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WRITTEN BY JACK BROOM
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
When it comes to selecting a wine, the restaurant experts really are there to serve
I had never heard it uttered in a restaurant before, and certainly not one in which wine prices climb over the $1,000 mark.
Perhaps the remark was made more for its effect on the man's young and attractive companion than on Canlis Wine Director Shayn Bjornholm.
Still, the customer had already named what he considered the salient points: The wine was to be big, bold, not too high in acid, and show what Washington state can do with the cabernet sauvignon grape. He left the other details: vintage, winery and price, for Bjornholm to deal with.
I watched this closely as I stood at Bjornholm's elbow in a jet-black suit borrowed from a friend and a tie supplied by the restaurant. And I saw the Texan's wide smile minutes later as Bjornholm opened, decanted and poured a deep purple 1993 Leonetti Cellar cabernet from Walla Walla. Price: $250.
My goal was to learn about restaurant wine professionals, and how their knowledge and experience can be helpful and instructive for the rest of us, particularly for the 99.9 percent of the population for whom price does, in fact, matter.
Bjornholm was one of five local wine professionals we chose to tap for wine tips and recommendations. Given the restaurant's 15,000-bottle cellar and perennial status as a recipient of Wine Spectator magazine's "Grand Award," it seemed like a logical starting point.
To reflect a variety of cuisine and approaches to wine service, we also visited:
Frankie Dietz at Anthony's Pier 66, where the focus is on fresh seafood and the list leans heavily to wines of the Northwest;
Phred Westfall at Union Bay Café, a neighborhood dinner house in Laurelhurst, where Northwest and California selections dominate a regular wine list, a card of more expensive "wines of unique interest" and an array of about 20 wines offered by the glass;
Joanne Herron at Le Pichet, the Belltown bistro where simple wines from the French countryside complement the cuisine, and wines are offered not only by the bottle and glass but in two sizes of small earthenware pitchers.
Their restaurants vary widely in size and length of wine list, but they have a common bit of advice: Don't be afraid to let a server or wine steward know what kind of wine you like and what you might be willing to try. For the restaurant, this is not simply a matter of courtesy, but of survival. After all, it's not the staff who decides which restaurants stay in business, it's the dining public.
While some restaurants draw acclaim for their vast array of wines and abundant supply Canlis has 1,300 different wines on its 55-page list others zero in on a selection closely tied to their restaurant's mission.
Anthony's Pier 66, flagship of that chain's 18-restaurant fleet, has a comparatively streamlined assortment of 130 wines, built around its goal to celebrate Northwest seafood, produce and wine. So strong is that identity that except for the French champagnes, the list contains no imported bottles: no Aussie shiraz, no Italian chianti, no German riesling, no French bordeaux.
A Bothell native, Dietz, 48, headed to Alaska after her junior year at Fairhaven College in Bellingham for what she intended to be a summer job cleaning rooms at a hunting and fishing lodge. But "I got hooked on Alaska and spent most of the '70s there," taking her first restaurant job as a coffee-shop waitress in Anchorage's Captain Cook Hotel.
Her first serious exposure to the wine business came as a server in Seattle's McCormick & Schmick's in the mid-'80s. Then she went to San Francisco and worked her way up to general manager of Bentley, a seafood restaurant in the Galleria Park Hotel.
"San Francisco is so focused on wine and you are so near the wine country, there was such an opportunity for me to develop a palate and understand some of the nuances of wine."
Among the educational programs she attended was a three-day "train the trainer" program at Beringer Vineyards, in which restaurant wine professionals visited vineyards, barrel rooms and winery labs and of course made extensive observations on the symbiosis of great food and fine wine.
Dietz joined Anthony's five years ago with the opening of the chain's Pier 66 location, where the wood-paneled dining room looks south and west, toward the piers along Alaskan Way, the new Seahawks stadium and Safeco Field, with the top of Mount Rainier appearing to float in the distance.
