“I was back home in Melbourne, Australia recently and dined at Cumulus Up which is the wine bar above Cumulus restaurant. Unpretentious knowledgeable service and perfectly executed food that were great pairings to what we were drinking. I love the food and wine scene in Melbourne.” Sommelier Chris McPherson
Medieval Provençal times they were saumaliers, animal pack drivers who evolved during Middle French kingdom to become court officials charged with transportation of supplies. So what does a modern day Sommelier actually do? Well, Wikipedia outlines as such, “A sommelier or wine steward is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, normally working in fine restaurants who specializes in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food matching. The most important work of a sommelier is in the areas of wine procurement, wine storage, wine cellar rotation, and expert service to wine consumers.”
A reasonably accurate job description although perhaps a little parched as our new-age sommelier has evolved to a higher learning with a wine Jedi cognizance and a seventh sense that can psychoanalyse a diner, marry the person, the dish and the wine in seconds. They are now the gateway to wine discovery equipped with clairvoyance in food and wine trends, inspiring thirst around the world.
Feared by winemakers, loathed by wine distributors as the arbiters’ of wine lists, the restaurant patron should embrace their knowledge, skills and talent as they are hopelessly and passionately obsessed with wine and will take you on journey of gastronomic enlightenment. And our new-age sommelier is no longer confined to fine dining and can be found in casual eateries, wine bars, gastro-pubs, winery restaurants, wine stores and you’ll even bump into an air-sommelier at 30,000ft these days. Some have hung up their waiters-friend and metamorphosed to the wine trade as brand ambassadors, distributors or consultants, but once a sommelier, always a sommelier.
This column explores the gustatory and olfactory manifestations of sommeliers all over this planet. We take a cross section of the sommelier’s stomach and intestines to reveal what and where they eat. And we dissect their taste buds and dopamine receptors as they relent to the Wandering Palate narcosynthesis and confess to their personal vinous pleasures and closely-held secrets – this is The Sommelier’s Palate.
Chris McPherson, USA, originally from Australia.
Where do you currently practice your sommelier skills (restaurant, hotel, consulting etc)?
After seven years with the AvroKo hospitality group (PUBLIC, Saxon+Parole, The Thomas) I’ve just finished up and am opening a new space in the East Village called Flinders Lane (162 Avenue New York, NY) in early February, 2014.
Where have you dined recently (restaurant) that impressed you?
I was back home in Melbourne, Australia recently and dined at Cumulus Up which is the wine bar above Cumulus restaurant. Unpretentious knowledgeable service and perfectly executed food that were great pairings to what we were drinking. I love the food and wine scene in Melbourne.
Where have you dined (restaurant, wine bar) that you were mightily impressed with the wine list and service?
Lunch at Eleven Madison Park. It’s more like going to the theatre than a restaurant and I really enjoy dining with an element of fun to it. From card tricks on the table to a course in the kitchen using liquid nitrogen it was full of surprises.
Where is the most memorable restaurant meal you have had?
Maison Lameloise in Chagny, Burgundy. We dined here on the first night of a tasting trip, all wines served blind. Everything clicked; food, service, wine and of course company which made it a great night – and a great way to get over the jetlag!
Do you have a favourite regular restaurant?
Working late I always head to China town for a late night feed. My favourite late night spot is Great New York Noodle Town. Always packed and a great atmosphere. Ginger scallion noodle, baby pig on rice, a bottle of Burgundy and I’m happy. It’s BYO and they have decent stems which is a nice touch.
Do you cook at home and is there a dish you have perfected?
I love to cook and the nights I’m not in the restaurant I prefer to eat at home. Right now I working on making my own pasta from scratch. On a recent trip to Venice I had amazing Nero di Seppia which I’ve been trying to recreate since. The Italians make it look so simple! I’m also a big fan of Yotam Ottolenghi’s cooking and have been trying out recipes from his Jerusalem cook book which is brilliant.
Do you have a favourite wine bar?
The Melbourne Wine Room in Melbourne, Australia back in its heyday. There’s nothing better than drinking wine with great company in the sun. Great list, friendly knowledgeable service and Karen Martinis’ food was a winning combination.
(Originally opened as part of The George Hotel by the legendary Donlevy Fitzpatrick, the man that single-handedly changed the Melbourne dining scene and inspired greatness in everyone that worked with him or knew him – footnote WP)
Do you have a favourite wine merchant?
Relationships are so important in any industry and I’m lucky to work with some great reps that I trust and know my taste in wines. On the supplier side I think Polaner and David Bowler have a great selection. Retail wise I’m a big fan of the Brooklyn Wine Exchange. I enjoy eclectic wines along with the classics and they always have something fun up there sleeve. We live around the corner which is super convenient.
What wine are you drinking at the moment?
Champagne! It’s the festive time of year so there seems to be an abundance of Champagne.
Is there a wine that totally moved you – like no other wine – a revelation and motivation for you to pursue you wine obsession?
Dauvissat ‘Vaillons’ Chablis. Can’t remember the vintage unfortunately but one sip of this and I was hooked. Expression, balance and length were amazing. I can still taste it now!
What’s your latest wine discovery – new region, variety or style?
Really enjoying the wines from Propieta Sperino Uvaggio in Lessona, Piedmont. It’s a blend of Nebbiolo, Vespolina and Croatina. Paolo de Marchi (Isole e Olena) was working the market and brought these along to taste as his son is the winemaker. It was a pleasant surprise and offers great value.
Tell us what is your ultimate wine bargain discovery in terms of price/quality rapport? (i.e. does not have to be cheap but over-delivers in quality for the price)
Joseph Swan Vineyards Cuvee de Trois, Pinot Noir, Russian River, USA – Russian river can be big and opulent. What I like about this is the restraint. Wild yeast, unfiltered and plenty of pretty layers beneath the fruit.
Tell us about an inspirational wine and food pairing that has you have experienced recently.
Vintage Champagne and parmesan cheese. So simple but so satisfying! It’s the umami thing.
What is the most enthralling wine region you have been to in terms of dramatic scenery, inspiring vineyards and good eating?
Burgundy – whilst I wouldn’t say the scenery is dramatic as such the inspiration, wine and food more than make up for it. Standing in vineyards and towns you’ve been reading about for years and meeting the people behind the wines puts it all into perspective.
Select a six pack of wines that you think are absolutely outstanding and inspirational, and that will set people on a journey of vinous discovery and enlightenment.
Grosset ‘Polish Hill’ Riesling, Clare Valley, Sth Australia
McWilliams Mount Pleasant ‘Elizabeth’ Semillon, Hunter Valley, NSW (with age)
Vouvray, Domaine Huet Clos du Bourg, Loire Valley, France
Volnay 1er Cru, La Pousse d’Or ‘En Caillerets’, Burgundy, France
La Rioja Alta ‘Gran Riserva 904’, Rioja, Spain
Ridge Estate Vineyards ‘Monte Bello’, Santa Cruz, USA