Interview with Sommelier Jean Luc Le Dû of Daniel - New York City

November 2011

Ha-Kyung Choi: How did you go from being a rock and roll musician to a professional sommelier?
Jean Luc Le Dû: I started to work in the restaurant business out of necessity back in 1986. I started to read about wine because I thought it was a really wonderful subject, combining food, wine, history and geography. I never thought of making a career out of it because at the time there were really no sommeliers in this country. I started to work for David Bouley in 1992 and started to do wine competitions more for my personal knowledge. When I started working for Daniel, I was already studying quite a bit and doing many tastings and visiting vineyards. It just happened that the sommelier position opened around the time I won the best Sommelier competition in Northeastern US in 1997. So I took a different approach, not having gone to any wine/sommelier school but being completely self taught.

HC: There is strong representation of wine from around the world on your wine list. What do you look for in new wines? What are some of your favorite emerging wine regions?
JL: A wine region that has been emerging for some time is Spain. What makes a wine region interesting is the quality of its wine but also its value. I think Spain has proven in the past 10-15 years that it can produce great wine at very affordable prices. Yet at the same time they have cult wines that are really expensive and worth the price, like some wines in the Priorat and Ribera del Duero. I think Chile is also an emerging region. You can find a great bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon for $6-$7 that you couldn’t find in America or in France.

This is one of the best times to enjoy wine and be in the wine business. Since the 1980s, there’ve been so many advances in technology and new discoveries so a lot of regions are producing much better wines at better prices.

HC: In 2002, you were awarded with the Wine Spectator Grand Award. How were you able to build such a prestigious wine list in so short a period of time?
JL: I think it was a natural progression. When I was the sommelier at Restaurant Daniel on 76th Street, we had about 350 selections on the wine list. I am just as proud of the 350 selections we had then as the 1600 selections we have today. We opened this restaurant with about 800 selections and through the course of four years we would add about 200 selections a year.

Over the years we’ve develop a very good relationship with wineries and they’ve allowed us to acquire verticals of their wines you normally don’t find anywhere else. That gives our list a very personal touch and what makes the list exciting. For example, Hansel Winery in Sonoma County just got us wines dating back to 1965. Pinots from America from the 60s is just something you don’t find anywhere else. Chateaux Latour in Bordeaux regularly sends us their vintages. So I think those relationships are important to the list at Daniel.

More importantly, there is a broad selection that starts from $26 a bottle up to the sky’s the limit. People expect that when they come here all you can find are big Bordeaux and great white Burgundies, and of course we have those wines, but it’s also important to have some country wines and wines that people haven’t necessarily heard of but complement Daniel’s food.

HC: What do you think is the appeal of verticals of the Bordeaux first growths for your customers?
JL: Those are wineries that have very long histories that have a terroir that is very specific. They really represent what the best wine in Bordeaux is all about and have produced a lot of classic wines over the decades that should be on the wine list. We’ve developed a relationship with Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau Latour, where they give us the excess vintages. So I think it’s a great representation. We try to keep the same approach in every country and region. We look for the major estates that are a representation of the region and we do a vertical to showcase that winery.

HC: What is most important for sommeliers when working with customers?
JL: It’s important to listen to the customer and have a two way conversation. We’re not trying to impose our tastes. As much as people say that Upper East Side customers are some of the hardest clientele to take care of, I think they are also the most fun because they know what they want, they’re adventurous and they trust you. The most important thing is to talk to the customer at the table and try to find out what they mean in their descriptions. For someone “full-bodied” could mean an Australian Shiraz and for someone else it could mean a light Merlot.

HC: How has the current economic climate affected customers’ ordering behavior at Daniel?
JL: It’s been very interesting. In the past few months I could see the customers’ demands have shifted and it’s more apparent in restaurants with established clientele such as Daniel. Top selling cult American Cabernet Sauvignon, like the Colgin, Bryant Family or wines bought by newer money and dot-comers, has disappeared. But contrary to what you may think, what we’re selling a lot is old classic Bordeaux and even very expensive ones. So it seems that people are spending more money on classic wines instead of new discoveries. They’re going for safer bets.

