definition of Sommelier

Michael FlynnAlexis Beltrami: Your educational background intriques me. It looks like you've done some graduate work·

Michael Flynn: Yes, I came to Washington to do graduate work at Georgetown in linguistics and French.

AB: At what point did you get into the restaurant trade?

MF: Well, that was back in the 70's, and I wasn't sure whether I wanted to continue to pursue a career in academia at that point. My interest in foreign languages extends beyond French-I did extensive studies in Spanish and Russian as well-and what I really was passionate about was using the languages on a day to day basis, and not just teaching them to American students eventually. But back then, there weren't many opportunities to go on and do other types of things, so I discontinued my studies, even though I was doing very well at Georgetown and sort of lost steam by interrupting them. At that point, I got into the restaurant business as a way to pay the bills, and it turned out I started working for a restaurant that was French-owned and operated, where I got to use my French every working day, and it was like a home and a haven for me. It was in the course of working at this restaurant-it was a landmark in the Washington area called the Old Angler's Inn, and is still there to this day-that I fell into wine. Wine was starting to take off in the Washington area, under the tutelage of the Washington branch of the Sommelier Society of America, and along with a buddy of mine I joined the society and started attending tastings and lectures. And the rest, as they say, is history. My background in Francophilia and French education kind of cemented the relationship.

AB: With wine? How is that?

MF: It's like a chef who approaches cooking from the standpoint of learning the classic French techniques first and building upon that as a solid foundation. In the wine world, in much the same way, if you develop knowledge and capability in French wines, it serves you very well, in terms of building upon it. French winemaking styles, varietal blends, and techniques all to this day serve as somewhat of a benchmark throughout the winemaking world.

AB: When did you first earn the title of sommelier?

MF: I wasn't running the wine program at the Old Angler's Inn; that came later, at New Heights, which was-and still is-a small, targeted-to-the-menu program. It's funny, because when I started as a sommelier about 12 years ago there were about five sommeliers working in the Washington area, and now, as I look around me, there are still only about five sommeliers working in the Washington area, which is a shame.

AB: Very surprising, considering how the sommelier profession has grown across the country. Why do you think that is?

MF: Well, Washington is a big wine market-one of the top three in terms of per-capita annual consumption. What I think you have to isolate is that Washington is a very buttoned-down city, a very hard-working city. Your stock in trade tends to be your access to information and power, much less than your access to wealth and prestige. Therefore, that kind of conspicuous consumption, in white tablecloth, top-flight restaurants, really gets held to a minimum. The city can seem to support at one time only two or three of the very top level of restaurants, and if there are more than that, and on occasion more of them do creep in, somebody ends up getting shaken out. The market just can't sustain more than that. That being said, Kinkead's is certainly an elegant restuarant, but by no means a stuffy or very formal restaurant. We have no dress code, for instance. And the wine list is priced, as you can see, from about $20 a bottle to the-sky's-the-limit.

AB: Yes. I am impressed by the low markups on your wines.

MF: It's been a lot of work for me to hold the line on the pricing, because the pressure's always upwards, and it's a constant struggle for me to keep reasonably priced, high-quality bottles on there. But Chef Kinkead's committment to having a full-time sommelier on staff is certainly not without its benefits and rewards-- not only in terms of the perception of our clientele towards the wine service, but also right down to the bottom line. Wine accounts for close to 30% of our revenue, and that wouldn't be the case if I weren't there every day prodding the wine sales.

AB: I'm curious: is [wine critic] Robert Parker one of your customers?

MF: He is. As a matter of fact, he comes in infrequently, because he travels so much, but he absolutely loves Chef Kinkead's Ipswich Fried Clams.

AB: What types of wines are most popular with your clientele?

