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Sommelier Roundtable: How to Drink Like the Pros

Wine directors spend all day selling certain styles of wine, but what do they prefer to drink? From Chenin to saison, here's what 10 experts pour after they clock out
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Whether it's unexpected new discoveries or Champagne for days, here's what somms are digging.

Posted: January 26, 2018

If you're looking for ideas on expanding your palate in 2018, why not take a page from the book of the people who have already figured it out—the sommeliers at Wine Spectator Restaurant Award–winning destinations. Many make their livings peddling California Cabernet, but is that what they reach for when they're off the clock? We asked 10 wine pros what they're digging and got a diverse set of responses, from Sazerac to Chablis, with plenty of surprises in the mix—and a few recurring themes.

Wine Spectator: What are you drinking on your own time?

Brian McClure, beverage director at the Greenbrier resort, including its Best of Award of Excellence–winning Main Dining Room in White Sulphur Springs, W.V.: I do like it all, I will say. It's really tough; it's like choosing a favorite kid. I like sour beers a lot, and I have a few on-property now. If I'm not drinking wine, I'm drinking a dark beer or a sour beer. I also love classic cocktails. Probably my favorite is a Sazerac.

Wine-wise, I would have to say I drink a lot of domestic. When I go to California, I have certain producers that I love—Copaín up in Mendocino; I love Pride. I love O'Shaughnessy. In Washington, I love Pepper Bridge. In Oregon, I love Bergström. I just discovered Purple Hands—it's become my favorite in Oregon. I'm probably looking to Europe and drinking Barolo. I love Barolo. I do love Burgundy as well. It’s hard to get these days. And Spanish Priorat. There's a reason why I'm a wine sommelier and not a beer sommelier. I'm very specific about the beer I like, but there's not a wine I don't like.

Courtney Olson, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Coi in San Francisco: Champagne. Yep. It's bubbles every time. If I go out to eat, I'm ordering Champagne. If I come home and feel like a drink, it's Champagne. And some sparkling wine. What's inspiring is the freshness, the effervescence. It's energetic. It wakes you up. It's something that you can find refreshing and have a glass or two of, and feel a little bit livelier, energized. For food it's a complement to nearly everything.
WS: When you're not drinking wine, what's your next beverage of choice?
CO: Hot water. I love hot water. Everywhere I've worked, people give me shit because I drink hot water. It's pretty much room temp, but I can't drink cold water fast enough. You work on the floor, you can't hydrate during service, so in order to slam a glass of water and rehydrate yourself, I have to have it warm, because I can't ... I don't know, it's just too hard to drink cold water.

Jill Gubesch, wine director at Award of Excellence winner Frontera Grill/Topolobampo in Chicago: I’ve had an ongoing love affair from the moment it first crossed my lips with the Bründlmayer Brut Rosé Sekt from Kamptal, Austria. It’s a unique blend of Blauburgunder, Zweigelt and St. Laurent with aromas of violets, wild strawberries and tart cherries that follow through on the palate with an elegant, lingering finish.

One of my favorite everyday wines right now is the Skouras “Salto” Moscofilero from Peloponnese, Greece. It has intensely perfumed floral aromas delivering honeydew melon and white peaches on the palate, followed by a crisp, citrusy finish. It’s great by itself yet seems to pair well with everything—especially Thai cuisine.

James Yu, owner and wine director at Best of Award at Excellence winner Great China in Berkeley, Calif.: I love white Burgundy. That's my favorite thing. My favorite producers right now are Domaine Romanée—of course, got to say that first—and Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey. I like the reductive style. I like Domaine Leflaive. Jobard. And of course, Coche, if I can get my hands on it. White Burgundy is mostly what my close friends and I drink. After that it would probably be Champagne and red Burgundy. Probably because the thing I eat the most when I'm off work is seafood. But I'll never say no to a Northern Rhône. I used to love drinking Bordeaux but I haven't been drinking it in a while.

And I like to taste anything new that I haven't had. If I'm tasting with reps or whatever, I ask for something I haven't had. Something new, something exciting. Whenever a winemaker is doing something differently, I love to check it out.

James Bremner, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Giada in Las Vegas: Personally, for me, I normally gravitate toward Pinot Noirs from Central Otago. Brunello di Montalcino is a favorite. And of course, I gravitate toward premier cru Chablis, because I think for white Burgundy, the quality-to-price ratio is really hard to argue with: a good Fourchaume or Montée de Tonnerre that you're spending 35, 40 bucks on. I stay away from Montrachets unless someone else is buying.

Richard Matuszczak, wine director at Grand Award winner La Toque in Napa, Calif.: It's a somm thing, and I'm not trying to be geeky about it, but I really enjoy drinking traditional-style German Rieslings. We drank this Meulenhof Riesling yesterday, 8 to 9 percent alcohol, off-dry but with that great acidity at the same time. I want something light and friendly and that is just delicious in the glass. And that's how Riesling strikes me.

Gretchen Thomas, wine and spirits director of Barteca Restaurant Group, including 13 Best of Award of Excellence–winning Barcelona Wine Bars: My husband and I love to grill. And we're big meat eaters—red meat, poultry, fish. A lot of clean eating, salads and fresh vegetables. So with wine, it's really easy because we're not going crazy with our cooking style. I'm kind of changing what I like to drink all the time. Like [last] winter I was addicted to Chenin Blanc for some reason, so I was buying up all these wines from the Loire and having all the styles. I drink a lot of vermouth and sparkling water. I also always try to have a red wine open at my house. I drink a lot of Garnacha from all over the world. I love Grenache. It kind of goes all over the place.

Andy Myers, wine director for José Andrés' ThinkFoodGroup, including nationwide locations of Jaleo and other José Andrés restaurants: Everything. I’m really enamored with—there’s a Spanish rosé that we serve at Jaleo called Armas de Guerra from Bierzo; it’s a Mencía-based rosé. I am on such a Mencía kick these days. I just can’t get enough of it. There’s one called Guímaro; that’s another one we do by the glass at Jaleo, and it’s from Ribeira Sacra.

There’s, out of Virginia, Barboursville—some good friends of mine out there, and you might not believe this but they make a killer Vermentino at Barboursville. A Virginia Vermentino, who knew? So I’m drinking a lot of that too, enjoying that quite a bit.

Crystl Horton, wine director at Grand Award winner Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House in New York: I am delving further into Langhe Nebbiolos and rossos from the Veneto. Pinot Noir from Oregon is always in my apartment year-round as well. The Antica Terra Botanica is high on my list, as is the Ca'Orologio Relogio Rosso.

Andy Chabot, beverage director at Grand Award winner Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn.: A lot of times, when I’m drinking wine, it’s often at the end of a night. I think that’s probably true of a lot of somms, and I’ve often thought that the reason why so many of us drink high-acid white wines is because that’s our coming-down beverage, so to speak, after a long day. I love to drink … it’s silly to say white Burgundy because everyone loves it, but I love Grüner Veltliner, I love dry Riesling, and of course white Burgundy when I get the chance.
WS: When you’re not drinking wine, what’s your next beverage of choice?
AC: It might be a toss-up. I do love gin and tonic. I also enjoy beer quite a bit. We make a style of beer that I love. I have nothing to do with the production of it, but I’ve always loved saison-style beer, and Blackberry Farm makes a few different saisons that I love. So I’m drinking an Ommegang white or something along those lines: a non-hoppy, refreshing beer.

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