Beltrami: What is your overall approach
Mark Bell: One of my principal tenets is that wine does not exist
by itself. Wine is made for food, for life. It is a celebration of being
together, a celebration of life, love, and eating. Unfortunately, in
the U.S. we are repressed in a number of ways, so wine is not as accessible
as it is in Europe and even, to a degree, in Canada. I have a three-year-old
daughter, and she's tasting wine already.
As the sommelier at Vong you are also the wine buyer. What do you look
for in a wine?
MB: When I'm tasting wines, I always have
in mind the Vong flavors, the Vong spices, even certain dishes. If I
worked somewhere else, I'd be looking for different wines. And the question
"Do I like the wine?" is not as important to me as "Is it a well-made
wine?" Is it balanced? What about the price-can I sell it? Do I have
a slot to fill on the list, or it so interesting that I want to create
a new slot?
How do you determine the prices of
the wines on your list?
MB: Pricing a wine list is a game of strategy,
much like chess. I try to keep my average markup, across the whole list,
to two and a half times wholesale, which is the industry standard. But
I adjust the prices of individual wines constantly, because a change
of a few dollars up or down makes a huge difference in public perception.
There's a lot of marketing involved, which is fun. I might sell a popular
Merlot at a higher than average markup so that I can offer a wonderful
Argentinian Malbec for twice wholesale, thereby encouraging people to
AB: Do you
sell more whites than reds?
MB: Yes, generally, because they are more
food-friendly with Vong's menu, but it varies seasonally, as does the
list. As we head into spring I'll be adding lighter reds and lighter
whites, and rosés will be re-appearing.
list has a fairly heavy representation of Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs,
which interests me, since neither one of those varieties is usually
considered a classic match with spicy foods. Would you comment on that?
MB: Red Burgundies [made from Pinot Noir]
match with the food at Vong on a basic level, in that they are generally
lighter wines without the tannic structure of Bordeaux or California
Cabernet. I find New World Pinot Noirs [from Oregon, California, Australia]
match a little better since they are generally more extracted, more
jammy. White Burgundy [made from Chardonnay], with its natural backbone
of acidity, works very well. I often try to move die-hard California
Chardonnay drinkers to a Santenay blanc, or a similar appellation where
the price is reasonable and the wine is both rich and structured. But
I always want to give customers what they want. I'm not against selling
Merlot or Chardonnay. Now, if I come to the table and they say they
are thinking about ordering a Chardonnay, I'll say, "Well, that would
be a good choice, but have you thought about a Pinot Blanc or a Riesling?"
I open your wine list, I first see a page with a vineyard photo and
an informative blurb, which intrigues me.
MB: The cover page is something I change
seasonally. I don't want people to open the wine list and the first
thing they see is the Champagne page, which has some of the most expensive
wines. They may go no further and just close the book. Instead, they
see a picture of a winery or vineyard, and a description that lets them
know that wine is made with the hands. Most winemakers are not in the
business primarily to make money. If you talk to the winemakers, they're
filled with energy, fire, life; they're farmers, and I try to convey
is your role on the restaurant floor?
MB: As a sommelier, I'm both a salesman
and an educator. Of course, I also wear the hat of a manager. When I
approach a table, I introduce myself, try to make the guests feel comfortable
and unintimidated, and let them know I'm there as a guide. In a way,
I'm also an actor and an entertainer. My first question to people, generally,
after I determine whether it's a red or a white, is "What do you want
to find in this wine-something rich, something light, something minerally,
something fruity?" Then, slowly, slowly, I can pare them down and find
something they should like. Part of being a sommelier is that you have
to be slightly telepathic.
do you manage to guide the wine selections for large groups, when many
different dishes are involved?
MB: It depends. With business dinners,
the host typically orders for the table, so I deal with him or her,
and then everyone else just drinks it and appreciates it according to
the level of the host's position in the business world. With a group
of friends who are all enthusiastic about wine, I like to create custom
wine flights. If they want one bottle for the table, Alsatian Riesling
is great with almost everything, although it can be a tough sell.
do you say if a customer orders a bottle that you wouldn't recommend
for a particular dish?
MB: The cardinal rule I learned back in
Toronto is that if the customer knows exactly what they want when you
arrive at the table, you bring it to them. If they don't like it, you
can then suggest a second wine.
describe some of your favorite food and wine matches at Vong.
MB: With food and wine matching, if a
match works each will bring out elements of the other you might not
have noticed before. Here are some of my favorites from Vong:
and Coconut Milk Soup
A Barrel-fermented Chardonnay from Macari Vineyards in Mattituck, Long
This is a very well-made wine with definite sea salt overtones that
bring out the lime leaf in the soup and balance the complex combination
of galangal, chicken, and coconut.
with Thai Herbs
A grand cru Riesling from, say, Wolfberger or Trimbach would be a
no-brainer. But my favorite pairing is a rosé Champagne that
I pour by the glass by Henri Germain, from
Duck Breast with Tamarind and Sesame
A St. Joseph rouge, by Domaine Coursodon... or nearly any Syrah-based
wine from the Rhone. Intense roasted raspberry and earth tones are
perfect for the game flavors in the duck.
Tuna with Szechuan Peppercorn/ Soy Mustard
(Here's a wild one) Tokaji Furmint by Tokaj Oremus.
This is an extremely well-put-together wine with floral notes on the
nose and a very dry, very crisp citrus finish.
For cooking at home, I love steak with Syrah. The Syrah grape [grown
in France's Rhone Valley, the U.S., Australia (where it is called Shiraz)
and elsewhere] can produce fat, chewy wines with lots of pepper but
slightly lower tannins than Cabernet, which makes them more enjoyable
when young. What Merlot was to the 1990s, I'm hoping Syrah will be to
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