Photo of Bill Jensen by Darrow Montgomery

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Photo of Bill Jensen by Darrow Montgomery

You came to dinner with a game plan. The restaurant’s a little more expensive than you like to spend on a meal out, but it’s a special occasion, and if you and your bae stick to entrees and split a dessert, you’ll avoid next-day financial regret.

But wait. Who’s this, sauntering over to the table? He has a mustache, not a beard, so he’s not the mixologist. He’s got a bunch of pins on, but this isn’t Chotchkie’s. And why is he wearing a necklace with a little silver cup that looks like a murder weapon from Clue?

It’s the sommelier. At least, that would have been his look two decades ago, when the role was more pomp and circumstance salesman than hospitality professional. At this time-capsuled meal, he’s out to sell budget-detonating bottles from big name producers that wine critics like Robert Parker spill points over in magazines.

“Twenty years ago you became a sommelier because it was the great alternative to being a car salesman—you felt like you could sell product and be slick,” says Max Kuller, the wine director at Doi Moi. He remembers servers itching to become sommeliers at Fat Baby Inc.’s first restaurant, Proof, because they were “good at selling stuff.”

Kuller’s colleague Brent Kroll, the general manager at Proof, recalls the wine climate when he entered the wine world eight years ago in Miami. Expensive bottles would be displayed on tables as status symbols. “The sommelier would be wearing a triple Windsor knot tie. It made it uncomfortable to ask for a $40 bottle.”

It was a time when price was the only measurement of a wine’s worth. Wine lists were arranged by grape variety like chardonnay or pinot noir and then by price. You were either a $50 chardonnay drinker or a $100 chardonnay drinker. There was little joy in the transaction.

“Those environments make me anxious and always have,” says Elizabeth Parker who has run wine programs at Chez Billy Sud and Crane & Turtle. “I hate pissing contests, I hate cockiness, especially amongst people who are passionate about the same thing,” she says. “No matter who walks through the doors, you never make them feel less-than.”

Fortunately, the days of Windsor knots and pissing contests are dwindling, even in a city with a steakhouse affliction like D.C. has. “The mentality shifted for multiple reasons. People got more educated that it wasn’t just one guy in an ivory tower that could tell you what was good and what wasn’t,” Kuller says.

Wine pros also began embracing the fact that wine should be fun. “For me, at the end of the day, you’re getting drunk,” says Sebastian Zutant, partner and beverage director at All Purpose and The Red Hen. “It’s not like anyone’s sitting around analyzing their cocaine… Even though it’s a life’s work, taking it so seriously diminishes the fact that it’s an alcoholic beverage.”

Zutant is happy to see a growing contingent of local neighborhood restaurants with funky, affordable wine lists. “In New York, you can walk into 50 everyday restaurants that have baller ass wine lists—D.C. is evolving into that,” he says, adding that he’s encouraged by the amount of wine he sells to young people.  

To meet the demands of youthful imbibers who crave laid back environments over rigid dining experiences, Tail Up Goat partner and beverage director Bill Jensen says it’s time to add a bevy of $30 and $40 bottles to the wine list. “Millennial types are moving back to cities and eating out on a regular basis—they can’t do a $90 pairing every night and eat that kind of meal every night,” he says. Cheaper bottles encourage more frequent visits. 

Kuller, Kroll, Zutant, Parker, and Jensen are leading a new generation of sommeliers who are making wine more adventurous, more affordable, and far less pretentious. They’re working just as much for the guest as they are “the house,” leaving diners feeling that sommeliers today are more friend than foe. The Dabney co-owner and general manager Alex Zink and DBGB Kitchen + Bar head sommelier Andrew Wooldridge round out the group.

Notice that only Wooldridge officially calls himself a sommelier. Others prefer to avoid the title. Even Jensen, who once ran the highly lauded wine program at Komi, calls himself “a self-loathing sommelier.”

“The word comes from a French term applied to someone who presided over a nobleman’s pack animals—they’d sit and guard someone’s goods and that evolved into a Mr. Carson character in Downton Abbey,” Jensen explains. It doesn’t quite jive with what he does.

Zutant boldly adds, “There’s no such thing as a sommelier anymore, it doesn’t exist except sometimes.” At these small, chef-owned restaurants, more is expected of the person handling the wine. Zutant likens it to a maître d’ role and says it necessitates a certain personality.

