Proud to Serve American

by Sean Kenniff with Chris Struck
Antoinette Bruno
December 2014

Restaurant

  • Charlie Palmer Steak
    101 Constitution Avenue Northwest
    Washington, D.C. 20001
    (202) 547-8100
    www.charliepalmer.com

What are the major challenges of selling from an all American wine list? Well, there are none, according to Sommelier Nadine Brown of Washington, D.C.’s Charlie Palmer Steak. “Is it possible there is no real overarching challenge?” Brown wonders to herself, “Otherwise we wouldn’t have stuck it out so long!” She’s been poppin’ bottles from a strictly red, white (and blue) cellar for over a decade and says the challenges are mostly managerial.

“Ninety percent of the selections on the list are produced by small family wineries or negociantes who make small ‘batches.’ I have to change the list every day or two,” says Brown. “These changes mean constant updating of the inventory sheets, programming the new wines, and updating the list. Guests don’t really want to know how the last bottle was sold for lunch and that I haven’t gotten a chance to change the list. I’m sure at times it appears like the program is mismanaged.”

Brown’s list contains more than 6,000 bottles within a price range of $48 to $3,500. Of that collection, 500 wines are on offer, from boutique vintners in South Dakota to staples like Beringer. To create diversity within such a focused program, Brown buys from 32 different distributors: “Keeping them all straight and remembering who has what, can be a challenge. I could spend all day just meeting with reps, if I don’t manage that well.” She says finding older vintages of American wines can be challenging as well, and readily admits there is nothing like Champagne.

Syrah has been Brown’s hardest sell, but guests have become more susceptible to her pitch than when she started at Charlie Palmer Steak in 2003. “I sell it by 1) Being more prejudicial when selecting Syrah for the program. I think I know what most people don’t like about it. I stay away from the overly oaky, heavily toasted barrels, too hot, out of balance etc. wines. 2) I sell Syrah to people who want Syrah or that want to try something new and that want me to guide them. 3) I sell it to guests who want ‘a lot’ of wine/body/concentration, but don't want to spend a lot of money. 4) I sell Syrah in the fall and winter, when it's cold outside.”

On the other hand, it’s easy to sell something you love, and Brown is in the midst of a passionate affair with Sonoma. “[Sonoma has] some of the best farmers, winemakers, and stewards of some of the most beautiful vineyards in the world,” says Brown. “I love its diversity: Cabernet from Sonoma Mountain or Rockpile; Pinot Noir from West Sonoma Coast; Syrah from Petaluma; Zinfandel from Dry Creek; 2009 Weese Family, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rockpile, Sonoma inaugural vintage—great wine by great people. The list goes on!”

Brown has been working on pairings at Charlie Palmer Steak with Chef Jeffery Russell since 2008. They have no real formal process for pairing. “It’s just a symmetry that happens with time and countless wine dinners, tasting menus, and specials, and tasting wines together,” she says.

Brown knows Russell’s food intimately, and he’s hyper-conscious about how specific foods interact with wine. Sometimes intuition counts for a lot, “Guest are often surprised when they find out that we weren’t able to taste the wine ahead of time and how perfect the pairing was.”

But pairing and recommending can’t always come down to gut instincts. The proper training of her front-of-the-house staff is crucial to the all American program Brown is running. And what may not be intuitive is that expertise in Old World wines is key to selling New World wines. Brown explains: “Training staff starts with standards, like with the French and Italian wines that many American wines are distant cousins of. Even when selling California Chardonnay, you need to know what Chablis is and what it taste like.”

One of the steakhouse’s most popular wines is a blend of Syrah, Petite Syrah, Grenache, and Zinfandel that Brown calls “yummy.” “No one comes in saying I want that blend, but they leave happy, and look online to find where they can get more,” she says. Another uniquely American wine on the list is the late harvest Chardonnay aged in Jack Daniels barrels from Cru by Kluge Estates in Virginia, it’s fortified with grain spirits. “The American spirit of pushing boundaries and innovation is alive in the industry!”

Brown’s mission at Charlie Palmer Steak is simple: to make guests happy. She is often asked (snidely) by colleagues how she has survived 11 years working with an all American list. Her earnest response: “Easy. By getting to drink some of the best wines in the world and sharing them with others. Having the U.S. Capitol building right outside the window is also a plus.”