Just had our first wine training at the new restaurant Soba, with the new staff. The topic of discussion; Italian Wines. The guest speaker; Stan "THE WINE MAN"® Lalic.
I've been a big fan of Stan's wines ever since I got into this crazy game. Every wine is distributed in the U.S. by Stan alone. Each wine is 90+ points, with a few reaching 100 points or tre bicchieri from Gambero Rosso (the Wine Spectator of Italian wines). As soon as I started at Soba I noticed a complete disregard for Italian wines on the list, and instantly called up Stan. Some of his whites were perfect for the Pan-Asian cuisine, and the reds are just too delicious to turn down. In a restaurant that serves cabernet with sushi (that's mostly due to customers preferences... not the recommendation I would make), I thought there was a definite need for a few dolcettos, barbarescos, and my favorite; amarone.
Stan brought us 10 bottles to taste with staff: Manni Nossing Kerner, Borgosan Danielle Pinot Grigio & Arbis Blanc, Volpe Passini Zuc di Volpe Pinot Bianco, Rosa Bosco Sauvignon Blanc, Palari Faro & Rosso Del Soprano, Poderi La Collina Labbra Di Giada, Cecilia Monte Incognito, and San Rustico Gli Occhi Blu Di Sabrina Amarone.
Now, before you get all frightened by the funny names in Italian, don't fret... I'm gonna walk you through this bottle by bottle, and demystify some of these labels for you.
Let's start with the whites. Manni Nossing is the winemaker of the first bottle from Alto Adige, which is in the northern part of Italy, right on the border with Austria. The cooler climate makes for great white wines like this crisp varietal, actually called "kerner". You're not going to find much kerner in the U.S. This particular one is priced at $27.97. Crisp apple, notes and a slight anise (that's anise... like licorice flavor, smart-ass) lingering in the fore palate. Nice quaffing wine and perfect with shellfish.
Next wine should be one you're familiar with, though have probably never tasted when it's done as well as Borgosan Danielle's product; pinot grigio. At $36.95, this pinot grigio had better be good, right? Well Borgosan Danielle's pinot grigio does not fail to impress. It's a heartier wine than the insipid dry white that has inundated the U.S. Forget everything you think you know about pinot grigio. This wine is full of sweet fruit, a hearty backbone from oak aging. It is a great food wine, pairing well with everything from strong fish to chicken... and I dare say it would be a great pairing with any pork dish, as long as the sauce was not too rich.
Borgosan Danielle also produces the Arbis Blanc which is a blend of tocai friulano, pinot bianco, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Mellow, yet full-bodied. Honey and butteriness you'd expect from a chard, but the sweetness of the tocai balances it out and gives it a nice round flavor. Heavy on the tongue and highly drinkable with some great minerality from the sauvignon blanc. $38.50. Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchierri (three glasses) Award. 95-100 Points... for what that's worth to you...
And... the staff's favorite... Volpe Passini Zuc di Volpe Pinot Bianco at $33.95. Springer Wine review says it far more eloquently than I could... and every word rings true for this beauty "gushes with white peach and ripe mango with hints of papaya and pineapple which coats the palate with fruit-filled creaminess from its partial barrel fermentation. All this is placed in a framework of highly structured and perfectly balanced acidity... dry, medium-bodied, rich and opulent and clearly designed to accompany food. This wine should be served just slightly chilled to experience its layered, creamy texture and complex, exotic fruit." This was a wine that I wasn't particularly interested in when Stan broke it out of the carrying case for me to sample. What could I really need a pinot bianco on this limited list for, anyhow... but once I tasted the intricate, incredibly well balanced finesse of this wine, I ordered her up for our list. When asked by Stan "If you were stuck on a dessert island with only one of the white wines, which would you pick?" Majority of the staff raised their hands for this beauty.
I stayed my hand for my favorite of the whites; Rosa Bosco Sauvignon Blanc. This is a powerhouse sauvignon blanc from Italy ("a sauvignon blanc from Italy... you must be crazy!"). Reminiscent of the Bordeaux whites. Built on the powerful sauvignon blanc foundation there is a creaminess you're not likely to find from any other sauvignon blanc purveyor. The highly acidic varietal finds a wonderful balance here between cotton candy, confectioner sugar and yeasty champagne dryness. I loved the many different layers of intricacy I found in this wine... with a lingering palate that touched the senses with faint brushes of vanilla. A far cry from the tart, grapefruity "sauv blancs" that tend to be the current craze. This baby goes for $47.38 . A more impressive "sauv blanc" I have yet to find (though I will say, Orin Swift's Velladora comes pretty damn close).
