Sacramento’s wine nine

Young, ambitious experts aim to change how local foodies experience wine

Every Monday, these nine Sacramento wine experts, pictured here at the Firehouse Restaurant, meet to talk (and taste) wine.

Every Monday, these nine Sacramento wine experts, pictured here at the Firehouse Restaurant, meet to talk (and taste) wine.

photo by taras garcia

Rick Kushman holds a Certified Wine Professional credential from the Culinary Institute of America, is the wine commentator for Capital Public Radio and the co-chief judge for the California State Fair. Commercial Wine Competition.

It's a sunny Monday morning in Midtown, and inside 58 Degrees & Holding Co., nine people, spread along the L of a bar, sit with four glasses of wine in front of each of them.

Never too early for a party.

Except these people are working. Hard. They’re focused, intense, completely absorbed. The atmosphere is the same as a math test. This kind of test might be harder, but it tastes better.

They’re about to dissect nine wines, one by one, for smell, taste, quality and more. They’ll try to pick out the grape and the place each came from. They’ll estimate the amount of alcohol in them, the levels of acid and sweetness. They’ll use the meticulous evaluation grid from the Court of Master Sommeliers, which has 26 elements to assess—and then they’ll draw eight conclusions. There are eight elements to examine just for the wine’s appearance. Plus, they’re on a four-minute clock.

“This has nothing to do with drinking wine,” said Matthew Lewis, who runs a wine-event and -education business called WineCentric. Because of his seemingly boundless enthusiasm, he’s something of a ringleader. “We’re here to study and work and to try not to humiliate ourselves too much.”

These nine people are, in many ways, Sacramento’s next generation of wine. There are others around the region, too, but everyone in this bunch is centrally located in Sacramento’s wine scene, ambitious about the region, and they care—enormously—about the sport of wine. They work at many of the major wine restaurants and bars, and their views, their approaches, their ideas and choices are increasingly defining Sacramento wine.

They meet every Monday to do this. They’ve been at it for more than a year. The lineup, besides Lewis, includes Kara Sheffield of 58 Degrees; Sean Griswold from The Firehouse Restaurant; Tyler Stacy from Enotria Restaurant Wine Bar; Michael Bowers from Taste Restaurant; Jeremy Reed from The Kitchen; Keith Fergel from Taylor’s Kitchen; Clifford Burr from Young Market’s Company’s The Estates Group; and Jienna Basaldu from Ella Dining Room & Bar, who just joined the group this morning.

What they’re doing is really, really hard. Deducting wines from blind tastings is not a trick even seasoned pros pull off often, despite James Bond’s never-fail ability to tell a ’67 Bollinger from a ’68. To get to where they are at this point, this group has put in hours and hours of reading and even more practice. To get where they want to be takes a grad-school level of seriousness and concentration. It takes memorizing the characteristics of grapes and styles and regions around the planet. And it takes a willingness to be flat-out wrong. That’s what these resolute wine-masters-to-be have been doing. Welcome to the new age. It meets Monday mornings, and it’s not for the weak.

Appetite for deconstruction

Fergel launches on the first wine. He’s the only person working in Sacramento who’s reached the rank of Advanced Sommelier. (That’s one level below Master Sommelier. There are 214 of those on the planet.)

Fergel is fast. There’s no hesitation when he starts firing away.

“It’s a white wine. It’s clear. It’s star bright,” Fergel says quickly. (This refers about clarity and brightness.) “There’s a bit of matter, might be the cork. It’s green and yellow-gold. Tears are medium plus.” (“Tears” are the term for the legs that run down the glass. “Medium plus” is an evaluation of how thick they are.)

“The wine is intensely aromatic. The wine is youthful.” (The latter means it’s one-to-three years old.)

“Aromas of lychee, grapefruit, white flowers, like gardenia. There’s mango, apricot, papaya, lychee. It’s floral.

“No sense of wood. High-intensity aromatics.

“The wine is youthful. No flaws.

“On the palate, I get a bit of R.S.” (That’s sugar.) “Not heavy.

