with David Singer, Founder of Libation Education, Libation
Education, Brookline, MA
Jim Clarke: What
inspired you to break out on your own and launch a wine
education and consulting business?
David Singer: The
opportunity to concentrate on the part I really love- the
teaching aspect. When you see the light go on in someone’s
head where they just get it, that’s a great part of
my job. As a sommelier, I was lucky if one table allowed
me to become part of their meal to take care of them. This
way, that happens all the time.
JC: Do you have
any clients yet?
David Singer: Mantra,
my former restaurant, is a client. I’ll be teaching
wine classes for the waiters and assisting with wine pairings,
pricing structure, tweaking the list for the new season.
JC: As you begin
at a new restaurant, how do you go about sizing up their
list and deciding what direction you want to go with it?
David Singer: Assuming
the restaurant is already in operation, the first thing
I do is a quick inventory to see if the list is accurate.
The next stage is to sit down with the Chef to see and taste
his cuisine. This has always been a major focal point in
how I am going to proceed. For example, when I worked with
a Chef who’s cuisine was very subtle and complex,
I sold the high-extraction wines very quickly in favor of
wines that were more elegant. Furthermore, I explored outside
of wine and found that sake paired incredibly well.
worked at restaurants with tome-like wine lists and places
with a more modest number of selections; what are the plusses
and minuses of these two extremes when you’re advising
DS: Starting with
the large Grand Award wine lists, the benefit is certainly
being able to recommend many great wines of the world with
depth and breadth that are ready to drink, while having
the versatility to match to the clients’ desires in
a multitude of range and styles. A negative is certainly
the intimidation factor to the novice wine drinker. Another
is the danger that the wine list becomes a trophy list with
little balance or is not attuned to the cuisine of the Chef.
The smaller list, while not having
the depth or variation of the large list, can certainly
be a lot more creative. This is not only limited to the
choices but the list’s presentation. Instead of the
classic format, fun and interesting categories can be selected.
What Dan did at AZ by using the Te-Ching I thought was brilliant.
It’s also easier to change if there is a new Chef
or even if you want to change with the season.
mentioned elsewhere that Dan Perlman at Felidia was an important
mentor for you. What advice can you offer an aspiring sommelier
in search of a mentor?
DS: Some of the best
advice I can offer is to go the route I went with Dan –
become an assistant Sommelier or similar position. If a
restaurant can afford this position, then generally it will
have a sizable wine program and an experienced Wine Director
running it. This way you can learn consistently with on-the-job
JC: What should
be foremost in a sommelier’s mind when working the
floor on a busy night?
DS: Like any other
member of the restaurant, taking care of the guest should
be the first priority. After that, not to take advantage
of the really unique position that a Sommelier has. The
Sommelier at the table can be compared to the Chef coming
to the table and asking the guest what they want to eat.
This can be an intimidating concept to some clients. If
the table does ask for help, the Sommelier has to be able
to size up the client’s knowledge and desires very
quickly while intelligently (and with passion!) recommending
a bottle without being arrogant. One of my favorite quotes
about wine comes from Jeff Kundinger, a friend and Sommelier
in New Orleans. He said, “Wine is a Condiment.”
What he meant was that wine should be enjoyed with passion,
but the pretension and arrogance that sometimes that goes
with it has no place.
JC: At Mantra
you had to pair wines with a variety of spicier foods; what
wines, red or white, did you find most successful in this
DS: Mantra had a great
concept of cuisine, a French foundation with Indian influences.
Fortunately for the wine program, these spices accented
the food and did not dominate it. Because of that I was
not limited to just whites that were off dry. Other crisp
aromatic whites like Grüner Veltliner worked wonderfully.
The reds had to be Old World or the New World imitating
that style. Pinot Noir and the “Rhone” grapes
like Syrah and Grenache worked deliciously.
JC: What are a
sommelier’s best tools for encouraging guests to experiment
more with wines?
DS: Simply put, their
passion. When Sommeliers find these little gems from atypical
grapes or regions, their love of the wine becomes their
best tool for selling it.
JC: At Mantra
you also put together a well-thought-out beer list; what
different factors does a sommelier keep in mind when pairing
beer with a dish?
DS: The factors
are very similar to what you need to do in choosing a wine.
Are you pairing or counter-pairing? Train your staff and
add menu descriptions, especially if you have beers that
are not what your customers are used to seeing. And most
importantly, taste, taste and taste. Some my most serendipitous
pairings have come that way.