(TO BE CONTINUED... WITH THE REDS)
To order these wines, you may have to go straight to "the man" if you can't find them in your local wine and spirits distributor. Address to follow:
Stan "The Wine Man"® Lalic 1201 Woodbourne Avenue TELEPHONE: (412) 341-9463 Pittsburgh PA 15226-2315 FAX: (412) 343-8466 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org CELL: (412) 736-7017
Okay, back to the original question; "Who is Sean D. Enright?" (and I think we've just scraped the surface of that query, enough so that you know what my credentials are) and "Why should we care about his wine picks?"
Second question can be summed up by the timeless phrase "practice makes perfect". My wife likes to say that we are "functioning alcoholics". She says this tongue-in-cheek of course, but I'd like to take the notion a step further... I like to refer to myself as a "professional drunkard!"
Let's put it this way... I drink EVERY day. I drink, perhaps a dozen different wines, liquors, beers, daily, as part of my job. I then judge whether I (or my staff) can sell this alcoholic (though I do love dabbling with non-alcoholic beverages as well... one of my favorite restaurant projects was compiling a non-alcoholic soda menu for my more sober patrons) beverage at the price that a restaurant mark-up would necessitate. I taste thousands of wines a year. And, while I don't have a rating system which major publishing market houses refer to for their critical reviews, I do have a very simple rating system, which is my customers and my staff's appreciation of my choices. Sometimes I fail their expectations, but more often than not (and my restaurant sales will reflect this) I "wow" and excite my guests with new interesting varietals and styles that they're not going to read about in the major trade mags.
I will not sit here and tell you that I'm a classically trained Sommellier or UC Davis Grad. I am a simple, humble servant to the god Bacchus. My goal is to keep the subject of wine light, lively and conversational. I will not sit here and tell you I know everything there is to know about wine, far from it. And fuck the guy who tells you he does know everything there is to know about wine. That douche-bag is straight-up lying to you. The world of wine is too vast. It takes an army of magazines, bloggers, wine store clerks, websites, TV personalities to help us choose which bottle would be the absolute BEST bottle to drink with this evenings dining selection tandoori barbecued shrimp.
I have a simple approach to wine tasting, buying and selling. If I (or you) like the wine... it's a good wine! I don't care what Karen MacNeil says. That's my mantra, and I stick by it "If you like the wine, it's a good wine." We all get introduced to different levels of wine quality the more we consume. Your tastes will evolve. But there is no wrong or right wine... hell, it's all just fermented grape juice. Sure it takes on a magical quality that transcends mere alcoholic beverage. But the more mystique we add to the simple act of drinking wine, the more enjoyment we deny ourselves.
The wine world is too full of ego, conceit, misdirection and marketing... I'm gonna give it to you straight. I'll be tasting wines, and passing my thoughts onto you. And you'll give me plenty of feedback, I hope. And we'll all share in the wonderful joy of wine together, without the constraints of rating systems, trade mags, marketing power brokers, and wine-snobs.
I want you to get comfortable, sit back, pour a glass, relax... and know that whatever it is you've got in your glass, if it makes you happy... well, that can't be all that bad, huh?
(side note: I certainly use a little levity when describing my persuasion toward the drink, but I want to note that alcoholism and substance abuse are no laughing matter. I've seen to many friends die from heroin, and I watched my grandmother struggle with alcohol until her untimely death. I don't take addiction lightly, and if you or someone you know suffers from addiction, the best thing you can do is confront the disease. Some support groups to help: http://www.aa.org/, http://www.drug-addiction.com/)
After years of designing and selling an award winning wine list at Casbah, and revving up our sales both at the bar and on the floor, the "powers that be" asked if I'd be adverse to the idea of moving to sister restaurant Soba/Umi. Soba is the Pan-Asian specialty restaurant of the BbRG, while Umi is, by far, the finest sushi bar/restaurant within a 300 mile radius. The argument has been made by regular and new guests alike, that Umi, with Executive Chef Mr. Shu, is one of the finest sushi restaurants in the country. I will leave that debate to the experts. Either way, I would say Umi is the finest restaurant, not only in BbRG, but in the city of Pittsburgh... and I've eaten at all of 'em. After some personal contemplation, I decided I would give Soba/Umi a chance. I loved what I was doing at Casbah, but was also eager to learn a whole new cuisine. Moving to Soba/Umi has required me to retrain my palate to find complimentary wine pairings for more brighter, crisper flavors from Asia, where my entire culinary experience up to this point had always been richer, heartier dishes inspired by French and Italian cuisine. I was anxious to test my ability, and learn new cooking styles and techniques from a part of the world that has it's own classic style of cooking that is completely outside the realm of anything I'd ever attempted, at home, before. And here I stand today. Discovering new wines to compliment the lighter styles of cuisine I now have the pleasure of working with. At home cooking Thai, Japanese, Indian & Chinese cuisine. Discovering the wonderful worlds of soy, teryaki, ponzu, mirin, hoisin, tandoori... AND SAKE!
