Interview with Sommelier Jeff Morgenthal of Drago - Santa Monica

November 2011

Ha-Kyung Choi: You seem to have developed your passion for wine in Spain. What were the main factors of inspiration as well as the main reasons for deciding to become a sommelier?

Jeff Morgenthal: I had been nurturing a budding passion for wine ever since I started ‘managing’ a small bistro wine list in Colorado when I was 25. My passion for cycling, though, was the window through which I was able to develop a respect for and understanding of European culture. In cycling, the pinnacles of the sport lay in the three major tours: the Giro d’Italia, Le Tour de France, and the Vuelta a España. By no coincidence, the greatest wines in the world are also made in those three countries. It was while I was living in Spain that the two major forces in my life, bicycle racing and wine collided. It was a very natural and gradual transition I had been making as I got older. While living in San Sebastian, I worked with the sommeliers at the Michelin 3-star Arzak Restaurante, and this was a major catalyst in my wanting to become a sommelier. Like an athlete preparing for competition, the work of the sommelier requires hard physical work, meticulous attention to detail and a passion for constantly striving for gains, however incremental they may be. The work of the sommelier requires finding a balance between these physical and mental worlds. Every night on the floor is like a Tour de France stage where anything can happen. Some nights you struggle with wine service like a big, bulky sprinter climbing Alpe d’Huez. While other nights are like a victory lap on the Champs Elysèes with the gratification of recommending beautiful food and wine pairings or imbuing a diner with a new discovery. I think the dynamic world of restaurant wine was appealing to me for those reasons then and still is today.

HC: What is the toughest challenge you face as a professional sommelier?
JM: : Besides the current war which has dampened the economy and thus has really tightened up wine budgets in restaurants for both wine buyers and consumers, I think that the concept of corkage is one of the toughest challenges in the restaurant industry. I mean, you just can’t win. If you make someone feel uncomfortable at any point in the dining experience, you’ve lost them. The greatest fault I have seen with regards to corkage is the complete lack of sensitivity from people who you thought were out to eat for a dining experience and not just a chow-session. Lost dollars to the wine program, inappropriate ‘2-Buck Chuck’ cruising into the dining room in a Trader Joe’s shopping bag, and customers asking for Riedel glasses with which to drink their wines are the tip of the iceberg. What can you do? It’s just no fun unless people are respectful and don’t take the ‘Corkage is our god-given right’-type of approach. You don’t see corkage problems in European restaurants. It’s an American thing.

HC: You just passed one level of the Master Sommelier exam. What are the biggest advantages of having the MS title and what types of avenues open up for Master Sommeliers?
JM: Maybe I can better answer that question one day if I pass it! From what I have seen, the biggest advantage is increased visibility for those 56 Master Sommeliers. In terms of exposure and putting yourself on the map, the MS is the ‘piece de resistance’ and of course, getting the MS is so difficult that the great thing is that all those who have passed it, deserve all their accolades, I think. The MS continues to be a huge goal to work towards for me, and I think is worthy of all the sacrifice, hard work and dedication that have so far characterized my quest.

HC: Do you have a favorite wine region?
JM: I’ve always admired Italian wines and of the greatest wines in Italy, those from Piedmont. The Nebbiolo grape is a dramatic and fickle grape: A thin-skinned varietal grown in a northerly, temperate climate. No wine approaches Barolo for me in terms of its ability to express its origin while combining power, elegance and perfume. Piedmont also satisfies the intellect as it is a region that has evolved so much over the last twenty years and where vinification methods have divided winemakers who take almost bipartisan party lines in their winemaking philosophies. I had for years struggled between Burgundy and Piedmont as both regions are both making wines at the pinnacle of quality. I think for me, in the end, it’s the drama of the Langhe and its people that put Barolo ahead, by half a wheel.

HC: In your opinion, what are the up and coming wine regions to look out for?
JM: For reds, I think the drum for South African wines has been banging louder and louder with each passing vintage. I think the herbaceous and dilute wines that sometimes characterized South African wines in a bad vintage are becoming less and less common over the recent vintages. The estates have become more serious and winemakers have learned their craft in the top winemaking regions of the world- which is to say nothing of the great value these wines offer, most for under $20. Look out for reds from Cabernet, Shiraz (as Syrah is called also in South Africa) and Cabernet blends. I think that the shift has gone away from Pinotage in recent years.

For whites, it sounds silly to call Germany up and coming, as they have made wine on the banks of the Mosel for hundreds of years. But you can’t help but feel that all the excitement that has surrounded the 2001 vintage is more than just hype. The press has embraced these wines and I’m surprised to find more and more wine drinkers, not just sommeliers and collectors, who have become hip to Riesling. Sommeliers have long been tapped into Germany and its Rieslings featuring knife’s edge acidity and vibrant fruit flavors where those attributes were most apparent at the table. I think that younger wine drinkers who got into wine post-Blue Nun years are not as closed-minded as their baby-boomer counterparts. Germany is only now just becoming available at mainstream retail outlets and restaurants.

HC: What is the one type of wine on your list that you wish people would stop overlooking and give a try?
JM: No brainer there- Chianti! Ok, how many times will I have to recommend a Chianti with having to qualify by saying something like ‘this is not Chianti like from your days of burning candles in those whicker basket bottles!’. If you can get the wines in peoples’ mouths, they really like them. Producers in the Classico district of Chianti have done a 360 degree turnaround in quality since the 70s and there are now all styles of Chianti for every drinker: classic, big and oaky, soft and elegant. Luckily, producers like Riecine and San Giusto a Rentennano quell all those trepidations once you finally get the cork pulled. The producers of Chianti Classico have been making serious wines in the last five years, of as high a quality as you will see anywhere.

HC: What is the biggest mistake that people make when pairing wines with food?
JM: This is another tough situation. As a sommelier, you want to see people drinking the appropriate wines that harmonize with and not compete for the subtleties of flavor. In a perfect world, every diner would start with a glass of vintage champagne to prime their palate and then progress through a series of carefully selected wines…

Instead, it’s ‘We’ll take the 2001 Domaine Mybackyard Napa Valley Cabernet 15.9%ABV please’. It comes down to creating a dining culture in your restaurant and cultivating a chef/sommelier relationship so that these two entities can work together. This is the art of dining and represents the pinnacle of gastronomic artistry. The science of food and their textures, fats and acids takes years to develop a working level of comfort and I for one, am still learning more about the interaction of food and wine. I think that a lot of attention has been given to this subject in recent years and this only creates a more educated dining public. I could say that the biggest mistake in pairing wines with food is drinking Cahors with shellfish but you know, in the end, people are going to drink what they like. And I think they should!

HC: I understand that you are planning to open a wine bar. What is the concept for the restaurant and what are some of the issues and challenges you face in opening a new establishment?
JM: Yes, we are planning on opening a wine bar in Beverly Hills. The food will be centered around traditional Italian cuisine, where hearty and robust fare will pair naturally with all the wines of the world, hopefully! Apparently, the biggest challenges we are facing is getting a liquor license from the city of Los Angeles! But aside from that sort of stuff, which I have nothing to do with, I think that training the staff properly will be of major importance. I hope that the staff will want to learn the proper way to talk about wine and the service of wine. I’m sure that the suppliers will be lined up down through the door once we do have a license to start buying wine. The politics of buying wine is always frustrating because, in the end, you just can’t please everyone and suppliers whose wines are not featured will have less than flattering things to say about me! There’s just an ocean of great wine out there these days. Other than that, I’m looking forward to building my first wine program from the ground up and we’ll hope that Beverly Hills is ready for some seriously fun food and wine. I’ll let you know.