with Jean Luc Le Dû
by Ha-Kyung Choi
Ha-Kyung Choi: How did you go from being a rock and roll musician
to a professional sommelier?
Jean Luc Le Dû: I started to work in the restaurant business
out of necessity back in 1986. I started to read about wine because
I thought it was a really wonderful subject, combining food, wine, history
and geography. I never thought of making a career out of it because
at the time there were really no sommeliers in this country. I started
to work for David Bouley in 1992 and started to do wine competitions
more for my personal knowledge. When I started working for Daniel, I
was already studying quite a bit and doing many tastings and visiting
vineyards. It just happened that the sommelier position opened around
the time I won the best Sommelier competition in Northeastern US in
1997. So I took a different approach, not having gone to any wine/sommelier
school but being completely self taught.
HC: There is strong representation of wine from around the world on
your wine list. What do you look for in new wines? What are some of
your favorite emerging wine regions?
JL: A wine region that has been emerging for some time is Spain. What
makes a wine region interesting is the quality of its wine but also
its value. I think Spain has proven in the past 10-15 years that it
can produce great wine at very affordable prices. Yet at the same time
they have cult wines that are really expensive and worth the price,
like some wines in the Priorat and Ribera del Duero. I think Chile is
also an emerging region. You can find a great bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon
for $6-$7 that you couldn’t find in America or in France.
This is one of the best times to enjoy wine and be in the wine business.
Since the 1980s, there’ve been so many advances in technology
and new discoveries so a lot of regions are producing much better wines
at better prices.
HC: In 2002, you were awarded with the Wine Spectator
Grand Award. How were you able to build such a prestigious wine list
in so short a period of time?
JL: I think it was a natural progression. When I was the sommelier at
Restaurant Daniel on 76th Street, we had about 350 selections on the
wine list. I am just as proud of the 350 selections we had then as the
1600 selections we have today. We opened this restaurant with about
800 selections and through the course of four years we would add about
200 selections a year.
Over the years we’ve develop a very good relationship with wineries
and they’ve allowed us to acquire verticals of their wines you
normally don’t find anywhere else. That gives our list a very
personal touch and what makes the list exciting. For example, Hansel
Winery in Sonoma County just got us wines dating back to 1965. Pinots
from America from the 60s is just something you don’t find anywhere
else. Chateaux Latour in Bordeaux regularly sends us their vintages.
So I think those relationships are important to the list at Daniel.
More importantly, there is a broad selection that starts from $26 a
bottle up to the sky’s the limit. People expect that when they
come here all you can find are big Bordeaux and great white Burgundies,
and of course we have those wines, but it’s also important to
have some country wines and wines that people haven’t necessarily
heard of but complement Daniel’s food.
HC: What do you think is the appeal of verticals of the Bordeaux first
growths for your customers?
JL: Those are wineries that have very long histories that have a terroir
that is very specific. They really represent what the best wine in Bordeaux
is all about and have produced a lot of classic wines over the decades
that should be on the wine list. We’ve developed a relationship
with Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau Latour, where they give us the excess
vintages. So I think it’s a great representation. We try to keep
the same approach in every country and region. We look for the major
estates that are a representation of the region and we do a vertical
to showcase that winery.
HC: What is most important for sommeliers when working with customers?
JL: It’s important to listen to the customer and have a two way
conversation. We’re not trying to impose our tastes. As much as
people say that Upper East Side customers are some of the hardest clientele
to take care of, I think they are also the most fun because they know
what they want, they’re adventurous and they trust you. The most
important thing is to talk to the customer at the table and try to find
out what they mean in their descriptions. For someone “full-bodied”
could mean an Australian Shiraz and for someone else it could mean a
HC: How has the current economic climate affected customers’
ordering behavior at Daniel?
JL: It’s been very interesting. In the past few months I could
see the customers’ demands have shifted and it’s more apparent
in restaurants with established clientele such as Daniel. Top selling
cult American Cabernet Sauvignon, like the Colgin, Bryant Family or
wines bought by newer money and dot-comers, has disappeared. But contrary
to what you may think, what we’re selling a lot is old classic
Bordeaux and even very expensive ones. So it seems that people are spending
more money on classic wines instead of new discoveries. They’re
going for safer bets.
HC: There are three Daniel private label wines. What led to your decision
to offer these wines?
JL: They each have a different story and a different identity.
