with Jeff Morgenthal, Drago
By Ha-Kyung Choi
Choi: You seem to have developed your passion for wine in Spain.
What were the main factors of inspiration as well as the main reasons
for deciding to become a sommelier?
Morgenthal: I had been nurturing a budding passion for wine ever
since I started ‘managing’ a small bistro wine list in Colorado
when I was 25. My passion for cycling, though, was the window through
which I was able to develop a respect for and understanding of European
culture. In cycling, the pinnacles of the sport lay in the three major
tours: the Giro d’Italia, Le Tour de France, and the Vuelta a
España. By no coincidence, the greatest wines in the world are
also made in those three countries. It was while I was living in Spain
that the two major forces in my life, bicycle racing and wine collided.
It was a very natural and gradual transition I had been making as I
got older. While living in San Sebastian, I worked with the sommeliers
at the Michelin 3-star Arzak Restaurante, and this was a major catalyst
in my wanting to become a sommelier. Like an athlete preparing for competition,
the work of the sommelier requires hard physical work, meticulous attention
to detail and a passion for constantly striving for gains, however incremental
they may be. The work of the sommelier requires finding a balance between
these physical and mental worlds. Every night on the floor is like a
Tour de France stage where anything can happen. Some nights you struggle
with wine service like a big, bulky sprinter climbing Alpe d’Huez.
While other nights are like a victory lap on the Champs Elysèes
with the gratification of recommending beautiful food and wine pairings
or imbuing a diner with a new discovery. I think the dynamic world of
restaurant wine was appealing to me for those reasons then and still
What is the toughest challenge you face as a professional sommelier?
: Besides the current war which has dampened the economy and thus has
really tightened up wine budgets in restaurants for both wine buyers
and consumers, I think that the concept of corkage is one of the toughest
challenges in the restaurant industry. I mean, you just can’t
win. If you make someone feel uncomfortable at any point in the dining
experience, you’ve lost them. The greatest fault I have seen with
regards to corkage is the complete lack of sensitivity from people who
you thought were out to eat for a dining experience and not just a chow-session.
Lost dollars to the wine program, inappropriate ‘2-Buck Chuck’
cruising into the dining room in a Trader Joe’s shopping bag,
and customers asking for Riedel glasses with which to drink their wines
are the tip of the iceberg. What can you do? It’s just no fun
unless people are respectful and don’t take the ‘Corkage
is our god-given right’-type of approach. You don’t see
corkage problems in European restaurants. It’s an American thing.
You just passed one level of the Master Sommelier exam. What are the
biggest advantages of having the MS title and what types of avenues
open up for Master Sommeliers?
Maybe I can better answer that question one day if I pass it! From what
I have seen, the biggest advantage is increased visibility for those
56 Master Sommeliers. In terms of exposure and putting yourself on the
map, the MS is the ‘piece de resistance’ and of course,
getting the MS is so difficult that the great thing is that all those
who have passed it, deserve all their accolades, I think. The MS continues
to be a huge goal to work towards for me, and I think is worthy of all
the sacrifice, hard work and dedication that have so far characterized
Do you have a favorite wine region?
I’ve always admired Italian wines and of the greatest wines in
Italy, those from Piedmont. The Nebbiolo grape is a dramatic and fickle
grape: A thin-skinned varietal grown in a northerly, temperate climate.
No wine approaches Barolo for me in terms of its ability to express
its origin while combining power, elegance and perfume. Piedmont also
satisfies the intellect as it is a region that has evolved so much over
the last twenty years and where vinification methods have divided winemakers
who take almost bipartisan party lines in their winemaking philosophies.
I had for years struggled between Burgundy and Piedmont as both regions
are both making wines at the pinnacle of quality. I think for me, in
the end, it’s the drama of the Langhe and its people that put
Barolo ahead, by half a wheel.