“Palate confirms the aromatics. Lychee, apricot.

“Confirms mango, papaya.

“Confirms floral.

“Earth. I missed it on the nose. There’s a bit of chalkiness.

“The acid is medium.

“Alcohol is medium plus.

“Low tannins.

“Medium-plus quality.

“It’s Old World.

“Possible varieties: viognier, gewürztraminer.

“Possible origins: France, Italy.

Kara Sheffield, sommelier at 58 Degrees & Holding Co., loves that with wine, “there’s such a wide world out there to discover.”

photo by taras garcia

“Final conclusion: It’s from France, Alsace. I’ll say 2011 gewürztraminer, village level.” (“Village level” means it’s pretty much an everyday wine.)

It takes Fergel all of 2 minutes, 41 seconds to finish. That’s light speed. For many wine lovers, it takes more than 2 minutes, 41 seconds to decide if there’s maybe something they recognize. Odds are, not one wine snob in 10,000 finds lychee.

And now, the gang joins in to deconstruct his deconstruction.

“I would’ve thought higher on acidity,” Bowers says.

“The alcohol might not be that high,” Lewis says. “I’m thinking the texture is from the fruit and the sugar instead of alcohol.”

“I’d also say there was a little bitterness,” Sheffield says, “so maybe a little bit of tannin.”

“What led you to Alsace?” Lewis asks. He asks that kind of question a lot. He’s trying to understand every thought process to help him see each wine. That’s what they’re all doing with Fergel’s analysis: making their own judgments, sharpening his technique and theirs, building on each other. It’s a big reason they have a tasting group, to learn from each other. (Having a group also pools their money to make tasting cheaper, plus, they like each other.)

The wine, it turns out, is a Trimbach Gewurztraminer from Alsace. Vintage 2009. Fergel gets very high marks.

“Good job, Keith,” Lewis says.

“Really good,” says Griswold.

“Next,” about three people say.

So much for glory. Or the joy of wine. This is something else, and it is not a game anyone needs to play at home.

Wine lives in American culture in different, almost disconnected dimensions. Those dimensions overlap, and they’re built on each other, but people in each are often unaware of the others.

Supermarket buyers want wines they’ll like and that are consistent and reasonably priced, though there’s a range on what they’d consider reasonable. Another group is the wine lovers (who are often food lovers, too). They’ve fallen for wine country and wineries, and the fun of wine and food. Then, there are some serious wine people, who learn regions and grapes and love the details. And there are collectors who can afford to spend on big names or great wines, which, by the way, are not necessarily the same thing.

And the pros have to serve them all.

“Our job,” Griswold says, “is to learn a lot so not everyone has to.”

What even the collectors and wine geeks don’t see is how truly, massively enormous the wine world is. Even these nine dialed-in pros are just beginning to understand.

There are hundreds of thousands of labels, more than 200,000 in the United States alone, according to the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Every state in America has wineries and wine regions. So do most countries. And everything reboots with every new vintage.

What was 2009 like in Napa Valley? What about 2010 and ’11 and ’12? How about in France? How about in Southern France? Are the wines richer or leaner year to year? Lighter or more intense? What cabernet sauvignons are earthy? Which have redder fruit or bigger flavors? What are the cabernet flavors? What are the differences in cabernets from the Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles regions, France, Chile, South Africa, Italy? Are there even cabernets from Italy? (Hint: yes.) Meanwhile, the couple at the restaurant table just wants something to go with the chipotle salmon special.

“No one should feel they need to pass a test to order a glass of wine,” Griswold says. “That’s why we’re taking the tests.”

Most in this tasting group have ambitions toward passing high-level tests to become sanctioned as top-grade sommeliers or wine educators. Just as much, they believe knowing more wines and styles helps them do their jobs—build wine lists, answer questions, understand pairings and making recommendations without forcing a customer to describe medium-plus tears.

“You don’t ever want a guest to feel uncomfortable, as if they don’t know enough,” Stacy says. “That’s really changing from the old guard to the newer sommeliers.”

