In Dining Commentary

Nate Norfolk knows wine.

Five questions for Sommelier Nate Norfolk

I was fortunate to meet wine buyer and sommelier Nate Norfolk several years ago when he was competing in a Sommelier Challenge Wine Dinner where two sommeliers had to pair wine with a menu that I had created. It was a great night, and the guests were the true winners because they got to see wine paired with food from two completely different perspectives.

One of the remarkable things about Nate is not only his genuine love of wine, but he is always engaged in the constant pursuit of enlightenment, not for himself but to share with others.

I recently had some time to sit and ask him about his perspective on all things wine. Wine can be very subjective and intimidating to most people. What is it about wine that eludes people? How do you recommend people learn more about wine?

Nate Norfolk: I never know what the main point of intimidation is, but I find that the very geography of wine is difficult for most of us. Outside of very vague points of origin such as Wisconsin cheese and Idaho potatoes, we live in a culture where we know little about the sources of what we consume. This of course is changing rapidly, but it is difficult for someone to wrap their head around a wine label that, for instance, reads "Montagny 1er Cru." There is no way my 60-year-old mother, who even knows a fair amount of French, could figure out just by looking at this label that the wine in the bottle is Chardonnay from the village of Montagny in the Cote Chalonnaise region of Burgundy, and that "1er Cru" denotes that it comes from some of the better vineyard sites in the area, let alone have any idea what it will taste like.

The best way to learn about wine is obviously by tasting, and paying attention when you taste. Don't be afraid to ask for a taste of wine being served by the glass before you buy it, especially if you are unfamiliar with the style. Find out what grapes each wine is made from and most importantly where the wine is from. A merlot from Oakville in Napa Valley that is 15 percent alcohol and a merlot from Pomerol in France that is under 13 percent alcohol are about as different from each other as brie is from cheddar; they are made from the same base material but the end results are vastly different. You have to keep your mind open and notice what you like or don't like about a wine. Take notes, take pictures of labels; this is very helpful and a great way to "remember" what the wine was. Talk about how it tastes. Don't be afraid to say it sucks if you think it sucks, but try to verbalize what you don't like about a wine.

We are so visually oriented as a species that it can prevent us from fully using the rest of our senses, slowly experiencing food or drink with your eyes closed can make a world of difference. I will sometimes mistake a wine as being bitter, but when I really stop and taste it I realize that it is the alcohol that is causing the sensation. Just remember there are degrees of enjoyment and and that it all isn't black and white. Also, buy wine from someone you trust, and that knows what they are talking about! This advice pertains to cheap wine as much as it does to more expensive bottles.

OMC: This next question is somewhat of a hot topic in the industry, but could explain your take on the point rating system and your thoughts on its relevance?

NN: Personally, I hate the point rating system. I understand most people don't lead leisurely lives where they can compare the finer points of one wine against another, so letting someone with more drinking experience do it for you makes sense on a certain level. But relying on rating is not a failsafe way to insure you are going to enjoy a 96-point-rated wine more than an 88-point-rated wine. If the public is out there buying wine just based on a few numbers and not even reading the notes that go along with it, then they pass up delicious yet under-appreciated white wines that are versatile with food – like Italy's verdecchio or even pinot blanc from Alsace or Oregon – in favor of wines that get better press.

Truth be told, many wines (especially reds) that get some of the highest scores just don't work with any kind of range of food. For instance, a winery (which for professional reasons shall remain nameless) that has gotten some of the most 95-point-plus scores in the "Wine Advocate" and the "Wine Spectator" recently was in the works to do a dinner with a restaurant in town. The winery specified, though, that all that could be served with the wines was unadorned cooked red meat and steamed vegetables. Why even do a dinner? How insulting is that to the restaurant?

I just think it is crazy that one person can taste a wine, possibly within the context of other wines similar to it, and then assign a score to it that potentially can create huge stigma toward or commercial demand based on one person's opinion. So, then the temptation is for the wineries to make wines that will please critics that taste them without food, and when they are typically just released, and when they are also tasting many other wines alongside of them. What consumer drinks wine in that context? It is like reviewing a family sedan based on the way it performs in a demolition derby.

OMC: In the past, people always thought red meat equals red wine, and fish or poultry equals white wine, but that's not really true anymore. Could you please explain how you pair wines today?

