definition of Sommelier
Belinda Chang of Fifth Floor on StarChefs
Fifth Floor Restaurant
12 4th St
San Francisco, CA 94103
Tel: (415) 348-1555
Fax: (415) 348-1551

Interview with Belinda Chang
By Cyd Klein

Cyd Klein: The wine list at Fifth Floor has over 1,800 choices. How do you keep up with this selection? What are the virtues you value most in a wine?

Belinda Chang: I am definitely very fortunate, and maybe a bit spoiled. It is so much fun to compose a list that specializes in “everything that is delicious”. I value most the wines that are well balanced and well made. If the wine is unbalanced, there is not much point in serving it with a balanced dish. I also value wines that have something to say about where they are from and what they are. A Champagne from Äy should taste like a Champagne from Äy, and a Riesling from the Mosel should taste like a Riesling from the Mosel. The globalization of wine styles is not a good thing. As wine buyers at wonderful restaurants, we have the opportunity to taste so many amazing wines, and it is a great pleasure to be able to share so many of my finds with my guests. To that end, the list at Fifth Floor is constantly in flux, always a work in progress. Every time you dine at the restaurant, there should be new, exciting wines from old friends and from new producers for you to discover that were not on the list during your last visit. One of the greatest compliments that I get from our guests is: “I have never heard of any of these wines.” That means that I am doing my job - finding the great wines that you haven’t found yet!

CK: What made you change careers from medicine to wine?
BC: There is something magical about a great dining experience. I had my first fancy meal at a restaurant called Le Titi de Paris with my parents for my sixteenth birthday. I felt like a queen. The menus were handwritten. It was my first multi-course dinner with no white rice. I had morels for the first time. They pulled out my chair, they refolded my napkin when I went to the bathroom, and there was real silver on the table instead of chopsticks! They thought of my every need before I realized that I had that need. It was the first meal where I dared to sip some of a family member’s wine at dinner. The whole evening gave me shivers. I wanted to experience that high again and again. When it came time to choose a career path a few years later, I went for my true love and decided that I would much rather be in a restaurant every day than anywhere else. I wanted to learn how to give others the experience that I had marveled at.

CK: You spend much of your free time exploring the wine regions of the West Coast. You must make a conscious effort to add the gems you find to the wine list. Any favorites?
BC: Our wine list is filled with so many rare and legendary wines like the first growths of Bordeaux from 1928, the Burgundies of Domaine des Comtes Lafon, the wines of Château d’Yquem beginning with the 1893 vintage, and the cult Cabernets like Screaming Eagle. But the true challenge of buying wines for Fifth Floor lies in searching for things like the delicious Macon that is made by Heritiers des Comtes Lafon or Lamborn Zinfandel, another yummy wine made by the winemaker for Screaming Eagle. Not many of us drink the legends on a daily basis, but many of the same producers make great wines for everyday drinking!

CK: What do you want your customers to know about wine?
BC: Sometimes the greatest discoveries are made when guests let go of their “wine and drinking inhibitions”. I don’t mean consuming large quantities of wine and spirits with no remorse. I am talking about forgetting the idea that many people have about all Rieslings being sweet. Let your wine person take you to explore dry Rieslings from the Wachau in Austria or from the Clare Valley in Australia. Forget that conventional wisdom tells us to pair white wine with fish. Chef Gras has created a delicious skate wing dish with Bordelaise sauce that we love to pour red wine with. Try sherry or madeira or sake or a trockenbeerenauslese in the middle of the tasting menu instead of in its traditional place in the lineup. One of the greatest pairings that I have ever experienced was at a Chinese New Year Banquet Dinner a few weeks ago. Several food and wine professionals and I agreed that cognac and seven-up was the most amazing match up with the dried oyster and fat choy dish. Do what you want and have fun!

CK: After working with Charlie Trotter on his Meat and Game book, what was the most difficult task in pairing wines with his dishes?
BC: It was a very humbling experience. Much of the cuisine in that book is very complex. Each dish by itself was a feast for the senses, and demonstrated Chef Trotter’s mastery of layering flavors and textures. The night before a tasting session, we would each go home with a packet of recipes and confidently jot down our notes about which wines we thought would work best with each dish. The next day while tasting the dishes, we would find that a Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc would actually outshine the California Cabernet that we were certain would be the ideal pairing. Even worse, we would find that the California Cabernet was a horrible pairing. We quickly learned that it was very important to taste every dish, and to taste every component of the dish simultaneously with the wines. We also learned that those time-honored food and wine pairings do not necessarily work with the New American cuisine being created by today’s chefs.

CK: What is the San Francisco wine scene like? Are people adventurous?
BC: It is a lot of fun for me to play to the San Franciscan audience. The locals are remarkably well educated about wine. They challenge me with their knowledge of every small wine producer (very often their neighbors). I am also very impressed with their adventurousness when it comes to wines from outside of their backyards.

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 Published: Jan 2004