Interview with Sommelier Mark Bell of Vong - New York, NY

November 2011

Alexis Beltrami: What is your overall approach to wine?
Mark Bell: One of my principal tenets is that wine does not exist by itself. Wine is made for food, for life. It is a celebration of being together, a celebration of life, love, and eating. Unfortunately, in the U.S. we are repressed in a number of ways, so wine is not as accessible as it is in Europe and even, to a degree, in Canada. I have a three-year-old daughter, and she's tasting wine already.

AB: As the sommelier at Vong you are also the wine buyer. What do you look for in a wine?
MB: When I'm tasting wines, I always have in mind the Vong flavors, the Vong spices, even certain dishes. If I worked somewhere else, I'd be looking for different wines. And the question "Do I like the wine?" is not as important to me as "Is it a well-made wine?" Is it balanced? What about the price-can I sell it? Do I have a slot to fill on the list, or it so interesting that I want to create a new slot?

AB: How do you determine the prices of the wines on your list?
MB: Pricing a wine list is a game of strategy, much like chess. I try to keep my average markup, across the whole list, to two and a half times wholesale, which is the industry standard. But I adjust the prices of individual wines constantly, because a change of a few dollars up or down makes a huge difference in public perception. There's a lot of marketing involved, which is fun. I might sell a popular Merlot at a higher than average markup so that I can offer a wonderful Argentinian Malbec for twice wholesale, thereby encouraging people to try it.

AB: Do you sell more whites than reds?
MB: Yes, generally, because they are more food-friendly with Vong's menu, but it varies seasonally, as does the list. As we head into spring I'll be adding lighter reds and lighter whites, and rosés will be re-appearing.

AB:Your wine list has a fairly heavy representation of Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, which interests me, since neither one of those varieties is usually considered a classic match with spicy foods. Would you comment on that?
MB: Red Burgundies [made from Pinot Noir] match with the food at Vong on a basic level, in that they are generally lighter wines without the tannic structure of Bordeaux or California Cabernet. I find New World Pinot Noirs [from Oregon, California, Australia] match a little better since they are generally more extracted, more jammy. White Burgundy [made from Chardonnay], with its natural backbone of acidity, works very well. I often try to move die-hard California Chardonnay drinkers to a Santenay blanc, or a similar appellation where the price is reasonable and the wine is both rich and structured. But I always want to give customers what they want. I'm not against selling Merlot or Chardonnay. Now, if I come to the table and they say they are thinking about ordering a Chardonnay, I'll say, "Well, that would be a good choice, but have you thought about a Pinot Blanc or a Riesling?"

AB:When I open your wine list, I first see a page with a vineyard photo and an informative blurb, which intrigues me.
MB: The cover page is something I change seasonally. I don't want people to open the wine list and the first thing they see is the Champagne page, which has some of the most expensive wines. They may go no further and just close the book. Instead, they see a picture of a winery or vineyard, and a description that lets them know that wine is made with the hands. Most winemakers are not in the business primarily to make money. If you talk to the winemakers, they're filled with energy, fire, life; they're farmers, and I try to convey that.

AB:What is your role on the restaurant floor?
MB: As a sommelier, I'm both a salesman and an educator. Of course, I also wear the hat of a manager. When I approach a table, I introduce myself, try to make the guests feel comfortable and unintimidated, and let them know I'm there as a guide. In a way, I'm also an actor and an entertainer. My first question to people, generally, after I determine whether it's a red or a white, is "What do you want to find in this wine-something rich, something light, something minerally, something fruity?" Then, slowly, slowly, I can pare them down and find something they should like. Part of being a sommelier is that you have to be slightly telepathic.

AB:How do you manage to guide the wine selections for large groups, when many different dishes are involved?
MB: It depends. With business dinners, the host typically orders for the table, so I deal with him or her, and then everyone else just drinks it and appreciates it according to the level of the host's position in the business world. With a group of friends who are all enthusiastic about wine, I like to create custom wine flights. If they want one bottle for the table, Alsatian Riesling is great with almost everything, although it can be a tough sell.

AB:What do you say if a customer orders a bottle that you wouldn't recommend for a particular dish?
MB: The cardinal rule I learned back in Toronto is that if the customer knows exactly what they want when you arrive at the table, you bring it to them. If they don't like it, you can then suggest a second wine.

AB:Please describe some of your favorite food and wine matches at Vong.
MB: With food and wine matching, if a match works each will bring out elements of the other you might not have noticed before. Here are some of my favorites from Vong:

Chicken and Coconut Milk Soup
with
A Barrel-fermented Chardonnay from Macari Vineyards in Mattituck, Long Island.
This is a very well-made wine with definite sea salt overtones that bring out the lime leaf in the soup and balance the complex combination of galangal, chicken, and coconut.

Lobster with Thai Herbs
with
A grand cru Riesling from, say, Wolfberger or Trimbach would be a no-brainer. But my favorite pairing is a rosé Champagne that I pour by the glass by Henri Germain, from
Rilly-la-Montagne, Reims.

Roasted Duck Breast with Tamarind and Sesame
with
A St. Joseph rouge, by Domaine Coursodon... or nearly any Syrah-based wine from the Rhone. Intense roasted raspberry and earth tones are perfect for the game flavors in the duck.

Seared Tuna with Szechuan Peppercorn/ Soy Mustard
with
(Here's a wild one) Tokaji Furmint by Tokaj Oremus.
This is an extremely well-put-together wine with floral notes on the nose and a very dry, very crisp citrus finish.

For cooking at home, I love steak with Syrah. The Syrah grape [grown in France's Rhone Valley, the U.S., Australia (where it is called Shiraz) and elsewhere] can produce fat, chewy wines with lots of pepper but slightly lower tannins than Cabernet, which makes them more enjoyable when young. What Merlot was to the 1990s, I'm hoping Syrah will be to the 2000s.