Wine on Starchefs

Interview with Caitlin Stansbury
By Jim Clarke

Jim Clarke: With all the sommelier training programs out there, why did you choose the International Sommelier Guild?

Caitlin Stansbury: I chose the International Sommelier Guild because they offered the biggest bang for the buck, and for the depth of their curriculum. They’re the only school that accredits by direct instruction. Other programs and, in particular, the Court of Master Sommeliers seem liked a rip-off: you get some books, study on your own, show up for a weekend, and get tested.

With the International Sommelier Guild I really felt like you were learning what’s in your mouth. It gives me a slight advantage in the job market, but more importantly, I use everything I learned every day at work as a sommelier – that’s where the real value of the training is.

JC: What about developing your palate?

JB: Everyone loves to think of wine as nebulous and subjective, but really, it’s not. Many places allow students too much latitude. Learning the difference between my own personal palate and what the benchmark is out in the world was a huge part of my training. It means I’m able to drive higher profits, because I’m able to understand what a great deal is, and the difference between exceptional and average wine.

JC: What makes a small winelist good?

JB: Barbara Philip showed us a bunch of winelists. BLT: 650 titles deep. Another one has 2,600 titles on the list – it’s impressive, a library. Then she showed us the list from a little Indian restaurant: the menu and list are all on one single page – it’s 15 bottles long, all available by the glass. The wines are esoteric, just like the food. They’re chemically perfect for the menu. A few Rieslings, a couple of not-too-complex sparkling wines – every single wine had a justification on the menu; each one was a perfect fit with at least two things on the menu. At first we laughed when she showed it to us, but Barbara said that list was every bit as valid and well-thought out as any other list we looked at. I still have a copy of it.

JC: How important is knowing your clientele?

JB: You’ve got to be mindful of who’s walking in the door. Put on your sneakers and walk seven blocks in every direction from your restaurant. I had assumed that the clientele at the Gaucho Grill in Studio City was all families, mostly working class, but every major film studio is around the corner – the stars and studio execs are all coming to Gaucho Grill for lunch. You couldn’t fling a cat without hitting a celebrity at lunch there.

So you have the working class family that just wants something nice and juicy to have with their steak, preferably at under $7 a glass. Then I have Debbie Allen, who at lunch also doesn’t want anything crazy expensive, but does want something more sophisticated. So we offer something like the Torrontés – you’re not going to see that by the glass at Spago. The wines have to do double duty to please both Debbie Allen and the family; it’s so much tougher than the big Lodge list, but sales double when we created that list.

JC: How do you get guests interested in esoteric wines?

JB: If I can get a guest to bite, they’re thrilled with the choice. I’m particularly careful with what I put on the list; there’s no point in having an esoteric wine that’s not quality. It also has to be well-priced; the guest doesn’t want to feel hoodwinked when you talk them into trying something unusual. Quality has to exceed the price point for esoterics; If I talk a guest into something, they’ve got to feel it’s a great value. I over-deliver, and so they come back to see what I’m going to pull on them next time. The great deals are always off the beaten path on my list. Sit back and let momma drive; I’ll always take you on the scenic route.



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    Published: June 2006