Interview with Sommelier Thomas Combescot-Lepère of Adour New York, NY

October 2011

Amanda McDougall: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Thomas Combescot-Lepere: All my family drank wine; family tradition, history, and geography—the wine is a meeting point. I had friends working in the business and listening to them talking about wine helped me to make the choice.

I went to restaurant school in France first, to the Ecole Hotelière Savoie Léman—the oldest and first. I specialized in wines when I was 18 years old at L’Université du Vin near Avignon. I got a certified diploma of wine.

I worked for a wine consultant in Avignon, and then I worked for the Prime Minister’s office. In Savona, I learned everything about wines from the US, Italy, Spain, etc.

AM: What are the most important restaurants you’ve worked in for your career?
TCL: L'Escalier because they gave me trust and they let me set up the wine list. And Savona because they let me taste wines from all over the world. They kicked my ass until the French attitude disappeared. It happened in an easy way in Philadelphia—in Philly they don't let you not smile. Smile, attention, no attitude.

AM: Do you have any mentors?
TCL: I don't have mentors. I learn everything the hard way. I just learn from expectation and what [the diners] like and don't like. They can be fair and unfair, but it's an everyday lesson. When I started, I wanted to be a chef-sommelier. I never apprenticed; I learned alone and I did it by studying from scratch. I learned from my mistakes in New York where [the diner has] been to every three-star Michelin restaurant and I've only been to two. My mom is my mentor—she has a very simple and shrewd relationship to wine. There is no testosterone there.

AM: What is your philosophy on food and wine?
TCL: My philosophy is to not to forget the past and the original idea that food and wine have been together for a long time—this link has been together for a long time. Don’t let the food forget about the wine or the wine forget about the food.

AM: How do you compile the wine list at Adour?
TCL: We focus on the Northern hemisphere. I think it's great to have a focused wine list. We want to focus that which expresses a region. We are very aware of our guest expectations and needs. There is a classic part and a more exotic part, which is our wine by the glass program. It's a restaurant where you will get Rhone, Burgundy, and then for wines by the glass we get obscure Italian and Greek varietals.

JJ Proville: What is the concept behind Adour and its wine program?
TCL: The main concept of Adour is going back to wine and food; making great foods with white wine, like in Alsace. We want our dishes to go with our wine; the cuisine took a road on itself, which is innovative, but without wine. Like with fusion, like soy and a lot of acidity, you realize that only white wine goes with those dishes. And then you have a place with molecular gastronomy like el Bulli. There isn't much you can pair with [the food there]—dry, un-oaked Champagne.

JJP: How do you go about pairing wine with courses?
TCL: It is overwhelming and confusing to do wine pairings with courses—your palate is on fire and the experience for the guest is overwhelming. Jumping from Germany to France and having the sommelier come to the table and explain it, and the server comes with the food. We do the decanters for the courses, one white and one red—it’s a more European way to do it. All of the courses must be very involved with the wine. It's really being very European.

JJP: Do you serve half bottles?
TCL: I prefer half decanters for smaller pours; I’m not a big fan of half bottles. Transfer half of a bottle to half a decanter; we seal the next half of the bottle for the next table or at the bar. We have magnums of red that we pour into smaller decanters.

JJP: You served a white and a red pairing with each dish at the tasting. Can you explain the reason behind this?
TCL: The main concept was to link the food and wine together. The nouvelle cuisine takes food in a new way, but sometimes it forgets about wine. If we have a dish that becomes close to impossible to be paired with wine, this is a way to recreate that link and to prove that close to every dish on the menu will always fare well with both whites and reds.

We want our guests to feel comfortable with their wine decision. If they are ordering a lobster dish, in their head they may not know what they should be ordering. This is something we want to avoid. We discussed this matter with the chef and decided how we wanted to make each dish friendly for both white and for red. If you take the gnocchi, for example, when you look at the plate you think white wine. However there are elements, such as the jus and the prosciutto, which are very friendly with red. Before we opened Adour we went on a marathon of tastings in New York, and we tasted every course with a glass of red and a glass of white. This is what we do here. It’s really a cuisine designed around the wine.

JJP: You have a very interesting electronic wine library. How did that idea come about?
TCL: It was the result of a discussion between David Rockwell and Alain Ducasse. Rockwell found this technology in museums that had never been used and we thought it would be interesting to start using this in restaurants. The dining room is designed around the procedure of serving wine, and bringing entertainment and energy. So we contacted a company called Potion and did a walkthrough with them from A to Z in order to design a wine list where the guests could explore the list and find exactly what they wanted.

It became a fun project, although quite heavy and we now have a tech person. The thing is that with wines there are no rules, so when we explained to Potion how wines have different classifications—whether Bordeaux, Burgundy, California white wines—they thought we were crazy. The designers were excited because we opened a door for them. The guests also taught us a lot on how to improve the system; since day one we have been trying to do that.

JJP: What is the practical use in the dining room?
TCL: There are two systems. At the bar there are four wine lists for each of the four seats. Each person can open their own list and pick by type of menu or type of wine. They can also share the same wine with their neighbor. At the private table, there is only one list where the sommelier picks the wine, which has been ordered by one of the guests at the table, and so each person gets a glass. You can enjoy your single wines or flights of wine and go back and forth between the different information. The wine library system is a real innovation.

AM: What wine trends are you seeing in New York City?
TCL: I think there is a classic move to Pinot Noir and Burgundy. I think the guests are willing now to travel outside classic regions, but it is also hard to define a trend in New York because it’s such an open-minded city. The trend is less testosterone and egomaniacs. There is a more simple relationship with wine—which is good in Philly or Chicago, which are more into big Cabernets [and are] very male markets. Here it’s a more diverse market.

AM: What is your favorite wine?
TCL: I really enjoy wine from Rhone and Provence on the white side—everything with Vermentino, Rousane, white Hermitage, white Chateauneuf du Pape. It’s a region I really enjoy right now. To talk about red, I am really interested in Cabernet Franc and Grenache right now. For me, Chateau Pignan is very close to Pinot Noir where there is no spiciness and Provence spice; it is elegant with character.