New breed of sommeliers in Vail
Special to the Daily
When one thinks of a sommelier, the vision might well be of a portly, older man clad in a tuxedo with a silver tastevin (wine cup) on a chain around his neck.
That’s the old sommelier; welcome to the Next Gen.
Johnny Thompson, of Vintage, and Kai Guerin, of La Tour, represent the new breed of sommeliers in the Vail Valley; young, hip and very knowledgeable on their restaurant’s wine cellar. Both young men landed into the profession unexpectedly and unintentionally, but are optimistic about their future in the industry.
Guerin and Thompson are competing in the upcoming the Chaine des Rotisseurs’ Best Young Sommelier National Competition, which begins with an online exam in January and, for the regional winners, moves on to Paso Robles Allegretto Vineyards. The Chaine des Rotisseurs is an international organization celebrating fine food and wine, and supports young chefs and young sommeliers throughout the country. Vail has an active local chapter that hosts dinners and events throughout the year.
Road to Wine knowledge
Thompson, the 29-year-old sommelier at Vintage, grew up with parents who loved wine. His father was a fan of big Napa Cabs, while his mother leaned toward roses and pinot noirs, so there were two cellars in his home in New Orleans. Cocktails and wine, of course, go hand in hand with NOLO, where alcohol is a big part of the culture and of the economy.
Thompson studied at Tulane after Hurricane Katrina, with the intention to go into pre-med, but he learned early on the science and chemistry wasn’t his thing.
“I ended up studying psychology and philosophy, art history, drawing and glassblowing,” he said. “I think subconsciously I was being led to wine. I enjoyed selling and relating to the customer.”
In 2009, before receiving a degree, he jumped into service at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen (Paul Prudhomme). He was introduced into wine by the man running the wine program, and the staff received a discount from the liquor store next door, which provided access and affordability.
In 2014, his lease ran out, he broke up with his girlfriend and he headed to Denver to attend the International Wine and Spirits Guild. After completing the introductory course, his truck broke down, he holed up in a cheap hotel and completed the intensive course, focusing on wine, port, sake and madeira. He headed to the Left Bank in Vail because they offered employee housing. His wine knowledge grew there, and then with Dave Mikowski at Elway’s.
“Dave was like an encyclopedia; he was the first person who had a lot of knowledge on wine,” Thompson said.
At Elway’s, he met Brodie Broderick, who brought him on board when he opened Vintage in August of 2015.
Thompson believes strongly in a food and wine pairing; in France, people rarely drink wine without accompanying food, compared to the United States where wine, all by itself, is appreciated.
“It’s a philosophy I stick to is to match with a correct choice,” he said.
He learned that wine was subjective; there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to an individual’s taste.
“You pair the person with the wine as much as with the food,” he said. “In our restaurant, I play into what they like, but lean toward French. Wine and food can be a marriage or a contrast.
“I have a taste shaped in a European French style. Food is the main star, wine is the supporting cast,” he added.
His perfect wine pairing on a ski day; for a cold day, he pops open a Cotes-Rotie or Hermitage in the trees on Seldom, and for a sun-soaked spring day, he heads to Belle’s with a bottle of Provence Bandol Rose.
Putting names to a flavor
For Guerin, encouragement and epiphanies were the keys that opened doors to the cellar in his mind.
Raised in Kihei on the island of Maui, he headed to southern Oregon for college and studied environmental science. He’d worked at a handful of restaurants before going to school, including Tommy Bahama and Spago in Wailea, where he started as a busser, then moved on to bar back and server, which sparked his interest in wine.
“I did some group wine tastings and was so surprised that the way that wine tasted, and started to open up mind — eucalyptus, tobaccos, black cherry — it was an epiphany,” he said. “I do taste it. I can put a name to the flavor.”
The encouragement at Spago was top notch at the restaurant, which provided big wine tastings for staff and guests.
“It also helped the people who were knowledgeable were my friends,” he said. “We’d surf and go to the beach together and would sit and talk about wine. They were older than me, but they were cool, and I respected them. They were great role models.”
He moved to a Colorado sparked by the snowboarding bug (and a ski P.E. credit in Oregon), planning to stay only a season. Hired by La Tour after an interview over Skype, he worked there for two years, then headed to Terra Bistro where he served as assistant sommelier. He claims that Spago built the foundation, but self-training was imperative, from reading books, going to trade shows and learning by tasting and meeting people, including wine director Jessi Rethman at Terra Bistro and master sommelier Roland Micu at La Tour.
“I love the guests from out of town, and coaching them on wines and building the list,” he said. “It’s fun recommending the wines whether they are $80 or $800. Whatever price they want, and having them say, ‘That’s one of the best wines I’ve had’ and taking a picture of the label.”
His favorite wines on the La Tour list include a Broc Cellars Valdiguie from Solano County, California. He describes it as “juicy, fruit dominant, but with a bit of minerality that’s really delicious.” He’d serve it with a little chill with venison, burrata cheese and oranges and the wine sells for about $80 on their wine list. For a top-end evening, he would encourage a 2013 Cote du Bonne from producer Leroy, an elegant 100 percent pinot noir which sells for $890 — and he’d pair it with local foraged porcini mushrooms and a truffle risotto.
And for the ladies, his wine wooing during the winter might include grilling at Belle’s in Blue Sky with hamburgers and a Cerasulo di Vittoria from Sicily, or around a firepit on a snowy night, a Sine Qua Non Stein Male California Syrah.
“It’s huge, rich, jammy, full body, high alcohol,” he said. “On a cold night, it would warm you from the inside out.”