Wine on Starchefs
David Singer
Libation Education
16 Parkman Street,
Unit #1
Brookline, MA 02446
Interview 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.

JC: You’ve 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 a table?

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.

JC: You’ve 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 training.

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 regard?

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.

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   Published: April 2005