Sommelier William Rhodes
An Interview William Rhodes, Carlyle Hotel
By Jim Clarke
How do you first become interested in wine, and how did you build on that initial interest?
William Rhodes: When I started in the restaurant industry, I saw it as a way to make myself more valuable; the beverage department often seemed overlooked. But I had been a bio– and pre–med major for two years, and I like history and geography, and those came into play when I started learning more about wine. I hated chemistry in school, but it’s a lot easier to take when it’s for the wine. I also like talking to people about wine and other things, which is so much of this job. You don’t spend as much time describing wines as talking with people about their own things.
JC: What did you find the differences were between working retail and working in restaurants; what were the pros and cons of each?
WR: I first got into retail working Sergio Esposito at Italian Wine Merchants, helping their clients source wines aside from Italy; it developed into cellar management, finding and buying hard–to–find wines for clients, and that kind of thing. Then Guy Goldstein and I opened Cellar 72 together. Retail is something everybody in the wine industry should do once; you need to think even more, because you don’t always know how the wines going to be used — dinners, cocktail parties, etc., and you don’t get immediate feedback. It’s a different approach to service.
On the plus side, you also get your life back — the hours are much more agreeable. People get burnt out in the restaurant side; retail is a way to still be part of it, staying in touch with salespeople, following trends, and not killing yourself. Hotels are different again, they give you a different perspective. We do about 50 or 60 covers each night, so the work’s a lot more thought–provoking; I’ve already done the thing where you get your ass kicked every night. We’ve got a great chef; he’s not hot–headed, he’s collected — he deals with the staff in the kitchen different.
JC: How do you go about putting together an interesting By–The–Glass list that meaningfully relates to the full winelist?
WR: It should be a snapshot of what’s to come. How it’s organized is also a clue. We sell a lot of wine by the glass. If you’re pouring J.L. Chave’s ‘Mon Coeur’, it should make people wonder what else is in there. It makes people want to come back and explore. The waitstaff ends up selling most of the wine, so they need to be articulate and know their product, feel good about it, and make it fun. Otherwise people can be fearful of wine: the big black list, and a guy in a suit coming over…
JC: Tell me about the process of creating your house wine, the Carlyle Syrah.
WR: Tim Spear has been a friend of mine for about six years. I had tasted his ’96 Clos Mimi Syrah — it was the best single vineyard California Syrah I had seen, and very Rhone–like. It was love at first sight. I met Tim, and our friendship evolved; I went out, helped do some bottling, and so on. We took some 2004 barrel samples, putting together what I liked. I had my ideas, and he, as a winemaker, had his own — it was like watching a chef. We put a blend togetherm and in 2006 we finally bottled it without a destination or label. When I came to the Carlyle I found a place for it, as I started thinking about how the mini–bar in a hotel always has that bottle of Champagne. We branded our wine as both Clos Mimi and Carlyle; every room in the hotel has one.
JC: You’ve got your Master Sommelier examination coming up; how have you prepared for it, both long–term and short–term?
WR: Initially it was all I could think about. Once you get into it, you forget why you’re doing it. You meet so many people, so much of it is networking. Lots of flash cards, sharing a lot of information with others. There’s a certain way that they like to ask their questions that you have to learn. You should taste your wines by the glass everyday; don’t do it blind, do it to remind yourself, to remember the profile. The blind tasting centers on classic straightforward wines.
The day of, stay away from people until exam time; there’s too many distractions. I do two shots of vodka beforehand. It’s nerves, psychological. You know it, you do this every day of your life. It’s also important to remember that if you don’t pass, you’re still good. There’s no way to know exactly what they’ll test you on; recently Greece and sake have been big, but really, as they say, on any given Sunday
JC: Your company bio mentions that your favorite wines are those of Germany, Alsace, and Austria; what is the special appeal they have for you?
WR: Wines from the Mediterranean, Southern French, Italian and Spanish wines. I would have to say Chateauneuf du Pape is my favorite region, but truly I love all wine from the Old and New Worlds.
JC: Your next project is to begin making your own cheese — a chèvre — is making your own wine on the horizon?
WR: For one thing, they’re great values, and very inexpensive for vintage wine — less than half the price of an equivalent Bordeaux for truly complex wines. They’re great with food. I like them with something simple — people talk about how they go with Asian cuisine, but there’s so much going on in many Asian dishes, too many fireworks. I like clarity in the food, so the wine can be complex. I like whites more than reds, and the reds I like such as Burgundy and Barolo are the lighter, more delicate, and balanced ones.