Interview with Sommelier Adam Chumas of Tilth
Seattle, WA
((interviewed in Oct 2008)

StarChefs: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Adam Chumas: I had a fake ID as a kid, and instead of going out to bars, I snuck out to expensive restaurants and bought bottles of wine! I grew up in New Hampshire and went to college in DC. I've always had a thing for dining, and wine was just a part of that.

At my first restaurant job I was blessed to have a cool wine cellar and employers that were very liberal about what I got to taste. This was in New Hampshire at The Inn at Pleasant Lake. I blossomed there. My first job was as a pantry cook. I learned how to cook and I learned about food. Then I went on to be a server, and got to talk a lot, and I was like, "sweet, I like this. This is for me." I fell into the role of Wine Director without any formal training—just a love for wine.

SC: Where have you worked previously?
AC: I worked [at the The Inn] for six years, through college, and a year and a half after college as GM and wine director. I worked at Ponte's Seafood Grill in Freemont for two years as assistant manager and assistant director of wine. I left Ponte and was fortunate enough to come here [to Tilth].

The initial job was as an expediter, part-time. Within three months I took the GM and de facto wine director position. I've changed the wine list significantly. I expanded and turned over the glass-pour program, I changed the profile of Oregon Pinots (I always keep at least four on the list with different styles and price points), and I've also added more whites, [specifically] French whites.

SC: Who are your mentors and what have you learned from them?
AC: Rollin Soles is the winemaker for Argyle Wines in Willamette and one of the owners. It's the first vineyard and wine facility that I ever visited. He's one of the pioneers of Oregon winemaking. He's from Texas, and you'd never expect him to be a winemaker and to have a passion, love, and palate for fine wines. When I went down to Argyle he totally welcomed me there, and we hit it off immediately. He set me up with an opportunity to go to Pinot camp. He is one of the few people that makes bubbles in Oregon, which is totally inspiring. He maintains consistency, and Argyle is one of the most inspiring producers in Oregon.

SC: Have you taken any courses or received your certification?
AC: I'm taking my level two [exams] with the Court of Master Sommeliers in the spring. It's a goal to get my Master certification. Obviously that's a huge endeavor and requires a lot of focus, but I'm excited to take the next step!

SC: What is your fondest wine memory?
AC: There are so many! It's not so specific, but one of my favorite wine and food memories was on the coast of Spain. I was on the Costa Blanca near Valencia; I was there with 10 friends and we went to a restaurant right on the ocean and split a gigantic paella and pitchers of Sangria for hours and hours on end. What was great was the essence of time and place, with the wine, food, location, and good company. Also, my uncle is a Cali Cab hound, and last Christmas I had brought him a bottle of Silver Oak. We made a fort behind the couch with blankets and pillows and sat there drinking that bottle of Silver Oak.

SC: What is your philosophy on food and wine?
AC: I have 18 by-the-glass pours right now. We're an organic restaurant and it would be a real challenge to do all organic wines, but I do look for things that are farmed in an organic, biodynamic, or sustainable manner. I like to use wines that have a huge spectrum, from bright flavor to high acid. Maria [Hine]'s food is very bright and rich. She's been influenced a lot by Asian flavors and the way they contrast and meld, so I like to try to have the wine interact in that way.

There are two ways to pair food and wine—the contrast and the harmonious melding of flavors. For my personal palate I lean more toward contrasting pairings, but when it comes to the guest it's a matter of gauging what they're after. You have to probe the guest and see what type of wine they like, and see how that works with the dish they're going to eat. Because we're in Seattle, people often times want local wine from Washington, and a lot of those wines are big Cabs, Merlots, Syrahs—very big and chewy. When there's food like Maria's, which is delicate, it can be hard to pair that interest. When they ask for that, you need to figure out how to work with it, so they can really relate to the pairing.

I try to keep the list around $40 and $60, because we're a neighborhood restaurant with a neighborhood clientele. I have a few over $100, but I focus on great deals.

SC: What is a perfect wine and food pairing that you recently discovered?
AC: Tilth's mini duck burgers and Riesling. The Albert Mann Schlossberg Riesling with the meaty, slightly spicy, Tilth duck burgers. I love Chenin Blanc and cheese—all kinds of cheese, from salty, firm sheep’s milk to gooey camembert. Chenin Blanc is gamey, wooly, and stinky, and it meets the cheese in the middle.

SC: What wines do you keep at home?
AC: The wine at home goes too fast. Collecting isn't really my style. But if I had the money, time, and space I'd collect Burgundies and German Rieslings. The average time a bottle lasts in my house is about five minutes, and they're usually shared with many friends.

SC: What person in history would you most like to open a bottle of wine with and what would you open?
AC: I think it would be hilarious to crack a bottle of Cristal with Jay-Z. On a more serious note, I find myself most inspired by artists. Bob Dylan has the power to make me weep. I think it could be cool to drink a warm bottle of Bordeaux with him in a smoky room on a comfortable couch, while he's strumming a guitar. Maybe back in the 60s, when he was more flippant.

SC: If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing?
AC: I told myself when I graduated college that if I wasn't in the restaurant biz I'd pursue my PHD in English Lit. I'd be teaching English at a prep school in New Hampshire, coaching lacrosse and wearing a tweed jacket with leather patches.

SC: What are your career goals? Where will we find you in five years?
AC: Five years from now I'll be 31…as far as my life plan goals, I said that before I was 25 I wanted to have my sommelier certification done and be the GM of a restaurant—done! My next goal was to have my Master Sommelier certification by 30 and be running a several hundred thousand dollar wine program. I think you need to set your goals high. In 10 years I'd like to have my own place. I like the restaurant industry, I love food and the way it makes people feel—there's nothing more satisfying. I love the industry because of the way it makes people feel and because it’s a family business. If I could have my kids running around waiting tables at my restaurant someday, I'd be happy.