In your opinion, what are the up and coming wine regions to look out
For reds, I think the drum for South African wines has been banging
louder and louder with each passing vintage. I think the herbaceous
and dilute wines that sometimes characterized South African wines in
a bad vintage are becoming less and less common over the recent vintages.
The estates have become more serious and winemakers have learned their
craft in the top winemaking regions of the world- which is to say nothing
of the great value these wines offer, most for under $20. Look out for
reds from Cabernet, Shiraz (as Syrah is called also in South Africa)
and Cabernet blends. I think that the shift has gone away from Pinotage
in recent years.
it sounds silly to call Germany up and coming, as they have made wine
on the banks of the Mosel for hundreds of years. But you can’t
help but feel that all the excitement that has surrounded the 2001 vintage
is more than just hype. The press has embraced these wines and I’m
surprised to find more and more wine drinkers, not just sommeliers and
collectors, who have become hip to Riesling. Sommeliers have long been
tapped into Germany and its Rieslings featuring knife’s edge acidity
and vibrant fruit flavors where those attributes were most apparent
at the table. I think that younger wine drinkers who got into wine post-Blue
Nun years are not as closed-minded as their baby-boomer counterparts.
Germany is only now just becoming available at mainstream retail outlets
What is the one type of wine on your list that you wish people would
stop overlooking and give a try?
No brainer there- Chianti! Ok, how many times will I have to recommend
a Chianti with having to qualify by saying something like ‘this
is not Chianti like from your days of burning candles in those whicker
basket bottles!’. If you can get the wines in peoples’ mouths,
they really like them. Producers in the Classico district of Chianti
have done a 360 degree turnaround in quality since the 70s and there
are now all styles of Chianti for every drinker: classic, big and oaky,
soft and elegant. Luckily, producers like Riecine and San Giusto a Rentennano
quell all those trepidations once you finally get the cork pulled. The
producers of Chianti Classico have been making serious wines in the
last five years, of as high a quality as you will see anywhere.
What is the biggest mistake that people make when pairing wines with
This is another tough situation. As a sommelier, you want to see people
drinking the appropriate wines that harmonize with and not compete for
the subtleties of flavor. In a perfect world, every diner would start
with a glass of vintage champagne to prime their palate and then progress
through a series of carefully selected wines…
it’s ‘We’ll take the 2001 Domaine Mybackyard Napa
Valley Cabernet 15.9%ABV please’. It comes down to creating a
dining culture in your restaurant and cultivating a chef/sommelier relationship
so that these two entities can work together. This is the art of dining
and represents the pinnacle of gastronomic artistry. The science of
food and their textures, fats and acids takes years to develop a working
level of comfort and I for one, am still learning more about the interaction
of food and wine. I think that a lot of attention has been given to
this subject in recent years and this only creates a more educated dining
public. I could say that the biggest mistake in pairing wines with food
is drinking Cahors with shellfish but you know, in the end, people are
going to drink what they like. And I think they should!
I understand that you are planning to open a wine bar. What is the
concept for the restaurant and what are some of the issues and challenges
you face in opening a new establishment?
Yes, we are planning on opening a wine bar in Beverly Hills. The food
will be centered around traditional Italian cuisine, where hearty and
robust fare will pair naturally with all the wines of the world, hopefully!
Apparently, the biggest challenges we are facing is getting a liquor
license from the city of Los Angeles! But aside from that sort of stuff,
which I have nothing to do with, I think that training the staff properly
will be of major importance. I hope that the staff will want to learn
the proper way to talk about wine and the service of wine. I’m
sure that the suppliers will be lined up down through the door once
we do have a license to start buying wine. The politics of buying wine
is always frustrating because, in the end, you just can’t please
everyone and suppliers whose wines are not featured will have less than
flattering things to say about me! There’s just an ocean of great
wine out there these days. Other than that, I’m looking forward
to building my first wine program from the ground up and we’ll
hope that Beverly Hills is ready for some seriously fun food and wine.
I’ll let you know.