He might be shining in the Crescent City, but Sommelier and Beverage Director John Mitchell's talents began twinkling well before he came to New Orleans in 2009. In fact they began eight years earlier, in Mitchell's native South Carolina, where the young professional got his first job—and discovered his passion for the beverage industry—at McCrady's in Charleston.
It might have only been a first stop, but McCrady's introduced Mitchell to the wine vocabulary and basics of service that would become the foundation of his career. Mitchell was able to expand upon those basics with his next post, as assistant sommelier to the wine director at Restaurant O in his hometown of Greenville. It was here that Mitchell gained an appreciation for the management aspects of beverage service, an invaluable savvy that allowed him to transition into assistant sommelier at Seeger's Relais & Chateaux property in Atlanta, Georgia. This proved not only an illustrious post for the young sommelier—who found himself conducting tasting dinners for Coca Cola and Time Warner executives—but a pivotal step in the development of his palate. When he returned to Restaurant O as wine director, Mitchell had developed the ability to pair within the eclectic range of flavors in New American cuisine.
Shining ever brighter with each post, Mitchell began as assistant sommelier at the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans before being drawn (as many are) to the talents of 2003 StarChefs.com Rising Star Chef Scott Boswell. As sommelier and wine director of Boswell's Stella!, Mitchell has amassed an impressive, diverse wine list, which today rounds out at about 500 labels. And while Mitchell's main concern is keeping his guests happy, his sparkling talent can't avoid recognition. Not only did the (still very young) sommelier rank as our 2012 New Orleans Rising Star Sommelier, he's earned Wine Spectator's Best of Award of Excellence for four years running.
Interview with Chef John Mitchell of Restaurant Stella – New Orleans, LA
Katherine Sacks: Describe your fondest wine memory.
It was at McCrady's
in Charleston, South Carolina. I was drinking a 1989 St. Joseph Rouge Vigne de l'Hospice. It was really my first fine-dining gig, and the wine director at the time was Craig Donofrio. I always asked him to serve me interesting wines when I came in to eat. The wine he gave me exploded out of the glass. I didn't even know anything about wine at the time, but it was amazing. I realized I really love wine, that it was what I want to do.
KS: What is your philosophy on wine and food?
Wine and food to me is just a great marriage that should happen whenever possible. My philosophy is to never overpower; I try to achieve balance. I very much use wines as my artist's palate, my coloring book to paint onto certain dishes a different flavor profile. I try to match the citrus or apple or lemon coming from a Chablis to a fish dish, as you would take citrus and add it to the dish. I treat the wine as if it were almost a food group.
KS: At Stella!, is your list more New or Old World?
With New Orleans and with my palate, my list is predominantly Old World. There is a very Francophilian market in New Orleans. I'm definitely a fan of Burgundy and Bordeaux and it shows on the list.
KS: What's your favorite wine resource?
My favorite wine resource is the Court of Master Sommelier's website
. It's incredibly informative, with blogs, tasting notes, and wine maps. It answers almost everything.
KS: Tell me about a perfect wine and food match that you discovered.
JM: One of the most recent ones that I'm in love with is roasted duck from Stella!, served with [wine from] one of my favorite regions in the world, Sicily. The Sicilia Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Etno Rosso is almost a marriage of Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo. It has red fruits with fine grain tannins, and matches well with the smokiness of the duck breast.
KS: What wines do you favor for your cellar at home?
Right now it happens to be wines from Greece. I've really been exploring the country heavily, and it's a new influence in New Orleans. Assyrtiko, Moschofilero—they really have these versatile grape varietals that exist in these 100-year-old vineyards. These wines hadn't really existed in New Orleans. Now there is a new importer bringing them in. I helped bring him because of my fascination with the wine.
KS: Who are your mentors? What are some of the most important things you've learned from them?
JM: I've got to put Thomas Keller up there as far as food is concerned. I've never worked at any of his restaurants, but I've worked at events with him and it's just amazing to see how he works. Scott [Boswell] has been incredibly enlightening. He totally trusts me with the pairings, and his taste for food is just phenomenal. Elizabeth Dowdy is a great wine presence here in town, she's just brilliant. Talking about wines with her is just amazing. And I have to mention Danny Baker, a friend from Greenville, South Carolina, who really got me into wine. He helped catapult me into what I am doing now.
KS: If you weren't a sommelier, what would you be doing?
I was always fascinated with oceanography and sea life and biology, but never pursued it heavily enough to get a degree. Or sales. I love being in front of people and talking with them and hopefully giving a positive change from what I've sold them.
KS: Which person in history would you most like to share a bottle of wine?
I feel it would have to be Thomas Jefferson. It may be cliché but he is noted for his taste for Bordeaux. I would want to say thanks to him for introducing Americans to this great style of wine and hear about his travels through Europe. And watch him take out his wooden teeth.
KS: What wine trends are you seeing in your city?
The wine market is really influenced by France, which is great, but people are opening up Spanish or all Italian restaurants, which has caused an influx of Sherry and Campagna in the market. New Orleans has very slow food, so it's not susceptible to a lot of change, and it is considered a pretty small market for wine. But there has been resurgence. Sommeliers are really starting to carve and make their own programs and personalities, which is really exciting to see. It's being taken away from the mundane that had existed for so long.