On Thursday, June 4, 2020, Sarah Clarke will be working a shift with VinePair to answer any and all of your wine questions. No question is too simple or too advanced. Text a Somm is a fundraiser in partnership with The United Sommeliers Foundation to benefit the thousands of wine professionals whose careers have been put on hold during the Covid-19 crisis. In addition to paying the sommelier for their shift, VinePair will be making a donation to the USF, and so can you by clicking here. Text your questions to Sarah from 7-10 PM ET on Thursday, June 4 at (914) 580-4540.
Sarah Clarke is the beverage director for Mozza Restaurant Group, which includes Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza and chi Spacca, in Los Angeles. At Pizzeria, Clarke works with a small, focused wine list featuring unusual wines that pair well with a pie; while at Osteria, she serves a lengthy list — about 1,400 — of higher-priced wines. At chi Spacca, a self-described “Italian steakhouse on steroids,” Clarke curates a versatile selection ranging from “reasonable” options to benchmark wines.
Thanks to her work experience, Clarke is fluent in exquisite pizza-and-wine pairings, as well as what best complements the wide variety of dishes such as honeynut squash fritti, and Osteria’s mozzarella tasting plate. Clarke savors the ability to share not only special, allocated wines of Italy but also lesser-known wines of smaller regions. In her (wise) opinion, these latter options are opportunities to turn guests on to affordable Italian varieties.
Below, Clarke tells us about some of her favorite small Italian wine regions, and shares her secret for how she transitions Burgundy loyalists to wines of Sicily.
1. What are you drinking the most in quarantine?
Rosé! I like everything from light, delicate french rosé to Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo.
2. What is the most expensive or memorable bottle you’ve opened in quarantine?
2000 Pavillon Rouge.
3. How do you make guests feel comfortable if they seem intimidated by you (in a restaurant)?
I read the table first. I often ask what wines they are drinking now or what they like to drink. This gives them a place to start from that is familiar, so that they feel more comfortable and at ease. There are many other things though: You need to really listen to your guests as well. It is important to make sure you find them something they want to drink that is aligned with what they would like to spend vs. something you want to sell. I will bring tastes of wine and tell them it can be as simple as what tastes good to them today. I find this helpful with people who do not feel comfortable with wine terms and have a more difficult time describing what they like.
Most people mention that they don’t know anything about Italian wine. I let them know that many don’t, to put them at ease. It can be daunting, and I appreciate that. It doesn’t need to be. I never ever want anyone to feel spoken down to. There is always a way to bridge the gap.
4. What’s the best wine you can get at the grocery or discount store?
There are a few wines I would look for. It depends on where, when and with whom I am going to drink the wine. Some wines that I would look for would be French rosé or Champagne. There are some smaller California producers that I like. Lastly, Prosecco for a spritz is always a good idea!
5. What regions and styles of wines are you most interested in?
I absolutely love Piedmont. There is such a vast quantity of wine other than the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. While I will always enjoy these wines, there are so many grapes that people do not know: Croatina, Vespolina, Pelaverga, Ruche, Erbaluce, Timorasso, Nascetta and many more. There are incredible values available, if you know where to look. I also was fortunate to take a trip to Sicily last summer. The beauty of the wines of Mt. Etna, Cerasuolo di Vittoria and so many more I will love and remember forever. When guests come in and share that they like Burgundy, and after we talk about Piedmont, I will lead them to Sicily —specifically, Mt. Etna.
6. What is the best way to ask for a budget friendly bottle at a restaurant?
If I am not in a situation where I want to vocalize the price range, I will point out two or three wines in the price range that I am comfortable with. Usually the sommelier will catch on and then we can go from there.
7. Which regions offer the best value?
Some of my go-to regions are Trentino-Alto Adige, Le Marche, Valle d’Aoste, Campania, Loire, [and] Rhone. That being said, I firmly believe that you can find wines of great value in most regions.
8. Where do you like to buy wine online (or which clubs do you recommend)?
The Wine House in L.A. is a great place to buy from. They have a large selection from all over the globe. I also recommend looking into online sales from your local wine store. It is always a great time to support local businesses.
Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.