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  • The Check Podcast

Episode 5: Raise a Glass

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

Sommeliers. Even pronouncing their title is a bit intimidating, much less having one appear at your table to discuss wine. We welcome two sommeliers, Arden Allen of Cobalt Grille and Tom Land of Steinhilber’s and La Bella Italia, who demystify the ways you can team up with them to order the perfect bottle of wine to complement your next meal.


Wines and Vineyards Mentioned in this Episode


Tom Land and Arden Allen talk wine with Alvin and Brady.





PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

June 4, 2020

Brady Viccellio

Welcome to The Check. I'm Brady Viccellio.

Alvin Williams

And I’m Alvin Williams here at The Check. Welcome back. Brady. How's your week been?

Brady Viccellio

It's been all right. We have this outdoor dining, which is been a lifeline to us. It's amazing to be able to have finally some sales, some guests, happy people. Happy waiters, happy kitchen staff. Everybody's working.

Alvin Williams

I agree. We're not there yet. But there's a little light at the end of the tunnel here we are doing some service on the patio and in our tent, so we have customers coming, but it's been a tough week for us. And for me, especially I'm very grateful that I have a small wine cellar in my house, which I've been using every evening.

Brady Viccellio

Speaking of wine, we're honored to have two sommeliers here. One from each of our restaurants. I've brought along Tom Land. Thank you for coming.

Tom Land

Honored to be here. Thanks, Brady.

Alvin Williams

Yep, feel honored and blessed. I have brought with me Arden Allen. She is our wine sommelier at Cobalt Grille. And she's been with us for 20 years. And she's doing a bang up job. Couldn't do it without her. Welcome Arden. So Arden how'd you get started in the wine business.

Arden Allen

So I started working for you when I was about 19 years old. And from there, you just really trained my palate. You took me from zero to hero and made me the sommelier I am today.

Alvin Williams

That’s very sweet. But you know you've done a lot of hard work yourself and you got through it. Why are you so passionate about it?

Arden Allen

I've always been really passionate about wine. And I think that tasting up to 100 different wines a month has really helped train me in the way that I need to be trained as a sommelier.

Brady Viccellio

Tom, same question. What got you into what made you a sommelier?

Tom Land

Well, I started in the hospitality industry when I was 16 years old. Washing dishes, worked my way through the ranks. became very fond of wine. I really loved food and understood that one without the other, it just wasn't right. So it just became a study for me. And I was very fortunate along the way to come across a lot of people who were very influential, and gave me the opportunity to try lots of wines that I certainly couldn't have afforded without their kinship.

Brady Viccellio

As restaurant owners and managers, our goal is to create an environment where our guests are happy and relaxed. Often wine and wine pairing and all these things, kind of create a sticking point or a point where people lose that relaxation. How do you mitigate that as a sommelier? How do you come to the table and make people comfortable?

Arden Allen

I mean, I think for me personally, when I talk to tables, I emphasize the fact that I'm passionate about wine. I'm not all-knowledgeable. And then my phrase is to keep it simple. What do you like to drink, love what you drink.

Tom Land

It's a great point. And I like to do the same thing. I just like to make the guests feel at ease. I'm not there to try and sell them anything at all. I'm simply there to assist with their needs if it pertains to wine.

Brady Viccellio

So you see yourselves as, as more of a tour guide than a salesman?

Tom Land

Absolutely. I'm not selling anything. The product sells itself and I'm there to guide the cast.

Alvin Williams

Because at the end of the day, everything on your wine lists are great wines.

Arden Allen

I would hope so -- we personally pick them.

Alvin Williams

So if you see someone struggling as to what to order, how do you help them? How do you help them choose and I'm sure it's pretty difficult before they've ordered because you don't know if they’re going to order fish or if they're going to order light meat or dark meat or poultry. Arden, how do you help them choose?

Arden Allen

Well, I have a catchphrase for that and I'm probably gonna have T shirts made. That say, like what you drink, love what you drink. Right off the bat, I ask the customer what they typically like to drink. Whether it be red or white, and then I lead them from there. It it's white, do you like oak? If it's red, do you like fruity reds? Do you like big heavy cabernets? And then it's just a deduction process from there for me.

Brady Viccellio

You know, a lot of times people don't even know the answers to those questions.

Arden Allen

Yeah, I mean, it's definitely steering them in a direction.

Tom Land

To me there are some dead giveaway questions that you can ask guests. And you can find out exactly where you need to go. And one of those things is what do you typically drink at home? And I think anyone who is, you know, if you're having food and wine at home, you have wine and you know what you drink, and it may be Kendall Jackson, and I may not have that wine. But I have to find a one that matches up to that style. And they typically produce a Chardonnay that has some residual sugar. So, with that knowledge in my back pocket, I can put them on to something that I know the like.

Brady Viccellio

I think it's a fun challenge actually, to find extremely inexpensive wines that are of high quality. I think it's fun.

