wine features Sommelier: Chas Boynton of Dante—Cambridge, MA
Sommelier: Chas Boynton of Dante—Cambridge, MA
July 2009

Chas Boynton wasn’t destined to become a sommelier—at the University of Vermont he was actually a cognitive neuroscience major. But years of additional schooling upon graduation didn’t appeal to Boynton, so he finagled a job at Legal Seafoods and set about learning about wine. With the help of a dedicated mentor and a lot of studying, just a few short years later Boynton is running the wine program at Dante in Cambridge, MA, where his goal is to provide unusual but affordable wines to match the restaurant's comforting Italian food.

In order to pull this off, he sources wine from 27 distributers (as opposed to the average five or six) so he can skim the cream off the top and offer customers wines that have “a great story behind it.” As someone who was once intimidated by wine lists himself, Boynton tries to educate diners on wine and varietals that may be off the beaten path by offering them alternatives. He keeps the condensed wine list grouped by body style from light to heaviest, making it accessible for the novice or the vinophile.

Boynton likes not only to challenge the guests, but himself as well. His initial interest was in French wines, so took a job at an Italian restaurant to become more acquainted with Italian wines. And he is deeply involved in the Boston sommelier community, and even recently competed in a sommelier “smackdown” where he went against another young sommelier to pair wines with four dishes on the fly. “The only way to get better,” he says, “is to be in constant competition.”   

Katherine Martinelli: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Chas Boynton: I've always had a passion for small detail. I went to school for cognitive neuroscience, and as soon as I got out of college I realized it would be a lot more school. I was hired as a server at Legal Sea Foods right out of college and at the time they had the second largest wine cellar in Boston. I befuddled my way into the job; they asked me what my favorite wine was and I made something up. As a server I was intimidated by the wine list so I read everything and completely immersed myself.

At the time the wine buying was done by Master of Wine Sandy Block, but the restaurant didn’t have anyone on the premise. When people had wine questions I would go to the table and answer them. I had so much fun talking about it and I really developed a passion. Sandy invited me to taste with him and eventually asked me if I'd like to be a part of his beverage council. So I went from drinking Carlo Rossi to drinking wine side by side with Sandy Block. I got to work with Sandy for two years designing the Legal Sea Foods wine list and I also attended his classes at Boston College.

KM: Why did you leave Legal Sea Foods?
CB: I wanted to make my own mark and thought I could be more experimental with a smaller restaurant. I wanted to create my own wine list so I came here where I make sure that the wine always stays affordable. Wine is fantastic at any price level, but there's no reason why you can't have an affordable list. People appreciate if you can deliver a great bottle of wine that’s on average $60 to $70 and also has a great story behind it. A lot of my friends go through five or six distributors, but we have 27. I just go through portfolios, skimming the cream off. You can compile a full list by going through their gems.

KM: Describe your fondest wine memory.
CB: When I was working for Legal Sea Foods I had this table of Germans for whom money was not an issue. They were looking for our most grandiose Champagne, so I offered them an ‘85 Dom Perignon. I popped it for them and they complained that the wine was not bubbly enough. So I brought them ‘99 Cristal and they loved it, although it’s not my style of champagne. My manager said: “Well, the wine has to go somewhere.” So we drank it on the rooftop of the restaurant that night with three of my closest friends. It was the oldest wine that I had ever drunk at that point. It was very uplifting—being able to try something with that bottle age was something I'd never done.

KM: How do you go about pairing wine with food?
CB: Every dish is unique and often theories come into it, but it just takes practice, practice, practice. Things may look great on paper, but sometimes the theories don't happen to work with that dish. As a chef creates a dish every element has a purpose and some are more extroverted. I like contrasting pairings. I love Riesling because of the grapes and the acidity—they just pull at each other. It's almost perfect on its own; you can't make it any better. I like to find the most integral part of the dish and contrast that to make dimensionality. I like parallel pairings—the classic pairings—but the interesting thing and the way to push forward is to contrast. That's where the growth is. Everything else has already been done. You might as well make your own.

Elyse Viner: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
CB: My philosophy is that you don’t have to go into a restaurant and expect to pay over $100 to have a great wine experience. Do your homework to find varietals that are showing well. They may not be popular, but since the demand is not there the price is more reasonable. We go out of our way to deal with more distributors than necessary to separate the whey from the fat and select the best wines that are over-delivering for the price point. As a result, we are able to educate and deliver wine at a great price point. And we are education-focused—every quarter we showcase one varietal that is off the beaten path, and we serve three-to-five wines from an area that isn’t well known. We want to show every side of one varietal that we possibly can, and express it through different points of view from different winemakers and different appellations.

