Interview with Sommelier Steven Lande of The Dining Room - Chicago, IL
Alexis Beltrami: At a relatively young age, you have risen to the top of your profession, as both sommelier and maitre'd at a Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning restaurant. How did you come to wine as a profession?
Steven Lande: I didn't have much exposure to wine growing up, although everything in my family revolved around food and the dinner table, and I always loved beverages of all kinds-milk shakes, coffee, tea-so the framework was there. My mother was a musician and also very interested in art, so I think I picked up my sense of aesthetic appreciation from her.
I discovered wine while traveling in Europe after college. I remember having a C™tes du Rhone red, served chilled, in Paris, and thinking that this was really something different! I had been a finance major in college, so when I returned to Chicago I started working in my chosen career, at the Board of Trade. After two years there, though, I felt unfulfilled, and I happened into a restaurant job at Charlie Trotter's. It all came together for me there very rapidly-my interests in food, art, history, travel and business-in the shape of a wine bottle. I was very lucky to have a great boss and mentor in Charlie Trotter, who took in a young guy who had only passion to offer.
AB: What traits or skills are required to be a successful sommelier?
SL: This is really a service occupation, and especially here in the Midwest, there's a very strong emphasis on providing attentive service. If you are unable or unwilling to truly serve people, you shouldn't be a sommelier. Guests often say to me, "You really seem to love your job," which, of course, I do, and I want to project that attitude at all times. The ability to read people is also very important: How knowledgeable are they? How interested? Do they want me to choose the wine, or do they want an in-depth dialogue? Confidence is also crucial-as soon as a guest sees hesitation or fear in a sommelier's eyes, he loses his faith in you, his trust is broken. Customers are looking for a pro.
AB: Where do you get that confidence from?
SL: From knowledge: knowledge of wine, knowledge of food products, and even knowledge of restaurants around the country, so you understand your customers' experiences and expectations. To learn about wine, you have to read about it, taste it, and remember what you taste-as a sommelier, you need that point of reference.
AB: You oversee a 650-bottle wine list. How often do you manage to touch base and re-taste your wines?
SL: I want the wine list to be part of our service to guests. For people who don't want to have to talk to the sommelier, I provide some information so that they can make a confident choice; that's also the purpose of the 'sommelier's selections.' But I also keep the list very straightforward-sassy wine categories or tones aren't appropriate for a Grand Award-winning wine list. And I would never put tasting notes on the wine list. I don't want to tell people what to taste, and deprive them of that discovery process.
AB: You offer verticals [multiple vintages] from a good number of Bordeaux and California producers, including PŽtrus, Latour, Mouton-Rothschild, Dominus and Opus One. What is the appeal of verticals?
SL: Verticals are very important in classic regions, not so much in the new world. In Bordeaux, they're still making tannic* wines, which require aging, and which vary greatly from year to year. Wine collectors and experienced, discerning drinkers may have tried certain vintages but not others, or have personal favorites, or want to see how a vintage they have in their cellars is drinking.
AB: Do you experience much demand for the high-end, collectable wines?
SL: Very much so. I'm very lucky to be working at the Four Seasons, where we have a knowledgeable clientele with the interest and ability to dine this way. The California trophy wines, like Maya, sell themselves. With the old-world wines, customers usually want to discuss their selection with me; they may have narrowed it down to three or four vintages, and want to consult with me to make a decision.
AB: You now offer 50 wines by the glass, which I think is fantastic.
SL: Thanks! This year, we're offering 50 wines by the glass to celebrate the Dining Room's 25th birthday-25 whites and 25 reds. I'm thrilled because it increases our ability to serve our customers as individuals- with 30 varietals represented on that list, we can really match people with the wine of their preference. I've never liked wine flights [small pours, generally 1.5 ounces, of several wines served in a set] or preset wine dinners for that reason- they don't take into account the taste of the individual. You cannot serve people well if you don't get their input.
AB: That notion of service seems to be a key issue for you.
SL: It is. I'll give you another example: vintage port. Guests love it but restaurants don't, because it doesn't do well by the glass (it fades quickly). Most restaurants prefer to offer a late-bottled vintage or tawny port by the glass, as do I, so I took vintage port off the glass list at one point. My customers demanded it, though, and I had to put it back on the list, even though there's now some wastage. You have to listen to your customers.
AB: I always ask our StarChefs sommeliers for their thoughts on the pairing of food and wine.
SL: Textures are something I concentrate on; I have always been sensitive to textures in food. Personally, I have very strong convictions about what's right and wrong, but, again, I believe in service, not in imposing my ideas on my guests. In America, matching wines with food is more challenging, and more fun, than it often is in Europe, where the foods and wines of a region are usually served together, and all the players know the rules. I have put suggestions on the menu to remind guests of a few classic combinations, like Sauternes with foie gras, and Champagne with caviar. If a customer has a favorite wine, I'm certainly not going to stop them from ordering it, because their whole being is leaning towards it and they are going to like it!
AB: What are your goals in your career as a sommelier?
SL: I wanted, when I set out in this profession, to be in charge of a 4-star dining room, or a Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning wine list. I've been very fortunate in being able to realize both of those goals already. My higher goal, if you will, may be simpler-to change people's lives, even if only momentarily, and to make important moments last longer in their memories.
*Tannic: Wines with noticeable tannins. Tannins are natural compounds found in grape skins, seeds and stems, and in oak barrels. They are antioxidants that enable long aging, but can cause dry mouth and bitter sensations. As a wine matures, its tannins soften.