HC: There are three Daniel private label wines. What led to your decision to offer these wines?
JL: They each have a different story and a different identity. The cuvee Daniel Bordeaux came almost by accident. I have two friends, one is with Château L’Angelus and one used to be the winemaker at Château Pâpe Clément in Graves, who partnered together to create their own label. I was in Bordeaux with them 2 or 3 years ago and really liked the wine that they had, and asked if they would do a private label. The Champagne was a different story. I went to Champagne with the express purpose of making my own cuvee and I was lucky enough to work with Marne Champagne, the largest Champagne maker in France. I was able to blend the Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay at the levels I wanted. I was friends with the winemaker at Galluccio and we spent a Sunday afternoon at the winery where we tasted from different barrels. We decided to private label the barrel that we liked best.

And the best one is coming soon. The Cote du Rhone which is from 80 year old Grenache vines. It’s a great terroir and made by one of the great wineries, Châteauneuf du Pâpe Domaine de la Janasse. Christophe Sabon makes the wines for us, bottles and labels them.

HC: You have achieved the apex of the sommelier profession, working at a four-star, Wine Spectator Grand Award winning restaurant. Where does one go from here?
JL: Well, I would like the restaurant to win the James Beard Award for best wine program. (Since the interview, Le Du has won the 2003 James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Service) Other than doing wine lists and service, there are many other interesting things I’m involved with. Daniel has a new cookbook coming out where I’ll do food and wine pairings. We are also opening up a new restaurant in mid-May which we’ll be doing the wine list for. But beside that, my dream would be to open my own wine shop.

HC: Similar to the celebrity chefs, are there star Sommeliers?
JL: The only star sommelier I know is Larry Stone. I think it’s difficult for the owner or chef of the restaurant to be constantly present on the floor so we reflect the image of the restaurant.

HC: Have you had any mentors who’ve influenced you?
JL: Absolutely. My career was very influenced by Roger Dagorn, sommelier at Chanterelle, and people like Larry Stone have been and still are very influential. But the wine program at Daniel is reflective of my passion for wine and so I never really looked at any models. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do with my wine program from the start and it’s the same model I’ve followed for the last few years, which is to provide the maximum enjoyment and the best wine possible at the best price. Sometimes we sell something for $25 that’s been as carefully if not better chosen than a $500-$600 wine.

HC: Tell me about how you went about choosing the wines for Daniel, Café Boulud and DB Bistro.
JL: The aim at Café Boulud was to offer a more international list at a lower price range, that’s also easier to understand than the list at Daniel. You see more country wines with smaller appellations. We try to make it more fun with quotes but still organize the list by country. The list at DB is much smaller. Instead of being organized by country, I decided to put it by flavors and grape types. So people will be able to order a Merlot from St. Emilion, from Chile and so on.

For all three of the restaurants, we keep the end customer in mind in devising the wine list. They might be the same clientele but I don’t think people go to Daniel for the same reasons they go to DB. They go for a more relaxed mood and they don’t want to be bothered with trying to find a St. Emilion or Châteauneuf du Pâpe. They are more taste and grape driven than appellation driven.

HC: Outside of your work here at Daniel, do you also work with private collectors?
JL: Absolutely. I have a business on the side where I buy wines here or in Europe at auction for private customers and give advice on what they should drink and how long they should cellar bottles. It came naturally because I was at wine auctions buying for the restaurant so people started to ask me if I would source some wines for them. I started about five years ago and it’s developed with a very steady clientele.

The fact that I buy for the restaurant and for private clients gives me buying power. And when you have buying power, you can ask about the condition of the bottles, you can see them before the auction and ensure the bottle is in the shape that is stated in the catalogue. It’s beneficial both ways to buy all that wine together.

HC: Given your background in rock and roll, if you could share a bottle of wine with any musician living or dead, who would it be and what would you drink?
JL: That’s a good question. I would choose a bottle of Rayas 1990 Châteauneuf du Pâpe because I think it is one of the greatest wines ever produced. It’s a wine of great power but delicacy and combines everything that I look for in a wine. It has the power, but at the same time elegance, length on the palate and great fruitiness. It’s really a beautiful bottle of wine. Now who would I share such a bottle with? I would say it would have to be Joe Strummer of The Clash. But he’s dead unfortunately.