Friday, March 8, 2019

The Mind Of A Sommelier: Leo Keka

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

Leo Keka is the owner of Alba Prime Steak + Seafood and Zef Cicchetti & Raw Bar in Quincy Center. A native of Albania, he fled the impoverished former communist nation in 1990 by swimming across a lake to a refugee camp in Montenegro, before finding his way to the United States. Keka, unable to speak English at the time, landed his first job in the industry when he was hired as a dishwasher by fellow Albanian-American and celebrated restaurateur Anthony Athanas of late Boston culinary landmark Anthony’s Pier 4. Keka soon became a server, displayed a natural knack for hospitality and quickly worked his way up through management at both Legal Sea Foods and Grill 23 & Bar, before opening his fine-dining Quincy Center restaurant Alba in 2001. Such an inspiring story!

Now, onto the interview:

What term do you use to describe yourself: Sommelier, Wine Steward, Wine Director, something else?
I’m the owner of Alba but also the wine director. Wine is one of my great passions and I love that part of my job. We have a great, great staff that is very knowledgeable about wine and about our wines in particular. But at the end of the day, even as the owner, I pick most of the wines on our list and I’m proud to do so.

Please give a brief description of the wine list at your restaurant.
Our wine list is focused on American/California cabernets and Oregon pinot noirs with a heavy selection of Italian reds: super Tuscans, Barolos, Brunellos. Those big hearty Italian red wines. We have some great options and sell a lot of them.

What are your objectives with the wine list?
Our goal at Alba is to offer a great bottle of wine at a great price, no matter the guest’s taste or budget. I think a lot of wines are subject to over-pricing in restaurants. We try to avoid that. We try to come in at a very fair price for our guests. Our wine list I believe rivals that of any of the top steakhouses or restaurants in Boston. But our prices are much more affordable.

A lot of the reason why is for me very personal. We grew up very poor in Albania. We didn’t have great restaurants. We had very few material pleasures. One of those pleasures was wine. I remember one Christmas night when I was about 15 my mother brought home this giant 18-liter bottle of red wine that my grandparents had made. It was amazing.

I was hooked on that taste and on the celebratory aspect of drinking wine. I loved it from the beginning. My dad had tried before to get me to drink beer. I didn’t like it. I still don’t. But I’ve loved wine from that moment I first tasted it. I still remember drinking that bottle of wine today.

So that desire to make great wine affordable still influences our list. I’m willing to sell wine at a lower price than other restaurants if it means somebody can experience a wine they might otherwise have missed and enjoy that feeling I felt that Christmas night as a teenager back in Albania. I think our combination of world-class wine at a fair price is the big reason why we sell so much wine.

How often does the wine list change?
We’re always getting in new bottles if they fit our program. But big picture the wine lists changes substantially every six months to reflect new vintages, new bottles, new trends. We probably sample 500 to 600 bottles every six months, find the great picks, and revamp the menu to reflect those tastes. But at any given time we might pick up something new if I really like it and it fits our program.

Are there omissions on your wine list you would like to fill?
I’d love to serve more sparkling wine. I don’t think people drink enough champagne or sparkling wine. Americans in general tend to think of champagne as something you celebrate with, a special occasion wine, and not something you enjoy on its own or with food. Great sparkling wine is tremendous with a variety of foods. I wish more people would order champagne with their food like they do a bottle of chardonnay. We’d certainly offer more. I’d love to sell more.

How do you learn about new wines?
I’m always keeping up with Wine Spectator, following wine auctions, the wine blogs, following global trends. And we have a steady stream of vendors through here most every day showing off their newest bottles. We move a lot of wine for all the big houses in the region so they’re always eager to show off their best new stuff. So we stay up on top of things that way, too. Just by tasting and talking about wine every day with other people who know and love wine.

What is the most common wine question asked by your guests?
Our guests are already well educated about brand-name wines. So they typically want to know what’s the next thing we have that tastes like the wines they already know. So we like to steer them to new wines, about the winemakers, the wine-making regions. I think it’s up to us to lead them to the next great bottle of wine. We want them to buy a bottle because we like it ourselves. But of course we want to make sure it fits their taste profile.