MF: Well, you know, Chardonnay still remains popular and I have a fair number of Chardonnays, from California and Burgundy, on the list, not that they are necessarily the most well-suited to our food. With white wines, I try to push more of the aromatic varieties, from Marsanne and Viognier to Riesling and Grźner Veltliner, as wines that are more suitable to the fairly assertively flavored food on the menu. The style of the menu ranges all over the world, from Central and South American spices to Southeast Asian to Japanese to Cajun-Creole. It's given a distinctive stamp by Chef Kinkead, of course, but those flavors don't necessarily lend themselves to Chardonnay, and I try to represent wines that do a little more with the assertive flavors. I'd have to say, though, that in terms of white wines Chardonnay still reigns supreme. I think we've done very well on the red side of the equation, though; we're selling more Pinot Noir than anything else. In fact, the mix is quite surprising-we sell about 45% red to 55% white, which for a seafood restaurant is pretty remarkable.

I noticed that you offer the whole lineup of '97 Williams-Selyem Pinots on your list, which seems like quite a coup.

MF: Indeed. It's one of those things where you have to inherit someone else's allocation to be able to get that kind of breadth of selection, and that indeed was the case. It was made available to me by an attorney who works in the complex where Kinkead's is housed, and of course I jumped on it. If you have to get them at auction, you can only get one or two bottles at a time.

AB: Do you find there's still a sentiment out there that serious wine is red wine?

MF: Yes, particularly when you're making a statement about cementing a business deal or winning a case, or whatever, and you go right for the reserve red list. A couple of years ago, Chef Kinkead came to me and said, "We need to bump up the list on collectible reds-top Bordeaux, and other high-ticket items from France, California, and Italy. People are telling me that we don't have a wide-enough selection in those areas." Obviously, he knew why that was so, but it was a situation where if you build it they will come. Once I put these things on the list, they've been flying out of here. I mean, I can't keep Chateau Margaux in stock. It makes me scratch my head, but if that's what people want, then that's certainly what I'm going to give them

AB: That seems to be the theme that I hear from most of the sommeliers I've been talking to-to give people what they want, while at the same time trying to find ways to expand their tastes a bit, which, I guess, is what you're doing with your thematic front page [see the current example, "Over The Top and Down Under!".

MF: Yes. The front page sets the stage; it says this is a list designed to make you think, structured to allow you to experiment and to get you to have fun. I think it provides a good entrŽe into what the program tries to do, which is not to take itself too seriously, and to price fairly so people can try new things. We've really had fun with the front page promotions over the years. The first year, it was called "The Zen of Zin," and it was very successful, even though we're a seafood restaurant and it started in the middle of summer! The next year we did "Shellfish Whites," since we have a raw bar incorporated within the restaurant, and we featured crisp, dry, minerally whites that work beautifully with oysters and clams. Last year was "A Riesling Revival," which seems to have been a bit ahead of its time, in that now people are asking about Riesling. We were kind of forcing it on them for the first 6 months. I broke down a lot of resistance over that first year, and now I have people calling me over to the table and saying "what about these Rieslings?" We did Rieslings from Alsace, Germany, Austria, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States.

AB: On that first page, as well as on your reserve list, you include brief tasting notes on each wine. I find that many wine drinkers, even fairly experienced ones, are mystified by the ability of professional tasters to pinpoint aromas and flavors so exactly, often with descriptors that are not very familiar-say, quince, or gooseberry. Is there an easy way to familiarize oneself with the main wine descriptors?

MF: I've taught classes in the Washington area called "Beginner's Winespeak" that actually attacked those very notions. You present an array of wines to your attendees, and in front of them on a table is a wide variety of food products-fruits, vegetables, spices, coffee and vanilla beans, even liquid smoke, anything that's routinely used as a reference point for the smell and flavor of wine-and then you let them go for it, tasting each wine and then trying to reconstruct it in terms of more tangible food concepts. This will fix the flavor reference points in your mind, it will expand your descriptive vocabulary, and it's really quite effective. You'll take a sip of wine and say, "Is it more citrus-lemon/lime, or is it more white fruits-apple and pear?" and then you can draw conclusions about the answer to that question. With a group of six to eight people it's a pretty easy thing to do.

AB: That's a great idea-I'll have to try it.

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