The Sommelier’s Palate – Ian Burrows, Wine Director & Lead Sommelier at Atelier Crenn, San Francisco

(pronounced suh-mal-‘yAy)

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.”

Ian Burrows, Wine Director & Lead Sommelier at Atelier Crenn, San Francisco

Ian Burrows, Wine Director & Lead Sommelier at Atelier Crenn, San Francisco

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.

Ian Burrows, UK Born, USA Based

Where do you currently practice your sommelier skills (restaurant, hotel, consulting etc)?

I have been based in Northern California since 2008, currently reside in San Francisco and work at an intimate (40 seat) restaurant called Atelier Crenn, run by Chef Dominique Crenn, as Wine Director & Lead Sommelier.


Where have you dined recently (restaurant) that impressed you?

I dine out frequently and have more than one restaurant/bar that I enjoy for their dynamic and original food & beverage models. Verbena SF is a true ‘farm-to-table’ restaurant with an amazing beverage program run by a dear friend of mine, Michael Ireland. 


Where have you dined (restaurant, wine bar) that you were mightily impressed with the wine list and service?

Another casual venue is called 1760 (on Polk Street) and is run by the team responsible for Aquarello – concise & exciting list. For upscale dining I find it hard not to mention The French Laundry – a no-brainer I suppose but after visiting regularly over the past 4 years, I can honestly say I am constantly blown-away by the attention to detail with every single aspect of that restaurant experience.


Where is the most memorable restaurant meal you have had?

Tetsuya’s Sydney – 2007.  Absolute perfection.


Do you have a favourite regular restaurant?

Rose’s Café, Cnr Steiner & Union Street, San Francisco  


Do you cook at home and is there a dish you have perfected?

I used to cook professionally for several years for some pretty cool chefs, so I suppose I still try to emulate that cooking style…. Let’s say its Mediterranean-style food.  Honest, flavourful, rustic…. I like cooking large pieces of meat very slowly on the bone and serving with perfectly grown seasonal vegetables.


Do you have a favourite wine bar?

Hmmm, that’s a tough one…. I suppose I don’t really go to wine bars because I feel that great wine should be accompanied by great food.  I’d say a long lunch at A16 (SF) with a few glasses of wine and a group of industry friends is my ‘wine bar fix’


Do you have a favourite wine merchant?

I feel like Chambers & Chambers are my favourite ‘classic’ merchant, for more esoteric offerings I’d turn to Neal Rosenthal & for Gruner or Grower Champagne, Terry Theise Selections.


What wine are you drinking at the moment?

Pol Roger NV Brut Reserve


Is there a wine that totally moved you – like no other wine – a revelation and motivation for you to pursue you wine obsession?

Believe it or not it was a very accessible wine that was made by a brilliant Beaujolais producer called Pierre-Marie Chermette (Domaine Vissoux).  I was tasting with him and my old boss Tim Johnston and remember thinking how delicious the wine was and being truly ‘involved in the wine conversation’…. I felt included, as if the whole mystery of wine was being lifted to reveal what I consider should be the essence of wine drinking – PURE ENJOYMENT


What’s your latest wine discovery – new region, variety or style?

More of a re-discovery of classic Italy over the past year or so. I’m finding myself drawn towards Nebbiolo, and more often Barolo/Barbaresco/Lessona.  A completely different style of wines, but those which I’m using more and more for pairings are the wines of Madeira & Jerez.


Tell us what is your ultimate wine bargain discovery in terms of price/quality rapport?

Once again, I’ll mention Madeira.  Its not cheap, especially when it’s a few decades old, but relatively speaking nothing else compares to it.  It’s bullet-proof, a sip can last for several minutes on the palate and the historic value is incredible.


Tell us about an inspirational wine and food pairing that has you have experienced recently. 

Lobster, Sweatbreads & Bone Marrow Dumplings with Lobster Bisque with a mature Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne. Absolutely decadent and sublime.


What is the most enthralling wine region you have been to in terms of dramatic scenery, inspiring vineyards and good eating?

I truly believe that there are so many. Simply geographically, I’d have to say Mosel, but considering all factors including hospitality and cuisine, my vote would be Cote de Beaune.


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.

El Meastro Sierra Oloroso 1/14 VORS, Jerez (tradition, contemplation & complexity)

2002 ‘Fleur de Passion’ by Diebolt Vallois Champagne Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru (purity, transparency & definition of soil)

1966 Haut Brion (fine texture, savoriness, freshness, historic)

2011 Greywacke ‘Wild’ Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough (Kevin Judd ensures the drinker to re-think Kiwi SB!)

2010 Antica Terra ‘Botanica’ Pinot Noir (incredible elegance & refinement across all her wines.  Crafted by a team led by one of the worlds most thoughtful and generous woman wine-makers, Maggie Harrison)

1997 Pelissero Barbaresco ‘Vanotu’ (completely over-delivers for price – for me a “sleeper” producer, who will be very famous in the not distant future)


You might also like:

The Sommelier’s Palate – Sommelier Diego Meraviglia, Vice President & Director Of Education for the North American Sommelier Association
Thomas Heitz Chef & Sommelier at Port Restaurant, Frenchman’s Bay, Canada
The Sommelier’s Palate – Sommelier Jessica Marinzeck, a Brazilian living in Malta
The Sommelier’s Palate – Our Sommelier at Sea, George Mitincu, Head Wine Sommelier onboard Disney Cruise Line
The Sommelier’s Palate – Alexander Koblinger MS, Sommelier at Restaurant Hotel Obauer in Werfen, Austria

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