definition of Sommelier

Todd Thrasher of Signatures Interview with Todd Thrasher
by Ha-Kyung Choi

Ha-Kyung Choi: Why did you decide to become a sommelier?
Todd Thrasher: While working at Café Atlantico, I was introduced to South American wines. I enjoyed learning, tasting and instructing staff on our wines and wine service. As my interest grew, so did my thirst for other new and exciting wines from around the world. I figured if I could, why not taste wine for a living!

HC: What types of wines are most popular with your clientele? Have you found that the appreciation of fine wines has been improving in the past few years?
TT: The wines that are most popular with our clientele at Signatures are the ‘big California fruit bombs’. I am, however, on a quest to turn our guests on to the world below the equator, in terms of wines. It is very satisfying to turn people on to something new when it will also enhance their dining experience with us. I believe it is our duty as ‘restaurant industry professionals’ to instruct and guide our guests so that they can learn to appreciate fine wines.

HC: Signatures attracts numerous celebrities in the political and entertainment fields. What is it like servicing these customers? Does Arnold Schwarzenegger know his wines?
TT: We do get quite a number of what would be considered ‘political big wigs’ here at the restaurant. And honestly, they are some of the most open people to sell wines to. Most trust me in choosing their wine for them, in which case, I will base my decision on their personal likes as well as their menu choices. It’s fun to service these guests; they enjoy the wine experience and are always willing to share a taste!
I am sure Mr. Schwarzenegger knows his wines. He did not have any while at our restaurant, but he did comment on our ‘cool’ bottles of Voss water…He definitely knows his H2O!

HC: Washington seems like a town that lunches, particularly for business. How is developing a wine list for lunch customers different from dinner customers?
TT: It’s funny! Washington DC definitely lunches, but they normally do not ‘wine’ at lunch. I have been told stories from friends in the business about the way it used to be: “Two martini lunches along with a bottle of wine to enjoy the filet!” These days, there is virtually no drinking at lunch. Happy hour is another story. Washington’s ‘power brokers’ love to have their wine at happy hour.

HC: What are some of the challenges of matching wine to the diverse range of flavors and spices that Chef Morou creates? How involved is he in advising on the wine selections?
TT: The main challenge in matching wine to the diverse range of flavors and spices that Chef Morou prepares is his spontaneity in the kitchen. For our wine dinners, he usually creates as he goes, and it all starts when he gets behind the stove. At that point, when I see him adding spices and ingredients I am unfamiliar with, I start to ask question after question about what he is using. Even when he tells me he is using ‘spicy lily pily’, I have no clue of what that could be. So, I do a lot of tasting while he cooks and I consider the combinations he works with. In terms of the wine, I rely on my memory and that’s how I come to make the ‘match’. It is a challenge that I enjoy very much!

HC: Tell me about your special Southern Hemisphere wine dinners.
TT: I am a big fan of Southern Hemisphere wines. I feel if we can get outstanding wine at a great value, why not pass on the ‘ benefits’ to our guests, introduce them to fun wines and enjoy our food! This series of wine dinners are focused on different wine regions from the Southern Hemisphere including South Africa, Australia, Chile, New Zealand and Argentina. We offer a five-course meal paired with different wines for $68 per person, inclusive of taxes and gratuities.

The idea of offering such innovative wine dinners came from working with Morou, who was willing to showcase his talent in a ‘fun way’. A good example was Morou’s interpretation of ‘Doro Wat’, which is actually a traditional Ethiopian dish that was a hit with our guests! It is meant to be eaten with your hands (no silverware) and people really loved it when we took the silverware away and invited them to ‘enjoy’.

HC: What are some of your favorite new world wines and how do you stay abreast of new and emerging wine regions?
TT: I am a new world kind of guy! In terms of some of my favorite emerging wine regions, I would have to say Mexico and Uruguay are two that I am excited about.
Mexico’s growing region in Baja is ripe for the ‘picking’ (no pun intended). The hot days of sun and long cool night, along with the maritime influence yield grapes that are capable of making great wines! Chateau Camou is a great example of what Mexico has to offer. At the highest caliber, they are producing wines ranging from Zinfandels to Chardonnay to an unbelievable Bordeaux blend. They are truly surprising!

From Uruguay, there are two particular varietals that I enjoy very much: Tannat and Torrontes. Tannat is a great wine to enjoy at home when one can decant it. It is the type of wine that is best after a few hours due to its mouth puckering tannins. Once ready, however, it is a harmonious blend of big and dark fruits with oak undertones and a never-ending finish. Torrontes, on the other hand, makes for a fun, refreshing aperitif that can be enjoyed anywhere. It is the perfect match for those lazy summer days.

As far as staying abreast of new and emerging wines, my purveyors provide me with the most ‘eclectic’ wines they can find and I also scout wine shops and ‘bodegas’ for interesting new flavors. I find that the best way to learn is to taste them first hand!

HC: What are your future career goals?
TT: Right now, I am studying for my advanced certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers. In the future, I see myself owning and running my own restaurant as a Master Sommelier and hopefully winning a couple of James Beard Awards! That is my ultimate dream. And if that falls through, the back up ‘dream’ is to live the relaxed, laid back life of Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles as a scuba instructor, where I can teach people about the wonders of the ocean.

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