JJ Proville: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Brian Duncan: I had a keen interest in food and entertaining at a very young age. I was always interested in food and entertaining. My first paying job was at a Baskin Robbins 31 Flavors, then I worked as a busboy, and as a waiter.
I had a natural affinity for pairing wine and food. It was kind of a parlor trick and it always seemed very natural and instinctual. The more I worked with food and wine, the more I learned.
JJP: How did this interest turn into a career?
BC: In the late 80’s in Chicago you had Charlie Trotter and all these other chefs that started cooking differently. Continental cuisine went out the window so I began to learn what the different cuisines and ethnic cooking were. I began to look at wines that showcased the ingredients better.
I started teaching wine classes, and from there I continued my passion for wine and food. Then I had the opportunity to become a wine buyer. The industry was good to me in terms of creating opportunities and I ended up having this wonderful layer cake of experiences.
JJP: Are you certified as a sommelier?
BD: I’ve never been certified. About the time we started working on the [Bin 26] concept it became clear to me that my language in the wine program had to be different. I wasn’t comfortable with the structure of it; everyone that I’ve ever known that has the certification talks about wine in a specific way that no consumer understands. I have a descriptive and animated way and I use terminology that people can really understand. People are always telling me that they feel like I am speaking to them directly in the two lines of description I have for each wine.
JJP: Can you describe the Bin 36 wine program?
BD: I hate the way most wine bars treat wine. I had this idea about a wine bar/restaurant where you would be able to experience wine from all over the world in a way that was approachable and affordable. With our concept we wanted to make the wines available.
When we started, most bottles were about $28 retail and I had to get the price point down so that I could sell them by the glass. [Producing our own wine has] been a natural progression for us. Our first vintage was a 2003 Pinot Noir. Now we’ve produced 40 wines. The wines retail for about $12 to $14. I’ve been preaching for years that wines don’t have to be expensive to be good.
JJP: Describe your fondest wine memory.
BD: The night that we opened Bin 36. It was the day of my birthday and we just got our liquor license. The partners asked me to choose the Champagne at dinner. I chose a 1982 Salon Champagne that had about a 1 minute, 45 second finish. It was like a kaleidoscope of flavors or like a striptease.
JJP: What is your philosophy on pairing wine and food?
BD: The wines have to be balanced. They have to tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The texture is important to me. There are wonderful pairing opportunities when wines are structured with acids; the wines have a complexity to them. People are shocked that they’re so affordable. If you can deliver quality and consistency then you’ll have customers for life.
When people are struggling to make choices they’re uncomfortable. They’re here to eat and drink. I’ll just bring them a taste of something to break the ice. It gives people a point of reference and they’re blown away—it’s a great icebreaker. It really speaks to the fact that you aren’t trying to dictate.
JJP: What is your favorite pairing?
BD: I had a pairing that was beyond magic. The chef was using exotic ingredients like Indian spices, star anise, and cumin together. To prove to people that wines go well we came up with boxing: we do a Gewürztraminer on one side and the Chateauneuf-du-Pape on the other side.
People are also always shocked that I’m pairing daurade or snapper with red wine. People are shocked at how well they go together; fish is not limited to white wine.
JJP: What is your current favorite wine region?
BD: I’m working on a project in Spain right now and have been thrilled with the level of quality that the Spanish wines are producing. I’m a big Italian wine fan, but right now I’m concentrating on wines from Ribera and Cigales [in Spain].
JJP: Do you tend to focus on Old World or New World wines? How do you choose?
BD: It’s a mix because I have an interesting approach. I don’t give my distributer a region. I give them a price range that I won’t pay over, and I like to taste everything. I’ll look at anything from anywhere in the world. You start to recognize patterns of quality from distributors, otherwise they are limiting what they’ll show you. You don’t get the whole spectrum that way. Right now people are tasting wines they wouldn’t normally taste.
JJP: Do you look for wines that have high ‘scores’?
BD: People will really appreciate a program that has a reflection of the restaurant and its personality. When a restaurant only has high-scoring wines the consumer loses out because everybody is chasing the same brand. You have a responsibility to shop around as a wine buyer. One hundred-point wines are great, but if you build a whole program around that do you really have an opinion? You have the right to your own opinion and your own passion. If you only choose wines based on the point-system, you’re giving your brain and palate to somebody else.
JJP: What advice do you have for other sommeliers?
BD: Customers expect wine lists to have thousands of choices—commit to something. Believe in something, and build your own restaurant’s legacy by showcasing things that you are personally invested in. Provide as much information to the customer as possible, give them a little background. Make sure your staff is versed in wine and get everyone involved. We’ve contributed a great deal to the food and wine community through our restaurant. Numerous employees are now managing brands and starting their own places. Instead of being upset by that we’re thrilled. They’ve taken their experience and made a career out of it.