Alvin Williams

You know, from a chef's point of view, it's, it's all kind of relative because I always think, depending on what I'm cooking, it could be a $20 bottle of wine that just pops when he when you have it paired with a certain dish that I'm cooking, or it could be $120 bottle of wine that tastes really good with what I'm cooking. So for me, it's kind of food driven. Some people are price conscious and some people are not. It just depends and sometimes it's a special occasion and people don't care what it is. Sometimes people eat out every night of the week, and they don't want to blow that much money every night of the week. It just, it all depends. And it's kind of hard for servers to gauge that. And say, when a customer says, Well, what do you think I should get? What do you like? Well, you don't know if they want to spend 20 bucks or they want to spend 80 bucks on a bottle of wine. And it's, it's a conversation that you have to have and I'm guessing Arden because I'm not at the tables very much anymore because usually people get mad at me and I get sent back to the kitchen.

Arden Allen

Where you belong.

Alvin Williams

So you kind of find out how much they drink on a regular basis. And if they used to drink and wines and, you know, to their like old world wines or new world wines, or you know, and you can speak more about that.

Arden Allen

Well, I think we really get to know our customers too. Luckily for us, we see a lot of repeat customers, and we you know, are able to kind of jive with them as far as what they would like and I think to Tom's point we're not really selling the top 10% or the lower 10% those are selling themselves. So what we're really selling are the wines that are in that quote unquote sweet spot. And I think it's it's really invaluable for us as sommeliers to have the knowledge on their sweetspot wines to be able to what we call hand sell those wines.

Brady Viccellio

Alright, so, where there's no getting around it. We're in the middle of this COVID-19 pandemic. Have you all seen a change in people's drinking habits?

Arden Allen

Oh my gosh, yes. I don't know what it is. But people are down with the liquor. They want their cocktails. They want their martinis. Their old fashioneds. Their Manhattans. That’s not to say that people aren't still drinking wine because wine is really booming right now. But there's definitely, for our restaurant there’s definitely a boom in cocktails themselves.

Brady Viccellio

Tom, what have you seen for us?

Tom Land

Well, it's difficult to argue with what Arden said. But you know, we've really put a lot of focus on ones that are $15 and under at both of the restaurants that we have, and I think they're high quality wines. One of the biggest misconceptions I think about the wine world in general is that price dictates quality.

Arden Allen

Exactly.

Tom Land

And that is just so far from the truth. If you have a solid wine that you pay four bucks for, and it's a white and it has acid, it's going to work with Alvin's food and if you have that same wine and it's four bucks and it's red and it's got a little tannin structure, it's probably going to work with Alvin's food.

Brady Viccellio

So you're saying that people need to take their wine from Steinhilber’s and La Bella Italia over to Cobalt Grille?

Tom Land

We really need to help him out over there.

Alvin Williams

Let me ask you about this. How was the the wine experience changed during COVID-19 because you know, I remember we would be pouring wine into decanters and people swirling and tasting and you know, is that possible with the masks? What's going on with that?

Arden Allen

I mean, I find the wine experience table to table a little bit more lax -- I don't know about you, Tom. But our customers a little bit more laid back about the whole experience some some even bypassing wanting to taste that first sip to make sure it's okay. They always say I'm sure it's fine. We're ready to go. I know with us outside dining has proven challenging as far as wines go and wine temperatures go with, you know, with wine glasses sweating immediately, as soon as we're outside and heat. So that's something a little different. I don't know, if you're struggling with the same thing.

Tom Land

I think it's an ongoing struggle with every restaurant, but I think you have to moderate that and we train our servers so that they know there are always ice buckets around regardless of white or red wines. Because to me, I don't want anyone pouring red wine for guests that's above 64 degrees. And If something’s gonna sweat, it shouldn't be a wine bottle.

Brady Viccellio

We talked a little bit about the intimidation factor of when a sommelier comes to your table. A lot of times people who just want to a regular bottle wine, their heart sinks. Oh the som’s coming. It's almost like the principal.

Alvin Williams

Well, it's not even that I think people think, oh, this is about to get expensive.

Arden Allen

This is real fancy, y’all. Real fancy.

Tom Land

And that's exactly where you don't want to go.

Alvin Williams

And that's not the truth that it's about to go to expensive. The sommelier is there to help you to choose the wine that you may like or that's going to pair well with your meal.

Tom Land

You know, Alvin, I think the key is to build trust. Yeah. And to never be short sighted.

Arden Allen

Absolutely. And I think it's, it's important to be forward in your discussions with your guests and to break the ice by saying, What's your price point?

Tom Land

No question. This is potentially a long-term relationship. So there’s certainly no need to be pretentious, or presumptuous, and certainly never assume. Always have the best interests of the guests at hand. I've found that many guests have no idea what they like. It's okay to ask questions.

Arden Allen

Absolutely. And I think while it may seem like an awkward question to say, what's your price point? I think it actually puts the customer at ease.

Tom Land

It's one of the best questions you can ask.