'Taste, taste, taste'

At age 25, Stacy is the youngest of this group. Most are in their mid-30s to 40s and have been at this for years. Stacy, occasionally, has the odd balancing act of proving he’s accomplished enough to make wine recommendations without sounding like he’s showing off.

“You have to have humility in this job,” Stacy says. “That’s what we all want to add to the wine world. That’s why people don’t want to talk to the wine person; they don’t want to be condescended to.”

That concept of not being condescending—a phrase many people consider a synonym for “sommelier”—comes up a lot with this group. But let’s define some terms. No one in this bunch says Sacramento is a warren of pompous sommeliers. In fact, the region’s biggest wine names, people like Darrell Corti, David Berkley and Mario Ortiz of The Firehouse—the “grand masters,” as Sheffield calls them—built enormously impressive careers by making wine about joy and deliciousness.

But their sense of Sacramento, which is shared by many people in the wine and restaurant business, is that many area diners and wine drinkers aren’t thrilled with complex wine lists or unknown wines. They want high-caliber wine and wine service, but prefer it somewhat familiar—meaning lots of Napa, Sonoma and foothill wines—and more than a few diners view ordering a bottle with a meal as something to survive before they can get on with the dining experience.

It’s different in cities like San Francisco, for instance, where some popular restaurants have wine lists that can be almost unrecognizable to customers, with offerings like feteasca from Romania (it’s a white) or orange wine (a winemaking technique leaves it orange).

Is one wine approach better? It depends on the person ordering wine.

Matthew Lewis is founder of WineCentric, a wine-event and -education business. Each week he meets with a group of local experts whose purpose, he says, is to “study and work.”

photo by taras garcia

Sacramento’s food scene has some similar forces at work. It is definitely a food lovers’ town, but for every adventurous eater, there’s another diner who wants reliable food at the neighborhood spot. Complex menus, like complex wine lists, can attract some people and put others off.

“We’re in an interesting time and place here,” says Sheffield, who worked at Ella before becoming the sommelier at 58 Degrees. “There’s so much wine all around us. But in a way, that constrains us, too. Some people don’t want to branch out. A lot of people look for something local and even criticize us for not having more local wines.

“There’s nothing wrong with that. You get to like what you like. But if you’re interested in wine, there’s such a wide world out there to discover. I love that about wine, it can take you on an adventure, and I’d love for other people to find that, too.”

That right there is the tussle for Sacramento’s wine soul. Will Sacramento’s wine scene stay largely familiar, or will wine drinkers and food lovers view wine lists as a chance to taste something new, the way many people have come to view food?

It’s not an outright war yet and might never be, because Sheffield and company promise never to force orange wines from Romania on someone who wants a chardonnay from Napa. But as with the food scene, Sacramento is evolving and adopting a more worldly zeitgeist. And, as with food, there are some younger, passionate, very committed wine people who are hand-selling the idea of exploring new wines and new ideas.

“You want to find people something they’ll like, not something you like,” Sheffield says. “But if people are curious, I have bridge wines they can try. They’re in the same spectrum as, say, that buttery chardonnay, but they’ll be fun for people, and [it] can show them how much is out there. I’d love it if people asked more questions.”

Sheffield could be talking for anyone in the group. Of them all, Lewis is probably the biggest populist. He says that’s partly because of his “running battle” to open his parents’ eyes to the joys of wine. They still live where he grew up, in Garland, Texas, the model for the good-ol’-boy town of Arlen on King of the Hill.

And he’s the most recent arrival to the region, which might be why he’s the most enthusiastic about local wines.

“Some people in my profession kind of scoff at foothill wines or put them on the list only grudgingly,” Lewis says. “Maybe it’s because I have no preconceived ideas, but I’m enthusiastic about what’s there.”

For all their studying and tasting, everyone understands they have a lot to learn from those established grand masters. The group recruited Frederick L. Dame, a Master Sommelier from San Francisco and a director of the Court of Master Sommeliers, to lead the Monday tasting once a month.