That's basically my background for reference... next I'll discuss exactly why my experience leads us to wine recommendations from yours truly... and then... we get to the good stuff!
Eventually Jim moved on from Cafe Allegro, and, after a few shaky managerial transitions, I was asked to take over the position of bar manager, which included revitalizing our dying wine program. I brought my palate and a sincere dedication to my profession as I reinvigorated our wine and cocktail lists. Quickly, Cafe Allegro made a comeback - our list was once again recognized by Wine Spectator, and we started seeing our accomplishments honored by local press with numerous awards and high critical praise. Within a few years I took over as General Manager at Cafe Allegro.
During the last couple years leading up to the GM position, I had also been producing, promoting and performing in a small poetry/performance art/music showcase called yawp Carnival Poetica. We featured local poets and musicians and artists in a 4+ hour program which was tied to a small press 'zine that I and friend, fellow editor, Eric Bliman, were publishing. It was a huge success which explored the rich artistic diversity of Pittsburgh at the time. I mention this because I've always felt that wine was, in many ways, very similar to poetry & art. There is an intrinsic value to wine, where a great bottle can have both physical beauty which we are exposed to through our palate rather than through our ears or eyes, and our criticisms are based on our unique perspectives which will always be different from person to person.
After a seven years at Cafe Allegro, among some of the finest professional servers in the city of Pittsburgh, It was time to move on, and I was asked to join the staff at the Big Burrito Restaurant Group's (BbRG) Mediterranean Kitchen and Wine Bar: Casbah. I had always admired Casbah and when my friend Jennifer (then Catalina) called and told me there was a server position opening up, I jumped at the opportunity to work for BbRG. I saw the move as an opportunity to spread my wings and learn other restaurants management techniques. At Cafe Allegro, as a small family establishment, managers pretty much had to train themselves. I looked forward to having some official corporate training in restaurant management, and where better than the largest local restaurant chain; BbRG. http://www.bigburrito.com/
I worked briefly as a server (2 mos.) before being promoted to Wine Director. Casbah was one of the largest wine buyers in Pittsburgh, my inventory from Allegro to Casbah quadrupled. So I was really able to branch out and experiment with different wine & liquor product from around the world, with a focus on European varietals and styles. Under my direction, working hand-in-hand with our GM Jennifer (now Fisher), the Casbah bar and wine program took off. Recognition came from local press, as well as national tourism groups such as AOL Cityguide. Most notably as one of the Top Ten Wine Bars in Pittsburgh in an article by Elizabeth Downer for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06236/715790-46.stm.
We had a great run for 3 1/2 years, Casbah and I. Casbah was a unique restaurant that was extremely dedicated to it's wine program. The list was constantly changing, evolving, growing. And our customers responded ecstatically to the cool new varietals that I was bringing in. We tasted (tested) our staff monthly. The staff was excited and knowledgeable (a great combination for a wine bar... no doubt!).
My tastes started leaning to more obscure, off-the-wall styles. Sure, we had the chardonnays, cabernetsauvignons, merlots & pinotnoirs that were the standards and absolutely essential, but we also turned our guests on to Douro style red wines, good roses (my own personal crusade), Bordeaux blends, Priorat blends (Rhone & Bordeaux mixes), Lagrein, and theaforementionedLemberger which I brought with me to Casbah as well.
They were heady times, and our clientele appreciated the introduction to varietals and styles they'd never seen or tasted before.