NN: Well I still stick with it pretty much, but I also focus on what the sauces and preparation are. If someone is serving lamb or pork with the more pungent root vegetables – i.e., rutabaga, beats or radishes – dry, light- to medium-bodied white wines work beautifully with those dishes, but so can most pinot noir, gamay and lighter reds from the alpine regions of Europe. In March, Zach Espinosa from the Harbor House paired a Washington state cabernet sauvignon with king salmon that had a beet puree and trumpet mushrooms; I thought that really showed off his skills as a chef who understands mirroring flavors in food and wine.

Whenever possible I try to pair dishes with sparkling, off-dry or fortified wines. Slightly sweet versions of riesling, gruner veltliner, and silvaner pair impeccably with dishes that have elements of heat, especially Asian dishes with ginger. Real French Champagne is also surprisingly good with everything from BBQ pork to popcorn. The main theme of pairing a wine with any dish is acid; if the food has it, the wine needs it. That is why on a worldwide level sommeliers have been shunning so many of these high-scoring red wines with tons of alcohol – they just don't work with food. You put one of those super-rich yet soft and silky giant red wines against a humble onion and the onion kicks its ass every time. You put an onion against a dry bubbly wine and they create harmony like Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers singing "Islands in the Stream."

OMC: What do you believe is a fair mark-up on wine? It seems some restaurants take advantage of the novice wine drinker. Can explain "QPR?"

NN: I am biased, because I am currently on the wholesale side of the business. When I know that a wine is marked up around 400 percent I think things are getting out of hand, but usually with that comes great glassware and service, which justifies some of it. In the end I see that restaurants that have lower margins move more wine, and consumers generally realize what they are paying for. It is not uncommon for the same wine to sell for $35 retail, $60 at one restaurant and $100 at another.

I am going to steal a line from our president and say that my view is "evolving." When a restaurant has a huge wine list of older vintages and rare wines, it is only fair to expect to pay more for it, especially if there is knowledgeable staff that can back it up and create a satisfying and unique experience for the patron. The flip side is that smaller, well thought-out lists of moderately priced and interesting wines are becoming vogue in more casual restaurants; I think these types of wine lists should have lower margins and in general change relatively frequently. Some of them should be able to get closer to what retail prices are. The last four years have really seen that as a trend, and people love it, and it gets younger and less affluent people more into food and wine, on a serious level, without it having to be about fine dining.

QPR (quality to price ratio) is just that – it means, "Is a wine a value for its quality?" To paint with a broad brush I currently find many Spanish red wines to be great values, especially for people who normally drink Californian cabernet and Australian shiraz. They should be trying some tempranillo and grenache from Spain in the $8-$15 range. I am also shocked at how inexpensive dry riesling from Germany and Australia can be. If you normally drink sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio, you should also be stepping up to some drier rieslings – it is what all really cool people are doing. In my humble opinion, Washington state has the best cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah for the money being produced domestically.

OMC: How did you get into wine and what would suggest to other aspiring cork dorks?

By complete accident I got a job at Downer Wine & Spirits on the East Side. It was all because my childhood friends Jon and Jamie Robash worked there, and now nearly 15 years later the three of us are still in the wine business. After a year there, wine was becoming more interesting to me than college. I am obsessed with history and geography, and working with wine allows me to further explore those interests. I think the best thing people can do to further their interests in wine and really get some insights is to drink two or more wines of a similar type alongside some food. This is a great thing to do at a small dinner party.

Reading about wine and tasting as much as you can is the best way to learn and keep an open mind. I meet people that only drink French wine and still swear off anything from California and vice versa, and I actually feel sad for them; there are great wine producers in nearly every region of the world. Judging all Australian wine when you have only had Shiraz from a few producers and one tiny region of a vast country is straight-up epicurean prejudice. Before you say, "I don't like Australian wine," you better have tried a Margaret River cabernet and a Eden Valley riesling. This holds true for all types of wine, and you still get what you pay for and you have to spring for things that cost more than $15 a bottle retail if you really want an insight into uniqueness and quality. This doesn't mean that wines that cost less than that aren't delicious or well made, they just tend to be more homogenous and of an industrial scale.

I have to say this to everyone: if you go to a tasting and you are going to try more than 10 wines, if you are actually serious about it and you want to remember what you tasted and not just get your drink on, spit – it is what the pros do.



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