The cuvee Daniel Bordeaux came almost by accident. I have two friends,
one is with Château L’Angelus and one used to be the winemaker
at Château Pâpe Clément in Graves, who partnered
together to create their own label. I was in Bordeaux with them 2 or
3 years ago and really liked the wine that they had, and asked if they
would do a private label. The Champagne was a different story. I went
to Champagne with the express purpose of making my own cuvee and I was
lucky enough to work with Marne Champagne, the largest Champagne maker
in France. I was able to blend the Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay
at the levels I wanted. I was friends with the winemaker at Galluccio
and we spent a Sunday afternoon at the winery where we tasted from different
barrels. We decided to private label the barrel that we liked best.
And the best one is coming soon. The Cote du Rhone which is from 80
year old Grenache vines. It’s a great terroir and made by one
of the great wineries, Châteauneuf du Pâpe Domaine de la
Janasse. Christophe Sabon makes the wines for us, bottles and labels
HC: You have achieved the apex of the sommelier profession, working
at a four-star, Wine Spectator Grand Award winning restaurant. Where
does one go from here?
JL: Well, I would like the restaurant to win the James Beard Award for
best wine program. (Since the interview, Le Du has won the 2003 James
Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Service) Other than doing wine lists
and service, there are many other interesting things I’m involved
with. Daniel has a new cookbook coming out where I’ll do food
and wine pairings. We are also opening up a new restaurant in mid-May
which we’ll be doing the wine list for. But beside that, my dream
would be to open my own wine shop.
HC: Similar to the celebrity chefs, are there star Sommeliers?
JL: The only star sommelier I know is Larry Stone. I think it’s
difficult for the owner or chef of the restaurant to be constantly present
on the floor so we reflect the image of the restaurant.
HC: Have you had any mentors who’ve influenced you?
JL: Absolutely. My career was very influenced by Roger Dagorn, sommelier
at Chanterelle, and people like Larry Stone have been and still are
very influential. But the wine program at Daniel is reflective of my
passion for wine and so I never really looked at any models. I had a
pretty good idea of what I wanted to do with my wine program from the
start and it’s the same model I’ve followed for the last
few years, which is to provide the maximum enjoyment and the best wine
possible at the best price. Sometimes we sell something for $25 that’s
been as carefully if not better chosen than a $500-$600 wine.
HC: Tell me about how you went about choosing the wines for Daniel,
Café Boulud and DB Bistro.
JL: The aim at Café Boulud was to offer a more international
list at a lower price range, that’s also easier to understand
than the list at Daniel. You see more country wines with smaller appellations.
We try to make it more fun with quotes but still organize the list by
country. The list at DB is much smaller. Instead of being organized
by country, I decided to put it by flavors and grape types. So people
will be able to order a Merlot from St. Emilion, from Chile and so on.
For all three of the restaurants, we keep the end customer in mind
in devising the wine list. They might be the same clientele but I don’t
think people go to Daniel for the same reasons they go to DB. They go
for a more relaxed mood and they don’t want to be bothered with
trying to find a St. Emilion or Châteauneuf du Pâpe. They
are more taste and grape driven than appellation driven.
HC: Outside of your work here at Daniel, do you also work with private
JL: Absolutely. I have a business on the side where I buy wines here
or in Europe at auction for private customers and give advice on what
they should drink and how long they should cellar bottles. It came naturally
because I was at wine auctions buying for the restaurant so people started
to ask me if I would source some wines for them. I started about five
years ago and it’s developed with a very steady clientele.
The fact that I buy for the restaurant and for private clients gives
me buying power. And when you have buying power, you can ask about the
condition of the bottles, you can see them before the auction and ensure
the bottle is in the shape that is stated in the catalogue. It’s
beneficial both ways to buy all that wine together.
HC: Given your background in rock and roll, if you could share a bottle
of wine with any musician living or dead, who would it be and what would
JL: That’s a good question. I would choose a bottle of Rayas 1990
Châteauneuf du Pâpe because I think it is one of the greatest
wines ever produced. It’s a wine of great power but delicacy and
combines everything that I look for in a wine. It has the power, but
at the same time elegance, length on the palate and great fruitiness.
It’s really a beautiful bottle of wine. Now who would I share
such a bottle with? I would say it would have to be Joe Strummer of
The Clash. But he’s dead unfortunately.