Dietz said wine provides an enjoyable dimension to a demanding job. "I get the opportunity to impact the restaurant with my talents, rather than just writing schedules." A wine list is never finished; new wines and new vintages constantly appear, as do new flavor combinations and seasonal preferences. Summer calls for refreshing wines, mostly white. Winter asks for hearty wines, mostly red.
Dietz updates Anthony's list every two weeks. Even what seems like a standard dish may take different wines depending on the preparation. When the grilled halibut is served with a lemon-oregano glaze, Dietz recommends sauvignon blanc. But the same fish served with this fall's featured huckleberries may be better served by wine less tart, such as a pinot blanc or riesling.
By the way, did any of you flinch at the word "riesling"? Many wine drinkers first experienced Washington wine as a simple, sweet johannisberg riesling, but later shunned the variety in favor of drier, more complex wines. Now, Dietz said, a "riesling renaissance" is underway, focusing on the wine's balanced floral and fruit qualities.
JUST OVER a decade ago, only the top echelon of restaurants had someone on the floor who could answer questions about wine and recommend wines to pair with specific dishes, said Ronn Wiegand, publisher of Restaurant Wine magazine in Napa, Calif. In a newsletter, Wiegand circulates a cartoon showing an embarrassed waiter who, unable to answer questions about a wine, stammers, "If it really wasn't good we wouldn't be selling it."
But restaurant owners are becoming more aware of wine's impact on the bottom line. A high-end restaurant, one in which the tab will average at least $50 a person, will make 25 to 50 percent of the tab from wine sale, closer to the high end of that range if it's open only for dinner, Wiegand said.
A restaurant typically sells a wine for 2½ times what it pays, Wiegand said. So a bottle the restaurant purchased for $10, which would sell for $15 at retail, would be $25 on a wine list. That's a rough average, he said. On a percentage basis, the markup is typically higher on cheaper wines and lower on high-end wines.
Responsibilities of the job differ as well. Some open virtually every bottle served at their restaurant, others share that task with the servers or other wine specialists, such as Bjornholm's chief lieutenant at Canlis, co-sommelier George Dyksterhuis.
At Anthony's Pier 66, Dietz supervises the entire wait staff. At Daniel's Broiler, Hanke is a key part of the management team, but may help deliver hot entrées to a table or jump into a "swarm service," in which all available employees clear a table as quickly as possible.
At Union Bay Café, Phred Westfall doubles as maître d' and host. The restaurant, open only for dinner, seats about 55, plus eight more at the bar. It has no wine cellar per se; Westfall simply remembers where things are among the 200 bottles waiting on a metal rack alongside the dining room or in cardboard boxes in the crowded hallway off the kitchen.
Westfall, 32, grew up on the Olympic Peninsula. In the ninth grade, at a friend's suggestion, he adopted the odd spelling of "Phred" to make his name different than his father's. His baptism in wine came at 25, when he opened "Of Wine and Mind," a wine shop in Port Angeles. "Of course the foundering economy did nothing to keep it afloat," said Westfall, who closed the shop after two years.
Still, the experience only sharpened his interest, particularly in finding good wines that haven't hit the big time yet. "Anyone can get a good bottle of wine by spending $100. But if you can get a remarkable quality wine for $22, that's much better."
In Seattle, Westfall's jobs included being a host at ObaChine, the Wolfgang Puck pan-Asian restaurant that closed in 1999.
On the edge of Laurelhurst near University Village, Union Bay Café is a neighborhood restaurant, where the number of repeat customers helps shape Westfall's approach to serving wine. "I look at myself like a bookseller of old," he said. "I try to get to know you and your palate, and then I'm equipped to recommend some things you might like to try."
Since he regards wine as an adventure, a few surprises are a must, such as the sparkling red Italian wine, not on the list, that he served over the summer. "Not everybody loved it, but they found it interesting," he said.
Because the café's menu is limited seven to 10 entrees that can change weekly Westfall wants to keep a wine inventory he can quickly reshape to fit the cuisine. Besides, even a medium-sized wine collection is a significant investment in space and inventory costs.
