If you’re going for snob appeal, nothing works better than dropping the “s word”: sommelier. Julie Dalton wants to change all that—she’s sommelier at Michael Mina’s Wit & Wisdom restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore. Winner of the 2012 Ruinart blind-tasting challenge in Washington, D.C., and runner-up in New York’s Star Chefs SommSlam, she has a thing or two to say on the subject of wine.
You are a scientist by training. How did you become a sommelier?
I never wanted to be a sommelier. I always thought sommeliers were snobby—even the word is snobby, and no one can pronounce it correctly. I fell in love with wine while waiting tables in college and took every wine class I could. When I moved to Maryland I moonlighted at a wine shop to further my education. After grad school, I was wine director at a friend’s tapas and wine bistro. Everyone else called me a sommelier, so I thought I better get certified.
How does a sommelier train his/her taste buds to determine if a wine is oaky or has hints of raspberry? Does a sommelier possess superhuman taste buds?
Practice. I do have good memory recall of scents and things, but anyone can learn. On the subject of blind-tasting, Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth said in the documentary “SOMM,” “No one is born a good samurai sword maker. A good samurai sword maker is a good samurai sword maker because a good samurai sword maker taught him how to make samurai swords.” Same idea.
You use pop-cultural nods to various characters and celebs when describing wines on your wine list—a shy, earthy Sherlock Holmes is a burgundy. How did this come about?
When describing wines tableside, I have found that people respond well to comparing wines to music or people. Not everyone understands “bright acidity” or “medium body,” so I decided to embrace the “Wit” a little more and offer a personality for each wine.
Can you recommend some adventurous wines for the holidays that won’t break the bank, as well as a few big splurges?
Wines that go well with turkey, beef tenderloin, rack of lamb and something for fish, too. Beef and lamb are delicious with syrah or something Italian with a little more structure, like a Barolo or Brunello di Montalcino. Those wines can definitely break the bank, so look for a Rosso di Montalcino (Banfi makes a delicious one) or a Nebbiolo Langhe. Those employ the same grapes as Brunello and Barolo. Syrah is meaty, spicy and full-bodied, but doesn’t feel as dry on the palate as cabernet sauvignon. I just listed Luca’s syrah from Argentina—it’s super sexy and lush. It’s probably no more than $22 retail. For fish, try riesling—it isn’t always sweet. There are some amazing dry rieslings from the Finger Lakes that are delicious and affordable. Boundary Breaks and Konstantin Frank are some to seek out.
If one believes she only enjoys chardonnay, what are three more wines she’s sure to like?
Chardonnay has many faces. But assuming you’re referring to the full-bodied oaky style, I’d recommend blanc de noir or one from Italy (Cavallotto Pinot Nero Bianco). An oaked viognier from California (Pride) or Virginia (Chrysalis) is a nice alternative. Au Bon Climat from the Santa Maria Valley makes a delicately oaked pinot gris/pinot blanc blend that is delicious.
With so much good wine now being produced around the world, how do you decide which country or region would be best with what meal?
There is truth to the saying “what grows together goes together.” Let’s say you’re cooking mushroom risotto. A softer red wine (one with a few years of age) from Italy makes the most sense. If it’s porcini, look to Tuscany. If it’s truffle, look to Piedmont.
Which wines do you recommend for people who drink red with everything—fish, meat, fowl?
If the fish has the skin on, I recommend a syrah. Cabernet sauvignon is too tannic for fish, but syrah will satisfy cabernet lovers without crushing the delicacy of a fish and will still be soft enough for pinot noir lovers. There are several from Washington State that are amazing—K Vintner’s The Beautiful or any from Gramercy Cellars. If the fish is poached or is served without the skin, look for a red with the least amount of tannin—a pinot noir from Oregon or a Beaujolais from France. With fowl, Cru Beaujolais is perfect; a Moulin-a-Vent with roast chicken.
I prefer white wine, but my husband prefers red. But we like to order a bottle to have a finer wine experience. Which wine do you suggest?
Some restaurants (like Wit & Wisdom) have a good mix of half bottles so we could offer you his and hers. We also use the Coravin system—which allows us to pour wines by the glass without pulling the cork—so essentially every wine is available by the glass.
Do you consider wine drinkers’ errors or ruts to be off-putting?
If they’re drinking wine, that keeps me employed. I don’t care if they put ice in it or drink heavy cabernet with oysters. Sure, I cringe a little bit, but again, that big bottle of Caymus they’re enjoying with their oysters is helping to pay my rent.
How do you make a person feel at ease, particularly a young person who may not be well versed in wines or know how to discuss them?
When a guest has the wine list open, I approach with a smile and offer assistance but leave the ball in their court. I don’t force my services—I let them know that I’m here in case they have questions.
What questions do you wish diners would ask?
I wish guests were more transparent about price. It’s easier to meet expectations when all the cards are on the table. When guests ask me what I recommend, without any other parameters, it’s difficult to choose from 500 options.
I’ve read that sniffing the wine cork teaches you nothing. What are your thoughts about cork-sniffing?
Don’t sniff the cork. All cork smells like cork.
How do I know if a wine is corked?
It will smell like a wet basement or a mildewed shower curtain.
How can we wine lovers improve our palates?
Attend wine classes—I host Cellar Cessions at Wit and Wisdom. Ask questions. Read a wine book. Don’t get in a rut.