Ask a Sommelier

–By Bruce Schoenfeld

The wine world’s newest superstars aren’t producers or critics or even retail mavens, but … sommeliers. (I know, who’d have guessed?)

The success of the movies SOMM and SOMM: Into the Bottle have somehow made helping people choose what wine they want to drink with their restaurant meal a glamorous profession. I know plenty of people who choose their dinner destination based on the wine list that the sommelier has “curated” (that’s the word they use) and whether he or she is working that night.

But good sommeliers know more about wine than the vast majority of consumers—and they know more about how wine should be served in restaurants than anyone. Many use the professional designation of Master Sommelier, the coveted title that the protagonists in the original SOMM movie were working to attain, as springboards to retail or consulting careers. But a few of the very best somms still work the floor in restaurants.

I tracked down one of them, Carlton McCoy of Aspen’s Little Nell hotel, to get insight on how consumers can maximize their wine-drinking experience, and other topics:

Q: What’s the biggest mistake diners typically make when they open a restaurant wine list?

Carlton McCoy: One of the big mistakes is being afraid to seek out the sommelier and ask for a recommendation. Understand that this has nothing to do with your level of wine knowledge. I’m a Master Sommelier and I always ask. On any worthwhile list, there are hidden gems. Our list is over 100 pages long, and it’s very easy to gravitate toward the Grand Crus of Burgundy, for example. But if you tell us what you’re looking for and what you want to spend, we have wines you’d never find unless we direct you to them.

Q: What do you do if you’re dining alone, or your partner doesn’t drink wine? So many restaurants have an enormous selection of wines by the bottle, but a far less interesting list of wines available by the glass.

CM: More and more restaurants are investing in half-bottles. I have six or seven pages of them! To me, that’s a tremendous option, whether you’re the only one drinking wine or to create pairings with a multi-course dinner. And, you know, you should be dining in restaurants that have good wines by the glass. I have a great selection of wines by the glass. And at every price point.

Q: What factors do you consider when deciding what wines to offer to customers?

CM: At the Nell, we gravitate toward the great classic regions. Perhaps we’ll add a new producer, but the classic regions are classic for a reason. At the same time, my traveling does have a huge impact because it will often expose me to something new. I’ll taste wines that aren’t even imported in to the U.S., and if I really like them, I’ll figure out a way to get them in. So I travel with my eyes open, always on the lookout.

Q: Who’s the most wine-intelligent celebrity guest you’ve ever served?

CM: Chris Thile is very famous in the world of bluegrass. [Editor’s note: Thile is the new host of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion.] I was absolutely floored by his wine knowledge. He knew all the great producers and the best vintages. He was drinking old Riesling, old Monfortino Barolo. We definitely hit it off.

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