An Earned Ear for Service: Sommelier Erin White of Restaurant August

by Jeff Harding
Antoinette Bruno
February 2012

Sommelier Erin White
Sommelier Erin White

An Earned Ear for Service

It’s no surprise Erin White bases her wine career on a kind of hyper-attentive receptivity. She began it via the “earn and learn” method, first at wine bars in New Orleans and San Francisco, then as an assistant sommelier at the Windsor Court Hotel, and later as the very first wine director at Emeril’s. Among (many) other things, listening to her guests was one of the lessons she learned really well.

Listening might seem like a professional must, but surprisingly it’s not always a sommelier’s strong suit. They’ll often study the soil and varietals of a region meticulously, but forget to listen to the customer. “People don’t care about soil [when choosing a wine],” White says. “We as sommeliers care, but customers want you to hear them.” This is one of the hallmarks of her wine service: tailoring the wine to guests, not just to the food they’re eating.

Her devotion to service was so great that the James Beard Foundation recognized her in 1993 with a nomination for Outstanding Wine Service. With that accolade, and a strong penchant for customer service, White actually left the restaurant scene to work in wine retail for 14 years, where she continued listening to customers. Fortunately for diners, she brought that open ear back to the industry in 2010, running the wine program at Restaurant August for Chef John Besh.

The Versatility of Value

August has a meat and fish dégustation menu, as well as a vegetarian tasting menu, for which White creates an ever-evolving wine pairing flight. This allows her to choose from 35 wines by the glass when pairing for the regular menu. Never afraid to say “the Emperor has no clothes” (meaning that a wine’s cost is inflated relative to its worth), White often forgoes selling expensive bottles for by-the-glass options.

When deciding what’s best for her customers, she always considers value as a priority, both when choosing for a pairing and for her bottle list. We tasted a lamb loin with spicy lamb sausage with which White had originally thought to pair a Tempranillo. But upon tasting, she realized the need for a more fruity wine, and pulled out the inexpensive but delicious Rampsneck Pinot Noir from Napa Valley. Its bold fruit tempered the spice, and at $14 a glass, everybody was happy.

Cast Iron-seared P&J Oysters, Mangalitsa Pork Belly, Herbsaint-Satsuma Sauce, Baby Turnips, and Celery Root
Cast Iron-seared P&J Oysters, Mangalitsa Pork Belly, Herbsaint-Satsuma Sauce, Baby Turnips, and Celery Root

Pairing Personality

In addition to considering the chef and his preparation of a dish, White considers the personality of her guests, looking for what they, specifically, want. And as far as consideration goes, it’s had, well, considerable impact. August’s clientele clearly appreciate the warmth of White’s sincere approach and her warm rapport, with diners calling White a genius and tweeting White’s remarks from the table, i.e. “For this course, the wine is listening.”

We found many of White’s clever observations equally notable: “California Cabernet has a macho feel to it,” she told us, “very masculine with big alcohol, and very butch.” Her 30 years in the industry have given her a deeper understanding of her clientele, and she believes people gravitate to wines that reflect their personality. If, for example, a bubbly, vivacious person needs help selecting a pairing wine, White might steer him or her toward a high-mineral Loire Valley Chenin Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc that’s “full of energy.”

360° Savvy

White’s pairing style isn’t just courtesy and poetry. She knows her stuff. And it doesn’t hurt that the former vegetarian of 16 years has an advantage when it comes to the sometimes awkward task of pairing with bitter-spectrum vegetables. “You have to look out for the bitterness inherent in some grains or vegetables, but a small amount of tannins can cancel that out.” For example, she paired a Marsannay from Domaine Collotte with a grilled radicchio and balsamic reduction. “The bitterness of the dish balanced what might have been a too-tannic wine on its own.”

White tastes every menu item August Chef Michael Gullota prepares, tasting—and testing—her wine selections alongside them. A wine might conceptually match, but upon tasting, begs for adjustment—which White accommodates carefully and thoughtfully. For the chef’s Cast Iron-seared P&J Oysters, Mangalitsa Pork Belly, Herbsaint-Satsuma Sauce, Baby Turnips, and Celery Root, White initially thought to pair a sparkling rosé Cremant d’Alsace. After tasting the bold flavors and smokiness of the house-cured bacon, she knew it needed something bigger. Her ultimate choice: Helfrich’s Steinklotz Grand Cru Gewurztraminer. Its lovely richness and hints of grapefruit and pineapple highlighted the Meyer lemon foam, while the tropical fruit played against and accentuated the dish’s smoky and salty components. The result was outrageous and surprising, a perfect pair by all counts, the result of White’s 360° attentiveness.