Liquids: Top Boston Sommeliers
When I studied to be a sommelier, I was, at 25, the youngest kid in the class, surrounded by salt-and-pepper–haired cranksters who wanted to kick my ass for trying to ascend to their ranks. Trust me, I wasn’t there to take their jobs. I was merely gearing up to write the likes of this column. Would that I could do it over again now! Oh, the damage I could do. Wine, you’ve come a long way, baby.
Which is why today so many of Boston’s best are under 40 or so. Gone are the haughty, French-accented gentlemen sneering at your insecurity. In their place are down-to-earth—if sometimes geeky—aficionados who wear their passion on their wine-stained sleeves.
You may not recognize the names of Boston’s best sommeliers. But if you haven’t tasted wine with one of them, you should. Ask for them by name and let them do the work for you. That’s their job, and they love it.
SANDY BLOCK, Legal Sea Foods
As buyer for more than 30 locations, Block uses his leverage to get eyebrow-raising discounts. Then he puts both big hitters and esoteric no-names in the chain’s celebrated “flights,” or wine samplers. “What I want is for someone who comes in for just one glass to say, ‘Wow! That’s the best I’ve ever tasted!’” PICK: 2004 Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand, $29 SPLURGE: 2002 Didier Dagueneau “Pur Sang” Pouilly-Fumé, Loire, France, $75
ERIK JOHNSON, L’ Espalier
Johnson has a reputation for being passionate and a little demanding. “I want you to put your nose in the glass and smile,” he directs me. This isn’t hard to do here (or at sister restaurant Sel de la Terre), given the choice of 500 “boutiquey, harder-to-get, off-the-beaten-path” wines. PICK: 2001 Domaine Alain Burguet “Les Pince Vin” Bourgogne Rouge, Burgundy, France, $40 SPLURGE: 1978 Château Latour, Bordeaux, France, $800
MARK GOLDBERGER, Blu
Goldberger’s job is by all measures enviable. He tastes 500 wines a month in dogged pursuit of seasonal harmony between glass and plate. His pride is in proffering global varieties, and marking up even the heavy hitters as little as possible. “If you spend $100, it should taste like a $100 bottle. It should give you goose bumps.” PICK: 2004 Susana Balbo “Crios” Torrontés, Mendoza, Argentina, $32 SPLURGE: 2001 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia “Masseto,” Bolgheri, Italy, $450
DAVID ALPHONSE, Abe & Louie’s
A year ago, Abe & Louie’s list was exceptionally red-centric—which makes sense for a steakhouse until you consider its popular seafood and raw bar. So Alphonse appended exquisite Alsatians, Austrians, white Burgundies, and Italian whites. “I try to cover every region and price point, and I’m looking for more $50-to-$75 bottles and more half bottles,” he says. PICK: 2002 Donnafugata “Tancredi” Nero d’Avola/Cabernet, Sicily, Italy, $49 SPLURGE: 1982 Château Lafite Rothschild, Bordeaux, France, $850
FIONA HAMERSLEY, Hamersley’s Bistro
Despite her British accent, Hamersley is anything but the PBS archetype, looking bemusedly at us hapless colonists. In fact, she sounds quite American (read: direct) when she says, “I’m not into superduper names. I order a hell of a lot of our wines by the seat of my pants, looking for two things: that they be interesting and, even more, complement our food.” PICK: 2004 Bodegas Angel Rodriguez “Martínsancho Verdejo,” Rueda, Spain, $30 SPLURGE: 2001 Jean-Michel Gérin “Champin Le Seigneur” Côte Rôtie, Rhône, France, $88
ERIC BUXTON, Excelsior
Buxton has a way of getting wine distributors to give him discounts usually offered only to retail chains. Next, he channels his inner coupon-clipper to pore over inventory reductions and corner every bargain possible for his 550-bottle list. “My buying strategy is world-class wines offered at a value.” PICK: 2004 Marquis Philips “Holly’s Blend” Verdelho McLaren Vale, Australia, $30 SPLURGE: 1989 E. Guigal “La Mouline” Côte Rôtie, Rhône, France, $665
ALEX DeWINTER, Grill 23 & Bar
Considering the frenetic pace at this steakhouse, DeWinter is exceptionally laid-back: “We’re talking about fermented grape juice—not a museum piece.” Of course, the list of nearly 1,000 wines here features a good number of museum-worthy bottles, which is why DeWinter looks for balance in lesser-known regions such as Paso Robles and Santa Cruz. “I’m for anything that raises awareness of more-reasonably priced wines.” PICK: 2000 Lamborghini “Trescone,” Umbria, Italy, $40 SPLURGE: 1989 Château de Beaucastel “Hommage à Jacques Perrin,” Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, France, $1,200
CAT SILIRIE, No. 9 Park “Mood, food, and weather.” That’s the Zen-like essence of Silirie’s formula for success at all three of chef Barbara Lynch’s restaurants. At flagship No. 9, that means a list of 500 mostly esoteric, thought-provoking wines from Tuscany, Piedmont, and Burgundy (mood), chosen to harmonize with the Franco-Italian–inspired menu (food), which changes seasonally (weather). PICK: 2003 Côtes de Saint-Mont “Les Vignes Retrouvées,” Gascony, France, $22 SPLURGE: 1995 Salon “Les Mesnil” Blanc de Blanc, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Champagne, France, $285
MARCO DEARY, Via Matta
Pity Marco Deary: His self-appointed task is to cover all Italian winedom, not just the easy-to-spot varieties from the famed Piemontese and Tuscan producers we all know and love. And though this certainly keeps him busy on the floor, don’t hesitate to call him over. “I want you to come to Via Matta and be challenged with something not so familiar,” he says. PICK: 2001 Tenuta di Capezzana “Villa di Capezzana Carmignano,” Tuscany, Italy, $56 SPLURGE: 1997 Luigi Ferrando “Etichetta Nera” Carema Riserva, Piedmont, Italy, $125
MARCUS PALMER, Smith & Wollensky
S&W’s all-American list of nearly 600 wines makes for interesting research for Palmer, who strives to find unusual boutique wines. What makes his list exceptional is the more than 125 outstanding vintages, many dating back to the ’70s. PICK: The Magnificent Wine Co. “House Wine,” Columbia Valley, Washington, $39 SPLURGE: 2002 Hundred Acre Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, California, $900