Interview with Sommelier Dan Brown of Bayona - New Orleans, LA

November 2011

a-Kyung Choi: You have been associated with Bayona since its inception, working in different capacities. What in particular has kept you there?

Dan Brown: From the beginning in 1990, I found Susan and Regina to be people of integrity that were committed to making Bayona a restaurant that focused on craftsmanship and unique quality without being phony or stuffy or overblown. Bayona is all about fire and not about smoke. We have all worked together to make Bayona what we thought a great small, intimate, comfortable, homey, romantic, hands-on restaurant in the French Quarter should be. To us it is more than a business, it is a place where we spend our lives and do the best work we can to build a great restaurant that is not just about profits and numbers but about great meals in a great environment made by people who love what they are doing. As you mentioned in your email to me, I have worked many places in my career and I find Bayona has a feel and work environment that no other place has had. Profits have always come second to doing what was right for the customer and doing what was right to be a great restaurant. I have found in my life that very few places think like that or even much less operate like that and I find that we always fell like we part of something special and that being a small place, each persons attitude, efforts and commitment make a difference and make each of us a part of Bayona.

HC: Wine has been a life long passion for you. It started out as a hobby and turned into a profession. What about wine inspires you.

DB: I come from a long line of farmers, architects, builders, and people close to the land, close to what they did. Working in an urban environment can be alienating and abstract and what work most people end up doing in most urban environments lacks connection to the land and the people who toil on it. Plus most work in modern urban environments lacks the passionate commitment that comes with working close to the land. Wine, especially as it functions in the environment of fine dining contains so many elements of the land, passion and commitment. All great winemakers at heart are great farmers, not good farmers, not people just making something, but great agriculturists. Whenever I meet winemakers I always find that immediately have a rapport and a connection to them and I always end up talking about soil, yields, weather, all the things that consume farmers. When I sell wine to my customers at Bayona I feel like am an important part of the process of making the efforts and sacrifices that winemakers make worthwhile.

Also the dinner, the grand dinner, which is what fine dining is all about, is one of the oldest rituals of civilization. The sharing of food in a convivial environment is at the heart of society and is the essence of social life. From the beginning of mankind the sharing of the best food a person had with those closest to them in an intimate social environment was the most important of all social occasions and raised survival to civilization and civilization to art. Every couple or group that sits down is a like watching a small passion play unfold. It is composed of subtle rituals and offerings that are complex and fascinating to me. Wine, fine wines in this setting are one of the oldest and most important aspects of these rituals and add a dimension to fine dining that nothing else offers. From the time I talk to the customer until I open and serve the wine and then to see the resulting satisfaction and contribution that a great bottle makes to an extraordinary meal has always captivated me.

All this continues to inspire me about wine. As I choose the bottle I think of the grower and their efforts to create a masterpiece and as I serve the wine I sense the anticipation of the customers. As the meal unfolds and the wine mixes with the food and the people and creates a great meal, I am continually drawn to the drama of the event and I feel like I can direct and control that experience and I can become a part of the winemaker and the drama and play an important role in orchestrating it.

HC: What is your philosophy when pairing wines with Chef Spicer's bold and eclectic dishes?

DB: Susan is an artist and she has an instinct with food and food combinations that very few people have. As I listen to Susan go through her pre-meal presentation with the wait-staff each day I always notice she does something different and special with some dish or a few dishes that is inspired and artistic. As I think about her particular choices I am always impressed, on a daily basis, with how unique her choices are and how artistic and creative they are. They always contain a spark of genius. I am a cook, a good cook but I am not a great cook or a chef and when I analyze Susan's choices I always realize that I would have never thought of that but her choices are always simple, never too complex and they always work in interesting and unique ways that the customers love. As I choose wines to go with these great dishes I try to imagine the food in my mouth and how it not just tastes but how it feels and I try to imagine three combinations with the food. One wine for each end of the spectrum of wines that might go with the dish and one wine for the middle. Take for instance her Salmon served on choucroute with gewrtzraminer sauce. I think of Pinot Noir as being one end of the spectrum and maybe a Sec Champagne being the other end of the spectrum with an Alsatian Riesling being in the middle. What wine would I choose? It depends on the person, the occasion and the situation. If I am making a selection for a couple with extensive dining experience that seem adventurous I might recommend the sec champagne or an Austrian Gruner Veltliner, for a large party maybe the Alsatian Riesling to satisfy as many palates as possible and for a group from California that loves cabernet but wants something to go with the Salmon I might recommend the Pinot Noir. I try to feel out the customers before I make my selection to understand what their interests are and what kind of mood they are in. Many customers want comfort wines that remind them of flavors they have had before, some are excited and are looking for something new and interesting, some are at a business dinner and want traditional choices that confirm good taste and an understanding of classic combinations.

HC: Bayona is known for not only having an extensive wine list, but a reasonably priced by-the-glass offering. What do you look for when devising your wine list?