Westfall wishes more Americans were open to trying new wine varieties rather than cling to chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, the longtime vanilla-and-chocolate of varietal wine. He complains that at a recent tasting of high-end California wines, "Not a single wine there lived up to its price. The cabernets were too tannic; the chardonnays were oaky and flabby."
The deep, buttery tones that many California chardonnays develop from long exposure to oak are seldom the best suited to accompany food, he said. For food-friendly whites, Westfall might suggest a pinot blanc or pinot gris.
LAID-BACK Seattle doesn't offer much validation for the stereotype of the sommelier, that haughty fellow in a tux whose main goal is to intimidate customers into spending more than they planned. He blinds his patrons into submission with the gleam from the symbol of his authority, a silver tasting cup called a tastevin, hanging from a chain around his neck. Particularly in tough economic times, savvy restaurants know that developing repeat customers is more important to survival than a one-shot score on a pricey bottle.
Make no mistake, however, the pricey bottles are out there.
Of the 30 California cabernets on the Daniel's Broiler list in Bellevue, most go for at least $100 a bottle. But the list also carries about three dozen wines in the $20-to-$35 price range, most from Washington state.
If you insist on spending more, Michael Hanke would gladly sell you that 18-liter "gargantuan" in the steak display near the entrance. It holds the equivalent of two cases of Matthews Cellars Yakima Valley Red Wine a Bordeaux-style blend and can be yours for $2,000.
Hanke, who carries the title of "manager / wine manager," started his restaurant career where the rubber meets the road: in the parking lot.
The 1977 Nathan Hale grad worked as a parking valet at the original Daniel's Broiler in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood to help finance his studies in management science and business administration at Central Washington University's satellite campus at Edmonds Community College. That was 1981, and Hanke has been with the restaurant's parent company, Schwartz Brothers, ever since.
Now his job includes training his servers about wine, holding tastings every other Saturday from various sections of the list. Waiters sip the wines blind, discuss their attributes and what kinds of foods they'd go with, then uncover the labels and try them once more. Hanke, 43, also built an in-house "wine book of knowledge" with bits of information about wines on the list and Web pages where servers can continue educating themselves. On the restaurant floor, he's available to answer wine questions, open bottles and make sure the operation flows smoothly.
Hanke particularly enjoyed helping build the restaurant's wine list, which offers 300 different wines from a supply of 4,680 bottles. Along with its sister restaurant at Leschi, the restaurant was among six in the state to be added this year to Wine Spectator's "Award of Excellence" list.
All sorts of variables come into play when pricing a wine, Hanke said. A tightly allocated wine, of which the restaurant may get only 6 to 12 bottles a year, may get a larger markup. On the other side, if a wine isn't moving, reducing the markup or moving the wine to the by-the-glass list can help. The situation can get so complicated, Hanke sums it up with Zen-like simplicity. "Wine," he notes, "is a very fluid thing."
WINE WASN'T much of a factor in Joanne Herron's life when she made her first trip to Europe. But that's understandable: She was 19, grew up in Omaha, and had hardly tasted the stuff.
"I'd had a very Midwest existence," she offers. That changed with a bicycle ride from London to Florence, and a visit that stretched from a summer into a year a stay that helped shape the rest of her life. Her most vivid memories come from the French countryside. "Riding through the farmlands and seeing how simply and beautifully people lived ... and so much a part of that was their attention to the main meal of the day, how everyone would sit down, have a good meal and a pitcher of wine."
Le Pichet, on First Avenue downtown, is named for those little earthenware pitchers. The restaurant opened last year with the look and feel of a casual Parisian café. The narrow room, with 32 chairs and eight barstools, is what Herron calls "a completely casual place to drop in for a pitcher of rosé and a plate of sardines or a salad."
Virtually her entire 400-bottle supply except for the whites chilling under the bar rests in an 8-foot-tall rack of shelves visible from just about any seat in the restaurant. Like Westfall, Herron buys wines to serve, not store.
