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
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.