Every year, the James Beard Foundation singles out the best and the brightest in the culinary world. We recently chatted with Blackberry Farm’s wine director, Andy Chabot, about his nomination for an outstanding service award as well as up-and-coming wine regions and, of course, Blackberry Farm.
Q: You are a finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Service. What does it mean to you to be nominated again for such a prestigious award?
A: It’s a huge honor to be nominated. To see New York City, San Francisco, Boulder and then Walland, Tennessee, next to all those places that are destinations unto themselves, for me is very exciting. At the same time, being nominated for the award is a bit on the humbling side, because there are a lot of people who have put a lot of work into our wine program over the last 12-13 years, and I’m just the lucky one who gets to have my name on it. So it’s exciting and humbling.
Q: What specifically do you think the James Beard Foundation is commending you for? What is distinctive about the wine program at Blackberry Farm?
A: There are a few things that are distinctive about Blackberry Farm versus some of the longstanding restaurants that are also nominated. We are very lucky that we get to build relationships with our guests over two, three and four nights, whereas a stand-alone restaurant may get one night to make an impression. At Blackberry Farm, we have the opportunity to build on the wine the guests had during their last visit, as well as the wine they had last night, and that is a unique experience. You don’t get to see that level of service that often, and that sets us apart, naturally.
I do think that being in the hotel setting, it’s a full experience. The wine is a part of it, and they (the guests) get to be in a different, relaxed mindset — we like to call it “The Blackberry State of Mind.“ They didn’t drive through rush-hour traffic to get here, and are able to really enjoy the experience.
We also have a fairly approachable way of serving and talking about the wine. The youth of our sommelier team helps people feel more comfortable talking about wine. They don’t think they are going to be talked into something they don’t want, or that something is being pushed on them. We have very energized conversations with our guests and at the same time are very relaxed about it.
Q: Speaking about the approachability of your wine program, I noticed you have a half-bottle program at Blackberry Farm that comes with a unique “take-it-back guarantee.” How did this get started?
A: The half-bottle started a long time ago, really when the wine program started. You don’t have to commit quite as much, but also we don’t have that many guests coming through the restaurant to offer a robust wine-by-the-glass program, with the knowledge that all the wine would be kept in a great condition. If you want an incredible glass of Cabernet Sauvignon a half-bottle is two and a half glasses, so it’s really not that different. We also tend to have a lot of guests who want a tasting experience that evolves with the meal. Maybe they want a heavy red with the entrée and a white with dinner — we found a way to offer that. It continues to be a great, fun program here for us.
As far as the “take-it-back guarantee,” I think it’s just ingrained in what we do here at Blackberry Farm. I’m almost surprised that everyone doesn’t already have that mindset. It is so much more important that you really had a memorable, good experience, rather than a bottle of wine that wasn’t quite right or just didn’t fit. We can always do something with a bad bottle, such as train the team that this is what a corked bottle looks like, or if you simply changed your mind, we can do something with that as well! The most important thing for us here is a good experience.
Q: Your wine list shows a lot of depth — with a variety of vintages from the same winemakers — can you share your philosophy behind creating the wine list?
A: The philosophy for assembling the wine list has been in place since Sam Beall started the wine program 12 or 13 years ago. It’s a lot about relationships, which is a philosophy that extends past our wine list. We tend to search out companies that are small and family owned if possible — much like Blackberry Farm — quality-minded companies and winemakers. Provided it is a great product, we like to carry their wines, year in and year out. Good vintages, tough vintages. We’ve always wanted to offer vintage depth and the only way to get older wines was to wait until they get older. We buy the wine each year, put some in the cellar and some on the list, and that is the way we have operated since the beginning. It’s not a one-time vintage purchase from us — it’s a long-term commitment.
Q: Blackberry Farm is somewhat of an industry leader with the epicurean experience programs. How do you view a weekend like that — the extension of a meal or a glass of wine into a more holistic experience for the guest?
A: We want to visit every winery and meet the people making our wine, but we also think it is just as important that they come to see us and meet the guests. Let them share their wines, and get to know our guests. So that is a very fun reason for those events, and why it works. Those events are three days of living a really great Blackberry lifestyle: great food, great wine, incredible personalities like John Alban, Alain Ducasse and Martine Saunier who are superstars in the industry. Getting to rub shoulders with them in a very relaxed, very comfortable setting, where they are also guests, and getting to use produce from our garden — that is sort of what those events are about.
We do limit the size, so it offers an intimate experience. The guests get to see world-class wines, and world-class food, served and talked about in a very friendly way. Making food and wine approachable is very important —I think too many people put it on too high of a pedestal. At the end of the day, food and wine is meant to be fun. We’re not saving lives here!
Q: Andrew Harper members are wine lovers. What is popular right now?
A: With us, it’s the wines that have that really verdant quality like high-acid white wines, especially getting into the spring. So things like a Loureiro from northwestern Portugal, and up into Spain from the Vino Verde area, tend to be popular. Grüner Veltliner and the lighter Chablis Chardonnays also tend to be really popular this time of year, when we start getting the really fresh greens like snap peas out of the garden. Grenache seems to be outpacing Pinot Noir right now, which has always been a huge seller because it works so well with our lighter and game-centric foothills cuisine. We also sell a good amount of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and some of the great Côtes du Rhône and great Grenaches from around the world.
I was just on a trip with a great group of wine professionals and they were saying that Greece is really popular for them — again, it is those high-acid Grecian wines. I think Portugal is going to be an up-and-coming region for wine if they continue on with this trend of really trying to reinvent themselves. I spent some time with Dirk Niepoort’s wines there — he’s one of the best, if not the best in the area. I think people are going to latch onto the dry wines from there really soon. And Spain is still extremely popular among guests — we tend to sell a lot of wines from classic regions around the world, and they work so well.
Q: What is your favorite wine right now?
A: I tend to like Pinot Noir the most. I love Pinot Noirs from Sonoma, and Williams Selyem is always going to be high on my list, and one of the great ones in this country. And then I love red Burgundy. If I could, I would drink red Burgundy every day until the money ran out — which unfortunately would happen very quickly, so red Burgundy has to be a celebration wine for me these days.
Q: What would be your favorite wine destination worldwide?
A: From the wine side of things, I think visiting Burgundy is a must. It is such an incredible place. The food, people and culture in Burgundy are really special. I don’t think you would find it at that kind of very small family-owned level really anywhere else in the world.
I also think it would be foolish not to say Napa. The wine industry there is incredibly diverse, even more than people give it credit for — it’s not just Cabernets. The hotel and food scene there and the ability to take a day trip to another region is something you can’t do in the other wine regions of the world.
As a sommelier, you can read about something all day long, but until you put your feet in the soil, look around, taste the wines and visit the region, it’s really difficult to know the wines and talk about them. I have been lucky to visit Europe maybe once every year and a half, and to visit the domestic wine regions such as California maybe once or twice a year.
Winners of the James Beard Foundation Awards will be announced May 9, 2011, and we wish Andy and his team at Blackberry Farm the best of luck!