Interview with Washington, D.C. Area Rising Star Sommelier Julian Mayor of Bourbon Steak

by Meha Desai
December 2014

Meha Desai: How did you get into wine?
Julian Mayor:
I came to D.C. from Florida to work in the government. There wasn’t much wine in Florida when I moved—much more beer and tropical drinks. I used to bring foreign leaders, journalists, and professors to D.C. to meet counter parts and I would take them to dinner afterwards. I had to study food and wine for that. People from wine producing countries would bring wine as gifts, so I started drinking it and enjoying it. And as I studied for the dinners I had to organize, I got more in to it. After a while I just went cold turkey—I left that world of government and went to culinary school in New York City. I studied classic culinary arts at the French Culinary Institute. I did that knowing I wanted to be in the food and wine world in general, not necessarily in a kitchen. I loved the world of restaurants and wanted to understand it better. After my day classes, I would take the food and wine pairing classes, and I volunteered to set up and clean up before and after classes, so I would not have to pay. During the day I would work in the wine cellar at Balthazar. When I wasn’t there, I would work at a retail store on the Upper East Side, from late 2003 to 2005. Then, post 2005, I came back to D.C. and started managing restaurants, until late 2008. When Michael Mina opened here, I saw it as a good opportunity.

MD: Who do you consider to be your mentor?
Rajat Parr. He’s always offered great advice from the day we met, and is very helpful in forging ties and connections. Brick Loomis, too, my predecessor here, is a true professional sommelier who really exhibits the qualities of being humble in this job. Also, my former boss at Balthazar, Chris Goodheart.

MD: What’s your pairing philosophy?
When it comes to pairings on the technical side, weight and textures are more important than flavors. For me in general, food and wine go together. Food makes wine taste better and vice versa. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it works[—pairing by weight and texture]. There are a few things that don’t go together, but mostly it works. That’s great. It’s really up to your customers’ choice. I don’t write the wine list for myself. My philosophy has changed over the years from thinking about what I like, and pairing flavors like Sauvignon Blanc with fish because it acts as the lemon. The dish has to be balanced and complete. I want a good dish and a good wine. Just make sure the wine does not over power the dish and vice versa. There should not be any clashes like tannic food with tannic wine. It’s what the moment and the dish calls for. To me, there is no such thing as a perfect pairing. There’s bottle variation, temperatures can be different, there’re too many variables. When it comes to pairings, I like to put myself in my customers’ shoes. When they’re out to dinner, they don’t want someone talking about crushed river rocks etc., they just want to know if they’ll like the wine. Is it good? Will it go well together?

MD: What wine certification do you have?

MD: What wines do you collect at home?
I like to experiment and be as eclectic as possible. The things I go back to are rosés, in general. But it’s Spanish wines I like to keep at home. 

MD: What’s your favorite wine resource?
Wine atlas. I pick it up all the time. I’ve had several editions over the years. I still even refer to the old ones. Also, the internet, in general. Twitter, too, has been a great for introducing me to different wine websites; following people in the industry, seeing what they’re reading. 

MD: What’s a region to lookout for right now?
Cahors, because Malbec is popular and most people have never heard of it. And it never gets the attention it deserves. Also, Washington State because of the variety of wines that are found there; price to quality is very favorable for customers there.

MD: Where do see yourself in five years?
I would like to see myself creating wine pairings for more than one organization, on a larger scale, doing things across borders.

MD: What pairings do you get excited about? 
JM: Whenever I can find foods that you would normally not pair with wine like Mexican or Indian. I lived in Mexico; they just drink Spanish wine, culturally. Experimenting is great!