EV: What are challenges do you face as a sommelier?
CB: It’s hard to find out exactly what a guest wants. When they say they don't like sweet, they may be confusing it with ripe. Or they say they like dry but what I bring them may not fit the profile. I’ve been offering drier and mineral-driven wines lately. Minerality adds to the perception of and really brings out the taste of the varietal.

EV: How do you compile your wine list?
CB: There are some lists out there that just offer the heavy hitters based on reputation or points, but we try to be more subjective. If a wine tastes good and delivers for the price, we will carry anything, even wines no one heard of before. Anything esoteric, eclectic, and affordable—but it has to fit the price. That is how we choose our wines. Some people take a look at our list and say “I'm not familiar with this,” and I think “Great!” It gives me a chance to educate and show diners what we do in this restaurant. And they will be able to come back with a story to tell their friends. I’ve seen a lot of different groupings [of wine lists]—by region, by body, etc. We keep our list condensed and not overly-large, and we find a diversification with varietals we carry. We group our list by body style from light to heaviest, keeping the varietals together.

KM: Do you generally prefer Old World or New World wines?
CB: I'm very much a traditionalist; I'm a Francophile. I didn't understand the affinity for Italian wines when I first started working at Dante. I took this job to understand the ideology and the common thread between Italian wines. I love New World wines as long as they are balanced and have low alcohol; I have a hard time with high alcohol wines. If you're making these 14 percent-plus wines you're doing the wines injustice. I like wines with a 12.5 to 13 percent alcohol content.

EV: What is it that you like about Old World Wines?
CB: Old World wines are less artisanship-centric. The terroir speaks for itself and doesn’t create homogeneous flavor. It’s specific to each microclimate and the varietal has to suit the climate. People are getting very adventurous with grapes that don't belong in the terroir. Old World wines just have a balance that is not found in New World wines. New World wines tend to use a lot of oak or are very fruit-forward or alcohol dominated. I like to let a wine express itself on its own. If it’s balanced you get more acidity and the taste is not overly one thing.

EV: What wines do you favor for your cellar at home?
CB: I’ve been a Francophile since birth, but I started to work at Dante because I didn't have a huge taste for Italian wines. I am primarily a white wine drinker; I like an Arneiss from Piedmont and a lot of Campagne whites. For reds I like Alianaco from Campagne. My favorite varietal to drink right now is Chennin Blanc. I’ve been experimenting with the Loire Valley too.

EV: What wine regions are you interested in now?
CB: My new favorite appellation is Gisbourne, New Zealand.

EV:  Why are you are interested in that particular area?
CB: Sauvigion Blanc has become so popular in New Zealand but its home is in the Loire Valley. I like Chennin Blanc because it is so versatile and I thought: Why couldn’t Chennin Blanc do just as well as Sauvignion Blanc in a new appellation in New Zealand? So, I looked into biodynamic research to see if people were doing things with Chennin Blanc and I found that there were some people growing it out of Gisbourne, New Zealand. I experimented with a lot of esoteric white wines in Italy, and thought why can't there be a niche market.

KM: Tell me about a perfect wine and food match that you’ve discovered.
CB: That's a tough one because you have to take into consideration the accoutrements to the dish. The proudest pairing I've done has been Jarrarte Rioja with the Bistecca “Florentine Style.” It took me three weeks to find that Rioja to go with the dish. I also recently paired a Coteaux du Lagon from the Loire Valley with Duck Liver Terrine, Peaches, Arugula, and White Peony Tea vinaigrette that I really liked.

EV: You have stressed the importance of educating yourself to grow as a sommelier. Do you teach any classes or seminars to pass your knowledge on to other professionals?
CB: There are a bunch of us younger sommeliers who get together and do tasting groups on Monday nights—we get into that. I also take time out of the week to do sommelier smackdowns. We do it for bragging rights and fun. I have had friends opening up restaurants, and I love to help them design their wine list and make their restaurant more wine-centric. Anything to elevate the Boston wine scene is something I am always interested in to get people to become more adventurous. I have done some auctions too.

EV: If you weren’t a sommelier what would you be doing?
CB: I graduated with a degree in Neuroscience from the University of Vermont. The University was doing a lot of brain mapping studies with MIT and lead scientists. That was my thing, and it is really similar to the idiosyncratic details of understanding wine. They are both about attention to detail, but one is subjective in interpretation and I find that there are a lot of parallels.

KM: What are your ultimate career goals? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
CB: I think Sandy put it best—it's not one of those careers where there’s a set path. Educate, educate, educate. Immerse yourself in tasting, taking notes, seeing where your options lie, and grow from there. Distribution is where the money is, but that doesn’t intrigue me. I appreciate the aesthetic, which always lies in pairing. Pairing is my ultimate goal. That's why I do those sommelier smackdowns—the only way to get better is to be in constant competition.

Restaurant Info
5 Cambridge Parkway
Cambridge, MA 02142
(617) 497-4200