“Fred makes it so much more intense,” Burr says. “You don’t want to mess up in front of him. And just being around him is great. The stories he tells and the people he knows, it’s like a pro throwing a ball around with you.”

Corti and Ortiz have tasted with them, too, and a handful have worked for Ortiz, who thinks this bunch, and a few others on the Sacramento scene, have potential to both widen Sacramento’s wine scene and make it more comfortable.

“When I go to restaurants in Napa, great restaurants known for wine, I don’t make myself known,” Ortiz says. “Honestly, I think we have better people in the Sacramento area. A lot of the wine people here are first concerned that you have a good experience.

“It’s exciting to think where we’re going,” he says. “And hopefully, this core group will continue learning together. One thing I like about that group, it’s not about who works where, they just love wine.”

Lewis, who worked for Ortiz at The Firehouse, calls him his wine Yoda, and says he’s one of the most-respected and -liked people in California wine.

“I’ve learned so much from watching him with people,” Lewis says. “He really listens, he makes them comfortable. He satisfies their needs. And his customers become friends over time. That’s the way to do service.”

That idea of service and of experience with people and with wine is something that both Ortiz and Corti caution about. They both worry, though just a little, that too much attention to passing tests and deconstructing a glass of wine might make them miss, as Ortiz says, the beauty of what’s in that glass.

When Corti talked to the group, he also cautioned them that the demands of the Court of Master Sommeliers grid may be limiting.

“To really learn wine, they have to taste, taste, taste,” Corti says. “Then, when they think they’ve tasted enough, they’ve just begun to taste. Good for them for getting started.”

“They spend time with color, smell, flavor, texture. But I wonder, are they asking, ’Is it a good drink?’” he says. “They have to be careful not to just spend time on the outer edges. They also have to venture into the soul of the wine. My advice to them is to slow down sometimes, and talk about the experience of the wine. You don’t have to know how big the vineyard is to know if a wine is delicious.”

But he also understands the pressures they’re under.

“When I started in the wine business (in the 1960s), it was much easier to taste wines, especially old wines, because old wines weren’t very expensive,” Corti says. “But it’s important that they taste old wines. It gives them a perspective.”

Corti’s advice rings louder with some in the group than with others, depending, partly, whether they’re about to take one of the major tests using the grid. Bowers, the sommelier at Taste Restaurant in Plymouth, says he thinks the core of Corti’s advice is exactly what makes this new generation different.

“Darrell wants us to learn about the beauty of wine and the story of wine,” Bowers says. “Some people may be focused on tests right now, but I think everyone understands the beauty of wine is what our customers want.

“We’re not the only ones. There are people like Jeff Back [of Back Wine Bar & Bistro in Folsom] and Joe Vaccaro [from Ella] who are also changing attitudes. We want wine to be approachable to everyone, and we’re watching the food scene change and the wine scene change. This is a great time for Sacramento.”

In a lot of ways, this group, and the people like Back and Vaccaro, are the right wine pros for the right time in this region. The food-and-wine scene is in an era of possibilities. The region has established a culinary identity—who hasn’t heard the battle cry “farm to fork”—in part because of the enthusiasm for food here, but also because of the sheer ambition of local culinary leaders.

Slowly, now, the young, driven wine personalities have begun to rise. They have the potential to make wine drinking in Sacramento expansive, interesting and to help people see Sheffield’s wide world of wine. They also have the chops to make it fun, which may count most.

There is one more key to change: These people have to stay.

“We’ve watched so many local chefs leave for the Bay Area or other places, but now, they’re coming back because we have the food scene,” Sheffield says. “We’ve lost a lot of good wine people because it was frustrating for them; there wasn’t a lot of room here.”

And this group? Will they stay? Most say yes. A couple aren’t sure. Depends on who calls. Lewis said he’s all in on Sacramento. Sheffield said she wants to stay here to be “part of the movement.” Bowers, who’s born-and-raised in the area, says this is the place to be.

“I want to develop the food and wine culture with Matthew [Lewis] and Kara [Sheffield] and everyone,” he says. “This can be a great town for wine. I sure hope they stay.”