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Sandy Block of Legal Sea Foods on
Sandy Block
Legal Sea Foods
26 Park Place
Boston, MA 02116
(617) 426-4444

An Interview with Sandy Block, MW, of Legal Sea Foods, Boston
By Jim Clarke

Jim Clarke: How did you get involved with the wine trade?

Sandy Block: I was working on a doctoral degree in American Intellectual and Cultural History, and wine was my hobby. I got very absorbed in it while working in restaurants during Graduate School and became captivated by the romance and mystery of it. It involved all of my interests and passions in a way that I found my academic work did not. So I decided to pursue wine as a career, first as a Sommelier, then a number of years thereafter as a manager at a wholesale distribution company.

JC: Why did you decide to pursue the MW certification, especially as opposed to the MS?

SB: I remained fascinated by wine and wanted to know as much as about it as I could but always found reasons why I could read the book or do the tasting tomorrow. I felt that I needed a disciplined course of study to motivate me; one that involved other people and that entailed a challenge. When I came to this decision, in the late 1980s, I was transitioning out of the restaurant world and into the general wine trade so I thought that the MW Institute was more relevant to my direction. They’re both great disciplines and I would highly recommend either, but I didn’t feel that the service aspect of the MS curriculum was as relevant to where I wanted to go as some of the learning that the MW Institute’s program covered.

JC: Now you’ve just taken over a large and dynamic wine program; what do you do to make sure you hit the ground running?

SB: There are more challenges than one can imagine so the issue is not what to do but how to find the time to make it manageable. I’m focusing on a few areas: operational effectiveness, training and further inculcating a “culture of wine,” extending the Legal Sea Foods image and “brand concept” through our wine program, and providing our customers with formatting and menu selections that are oriented toward their interests.

JC: How do you train waitstaff to feel comfortable with a large, diverse wine list?

SB: By taking wine off its pedestal and simplifying it a bit, talking in terms of flavors and textures – giving the staff a sense of the range of options we have available and why it’s important for them to understand the styles and the influences that create them, rather than the full story of each individual wine. There is a reason for each wine on the list and this is the information that the server needs to understand. I’m enlisting our partners in the distribution world to help train our staff on a regular basis to understand issues such as the influence of oak aging on a wine’s texture, or the influence of climate on its flavor. We have a book that lists all of our wines and contains information relevant to service and to the questions that a customer might have; a wait person isn’t required to know everything about each wine but does have access to the information in this resource that he or she can provide to the customer quickly. I’m training the GMs, Chefs, and our service trainers to think more in terms of how the wines fit into the context of the most popular dishes we serve. We’re taking some wines and recommending particular dishes with them.

JC: You’re noted for your interest in finding clearer ways to describe food and wine; what sort of wine descriptions do you think are most useful for a guest or consumer?

SB: Direct and straightforward, nothing too flowery. People should know whether a white wine has residual sugar or not; if it’s aged in barrels or not; if it’s got plenty of acidity or is mild; if the tannins are strong; if the texture is smooth. I don’t think it’s relevant for a guest to know that I smell blueberries or tarragon when I’m analyzing the wine.

JC: How does Legal Sea Foods continue to offer a wide range of wines at a lower markup than many other restaurant groups?

SB: It’s part of our “DNA.” We’re committed to value at all levels of our business and the beverage program is consistent with everything else we do. My feeling is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a great bottle. We have sensational values at the upper price tier of our lists, but we also have them at the lower end. I’m blind tasting wines in categories and, yes, there often is a clear winner, a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Blanc we can serve for less than $25 that has real personality.

JC: The company is very excited about the new wine cellar at your Park Square location; what makes it special?

SB: It’s a beautifully designed environment for holding special wine events or just enjoying dinner. Our inventory is there for everyone to see and this always stimulates interest. It gives you the feeling of being right in the middle of a real working cellar. And some of the bottles we’re displaying are antiques, rarities.

JC: What changes do you have in mind for the program?

SB: To explore grape varieties and regions of the world that have been under-represented in the past. To change things seasonally and to introduce a regional focus with each new list. To integrate wine and food more effectively in our diners’ overall experience. And to evaluate our potential selections, as I mentioned before, as part of blind tasting process, that assures our guests the same level of “quality control” that we’re famous for on the culinary side of our business.

JC: Do you have any personal favorites you’re hoping to bring to the list?

SB: I’m a Riesling fan, so I’ve made some additional selections there; I’m drawn to the purity of unoaked white wines, particularly Chardonnays and Pinot Blancs lately; I’m a fan of good Cabernet Franc, particularly from the Loire Valley. There are too many to name, but my feeling is that when our new wine lists roll out in March there will be something tantalizing there for even the most jaded of palates.

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   Published: August 2005