Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Mind Of A Sommelier: Jesse Eslin

(Check out my Introduction to the The Mind of a Sommelier series.)

Jesse Eslin is the Wine Director at The Table at Season to Taste, located in northern Cambridge. I've previously given raves to The Table, and was quite taken with their intriguing wine list, enjoying some delicious selections from their list, including the Hild’s Elbling Sekt. Jesse was one of the first sommeliers I thought of when I created my new series, The Mind of a Sommelier.

Jesse’s deep dive into wine came when he worked at Craigie on Main and learned as much as he could. He says “working and learning at Craigie On Main with Chef Tony Maws and his amazing team was like going to graduate school for wine. It was crazy, intense, exhausting and I loved learning as much as I could.” In 2016, Jesse opened The Table at Season to Taste with Chef Carl Dooley, creating new wine pairings every six weeks when the Prix Fixe menu changes.

Now, onto the Interview:

What term do you use to describe yourself: Sommelier, Wine Steward, Wine Director, something else?
Wine Director

Please give a brief description of the wine list at your restaurant.
Our wine list is a constantly changing creature that should make almost anyone happy, as long as they are willing to step a little out of their comfort zone, which is almost a prerequisite for eating here.

What are your objectives with the wine list?
I just want to have fun with it, and make it easy for guests to make a quick decision. Early last year, I tried to add a larger selection of bottles to the list for the sake of it, and found that it did more harm than good. Most of the time, guests come in knowing exactly what they are going to do, menu wise, and I don’t think they wanted to bother looking through a list that had 100-plus different options, so they would punt and just order a couple of wines by the glass. I think it’s an overlooked quality to make all of your decisions very quickly and have the rest of the night to just enjoy the company that you are with, so I trimmed it way back, and it feels much less intimidating.

How often does the wine list change?
The wine list changes pretty frequently. Inventory wise, we don’t buy a whole lot at a time, so it gives us the flexibility to change it up whenever we feel like. The pairings change every time the menu changes, and we try to be seasonally conscious in what we put on the list in terms of glass pours and bottles. The weather tends to dictate what direction our guests want to go, drink wise.

Are there omissions on your wine list you would like to fill?
The challenge is keeping the wine list small – we have a tiny restaurant, tiny kitchen, and you can imagine, a tiny wine cellar. So of course I am tempted to have bottles from every region, every grape – but we keep it tight and flavorful and memorable here.

How do you learn about new wines?
It’s a mix of tasting a lot of new bottles from the awesome distributors that we work with, falling down the rabbit hole of book surfing and online articles, and just scrolling around SevenFifty and researching things that look interesting.

What is your strategy on pricing the wines on your list?
As with everything here, our prices come with tax and hospitality included in the price. There can be sticker shock included in this pricing structure when looking at a wine list, so I just have to work that much harder to find really good wine at really good values. It seems to all work out. I appreciate that our guests seem to trust me and jump right into the pairings I suggest. We have bottles at various pricing levels; I like to think it is an adventure that is worth the ride. I try to take care of guests who are coming in regularly, and love wine, but can’t break the bank on it. And equally important is taking care of our guests who are coming in for a special occasion and want something quite celebratory.

What is the most common wine question asked by your guests?
I’d say it’s “What should I drink?” Because of the wide variety of the flavors on the menu, you can go in a bunch of different ways, depending on your mood. Most of the wines that we have are high acid and medium bodied, food-friendly wines that can morph and bend depending on the dish.

What is the most common criticism you receive from guests about your list?
I’d say if there is one thing, and I don’t know if it’s a criticism, it’s that guests often times are unfamiliar with what we have to offer. I think having a short list with a bunch of obscure grapes or familiar grapes from different places is a fun way to get our guests to broaden their horizons and place their trust in us to give them something delicious. I think the way the menu sets up, guests are much more comfortable putting their whole experience in our hands. Plus, it’s stimulating to have that interaction, rather than have a guest just cold order a cabernet.

What is your greatest challenge as a sommelier?
I think the pairings are a fun challenge. Carl loves flavors from all over the globe, and oftentimes, flavors that would be much easier to just give over to a crisp lager. I think that’s the excitement in wine though. It doesn’t have to be so serious, and it has a place at the table along with these cuisines that have a lot of spice, a lot of energy. Every pairing is not going to be absolutely perfect, but it’s fun to see how certain aspects of the wine and the dish play together depending on what bite you take.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of the best value wines on your list?
Generally speaking, if wines have a little bit of sweetness to them, they are going to play well with a variety of the spices that you will find on the menu. The Dandelion from Alberto Nancleras is an off-dry albariño from the Rias Biaxas in northwestern Spain. It’s like drinking the wine version of lemon sherbet sprinkled with sea salt. I love wines that feel like a lightning bolt, and this definitely falls into that category.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of the most unique wines on your list?
I love the Broc Cellars Counoise. Chris Brockway makes some really cool stuff out of a warehouse in Berkeley, California and this is my favorite. Counoise is a blending grape commonly found in the Southern Rhone in France, but really shines on its own. It has this really bright, spicy fruit and is just a pleasure to drink. If fresh, new world Pinot Noir is your thing, you will love it.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of your favorite wines on your list?
The sparkling wine that we are pouring by the glass, Hild’s Elbling Sekt, is my latest obsession. It’s gorgeous. It smells like walking into a flower shop. It’s dry, crisp, lively, and the glass is almost impossible to put down before it’s empty.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about your wine list, your work as a sommelier, or wine service?
I really appreciate the guest trusting us and going along for the ride. I am a happily obsessed wine geek and of course could talk wine all day and night. And I do. There is always something new to learn and try. Here at The Table at Season To Taste we love embracing the new menu every 6 weeks, which also means a new wine list, new breads, new desserts – all new pairings - it’s an adventure and we appreciate that it seems to be working, and I am just so grateful to this community.

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