What is the most common criticism you receive from guests about your list?
People are always trying to get more. We have 400 to 500 bottles on the list. We’re trying to pair our wine with our food and also be true to our brand. But there are always more options. People always want more options. Even with the hundreds of bottles we offer, people want more choices. They might ask for something from South Africa or Argentina because it’s great wine they read about or heard about somewhere. But usually those wines aren’t on our list. They’re not consistent with who we are and you can’t carry everything.

We also lack Sake, for example. Sometimes we’ll have a really great Sake. But not usually. It’s not part of what we do. But sometimes people ask for it. You can’t be everything to everybody. But with that said we work hard to ensure our wine list is consistent with our food and our influences and that we offer high-quality wines at a good price.

What is your greatest challenge as a sommelier?
The greatest challenge is trying to keep current choices consistent with past choices. Does that make sense? This is what I mean: somebody comes in and asks for a bottle that they loved. They may be a regular or somebody who comes in only a once a year. But we don’t carry that bottle anymore. The vintage is gone. We ran out. The distributor is out of stock. Whatever the case might be. But we need to make sure we have something comparable in terms of flavor, quality and price point that’s consistent with the great bottles we’ve offered that guest in the past.

So we have to know what our guests expect. The flavors, the styles, the prices. And we have to make sure those options are available, even if the label on the bottle changes. It’s a challenge. But it’s also one of the most enjoyable parts of the job.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of the best value wines on your list?
     We sell a 1-liter bottle of Caymus Cabernet for just $95. So naturally we sell a LOT of Caymus. I believe we are the No. 1 single-unit restaurant in Caymus sales in all of New England.
     Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay is another great deal for just $45. It’s from California. It’s very balanced. Pairs well with a lot of food. It’s sexy. It kicks ass. It’s a chardonnay lover’s dream and at $45 we sell a lot of it.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of the most unique wines on your list?
     Our Masseto 2015 is a pretty rare super Tuscan. A 100-point wine. An outstanding special occasion wine. A great wine to enjoy among friends. A unique blend of super Tuscans with a lot of complexity. It’s a wine most people would drink and it remember it forever. We sell it for $900 when it might run you $2,000 somewhere else in Boston.
     Also, we’re lucky to be one of the few restaurants in the region to carry Sassicaia 2015, which Wine Spectator named its No. 1 wine of 2018. This is one of the world’s great wines and we sell it for just $315.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of your favorite wines on your list?
If I have to drink wine for myself, it would be anything from Howell Mountain in Napa. I love the earthiness of the wines in that region. I like the tannins. I like big wines that need decanting. Great spices. Howell Mountain wines remind me of Old World wines. We carry wines from Robert Craig, Dunn and La Jota vineyards in Howell Mountain.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about your wine list, your work as a sommelier, or wine service?
My experience in this industry was forged soon after I moved here from Albania at some of the greatest restaurants in America most notably Anthony’s Pier 4, Legal Sea Foods and then Grill 23. When I landed in Boston I couldn’t even speak English. But Anthony’s Pier 4 had one of the best, most expansive wine lists in America and a very demanding customer base. I learned the wine business, and I learned the language, pretty fast. Then I feel like I refined my knowledge at Grill 23, which had that outstanding wine list and still does today. I learned a lot at both places and met people passionate about food and wine.

I wanted to carry that passion forward here at Alba and sell the same wines but at a better price. I’ve got to meet so many great winemakers, producers, sommeliers and have had the pleasure tasting a lot of wine. It’s helped me create a palate where I can tell you everything I like or don’t like about a wine and then convey those experiences to my staff and to my guests and hopefully help people make educated decisions about their wine.

I’ve taken all those experiences and brought them here to Alba and love sharing them with our guests. It’s really the same passion I learned that Christmas eve when I was teenager drinking my grandparent’s wine. If people get anything out of dining at Alba, I hope that get that passion and pleasure we get from serving great food and great wine.

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