Whether championing biodynamic producers or letting customers buy half a bottle of wine for half the price, F&W's top sommeliers of the year are inspiring wine pros around the country.

April 01, 2011

Top Sommeliers

© Zachary Bonig

Shebnem Ince: Henri, Chicago

Why She Won: For this elegant Michigan Avenue restaurant, she has scrupulously sourced only wines that are biodynamic, organic and non-interventionist.

How She Got into Wine: "My dad managed a big shop called Bragno World Wines here in Chicago for 30-some years. Our front hall was always just filled with bottles of wine, and my dad is a definite wine snob—he loves Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barbaresco and Barolo. So it was a given I'd become a wine pro, too."

Biodynamic Bypass: "I tell my staff never to discuss cow horns buried in vineyards at a table. If someone asks about that aspect of biodynamic winemaking, we say, 'Yes, that is a part of the ritual,' and gracefully move on."

Favorite Tool: "I have a lot of unfiltered, unrefined wines that tend to produce sediment. So I use a filter with a screen when pouring those wines."

Best Henri Pairing: Sole meunière from chef Dirk Flanigan with 2007 Vincent Dancer Meursault ($18 a glass). "The wine tastes like hazelnuts and apples, which works well with the brown butter in the dish."

© Tom Hood/hoodisgood.com

Matt Straus: Heirloom Café, San Francisco

Why He Won: His obsession with aging wines has resulted in a superb library of older vintages from around the world.

On Letting Wines Age: Straus likes to buy wine and age it for years before drinking it. "I've always had an effortless time keeping my hands off of recent vintages, because if I taste something that is too young, it just seems like a shadow of what it's destined to be."

World's Most Under-Appreciated Wine: Old Hanzell Pinot Noirs from Sonoma. "I sought these feverishly for years and years, and now I probably have all that I'll need for the rest of my life. Once these wines hit 35 years old, they really start to strut."

Best Heirloom Café Pairing: The off-the-menu Epoisses burger (anyone can order it) with onion jam and arugula matched with Vin Jaune, an unusual oxidized white wine from the Jura region of France, like the 1992 Rolet Arbois ($86 for a half-bottle). "Burgers are always thought of as a mainstay with red wine, but because of the subtle, funky cheese in our burger, the jury seems to be out as to whether it's best with red or white," says Straus.

© Justin Ide/justinide.com

Cat Silirie: Menton, Boston

Why She Won: Her beautiful wine collection at Menton (chef Barbara Lynch's luxurious new restaurant), combined with tireless staff training and tastings, creates a remarkable wine experience for diners.

Go-To Wine: COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria made in clay amphorae. "It smells and tastes like Sicily—the heat, the herbs, the sun, the volcanic soil—but with an elegance, too."

Favorite Glass: Zalto, from Austria. "When light shines through the glass, the shape creates amazing patterns on the tables: White wines look like sea anemones; red wines, like ruby rings."

Best Menton Pairing: Lynch's butter soup with Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs Champagne ($120). "It's a shellfish soup with emulsified Vermont butter, tiny clams, cockles and lobster that tastes like the ocean. The wine echoes the minerality, and its acidity lifts and lengthens the flavor of the soup."

© Paul Cheney, JWKPEC Photography

Clint Sloan: Husk, Charleston, South Carolina

Why He Won: He's bringing attention to the importance of terroir by organizing his wines by soil types: alluvial, limestone, gravel and so on. "One of the first things winemakers talk about is soil. So for my list, I busted out my old geology book, looked up all the soil types and organized the wines by those categories."

Best Deal on His List: NV Aubry Champagne ($80)—a fantastic, versatile grower Champagne (made by those who also grow the grapes) produced from all premier cru fruit.

If He Weren't a Sommelier: "I would want to be a relief pitcher for the New York Yankees. I was a small kid and the last guy picked in Little League two years running, but playing for the Yankees was always a dream."

Wine Idol: Paul Grieco, sommelier at both Hearth and Terroir in New York City. "I went to Hearth three years ago. I thought I knew wine, but when I looked at that list of funky wines, I thought, Wow, I need to hit the books. He's not afraid to take chances."

Best Husk Pairing: "Our chef, Sean Brock, changes the menu twice a day. He has a lot going on in his dishes, but the 2001 Chateau Musar [$65] from Lebanon, with its balanced fruit and spice, is safe with any dish, no matter what."

© Shea Gallante

John Slover: Ciano, New York City

Why He Won: He's redefined wine service: Guests can try half of a bottle for half price, and he will make the rest available to other diners by the glass. "I try to pepper my list with older stuff, so people can crack open things like a '96 Bordeaux from La Dominique or a 2002 Volnay from Bitouzet-Prieur."

The Half-Bottle Idea: "I'd go to a restaurant where the sommelier was a friend, and he'd say, 'If there's anything you want to try, I'll open it up for you if you commit to a couple glasses.' " Now Slover is extending that professional courtesy to his customers.

Accessible, Affordable Older Wines: "You don't have to spend a ton of money on something like an '82 Mouton to have a mature drinking experience. With a good Côtes du Rhône, you can get that level of mellowness and harmony with only five or six years of bottle age, and for $60 or $70 a bottle on a restaurant list."

Best Ciano Pairing: Chef Shea Gallante's Nantucket bay scallops with hazelnuts, mostarda and brussels sprout leaves. "Scallops are great with lean white Burgundies, like the 2007 Chavy Puligny-Montrachet ($60). The soils in Burgundy are from old sea beds, and that brininess is in the wine."

© Jordan Noel

Steven Grubbs: Empire State South, Atlanta

Why He Won: His wine list is smart, quirky and full of great Burgundies and Rieslings, presented in a way that is conversational instead of intimidating.

Teaching the South to Like Riesling: "People convince themselves not to like Riesling, because they think they don't like sweet wines. But people in the South are already drinking sweet tea and dry Rieslings are great too, so it's like, 'C'mon, drink some Riesling!' I get people into it by having them try it with things like pork belly with kimchi grits. Spice and fat go great with Riesling."

Hardest Combination: "If you've got a hot, rich, velvety soup, it's like wet, gray flannel. Champagne helps cut through the soup."

Best Empire State South Pairing: Chef Hugh Acheson's boiled peanuts with Rare Wine Co. Historic Series Savannah Verdelho Madeira ($11 a glass). "It's a little salty and a little sweet."

© Mark Eberwein

Mark Eberwein: St. Regis Deer Valley, Park City, Utah

Why He Won: Despite the limited catalog of Utah's state-run liquor authority, he has somehow sourced terrific California Cabernets and great Burgundies for the entire St. Regis Deer Valley resort.

Food-Friendliest Wine: "Champagne is the universal donor: the O-negative of wine."

Craziest Wine Request: Once, some ladies brought in a double magnum of Champagne on a hot day. It had been in the car for hours and was almost too hot to touch. I offered to chill it, but they insisted I open it. When I did, the cork shot straight through the ceiling, leaving a two-inch hole. It sounded like a cannon."

Best St. Regis Deer Valley Pairing: At J&G Grill, chef de cuisine Matthew Harris's grilled lamb chop with pistachio pesto and the earthy 2007 Mas de Gourgonnier red ($55) from Provence.

More Great Wine Articles:

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World's Best Sommelier vs. World's Worst Customer

Recipes from Top Sommeliers