The café was a five-year dream shared by Herron, 46, formerly a manager at The Ruins supper club, and co-owner Jim Drohman, a Boeing engineer-turned-French-trained-chef who gained acclaim at Campagne. Le Pichet is open daily from 8 a.m. to midnight or 2 a.m., but limited to coffee and pastries on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Don't look for the French wines of the rich and famous. There's nary a Rothschild, Latour or Chateau Margaux to be found. Instead, the 50 wines available at any given time, mostly French with a few Italian visitors, are what Herron calls "little country wines," crafted to share, not demand, the spotlight.
"We have nothing on this list that is a grand wine that really stands on its own," she said. "All of these wines were chosen specifically to match the food. I think the French do an outstanding job of producing wines that do that." That modesty is reflected in the prices: most are between $17 and $27 a bottle. Nearly all are available by the pichet (2/3 of a standard bottle), demi-pichet (1/3 bottle) and glass.
Herron knows French wine can be intimidating to some. But she takes the time to explain, for example, how a Trenel et Fils Beaujolais Villages, with floral and youthful qualities, has the smoothness and complexity to fit one of the restaurant's signature dishes, cured and preserved meats made largely on the premises.
Canlis, marking half a century in business, has long been known as a purveyor of fine wine, but that wasn't always the case. When Peter Canlis opened the doors, he offered no phonebook-sized wine list, only this modest notation on the menu: "wine coming soon."
"Mr. Canlis had pretty much used up his money getting the restaurant open," Shayn Bjornholm said. "He needed to start bringing in some income before he could buy wine."
These days, the Canlis cellar fills two downstairs storage rooms, one containing fine French reds aging to perfection. Offerings from the 1970s and '80s are awaiting human companionship, while some new arrivals, such as a case of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, are marked "Do not open until 2010."
Bjornholm, 31, who grew up outside Boston, enjoys the theatrical side of restaurant service. "I had been trying to be an actor in New York, and what do actors do but wait tables?" Even in recent years, he has found some time for theater: A Seattle Times review of a 1998 Belltown Theatre production said of Bjornholm, "This actor would crawl across broken glass to make a point."
Don't mention broken glass around Bjornholm these days. The Riedel crystal he brings out with some precious bottles costs the restaurant up to $55 a stem.
Bjornholm came to Canlis last year, armed with a formal wine education topped with a diploma from the International Sommelier Guild, earned through six months of classes every Monday in Vancouver, B.C. The two-day examination completing the course included essay and multiple-choice questions, plus tasting wines from unmarked glasses and being able to tell where they were made, from what grape variety and vintage, their levels of tannin, acid and sweetness.
Managing a large cellar means constant ordering, receiving and cataloging, plus running a computer program that helps locate any one of thousands of bottles at a moment's notice. On the day I visited, several cases of a California cabernet had arrived as expected, but half were of the wrong vintage, and Bjornholm had to call the distributor for replacement.
Minutes later, he was slipping into his black suit, then joining the wait staff for a plate of meatballs and pasta served family-style at a brief meeting before the doors opened for the evening. At this meeting, servers heard about the night's special dishes and the jazz-night cocktails, and were admonished not to repeat a transgression seen the night before: a dessert being taken to a table without the proper fork.
And then it was show time. The Seattle landmark has a core of faithful customers who dine as early as 5:30 p.m., although wine service builds when a somewhat younger crowd arrives, usually about 8 p.m. Once the action starts, the impossibly tight corridors between the kitchen and dining room are alive with the traffic of servers and assistants calling out "Corner" to minimize the chance of collision. At the end of my evening, I consider it an accomplishment that even though I bumped elbows with a few servers, I didn't knock anything out of their hands.
Reflecting on an evening that turned busier than expected, Bjornholm is tired but keyed up. "The fun part of the job is to be out on the floor," he says, "talking about wines and learning about people. It's a great way to connect with your customers, and I'm sure every sommelier would feel the same way."
Jack Broom is a Seattle Times staff reporter. He can be reached at 206-464-2222 or email@example.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Northwest Living||Taste||Now & Then||Sunday Punch|