Wine Tips from Sommelier Chris Angulo of Water Grill - Los Angeles, CA

November 2011

Listen up, here’s the juice.

If you want to hit it correct next time you run into a Sommelier, tell the truth. Think of him or her as your lawyer or doctor only slightly drunker (or not, in the case of my lawyer). Tell them what you want as well as you can and let them help you, they’ve had everything on the list. If you are on a date that’s not promising or a business dinner with a flaccid client and you don’t want to spring for the big Kahuna then tell the sommelier you want a “moderately priced” wine. Or if you if don’t want to announce your fiscal thoughts on the subject then call ahead and have something waiting at the table. Sommeliers choose all the wines on the list and, if they are worth anything, wouldn’t put a wine on their list unless they were proud of it.

Try some small Champagne producers. Many of these cats sell their juice to the famous houses and for years have been bottling their own for dramatically less. See if the Sommelier has any of these and, anyway, drink more bubbly. These wines go with a heck of a lot. Forget New Year’s or Graduation or whatever, have them early and often. Try a full, Rose Champagne with duck or lamb and see how well they pair up.

For the average wine drinker it is easy to get into a rut so try some new things and have the Sommelier pair your dinner with half bottles. Even if there are just two of you, you can try three different wines with three different courses and not get hammered. You should probably take a look at the half bottle list ahead of time a to decide if you need to put a cap on the wine total, half bottles can run hundreds of dollars and some of us will stick it to you.

Case in point: my buddy Lance who grew up with me in Rohnert Park, who drinks and knows wine better than most, was in Vegas with his fiancée at one of those high end restaurant that litter that town these days. The Sommelier stopped by and asked if he could help so Lance told him their order and asked for a suggestion. The guy, and I’m telling this straight, points out a magnum of ’97 Opus at a couple thousand dollars. Then he moves down the ladder to an eighteen hundred dollar magnum of Dominus. What a jackass, right? Lance flipped through and found his own wine, obviously, but the point is that this guy should be thrown down a flight of stairs then out of the business. Anyone can find a good wine for thousands of dollars but a good Sommelier should find a great wine at under $100.

I try to load my list with as many amazing small production wines as I can. Some of those great, mass produced wines that everybody knows about and everybody wants are lesser wines and more expensive than the 100-500 case, hand made wines. So ask the Sommelier if there is anything in this category that he is really into. I was lucky enough to grow up in Sonoma County so I am relatively in “the know” and I am telling you that there are producers using fruit from the same vineyard, yielding very similar wines at wildly different prices. Why? Well some actually use different more expensive techniques but more than a few believe their own press and the demand and then jack up their prices.

If you like domestic wines know your winemakers; if you’re into French wines know your vintages. These are general rules and there are exceptions but in California there are very few of the laws that handcuff winemakers like they have in France. This means that a superfly California winemaker can make up ground on a “bad” vintage much more easily than his French counterpart. For instance the dreaded ’98 vintage for big Napa reds, the great winemakers still produced very good quality wines. The key is finding a Sommelier that your palate jives with, once you do that, you’re golden and you’ll probably like 9 out of 10 wines that they do. I mean I’ll drink anything that Ted Lemon of Littorai makes or any Luna or Kongsgaard wine from John Kongsgaard or Merry Edwards under her label. There are many others but I know that these folks make the juice like I would if I knew what I heck I was doing.

Finally, I don’t care what anyone says, if the wine is in its youth and has some body, decant, decant, decant. I decant Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Viognier, I’ll decant a friggin’ milkshake if I can’t smell the vanilla. These wines have been cooped up in the barrel and in the bottle for a while. Let them get out and feel the warm wind of freedom blowin’ in their hair before they drop down your greedy throat. So, when I bring the duck to your table with the Alban Roussanne, don’t look at me like I’m crazy, just smile, back away from the bottle and we’ll work this all out.

Wines I’ve been drinking:

  • Switchback Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, Peterson Vineyard, Napa 2000
  • Adrian Fog Pinot Noir, Floodgate Vineyard, Mendocino 1999
  • Baron L Pouilly-Fume, La doucette, 1997
  • Terre Rouge Syrah, Sentinel Oak Vineyard, Pyramid Block, Amador County 1999
  • Mendelson Chardonnay, Stone’s Throw Block, Napa 2000
  • Chateau Pavie, St. Emillon, 1995
  • Niebaum Coppola, Edizione Pennino Zinfandel, Rutherford 1999
  • Work Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, Napa 2001
  • Chateau Rayas Pignan, Chateauneuf-du-Pape 1998
  • Nicolas Feuillatte Palmes D’or Champagne 1990