Jessica’s wins the Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence for our wine program!
Many of you will have learned that as of July 1st, Jessica’s has been honored with the Best of Award of Excellence for our wine program by Wine Spectator Magazine. While our wine program has been the recipient of the base tier Wine Spectator Award of Excellence every year since 2006, the Best of Award of Excellence for 2019 is a real honor and a big step up in the wine world! We thought you might be interested to know more about what it takes to manage a wine program at this level, and what it means in the big picture, so we’ve asked David, our Sommelier, to talk a bit about how we have reached this point. Here’s his discussion of what it means behind the scenes:
I have been fascinated with wine for decades. Academically, I was trained as an archaeologist and anthropologist, and the story of humankind and the rise of civilization in the Old World is firmly reflected in the rise of agriculture and viticulture in particular. Personally, my academic career and wine have also been closely integrated—I worked my way through graduate school working as a Sommelier. When I made the decision to retire from academics and to return to Somm work, some of my colleagues wondered at my decision. I, somewhat flippantly, responded that being a Somm is really just Anthropology—with booze!
To study wine in all its myriad manifestations is to study far more than just a mildly alcoholic fermented beverage. Wine is about people, their history, their lands, their successes and discoveries over the millennia. The more one learns about wine, the more one realizes that the study of wine is an enormously fascinating topic and that there is no end to the learning. At the same time, one quickly realizes that you don’t have to study wine to enjoy it, but that knowing something more about it enhances your enjoyment!
As I have pursued certification as a Sommelier through three different organizations (The Court of Master Sommeliers, the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, and the Society of Wine Educators), more than anything I have been driven to know more about the people who grow and produce their wine, the environments in which they live, and how all of those variables come together in the bottle I open for you at table side. As a studying Somm begins to learn about a new region or type of wine, he or she is transported in time and place, the simple bottle of fermented grape juice becoming a port key to that other world.
But enough philosophy! What does it take to manage a wine program that could win the Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence? What does the award mean? To quote the Wine Spectator magazine (linked above):
“Wine Spectator’s Restaurant Awards recognize restaurants whose wine lists offer interesting selections, are appropriate to their cuisine and appeal to a wide range of wine lovers… [Best of Award of Excellence] wine lists display excellent breadth across multiple winegrowing regions and/or significant vertical depth of top producers, along with superior presentation. Typically offering 350 or more selections, these restaurants are destinations for serious wine lovers, showing a deep commitment to wine, both in the cellar and through their service team.”
Now Middlebury is a fairly small market and it isn’t a tourism destination in the same way other recipients of the Best of Award of Excellence at resort properties around the world are. Jessica’s just doesn’t do the volume that many of these properties are capable of supporting. So, to manage a list that offers the wide variety of wines from around the world, with the depth of our offerings, is a challenge most of the “big boys” don’t face. Large destination properties, or higher volume urban restaurants, can order cases of most of the wines on their lists. This means that building their wine lists can often be as simple as placing an online order directly with producers, typing up the list, and then sitting back with a relatively static wine list that changes only with new acquisitions and occasionally, when a case of a particular vintage sells out. While these properties can support the purchase of case lots of most of their wines, Jessica’s simply cannot.
All of this means that I spend many many hours a week tracking the contents of our cellar very closely. To be able to add some of the rarer and/or more prestigious wines on our list, we are often in a position of acquiring only a small number of bottles of that wine. This means that I sell out of one or more of the wines on our list almost daily, and have to replace that wine on a weekly basis. This also means that I reprint one or two pages of the wine list a couple of times a week.
Vermont law also plays a roll. International properties, and many states in the U.S. are subject to much more liberal liquor laws. For many of the recipients of the Best of Award of Excellence, wine directors are free to acquire any wines they would like to add to their lists by contacting producers directly. In Vermont, we are required to purchase our wines through one of the six licensed wholesalers and we cannot add a wine to our list which is not already carried by one of these vendors. To do so would violate Vermont laws and put our licenses at risk.
Many restaurants in Vermont select a single wholesaler to provide all of the wines on their list—in some cases, the vendors actually produce the list itself! This vastly simplifies the management of a wine list by minimizing the points of contact necessary to provide their clients with a modest wine selection. To manage a list the size of Jessica’s, I deal with all six of the vendors in Vermont on a daily or weekly basis, each of which has different policies on the minimum order required, shipping details, etc. It’s not easy, but it’s a labor of love!
Finally, one should remember that wine is a living thing, each type with a life expectancy and storage requirement unique to that bottle. To ensure that the wine I present to you at the table is in the best condition possible, I electronically track the temperature and humidity of our cellar constantly. Several methods are required to make environmental adjustments from humidifiers and dehumidifiers, heaters and Rube Goldberg cooling devices to ensure that our wines have an ideal place to slumber and improve, ready to be presented to you at the table.
I encourage you to make a reservation at Jessica’s so I can share the riches of our cellars with you! Being the Sommelier at Jessica’s is a labor of love, and I am honored to be a part of the team pairing Chef Rob’s creative cuisine, Tom’s detailed knowledge of spirits and our collection of wines from around the world.
– David Herren, Sommelier, Jessica’s Restaurant at the Swift House Inn