stashes to share that night, I wondered what pros who weren’t there would have brought.
On the restaurant floor, sommeliers have other masters than themselves: the food, the diner, the bottom line. When off the clock, what bottles do they open to impress, and why? I asked the question of sommeliers all over the country. It turns out that the pros have some principles in common for the wines they use to wow pals.
Go Big or Go Home
You’d think that when sommeliers want to make a splash, they’d just pour big-name trophies. Sometimes they do: the Francois Raveneau Chablis that Evan Zimmerman, of D.C.’s Reverie, cracks open; the 2007 magnum of Carlisle Winery James Berry Vineyard Syrah that Leonora Varvoutis of Houston’s Coltivare “drools over.”
“But you don’t want to push too hard in that direction, or the bottle comes off as pure braggadocio,” says Steven Grubbs, wine director at Atlanta’s Empire State South. Rather, pros try to offer something unique.
“It’s nice to check in on the icons,” Caleb Ganzer of Manhattan’s Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels says, “but extra points if it’s a rarer bottling.” His go-to? Cedric Bouchard La Bolorée 2009, made from a tiny parcel of Pinot Blanc. With a golden apple core and a texture like compressed croissant flakes, it’s all the more impressive because it’s surprising. “People don’t realize you can make Champagne with Pinot Blanc,” he says.
That wine goes for about $600 on lists, but bigness isn’t just in a name or price tag. Michael Corcoran, of Peppervine in Charlotte, N.C., likes something brawny, “a wine that will unfurl in a decanter a few hours while more timid bottles are consumed and forgotten.” Dal Forno Romano’s Valpolicella Superiore, for instance, is a third the price of Amarones because its grapes have been air-dried half as long. But it’s “redolent of sugar plums, kirsch, baked black cherries, cedar, balsam, spice, and smoked meat,” he says, a bruiser that brings “lasting memories.”
Speaking of big, pros insist that size does matter. Patrick Laman of Chicago’s Maple & Ash found his wow factor in a 1985 Diamond Creek “Gravelly Meadow” Cabernet not only because of its Californian staying power — “My friends were laughing at how primary it still was after 30-some years” — but because it was a 6-liter bottle. “Everybody had more than their fair share.”
Element of Surprise
Somms take many routes to get their drinking buddies to that a-ha moment. Alexandra Rovati, head sommelier at Manhattan’s DaDong pours a familiar varietal from an unexpected locale. “Barely anyone has heard of Argentinean Pinot Noir,” she says. Particularly in its 2011 vintage, Bodega Chacra “Cincuenta y Cinco,” a biodynamic, old-vine Pinot, is the velvety knockout she brings to dinner parties.
Commanders Palace sommelier Dan Davis flipped that equation recently with an unexpected varietal from a classic region. He was pouring for a Burgundy blind tasting group. “The first thing that struck everyone was the color — almost golden, with flashy highlights,” he recounts. “It looked at once young and old. The nose was lemon curd and almond.” The group was stumped. “Remember,” he told them, “there is more than one white grape in Burgundy.” The wine was a 2007 Domaine Ponsot Clos des Monts-Luisants Premier Cru Morey-St.-Denis, Burgundy’s only premier cru Aligoté. “Everyone was excited to taste a special bottle and learn something in the process.”
For others, the surprise is in the sticker shock — in reverse. A wine that’s a steal can really impress. For Ryan Bailey, wine director of the NoMad in Los Angeles, that bottle is low-intervention Lancelot-Royer Champagne. It expresses the minerality of its grand cru vineyards, but with a richness from aging. “I probably shouldn’t be too vocal about it because not a lot is made and it’s still incredibly affordable,” he says. “But tasted side by side with big house and cult grower Champagnes, these wines leave them in the dust.”
Better with Age
Most somms agree with Maple & Ash’s Michael Loveisky: “Drinking a wine that is older than yourself or produced the year you were born forces you to have some perspective.” But an aged wine only works if it’s as ready for drinking as you are. “My non-sommelier friends don’t have the knowledge to select properly aged wines,” he says, “so this is one of my favorite ways to impress them.”
For a recent get-together, Kevin Bratt, the beverage director of the Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab group, uncorked a 1995 magnum of Château La Croix de Gay Pomerol. The wine, he says, “was in a beautiful place and continued to evolve through the night.” What made it a conversation piece was Bratt’s perfect timing.
Of course, some producers do that work for you. Rustic Canyon Family wine director Kathryn Coker trusts in the Domaine de Vieux Château 1er Cru Chablis “Le Lys” 2005 precisely because of it’s aged so long in-house. “The ‘05 is the current release and it was just bottled in 2016!” she says. That time in the barrel leaves the wine textured and complex enough for a special occasion.
