“As for Sherries, it’s their versatility. It’s my go-to wine for food pairings – every type of sherry can go with any dish.” Paula De Pano, Sommelier at The Fearrington House Restaurant, North Carolina
In 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.
Paula De Pano, USA, Originally from The Philippines
Where do you currently practice your sommelier skills (restaurant, hotel, consulting etc)?
The Fearrington House Restaurant, North Carolina, USA
Where have you dined recently (restaurant) that impressed you?
Recently, a dynamic duo of young chefs took over the helm at a local restaurant here in Chapel Hill and every time I go and eat there, I add yet another favorite dish in my North Carolina list. [ONE] Restaurant is headed by Kim Floresca and Daniel Ryan, who have worked at some of the best restaurants in the world, including The French Laundry, Alinea, and El Bulli. Their food is contemporary without being fussy, with ingredients that aren’t too manipulated. The vision is clearly manifested through clean flavors using the freshest ingredients.
Where have you dined (restaurant, wine bar) that you were mightily impressed with the wine list and service?
Bar none, it would definitely be The Inn at Little Washington, a fellow Relais & Chateaux property based in Virginia. Their wine list reads like the who’s who of the wine world, from both the old and new, with depth of vintages, yet without missing a beat on the newer, up and coming producers. Old school, yet not closed off to the evolving changes in wine. Speaking of old school, the standards of service in The Inn at Little Washington is impeccable yet relaxed. That only comes from years and years of repetition combined with genuine inclination to serve guests to the utmost of their abilities.
Where is the most memorable restaurant meal you have had?
[[ Would be the same as the question above. ]]
Do you have a favourite regular restaurant?
Mateo’s in Durham is a favorite. It’s a tapas bar that has a fantastic Spanish wine list. Matt Kelly is the chef there and his food is consistently tasty. Service is quick and friendly, without the Durham hipster air. I also often visit [ONE] Restaurant since I literally live down the road from them.
Do you cook at home and is there a dish you have perfected?
Absolutely. Most of the dishes that I can make perfectly even with my eyes closed are dishes that I grew up on back when I was still in the Philippines. I make pretty awesome Lumpiang Shanghai (Crispy Pork, Shrimp, and Veggie Spring Rolls) and Pork Adobo. I can also make great Korean BBQ that my fiancé looks forward to every time I tell him that it is what’s going to be for dinner.
Do you have a favourite wine bar?
There are not a lot of wine bars here in Chapel Hill, but if you’re looking for a great cocktail and some of the best bartenders in town, head no further than The Crunkleton (barrel-aged cocktails) in Downtown Chapel Hill, Peccadillo (best Manhattans and Negronis) in Carrboro, and Whiskey in Durham (huge Scotch selection).
Do you have a favourite wine merchant?
We have an exceptional wine store located within Fearrington Village. The wines sold are carefully picked for quality and value, while also trying to introduce customers to new grapes and wine styles.
What wine are you drinking at the moment?
Last evening, I had some ridiculously good wine from Scholium Project. Normally, I shy away from ‘it’ wines and cult winemakers, just because I feel like after hearing all the hype surrounding the wine, I have such high expectations and more often than not, my palate just isn’t ready for them or my ‘intellect’ isn’t that enlightened yet… The Prince in His Caves has a pretty cool story behind it too, and I suppose it’s because we have a few bottles of the original wine that TPIHC is named after in our own cellar in the restaurant that I could relate to it a bit. But the wine was so pungent and heady, like Sauvignon Blanc on speed coupled with a very pleasant acid prickle on the tongue. Tons of flavor and a good dash of acid, I’m definitely digging it.
Is there a wine that totally moved you – like no other wine – a revelation and motivation for you to pursue your wine obsession?
Leroy Meursault-Genevrieres 1992 brought in by a guest about six months after I started at Fearrington. I was floored when the guest offered me a taste of the Leroy as well as the 1997 DRC Romanee St. Vivant. I honestly remember the Leroy more than the DRC, because it was so fully flavored and essentially showed me how great aged chardonnay can taste like.
What’s your latest wine discovery – new region, variety or style?
It’s not really a recent thing, but I’ve always advocated for these two wines simply because the flavors resonates to me so very well — Madeiras and Sherries. Madeiras have the combination of roasted walnuts, caramelized figs, and salted toffee – some of my favorite things in the world, and again, with the most amazingly balanced acidity possible. Just the amount of destruction Madeiras undergo and the kind of wine it becomes after all that abuse as well as how long they last make them truly a work of art. As for Sherries, it’s their versatility. It’s my go-to wine for food pairings – every type of sherry can go with any dish.
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)
Spain, Spain, Spain. And I’m not talking about the centuries old established bodegas, those have price tags that rival First Growths and Grand Cru Burgundies. We have this great wine from Navarra, which costs around $50 on our restaurant list — what’s so special about it? Aside from it tasting like concentrated dark plums, mocha, and crushed violets, the wine came from Chateau Petrus vines. Then there are Riojas and Ribera del Dueros that have been aged to perfection still under $75 on the list. Can’t afford pricey Priorats? We have wines from Monsant, a region which almost completely surrounds Priorat, under $70 that have similar richness of texture as Priorat wines.
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.
There are many factors that contribute to how these wines were chosen, including this current season (winter), price, and accessibility. I don’t want to mention wines that cost an arm and a leg nor have to search the world high and low for a bottle.
Pierre Gimmonet 1er Cru Cuis, Champagne, France MV
As a certified “bubblehead,” there ALWAYS has to be Champagne/Sparkling Wine in the mix. Pierre Gimmonet is one of my all-time favorites.
Castello di Verduno, Basadone, Pelaverga Piccolo, Piedmont, Italy 2011
Only two producers still make wine out of Pelaverga now, and this one is exceptional. Light, yet with strong white pepper tones and red berry fruit.
Edmond Vatan, Clos La Neore, Chavignol, Sancerre, Loire Valley, France 2010
The “Grand Cru” of Sancerre. Pure mineral in a bottle.
Harmand Geoffroy, La Boisserie 1er Cru, Monopole, Gevrey-Chambertin, Burgundy, France 2009 Just cause you can’t beat the price on this age-worthy Burgundy
Muga, Selección Especial, Rioja, Spain 2009 This weather calls for a fully oaked red wine alongside some lamb stew or herbed roasted pork loin
El Maestro Sierra Palo Cortado VORS 30 Year Old Perfect for sipping after dinner or with some carefully picked cheese selection