Beltrami: At a relatively young age, you have risen to the top of
your profession, as both sommelier and maitre'd at a Wine Spectator
Grand Award-winning restaurant. How did you come to wine as a profession?
Steven Lande: I didn't have much exposure to wine growing up,
although everything in my family revolved around food and the dinner
table, and I always loved beverages of all kinds-milk shakes, coffee,
tea-so the framework was there. My mother was a musician and also very
interested in art, so I think I picked up my sense of aesthetic appreciation
I discovered wine while traveling in Europe after college. I remember
having a C™tes du Rhone red, served chilled, in Paris, and thinking
that this was really something different! I had been a finance major
in college, so when I returned to Chicago I started working in my chosen
career, at the Board of Trade. After two years there, though, I felt
unfulfilled, and I happened into a restaurant job at Charlie Trotter's.
It all came together for me there very rapidly-my interests in food,
art, history, travel and business-in the shape of a wine bottle. I was
very lucky to have a great boss and mentor in Charlie Trotter, who took
in a young guy who had only passion to offer.
AB: What traits or skills are required to be a successful sommelier?
SL: This is really a service occupation, and especially here
in the Midwest, there's a very strong emphasis on providing attentive
service. If you are unable or unwilling to truly serve people, you shouldn't
be a sommelier. Guests often say to me, "You really seem to love your
job," which, of course, I do, and I want to project that attitude at
all times. The ability to read people is also very important: How knowledgeable
are they? How interested? Do they want me to choose the wine, or do
they want an in-depth dialogue? Confidence is also crucial-as soon as
a guest sees hesitation or fear in a sommelier's eyes, he loses his
faith in you, his trust is broken. Customers are looking for a pro.
AB: Where do you get that confidence from?
SL: From knowledge: knowledge of wine, knowledge of food products,
and even knowledge of restaurants around the country, so you understand
your customers' experiences and expectations. To learn about wine, you
have to read about it, taste it, and remember what you taste-as a sommelier,
you need that point of reference.
AB: You oversee a 650-bottle wine list. How often do you manage
to touch base and re-taste your wines?
SL: I want the wine list to be part of our service to guests.
For people who don't want to have to talk to the sommelier, I provide
some information so that they can make a confident choice; that's also
the purpose of the 'sommelier's selections.' But I also keep the list
very straightforward-sassy wine categories or tones aren't appropriate
for a Grand Award-winning wine list. And I would never put tasting notes
on the wine list. I don't want to tell people what to taste, and deprive
them of that discovery process.
AB: You offer verticals [multiple vintages] from a good number
of Bordeaux and California producers, including Pˇtrus, Latour, Mouton-Rothschild,
Dominus and Opus One. What is the appeal of verticals?
SL: Verticals are very important in classic regions, not so much
in the new world. In Bordeaux, they're still making tannic* wines, which
require aging, and which vary greatly from year to year. Wine collectors
and experienced, discerning drinkers may have tried certain vintages
but not others, or have personal favorites, or want to see how a vintage
they have in their cellars is drinking.
AB: Do you experience much demand for the high-end, collectable
SL: Very much so. I'm very lucky to be working at the Four Seasons,
where we have a knowledgeable clientele with the interest and ability
to dine this way. The California trophy wines, like Maya, sell themselves.
With the old-world wines, customers usually want to discuss their selection
with me; they may have narrowed it down to three or four vintages, and
want to consult with me to make a decision.
AB: You now offer 50 wines by the glass, which I think is fantastic.
SL: Thanks! This year, we're offering 50 wines by the glass to
celebrate the Dining Room's 25th birthday-25 whites and 25 reds. I'm
thrilled because it increases our ability to serve our customers as
individuals- with 30 varietals represented on that list, we can really
match people with the wine of their preference. I've never liked wine
flights [small pours, generally 1.5 ounces, of several wines served
in a set] or preset wine dinners for that reason- they don't take into
account the taste of the individual. You cannot serve people well if
you don't get their input.
AB: That notion of service seems to be a key issue for you.
SL: It is. I'll give you another example: vintage port. Guests
love it but restaurants don't, because it doesn't do well by the glass
(it fades quickly). Most restaurants prefer to offer a late-bottled
vintage or tawny port by the glass, as do I, so I took vintage port
off the glass list at one point. My customers demanded it, though, and
I had to put it back on the list, even though there's now some wastage.
You have to listen to your customers.
AB: I always ask our StarChefs sommeliers for their thoughts
on the pairing of food and wine.
SL: Textures are something I concentrate on; I have always been
sensitive to textures in food. Personally, I have very strong convictions
about what's right and wrong, but, again, I believe in service, not
in imposing my ideas on my guests. In America, matching wines with food
is more challenging, and more fun, than it often is in Europe, where
the foods and wines of a region are usually served together, and all
the players know the rules. I have put suggestions on the menu to remind
guests of a few classic combinations, like Sauternes with foie gras,
and Champagne with caviar. If a customer has a favorite wine, I'm certainly
not going to stop them from ordering it, because their whole being is
leaning towards it and they are going to like it!
AB: What are your goals in your career as a sommelier?
SL: I wanted, when I set out in this profession, to be in charge
of a 4-star dining room, or a Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning wine
list. I've been very fortunate in being able to realize both of those
goals already. My higher goal, if you will, may be simpler-to change
people's lives, even if only momentarily, and to make important moments
last longer in their memories.
*Tannic: Wines with noticeable tannins. Tannins are natural compounds
found in grape skins, seeds and stems, and in oak barrels. They are
antioxidants that enable long aging, but can cause dry mouth and bitter
sensations. As a wine matures, its tannins soften.
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