“The current group of people that are doing it come from different walks of life, so it’s almost an art curator situation—a whole lot more creativity comes along with finding obscure varietals and weird places,” Zutant says. He compares sommeliers to obsessive collectors of jazz records or comic books. “Someone head-over-heels with some off-market niche thing, that’s collectively how we roll.” Nerds, if you will.

Curating a list featuring lesser-known regions or grape varieties is a top strategy new-school sommeliers are employing to get diners both an experience they’ll remember and a deal. 

“It’s the challenge for every generation of drinkers to find value, undiscovered gems,” says Jensen, who describes his wine list as playfully irreverent. He categorizes cool finds by the bodies of water that influence the winemaking process, such as “rivers and streams.”

Jensen prominently features rosé wines and orange wines such as “Paleokerisio,” a cider-like orange Greek sparkling wine ($36), because he likes to occupy the ambiguous space between white or red. “It’s a David Bowie, ‘disgendered’ sort of place,” he says. “People don’t drink as much as they could given how delicious these wines are with food.”

By eliminating tried-and-true wines from his list, Jensen puts diners in a position to try something new. “I love it when people are willing to aggressively take a point of view—be really evangelical in their pursuit of what they want people to drink,” he explains. Consumers seem game to ride the ride.   

Kuller noticed a shift in open-mindedness between when Estadio opened in 2010 and when Doi Moi opened in 2013. “We were in a way different position at Doi Moi, we knew the audience was there who wanted to come in and learn about the weirdest, geekiest thing and they would try it for what they used to spend on a glass of cab,” he says. In part, Kuller credits craft beer for molding a consumer who craves new things.

Since Doi Moi serves Southeast Asian cuisine, a region not known for winemaking, it positions Kuller to go wild. For example, he pours a sparkling pineapple wine ($12 a glass) from Hawaii made using the Champagne method. “The aromatics are so jumpy and sweet, it’s hard to believe it’s dry on the palate,” Kuller says.

Though seemingly counterintuitive, selling customers less expensive bottles of wine from budding regions is a wise business move. “When people discover wines they like, it connects them with the restaurant. It’s a loyalty thing,” Kuller says.

If a first-time couple says they’re willing to spend $70–$90, Kuller steers them towards a $60 unique bottle they’ll love. After a second or third visit when trust has been established, Kuller is better positioned to sell them a $115 bottle. “I’m not going to feel bad going into that territory and they’re not going to feel bad taking that chance because they know I’m there for them,” he says.

Embracing esoteric wines isn’t the only way new school sommeliers are adding value to the guest experience. Both Zink and Wooldridge manage to offer affordable wines from countries celebrated for their vines.

Zink, whose European wine list has 35 bottles in the $40-$60 range, says he knows places like Georgia and Greece make good wine, they’re just not his style. “I respect them but they’re not a reference point for me—I guess I don’t feel like challenging my guests in that sense.”

Everything about his wine program is designed to feel easy—he puts the wine list on the back of the food menu to be more democratic, and he believes wine should take a backseat to the kitchen. “With the original pretense of the suited sommelier and leather-bound wine list, the bottle of wine on the table was the focus as opposed to the food—I want to assist in showcasing chefs’ food instead of taking center stage with whatever I pop.”

To keep costs down but still serve wine that plays well with a menu at a Daniel Boulud French bistro, Wooldridge has a strategy. “A lot of big names in the wine world have wines that made them justly famous, but many have passion projects on the side,” he explains. “If you can track those down, you get to taste the style of people making incredible wines but at a much better value.” For example, Wooldridge pours an aligote from Thibault Liger-Belair ($54), a producer revered for the property’s red Burgundy.

That’s not the only way Wooldridge over-delivers. “One of the most valuable things my colleagues and I do is tell stories about wines,” he says. He contextualizes bottles in terms of things like travel, agriculture, and economics. “Really connecting the guest with the story, the reason the wine tastes the way it does, why it’s special—that’s where the huge value lies in our profession.”

Other new school sommeliers also make an effort to “touch” tables, eager to offer stories if customers show interest. Kroll, for example, used to spread the gospel of Greek wine at small wine seminars held at Iron Gate Restaurant. Often, he would talk about Yiannis Tselepos, who makes a sparkling wine named after his wife Amalia. After relaying Tselepos’ life’s journey, Kroll would end the anecdote with the same punch line: “I asked him what was the key to making his marriage work through his journey, and he said space.”

At $52, the zippy, sparkling moschofilero is a budget-friendly way to celebrate, and customers who attended the seminar are likely to recognize it on the wine list thanks to Kroll’s story. CP

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com.