Words by Jamie Van Eaton | Photography by Kristen Penoyer
“Wine is sunlight, held together by water.”
Every year, hundreds of the newest wines are introduced to an eager, expectant, food adventuring public--one with an unquenchable thirst for the finest viticulture has to offer. These wines are beautiful, boozy music, and when presented as a carefully-curated wine list, you’ve got season passes to their complex, sensual symphony.
However, even to the advanced wine drinkers among us, the list can seem daunting. At best, choosing the perfect bottle can be like navigating a dark - yet exciting - underworld of possibility.
The Sommelier is your indispensable ally in the dining room. The more confused you are, the sooner you should ask for him or her. This is by no means a show of submission on your part, because how you engage your Sommelier, not your wine knowledge, is ultimately what determines your level of sophistication. The savviest diners already know: when one yields to the expertise of the Somm, one is handsomely rewarded.
This is why we at The Luxe Book would like to introduce you to your Sommelier, J.D. Wagoner of Restaurant Orsay. Orsay is known throughout the Southeast for uncompromising quality and is a three-time recipient of Wine Spectator's Best of Award of Excellence.
Here, J.D. offers his advice for making the most of your time with your personal wine guide:
1. Ask for suggestions and try new wines. People tend to get stuck in a comfort zone when it comes to ordering. If you like Pinot Noir, your Sommelier may take you to one of many wines based on what kind of Pinot you drink. Maybe Nerello Mascalese from Sicily, Mencia from Bierzo, or Nebbiolo from Barberesco. Somms love when guests are open minded and willing to be adventurous.
2. Be able to describe what you like about a wine. To help your Sommelier understand your palate and increase your likelihood of the perfect match, start your conversation by describing familiar flavors you wish to experience. Do you enjoy tart red fruit, juicy black fruit, minerality, herbal notes, meaty notes? Do you prefer more fruit undertones or more earthy, non-fruit flavors? More fruit is indicative of a New World wine, and less fruit with more secondary flavors lends more towards the Old World. Think vividly and lean toward phrases like “light” “crisp” “full” or “round.”
3. Don’t get caught up in vintages. Mother Nature can wipe out entire vintages, just as she did in Chablis. In today's world, the winemaker is capable of making beautiful wines in categorically "bad" vintages. Too often, Wine Spectator will deem a vintage "bad", only to have it show nicely with some extra time in the bottle, 5, 10, 20 years down the road.
4. Choose crowd pleasers. Listen, there a no rules for drinking wine. Far from the pretense, do what you makes you happy. That said, if you're outside in 100-degree weather, it's probably not a good idea to select a 16-percent alcohol Zinfandel or Amarone. Choose something light and crisp, such as bubbles, a nice northern Italian white, or everyone's porch favorite, rosé.
5. Don’t try to outsmart your Sommelier. Sommeliers enjoy guests who possess some knowledge of wine, but there’s a limit when it comes to showing off. While a professional will never put a guest in their place, if you start throwing around fancy jargon without fully understanding its meaning, you’ll end up looking like a jerk.
6. For the love of Bacchus, don't smell the cork when it's presented to you. You can only smell a corked wine by smelling the wine or tasting the wine. When you smell the cork, all you smell is...a cork. Simply look at the cork, make sure there is a nice red colored end (if it's red), or it's a little darker (if it's white) and leave it be.
Remember to drink what you like, when you like, and don't get too caught up in food pairings. The Somm rarely will, because he or she likes to eat what they like to eat, when they want to eat it. Embrace the best nature has to offer, and let the experience celebrate the bounty of good food, good wine, and the best of company.
Atlanta native J.D. Wagoner embraces a life as piquant as his accomplishments. Sure, the Certified Sommelier (CS), Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) Front of House (FOH) Manager & Wine Director for Restaurant Orsay won the 2014-2016 Wine Spectator, Best of Award of Excellence (only 2% of restaurants globally receive this level award). The mostly self-taught master of the vine earned his CSW through the Society of Wine Educators in 2013 and attained his CS through the Court of Master Sommeliers in September 2015. When he’s not plying his trade, however, J.D.’s passions include kittens, Doberman Pinschers, music, theater, Game of Thrones, food, coffee, and, of course...wine.