The title sommelier denotes an expertise in wine knowledge and service, but the job requires just as much knowledge about a restaurant's dishes and preparations as it does about wines themselves. Gambit talked to several local sommeliers and wine directors about their spring menus and wine lists.
Brian Perkins, the wine director at Galatoire's (209 Bourbon St., 525-2021; www.galatoires.com), has worked in just about every aspect of the wine business during the past 27 years. He owned a restaurant, worked in retail wine sales for more than 15 years, formed a wine import company and represented a large luxury-brand wine and spirits company before joining the staff at Galatoire's last year.
At the century-old Creole dining institutiton, he has continued general manager Chris Ycaza's efforts to expand the wine cellar, which was rebuilt after suffering heavy losses during Hurricane Katrina. Perkins also serves as a manager at the restaurant.
"Our customers are very wine savvy," Perkins says. "They have refined palates. About 10 years ago, a wine importer told me that New Orleans' diners — for such a small market — have much more knowledge about wine than in much larger markets like Chicago and San Francisco."
Galatoire's extensive list favors French wines to pair with the restaurant's traditional French-Creole cuisine. The 700-label list is a showcase for many extraordinary wines, rare finds and lesser-known varietals and regions. There are 30 wines available by the glass, roughly 35 half bottles and more than 20 large-format bottles.
"The sophistication of the city's food and wine culture has contributed to New Orleans' restaurant patrons' comfort in ordering wine," Perkins says. "Here, diners don't just waltz in and ask for some well-known label necessarily. They take their time, make their menu choices and wait to hear our recommendations."
With Galatoire's large selection of seafood, Champagne is popular, he says.
"Guests are loving the restaurant's newest Champagne by the glass, Taittinger Brut La Francaise," he says. Veuve Clicquot remains a top choice by the bottle.
Many diners prefer white wines with signature dishes like the Galatoire goute — an appetizer combination typically including crabmeat maison, shrimp remoulade, crawfish maison and often oysters en brochette. Perkins recommends complementing it with a Sancerre, a Sauvignon Blanc from the heart of the Loire Valley.
"The best-seller in the group is the Chateau Sancerre," he says. "Drinking it with the dish is like squeezing a fresh lemon over the shellfish."
With the goute, crabmeat Yvonne and the pompano with crabmeat, he also suggests 2001 Trimbach "Reserve Personnelle" Pinot Gris (available by the glass or bottle) from Alsace or Domaine A. et P. de Villaine Bouzeron Aligote, a crisp, dry wine.
With lightly fried soft-shell crabs topped with crabmeat, he recommends Chateau Montelena Chardonnay or Far Niente Chardonnay, both from Napa Valley.
Perkins encourages guests to order the fried soft shells topped with etouffee, and he suggests a white Burgundy like Meursault Clos de la Barre Domaine des Comtes Lafon or Guigal Condrieu "La Doriane" to accompany it. The latter wine from northern Rhone offers a pleasing contrast to the etouffee's spiciness with a floral, lychee, peachy character.
For diners who want to pair wine and gumbo, Perkins suggests the 1998 Rolly Gassmann "Oberer Weingarten" Gewürztraminer from Alsace.
Chicken Clemenceau goes with the Nicolas Bazan "Mis Nietos" from the Holmes Hill section of Wahle Vineyards in Oregon or Domaine Jean-Jacques Girard Savigny-les-Beaune from Burgundy's Cotes de Beaune, Perkins says.
French Pinot Noirs, such as Pommard Clos des Epeneaux from Domaine Comte Armand in the Cotes des Nuits and the Cotes de Beaune Volnay Clos des Ducs from Domaine Marquis d'Angerville go well with lamb chops.
For a wine that stands up to the veal chop, Perkins recommends a big Chateauneuf-du-Pape — the list has 13 from which to choose — or a Barolo — there are 20 on the list.
"The pairings are even better if the diner orders the rich bonne femme garnish laden with caramelized onions and bacon on the chop," he adds.
For the filet with portobello mushrooms, Perkins shifts to a Paso Robles wine, Daou "La Capilla Collection" Cabernet blend. For the filet with bearnaise sauce, he suggests Pierre Gaillard Cote Rotie "Les Viallieres."
Working with a more contemporary menu and smaller wine list are the husband and wife team at La Petite Grocery (4238 Magazine St., 891-3377; www.lapetitegrocery.com), chef Justin Devillier and general manager Mia Devillier. The couple married in 2008 and bought the restaurant last year. When Mia became general manager in 2009, she reviewed the wine list and saw areas that she wanted to expand and develop.
"I wanted to increase customers' appreciation of the different wines being produced," she says about inclusions from lesser-known wine regions. She also wanted to balance well-known and boutique selections.
"That's what appeals to me; when I suggest a little-known wine to guests, they give it a swirl and take a sip and I see their eyes light up and the 'wow' look on their faces," she says.
The current list totals 130 wines, and 18 are available by the glass. One of the lesser-known bottles on the list is a 100 percent Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, Domaine du Petit Metris "Clos de la Marche" Savennieres.
"It's great with seafood dishes, especially the courtbouillion entree and the baked blue crab, Brie and chives appetizer," she says.