DB: First of all I look for artisanal wines that are hand-crafted by committed winemakers and generally produced in small quantities. I find these wines in all price ranges from all points of the globe. I always find these wines have character and there is a quality to them that mass produced wines never have. I also look for wines in non-traditional regions for our customers. We recently featured a sparkling wine from New Mexico on our glass list and I am selling a Swiss Merlot on our bottle list now. Again, these wines are well made handcrafted wines that are great values. For instance, I have a Cote Rotie from Giles Barge, their Cote Brune. It is imported by a small importer in New Orleans, Alan Davis and his small company, Select Beverage. Alan spent two days talking to Giles to convince him to let him import 10 cases a year to the New Orleans. It is the pure expression of fresh Syrah fruit, no new wood, all hand picked by harvesters in harnesses attached to cables on a 70 degree slope, walked out by donkeys on mountain trails, all old-world style, all hand produced with old-world techniques. The wine is dark and brooding, it takes about 20 minutes to open after decanting and then it explodes out of the glass. Bacon fat, herbs de Provence. beefy roasted flavors that just linger and linger. I have it on my list for $80 and I will put it toe to toe with any $500 bottle in the world. For my wines by the glass I balance comfort and excitement. I always have a Chardonnay and a Cabernet or Merlot but Chardonnay may by Melville from Conta Costa County, a great value and my current California Cabernet is Cenay "Blue Tooth" by Gerald Rowland. Gerald also sells under the Ramspeck label, which contains a family crest from over 400 years ago when his family sold wine in Europe. They moved to Australia in the 1930's and he went to UCDavis in the 70's. He contract grows grapes and only makes wine in the years when he feels the grapes are at their best and he only distributes his wine in five cities in the US. All hand done, all old-world hand crafted techniques. I consistently sell his wines for $40-$60 or so and $8-$10 per glass on my glass list. I love the guy and his wine and his approach to winemaking. He and people like Giles Barge are what we look for. We usually only find these wines in small quantities but as we meet the winemakers and they get to know us we usually end up in a mutual admiration for each other's approach and the winemakers support up with as large an allocation as possible. Still with a wine list of about 600 labels and 15-20 wines by the glass we usually end up changing or wine lists two to three times per week to keep up with the constant changes. We are always looking for new wines and constantly adding new wines to our list.

For our wine by-the-glass I also balance comfortable Chardonnays and Cabernets with Austrian reds, white Rhones, German whites, Spanish reds and any wine we feel meets our criteria of craftsmanship and value. Right now Spanish reds are some of the best values in red wines on the planet. I keep a Spanish red on my glass list. The same goes for German whites, the 2001 vintage in Germany was spectacular and the prices are great, the wines are luscious and I constantly give free tastes to our customers to turn them on to these wines.

HC: What wine regions do you favor?

DB: I love the Rhone Valley. To me it is the only wine region left in France whose great wines are equivalent to any other region and whose prices are reasonable. Cote Rotie is probably my favorite appellation with Cornas a close second. The wines have a rustic vernacular quality that no other region has. The Rhone Valley is thought to be the oldest winemaking region in France. I have read about the region extensively and its history and I find it fascinating. A Cote Rotie can taste alternately heavy and light and I find myself amazed that one wine can have that much complexity and depth and such character. A friend of mine refers to Cote Rotie as Burgundy on steroids and I agree, if you take a complex, rich, elegant Burgundy and imagine its flavors intensified and compounded with herbs de Provence and maybe a little fresh grilled beef and touched-up with a little licorice, just a hair, and then sprinkled with a half pinch of Asian spicing you could get a good Cote Rotie. I love Burgundy as well, I tell my customers that a good Burgundy is like a bad boyfriend or girlfriend, you know you reach this point where you think you've had enough and that they are just not worth the trouble, you know, you have too much self-respect to put up with this abuse anymore, and then you have this wonderful, magical evening and you say to your self...I think I'll hang in there a while longer, because when its good it is so good. Burgundy will break your heart but it will also take you to your greatest heights and when it’s good its not just great it is ethereal. But when it’s bad it’s thin, weak, and acidic. Burgundians do a lot of chaptilizing and acidifying and in years when they have some bad weather, which is most years they over manipulate their wines and they taste chemically and insipid. But when artists like Freddie Mungier and Michel Lafarge coax their grapes out of the ground and craft their wine it is usually magical. Then it becomes like a well-crafted dish, subtlety and balance become more important than force or excess. The wines can be elegant and alluring with plenty of flavor and character. Burgundies remind me of great classical music, complex yet constructed so that all the components fit together to form a harmonious masterpiece.

I also love German and Alsatian wines. I think the Riesling grape is the most under appreciated and underutilized grape in the world. I worship old Madeiras. I currently have a 1933 Malmsly on my by-the-glass list and it is otherworldly. Personally I measure every restaurant I dine in by the yardstick of their Madeiras. No wine list may be called great unless it contains old Madeira by-the-glass. And, I do love champagne, but I prefer the small estate grown labels like the ones represented by Terry Thiese. They are not blended and they are better than most $250 tete de cuvees, and they sell for $60-$65, many in vintage years. Right now I have an Aubry Brothers Champagne by-the-glass that is 60% Pinot Menuire, one of the few in champagne. It has a lime-peel talcum powder nose and a rice freshly baked bread palate with a deep gold color and very lively bubbles. It's yummy and my customers love it. I'm on a kick right now where I drink Champagne through the meal with each course.

