definition of Sommelier

Alexis Beltrami: Your wine list at NORMAN'S is already strong in some refreshing places, such as Alsace, where you offer a superb lineup of over a dozen Zind-Humbrechts. You've said that you are currently expanding certain sections of the list, notably Germany, Austria, Burgundy and Spain. Why those regions?

Laura De Pasquale:
Germany, Austria and Burgundy are areas we want to emphasize because the wines are so compatible with the style of food that we do. I feel in general that those wines are much more food-compatible than some others, but specifically with Norman's cuisine, which is classical cooking but with some Norman-esque twists to it, those wines are natural pairs. I'm concentrating on Spain because I just came back from there and loved it! (laughs). Actually, I think Spanish wines offer tremendous value. The wine-making techniques over there have modernized tremendously, and the vintages we're just starting to see, 1998 and '99, are spectacular. The same goes for Italy, actually.

AB: Yes, they've had quite a run, especially in Piedmont.

LDP: 1996, '97 and '98 have all been tremendous. Italy was the first area that I tackled and really expanded here, because the excellent '97s were just coming out at the time. But I'll continue to expand the Italian wine representation.

AB: Regarding Spanish wine, I see you have two vintages of Dominio de Pingus, a highly-sought-after Ribera del Duero, on your list.

LDP: Ah, the Pingus! It's a true boutique wine, made from the Tempranillo grape by Peter Sisseck, a Danish oenologist. Frank Prial mentioned it in The New York Times a couple of months ago in an article on the so-called 'garage wines.' It's made in tiny quantities, and virtually none of it is imported into the U.S. It's a tremendous wine. I'm waiting for the '98 right now. I'm in a very fortunate position in that I get offered wines like that because of the restaurant that I'm in. For me, the challenge is not finding those wines, even though they're spectacular. That's just a privilege. The challenge for me is finding the really good value wines that are different and unusual. That's the fun part.

AB: Are you looking to regions such as Argentina and New Zealand?

LDP: I do have some New Zealand selections. I have stayed away from South America for now, although I have tasted some great Malbecs recently that will probably go on the list. I've been concentrating more on old-world, classic wines; when I started here, the list was very heavy on new-world, and it needed to be more rounded out.

AB: So it's interesting∑you really have new-world cuisine with old-world wines.

LDP: Yes. It works. Here in South Florida, where we have virtually no wines growing anywhere near us, we have no tradition of matching wines with the foods of the region, which is in a sense quite liberating. At the same time, it's also pressure, because it is NORMAN'S, and people in the industry look to what we're doing here. I approach the wine list with a sense of integrity towards what the food is all about, and to what the wines are all about, and to find those marriages is another super-fun, super-interesting part of my job.

AB: Do you find that you have to educate the customer, or that people come in feeling adventurous and ready for new things?

LDP: Both. I find that people coming here for the first time, or who maybe come in once a year, come here with an open mind. They want to be wowed. And then people who come here on a regular basis are looking to see what we've got up our sleeves now-- what's Norman going to pull out of the kitchen, what's Laura going to pair with it? There are not a lot of sommeliers that work the floor down here [in South Florida], so when I approach a table and ask if they have any questions, people are usually receptive. So there is a lot of education that goes on.

AB: What particularly impresses me is that you don't seem to cater to the dining public's expectations that a serious wine list at a world-class restaurant should be heavily skewed towards Bordeaux, Cabernet, Merlot, and Chardonnay. In my conversations with other sommeliers, I've frequently heard the sentiment that you have to give the customer what they want, even if it's not the right type of wine for the cuisine. It seems that you've taken a different approach, and I wonder if your customers have different expectations than most.

LDP: Certainly, some customers come in here and wonder where the Bordeaux are. We don't do Bordeaux, because we can't afford to do it the way I would like to and because it doesn't really go with our food. I don't want to do it if we can't do it well. But I try to steer them to something they might be familiar with-- Rioja, for example, and if they don't like it we'll take it back and keep opening bottles until we find something they like. I honestly can't say I've heard from a single customer over the last year and a half who was less than enthusiastic about the wine.

AB: Do you allow customers to bring their own bottles?

LDP: We invite people to bring in their rare wines. It's a privilege for us to have someone come in with a bottle of '61 Margaux or '66 Latour or something like that, because it's stuff that we can't get and we don't see. We do charge corkage, but it's on a case-by-case basis. Of course, if somebody's coming in with something they just ran down to the liquor store and bought, then of course we charge corkage. But for our friends at the restaurant who have collections, and bring in fabulous bottles of wine, we never charge corkage.

AB: And I imagine you're offered a few sips?

LDP: Absolutely. That's the deal! They have to share. In fact, we started our Tuesday Tastings program to bring collectors together, because sometimes collectors here feel isolated. It's a fledgling community down here that is growing, and it's amazing to find out that people whom you never expected to be collecting, are.

AB: You are currently studying towards the Master Sommelier diploma. What is the benefit in obtaining that credential for someone such as yourself who is already Beverage Director at a top-level restaurant?

LDP: Well, there's certainly the challenge of it. One of the reasons why I love being a sommelier is the learning and teaching aspect of it, and having that goal in front of you forces you to study. I like the fact that the wine world covers culture, history, geology and geography, and it gives you a chance to study everything, and that's one of the reasons I'm going after it. I also see the Master Sommelier program as a way to move the restaurant profession into a more professional light. There's still the attitude out there that 'I can go wait tables for six months and earn some extra cash,' which at this level is not the case. Almost the entire wait staff at NORMAN'S could pass the certificate course right now.

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