For the chilled roasted beets with crawfish and horseradish emulsion, she recommends another Loire Valley Sancerre, Jean-Michel Sorbe Quincy. She also suggests the earthy Pinot Noir Fogdog from the Sonoma Coast with the dish.
Another Loire Valley gem is Henri Bourgeois "Les Barronnes" Sancerre, which she suggests with the shrimp and grits with shiitake mushrooms and bacon. It also goes well with the blue crab beignets with spicy remoulade, she says. And sometimes she pairs the shrimp and grits with Saint Cosme Cotes-du-Rhone or the same vintner's Cote Rotie from northern Rhone.
"I'm a proponent of getting away from that mindset of fish with white wine and meat with red," she says.
Mia matches Rhone reds with the shrimp and grits because of the dish's smoky bacon component. Another red wine she suggests with it is a 100 percent Cabernet Franc from Chinon: Domaine de Pallus les Pensees de Pallus.
"The Cab Franc is very food-friendly and versatile," she says.
With the courtbouillon, Mia's red choice is a Moises Yamhill Pinot Noir from Wahle Vineyards.
"Justin's version is not based on a traditional broth," she says. "(It's) more of a tomato-based sauce with herbs, red peppers and blue crab folded into the sauce, over layers of popcorn rice and spinach and topped with a fillet of drum. ... The wine is so Burgundian and elegant with beautiful fruit."
Mia chooses a Domaine Grand Nicolet Rasteau from the Cotes du Rhone to go with grilled hanger steak served with roasted sweet potatoes, turnips and caramelized onions. Guests also order the wine with the pork cheek appetizer, Mia says.
"I'm seeing lots of customers tending toward both red and white Rhones, both Old World French and new world Rhone-style California wines," Mia says.
"They appeal to me the most because they're so varied, and I've noticed how much they open up guests' palates."
To drink with paneed rabbit, Mia suggests a lighter style Rhone, such as the Cote Rotie, the Loire Cab Franc or Burgundys such as the Domaine Anne et Herve Sigaut "Les Charrieres" Morey Saint-Denis premier cru or the Paul Garaudet Monthelie "Cuvee Paul."
The grilled beef tenderloin calls for the Pahlmeyer Jayson Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, she says. "It's definitely big enough to go with the beef," she says. "I'd also recommend the VMW 'Crooked Mayor' Napa Cabernet, the Shelter 27-29 Napa Cab and the David Bruce Petite Syrah with the steak."
Since Nathanial Zimet and James Denio parked their purple food truck Que Crawl and opened Boucherie (8115 Jeannette St., 862-5514; www.boucherie-nola.com) in a converted cottage, the restaurant has developed into a polished full-service restaurant with a well-curated wine list. Chef/owner Zimet holds down the kitchen and Denio manages the front of the house and the wine list.
Denio has worked in restaurants since age 13, as well as working stints farming in Spain and commercial fishing in Alaska. He moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Boucherie's list includes 45 bottles and 18 are available by the glass. He's relied on purveyors to help build his list.
"They recommend wines I wouldn't have given a second thought," he says, "I've learned to appreciate that. Many are so knowledgeable and passionate. They come to me on my terms; they answer my questions."
He chooses wines he thinks pair well with Boucherie's food and recommends them to guests.
"I try to introduce customers to new wines from different varietals and produced in unfamiliar regions," he says.
With the current menu, Denio recommends an Albariño de Fefinanes from Spain with pan-seared drum served with garlicky green beans, eggplant rillettes and red pepper coulis. The wine is versatile, crisp and well-balanced, he says. Denio also suggests the Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Blanc from Alsace with the drum.
With seared duck breast served with roasted red potatoes, tarragon, fava beans and mustard seed jus, he likes the Chateau Redortier's Grenache-Syrah blend from Beaumes de Venise in southern Rhone.
"The wine exhibits light-bodied fruit and a nice, soft Grenache character," Denio says. "I would suggest it with just about every large plate dish on the menu."
He also recommends the Pierre-Marie Chermette Beaujolais with the seared duck breast.
With the crispy duck confit and cucumber dill salad with gribiche sauce, Denio points to Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc from South Africa.
"The herbal characters in the wine make for a good pairing," he says.
He also recommends the dish with Arista Russian River Pinot Noir, a lighter but earthier Stoller Pinot Noir from Oregon's Dundee Hills, or the very light Belle Glos Meiomi Pinot Noir with strawberry fruit flavors from the California coast.
For the artichoke confit with caramelized onion tartlet, roasted garlic, tapenade and spicy greens, Denio plucks another Pinot Blanc off the list — Oregon's Anne Amie from Willamette Valley. "It's lush and creamy with the artichoke," he says.
Denio offers several choices to go with a chicken and black truffle galantine with radishes and house-made potato chips and Dijon. There's Chateau d'Epire Cuvee Speciale Chenin Blanc from Savennieres in the Loire, a Gilles Troullier Esprit du Temps Grenache from Roussillon, the southern Rhone Chateau Redortier Grenache-Syrah blend or the Pierre-Marie Chermette Beaujolais.