HC: New Orleans isn't necessarily known for being a wine-drinking town. What types of customers do you have and what are their preferences and level of wine knowledge.

DB: New Orleans is a tough-tough wine town. The collectors here are educated, many doctors, lawyers, and professors and they tend to be complex collectors with broad knowledge and European focused in their collections. New Orleans has a wine drinking history going back to the 1700's and the largest local retailer, Martin Wine Cellar is one of the longest continually operating family owned wine shops in the US. Martin's is THE oldest continually operating representative of Latour wines in the US. Antoine's restaurant is the oldest continually operating fine dining restaurant in the US. It was founded in 1840 and has been serving fine wines in competition with numerous other restaurants since then. Their menu was printed exclusively in French until about 1992. The city has many collectors who have been involved with public tastings for decades and most of them are very opinionated. Minor wars have been fought in New Orleans over Burgundy and Bordeaux. Many collectors in New Orleans are third and fourth generation collectors and they dine at restaurants that they first attended with their great-grandparents. It has been quite a task to lure some of these diners to our 13 year-old restaurant. We tend to attract some of the most knowledgeable and eclectic of the local wine crowd and New Orleans is a big Burgundy crowd. The locals know exactly what everything costs wholesale and retail and will raise hell if they think any of our prices are out of line. The locals also drink a lot of Champagne, particularly when it’s hot and a lot of white wine as well in the warm weather. We see a lot of sauvignon Blanc drunk and we sell a lot of eclectic whites such as Austrian, German, Rhone, Loire, and New Zealand.

We also tend to attract "foodies" on a national and international basis. Susan was trained in Paris and participates in cooking events all over the world and many of our customers come from across the globe to see her and try her food and wine. We get a very wine savvy crowd that will not hesitate to correct my pronunciation of a French wine appellation. We also get a lot of California diners and they can't believe our list is NOT mostly US wines. They usually ask for help to pick something new but many want a California wine and we keep a reasonable selection of big names to keep the most hard-core Chardonnay and Merlot drinkers happier than ground hogs in soft mud.

HC: How did you become interested in culinary antiques? How do you use it in the restaurant to enhance your customers' dining experience?

DB: I have loved antiques since I was a child. My Grandparents houses were old and full of old family furniture and antiques and I came to New Orleans when I was 18 to go to college on a scholarship that I could have used at hundreds of other colleges throughout the nation but I chose New Orleans because of its old history and culture. As I fell in love with wine over 25 years ago and started cooking and entertaining constantly at home, I began collecting culinary antiques to prepare and serve our dinners. As a child my Grandmother's sister had inherited my Great-grandmother's silver and china and she served great German feasts every Thanksgiving and Christmas in Nashville with the elaborate silver and china. We had great dinners everywhere in our family but the dinners at Aunt Dorothy's were very special and the silver and china made a presentation and had an effect that nothing else seemed to do. As I began developing my own collection I became fascinated with the beauty of antique silver and glass and I began collecting and using antiques for entertainment. I found my friends loved the presentation and I began researching the history and studying the production of these antiques. As I began my Master's work at Tulane I was allowed to research and write papers on silver and glass as part of my Master's of Preservation Architecture degree. At this point my interest became very involved and I decided to use many of my antiques at Bayona for wine service and dinner. My customers went nuts over the antiques and now many of them call in advance for special dinners and request certain glassware or dinnerware for their evening. I usually use some late 18th century decanters for wine service and then I have some early American pressed glass I use for underliners and for cork plates. I have a number of Early American and Georgian wineglasses I use for desert wine service. I have a number of Hanoverian silver tablespoons constructed in about 1750 that I use for soup courses and desert service. I find the antiques create a feeling and experience that nothing else does. The customers love it and it makes them feel like they are part of the history of these items and their pasts.

HC: It's clear that you have very divergent passions, architecture, antiques collecting and wine. How are you able to balance such different professions and talents? How are they associated?

DB: During an average week in the fall and spring I work four nights a week on the floor at Bayona as a Sommelier. I spend one night a week at class for my Ph.D. program, one night a week teaching, I usually have another class Monday Wednesday and Friday during the day, I search ebay after work late at night for my antiques and then study some, I fill my days with tastings and meetings at Bayona and reading for class and Sunday is for my Wife and daughter. I find all these interests complement each other and I love it. Wine is the center of my life and the other interests complement it. I constantly talk to my customers about architecture, history and antiques as I serve them wine and I have a lot of loyal customers that I have known for decades. The qualities that make wine great, its craftsmanship and dedicated winemakers are the same qualities that make antiques and architecture great. The more I learn about and understand these fields I find it only broadens my knowledge and understanding of wine. I try to honor the artists and craftsmen who have made great wine and great silver and glass by using these items to make a great environment and a great experience for my customers. Also by using the antiques they become alive rather than dead objects on a shelf. Wine is made for drinking and not collecting. I hope that the meals we craft at Bayona are worthy of the craft and love that the winemakers put into their wine. All of these things work together to make my job at Bayona as Sommelier a rich experience for me and hopefully for my customers as well.