Best is an aged wine that subverts expectations. When she wants to impress, master sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier opens wine from her native Loire. Lately, she’s pulling out “a wild card”: aged Muscadet, like the 1989 Luneau-Papin Le L d’Or. “Everybody is surprised,” she says. “It’s incredibly briny and easy to drink but super complex at the same time. You realize it doesn’t need to be full or rich or dense to be good.”
Somms such as Lepeltier like to knock friends’ socks off with underdogs that over-deliver. For Karen Van Guilder-Little, of Nashville’s Josephine, that means Zinfandel. Big, dark, and juicy but not overbearing, the little-known A. Rafanelli from Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley has an elegance unexpected in a Zinfandel, she says. It’s a vehicle for her rehabilitation of the varietal. “I know it’s not cool to like Zin, but this bottle will convert people,” she says.
For Maurice DiMarino, beverage manager of SoCal’s Cohn Restaurant Group, sharing outliers with fellow somms is a service to the industry. “I like to remind them that almost every region is doing something unique,” he says. At a bottle share with master somms, he poured Lagrein from the Serra Guacha in Brazil, a region he describes as “dismissed by many and undiscovered by most.” The wine was “beautiful, fresh, and racing with acidity.”
Andy Hata of Cleveland’s Urban Farmer is the gutsiest underdog promoter. His current favorite is the 2017 M Cellars Reserve Pinot Noir. Though its cherry-raspberry juiciness evokes the Williamette Valley, and its earthiness and structure “scream Burgundy,” it’s made 45 minutes from downtown Cleveland. “Mention the words ‘Ohio wine’ and people’s expectations are for the worst,” he says. “Then blind taste them on this and blow their minds. In our local sommelier tasting group, it is not uncommon for one of us to sneak this into a lineup next to top Pinot Noirs from around the world. It always over-performs.”
A Story to Tell
Whether they’re pouring a star or a sleeper, a lot of professionals agree with Maple & Ash’s Frankie Villar: “The personal connection is what makes the difference when aiming to impress.” A 2010 magnum of the biodynamic, single-block Churton Pinot Noir “The Abyss” is his wine to share, not just because it’s only produced in exceptional years but because, as an intern at The Abyss in 2015, he walked the slopes where the grapes were grown.
Some sommeliers’ choices are Proustian. Angela Gargano, wine director at Montana’s Triple Creek Ranch, grew up in a Sicilian family. “Hidden gems” like the bright, aromatic 2016 Fattorie Romeo del Castello by producer Chiara Vigo, the third generation of women to grow grapes at her family estate on Mount Etna, evoke memories for her.
Others like to share souvenirs of their travels. Jake Yestingsmeier of Omaha’s Monarch Prime looks for tasting room-only finds like Cliff Lede’s “Rockblock Series” Cabernet, whose blend and label change with each vintage. For Francesca Maniace, it’s the story of the hunt that elevates a bottle. The Jerome Prévost Fac-Simile Rosé Extra Brut that she recently brought to dinner was “vinous and expressive with intense depth and complexity of fruit.” But Maniace, the wine director at San Francisco’s Che Fico, valued it all the more because her purchase, at a shop in Reims, coincided with a chance meeting with Prévost himself.
On a Mission
Some sommeliers argue that the important thing to impress upon companions is a political or environmental statement. Their favored bottles reflect their mission. Allie Poindexter of Nashville’s Henrietta Red highlights the women who are transforming the wine world. If you drink with her, she’ll open an SP68 by celebrated young Sicilian producer Arianna Occhipinti. The mineral, terroir-driven white is “a jumping off point for conversations surrounding alternative growing and winemaking methods, gender in the industry, and the trajectory of Sicilian wines,” she says. Ditto the wines of Elisabetta Foradori, “a standard-bearer for native varietals” in the Dolomites. Her lively, polished Foradori Vigneti delle Dolomiti Teroldego, says Poindexter, “is a great example of the benefits of sustainable farming practices.”
Vinny Eng, who just left his gig as the wine director of San Francisco’s Tartine Manufactory, is a champion of emerging talent, especially new producers who haven’t yet picked up distribution. Lately, he’s been sharing wines by the young and “incredibly talented” Claire Hill, who makes “supple, entirely gulpable, fresh, delicious, and really soothing Mourvèdre.”
But whichever new producer he has spotlighted, Eng sums up the motivations behind every sommelier’s wow-factor bottle: to give friends an experience they won’t soon forget, and to connect through the shared pleasures of the palate. “What I love about the wine community and how it evolves is that you have room for more and more voices,” says Eng, “and it creates a beautiful experience for individuals to find affinity for things they hadn’t known they had an affinity for.”