Alvin Williams

What I always like about ordering wines from a sommelier are the stories. They always seem to have a story about, well, you know, this wine came from here or I came from there and then the winemaker did this. Do you have any good stories about any of the wines

Arden Allen

I always do and I think, you know, something that we wanted to talk about tonight were Virginia wines and how far they've really come and what great quality Virginia wines we have now. One of my personal favorites, a vineyard that I've visited more than once is Barboursville. And one of my favorite stories to tell about Barboursville is that the winemaker is actually Italian, Luca. And Luca produces some great wines that are often tied to Italian roots. No pun intended. Knowing your local sommelier is a great resource because we can send you to these vineyards on the basis that we purchase their wines and they're going to hook you up when you go to those vineyards.

Alvin Williams

Arden when you say hook you up, I think you're referring to when people know that you're from a restaurant or you've been sent by a restaurant, you tend to get a better tour. They show you more things and you taste better wines, rather than you just being a part of the general public going to wineries.

Arden Allen

Right. They might bust out some reserved wine that maybe they don't typically show to the public.

Alvin Williams

We go to these wineries and it is such a great experience. They're very accommodating and very helpful. It helps you choose wine and help you helps you to decide what you like, because they give you all the different tastings from white wines and sparkling rose to heavy to light and then if you're a novice at this, are you just starting, it helps you decide what you actually like.

Land

Absolutely. And they really do roll out the red carpet, because there is nowhere that they would rather have their wines represented than in the local restaurants, I think Charlottesville has a number of wineries that it's just not something that's in the forefront of most people's mind when they think about one is taking a Virginia wine tour. But when you're in Charlottesville, you're within an hour of 25-30 wineries.

Alvin Williams

Yeah, we're lucky to have so many around here. So we have them in Virginia. We have them in the Outer Banks, North Carolina, all very close by. I think Virginia wines are more expensive to produce because it's harder for them to produce. You know, they don't have the climate like California or like Europe, so it's hard to produce the wines, but they make really good wines. I mean, Barboursville has a spectacular Cabernet and Virginia in general grows great Viognier. If we pair it, great Virginia wines with like, you know, softshell crabs from this area, things that have foods that are indigenous to here, it ties it all up and brings it together beautifully.

Arden Allen

A great bottle of Viognier from Virginia would slay some soft shells.

Alvin Williams

And that's only certain times of the year.

Tom Land

I think Chatham Vineyard makes some really nice wine too that go well with oysters, like that steel Chardonnay that they do.

Alvin Williams

Yep, yeah, absolutely.

Tom Land

And pairs well with almost any type of seafood that you could put together.

Alvin Williams

I feel that when we serve wine in our restaurants that it brings people together. And I think wine makes people happy. I think food makes people happy. And I think the pairing of the food and the wine together makes people happy and it makes it a brighter world. It just could just be my vision. What do you feel about that Arden?

Arden Allen

Well, I think wine and food definitely bring people together. They're in the mood to be together to sit in a company of each other and enjoy a great bottle of wine and some amazing food that our chefs provide.

Brady Viccellio

And, you know, we've had a lot of great wine. All the four of us put together probably have had some of the best wines in the world. And we've been very fortunate in that respect. The thing is, if I think back on the best glasses of wine I've ever had, I don't remember all the time exactly what vintage or bottle it was, but I remember who I was with. I remember what I was eating. I remember where I was. Great bottles of wine are made by people. They're experienced by people. They're consumed by people. It's a social exercise.

Tom Land

I love that Brady.

Alvin Williams

But what it's all about is that it invokes memories.

Tom Land

And I truly believe that the greatest ones in the world with the wrong company is basically worthless. And you can have a $4 bottle of wine that you picked up at a Food Lion and drink it in the right setting with the right people. And it can all of a sudden become priceless.

Brady Viccellio

Alvin, it was great to have to some ways here to talk about wine and talk about what's going on with our COVID-19 life.

Alvin Williams

I'll tell you one of my favorite subjects is wine andconsuming wine and to have two experts here and guide us through this has been absolutely amazing.

Brady Viccellio

Tom Land, thank you for coming in and spending this time with us.

Alvin Williams

And Arden Allen from Cobalt Grille. Thank you for spending your time and your knowledge. We appreciate you.

Arden Allen

Thanks for having me.

Brady Viccellio

Alvin. I tell you what, this has been a great podcast. I've really enjoyed spending time with Arden and Tom.

Alvin Williams

Absolutely. they've both been great guests. extremely knowledgeable, and it's been fun having them here. I'd like to propose a toast. Maybe we can raise our glasses. What do you think?

Brady Viccellio

I think that's a great idea. Absolutely. Cheers to our sommeliers. Cheers. Tom Land and Arden Allen. Cheers.

Brady Viccellio

And thank you all for joining us. I'm Brady.

Alvin Williams

And I'm Alvin.

Tom Land

And I'm Tom.

Arden Allen

And I'm Arden Allen.

All

And this is the check.

One final note from the producer. In case you didn't recognize the clip at the beginning of this podcast, that was the dinner scene from the classic 1979 Steve Martin movie, The Jerk.

Thanks again and we'll see you next time.



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