Eater spoke with several of the city's sommeliers and restaurant owners about how trips abroad help them define their restaurants' wine lists. In Part 1 of this two-part series, Jody Fellows spoke with restaurant reps who shared some fun anecdotes from their various trips. Here, 2941's Jonathan Schuyler gives a more in-depth account of a recent trip to France.
For the past three-and-a-half years, Jonathan Schuyler has been the man in charge of the drinks at 2941 Restaurant in Falls Church where he serves as wine and beverage director. A certified sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers, Schuyler previously worked as the restaurant's assistant sommelier and cellar master and, before that, was the Chef de Cuisine at Grand Cru Wine Bar in Baltimore. Packing these serious credentials, it's safe to say Schuyler knows a thing or two about pouring a glass of the good stuff.
After a recent trip to France, we asked Schuyler about his experiences in wine country and what he learned from his time tasting abroad.
Where did you go on your trip?
Burgundy, France. We stayed in Puligny Montrachet and visited Chassagne, Puligny, St. Aubin, Mersault, Gevrey-Chambertin, Aloxe-Corton & the Macon.
What winemakers did you visit with?
We tasted with Jean-Michel Guillon (Gevrey-Chambertin), Domaine Bzikot (Mersault), Domaine Pascal Maillard (Aloxe-Corton), Lamy-Pillot (Chassange-Montrachet), Albert Grivault (Pommard/Mersault), Domaine Larue (St. Aubin), Marie Bernard (Puligny/Chassagne), Domaine Thibert (Macon/St. Veran) and a few others.
Was this your first trip to the country?
No, I'd been to France before, but it was wasted on me in my youth.
Do you regularly visit winemakers or are these trips rare? Do you visit domestic wineries more often?
It is hard to get away from the restaurant, it's a business where success is counted in seconds so being away for a few hours, forget a few weeks, can be difficult, but I try to get out once a year to visit a wine region. Spain, California & Oregon were my last few.
What were your impressions of your visit to the winemaker? Was it what you expected?
Meeting the winemaker is an interesting experience. If they are wineries you don't know, you have to be careful to separate their charm or lack thereof from their wine. If you already know their wine though, it's even more exciting. This is a great example of changing one's view of the wines by understanding the winemaker's personality. Are they nervous, confident, thoughtful, eclectic, etc....I imagined the wines of Lamy Pillot (some of my very favorite Burgundies) to be the work of a confident and forceful personality, but instead found Sebastian (the winemaker) to be cautious, nervous, and timid. It changed the wines for me. I could see that their balance was not made but carefully and tenderly preserved and fostered. I love the wines more now, but use them more judiciously, knowing that their perfection is so precarious.
Did you discover or learn anything unexpected or notable during your trip?
Millions of things. Being immersed in the environment, one gets a general sense of culture and politics which inevitably influence the wine. The food, and how it works or doesn't. It erodes erroneous presumptions and gives newfound respect. Seeing which winemakers are out toiling in the fields, and who aren't. How do the cellars look? What do the winemakers think is important, what do you bring to the table that is simply not a concern for them? Perspective on geography is another piece that's irreplaceable. It's one thing to memorize a map, and it's a whole other thing to see how many steps it would take for the wine grapes next to you to make a $20 vs $200 bottle.
The internal conversation in a wine region is also very different from the external view. Take vintages. We tasted through a half dozen vintages when we were there, but mostly 2009, 2010, 2011 & 2012. The external view is that 2009 was an epic and great year, 2010 was very good, 2011 was a place keeper while '09 and '10 aged and that 2012 was the new game in town to be tried. Tasting as much as we did, that picture was turned on its head. 2009 is great, but it's an almost overgenerous year, where 2010 was near perfect in terms of balance (which is most of the battle). 2011's out performed as well, giving a lot more pleasure and substance than expected. Also, we will probably talk about the intensity and concentration of 2012 here, and greedily buy up bottles, but if you work in Burgundy, you'll spend most of your time lamenting the 60% reduction in yields. That hurts and you can see it on the grower's faces.
Did you already have established partnerships with the wineries prior to the trip or are you exploring new potential partners?
Some yes, some no. I had met several of the winemakers before, and was already buying from more still. Some wineries were brand new to me. The relationship one makes on these trips can be really important. My trip to Oregon a few years back was a real eye opener. For example I found this winery in the Umpqua Valley called Brandborg. We showed up late (about an hour after they closed) and they were the most kind and gracious people I'd ever met. They made us a cheese plate and spent hours discussing the wine with us. We didn't even tell them we were industry at first, just asked questions and tried the wines. Their 2007 Love Puppets is an astonishing wine, we'll carry until it all goes away.
I heard you had some interesting adventures in France. Could you tell me a little more about them?
I sometimes rub people the wrong way, and there are stories for that but I should probably not say. Some of my favorite moments were the late nights, after a long days tasting. Tired and filled with first world problems, we would retire to the lobby of our little hotel, pull the corks on some bottles, tell horror stories of insane customers and bizarre situations and debate everything. I'm pretty sure Doug House [owner of Chain Bridge Cellars] and myself almost didn't sleep at all one night debating objective morality. That, though, is what Burgundy is good for I suppose.
Are there any other interesting stories from your trip that you'd share?
So this is an embarrassing story, but all is well that ends well I suppose. I'm a pretty avid runner, and with the burdens on your liver and digestive tract being what they are in this business, it's really helpful to get some exercise in your few free minutes. As many mornings as I could I would go for a run before breakfast. On one of my first days there, I set out at about 5:30 a.m. for a morning 5k. I ended up getting off the road and travelling through some vineyards and getting totally lost wearing nothing but some gym pants, sneakers and an Under Armour shirt. It's January, with feet of snow on the ground and after three or four miles I realized I had no idea how to get home. Then, my epiphany. The sun was coming up so I could figure out where north was, and as a Somm, I've had to memorize the vineyards, so if I could figure out which vineyard I was in, I could figure out how to get home. I found my marker and put the map together in my head. Then came the dreaded realization. They don't grow grapes in the town, so I may know how to get to any vineyard I wanted, but that didn't tell me where Puligny Montrachet, the town, is at all. So I headed out for the Montrachet vineyard and I figured if I froze to death at a seven-and-a-half minute pace rocking out to Black Hole Sun in the middle of the Route des Grands Crus, at least I'd die with dignity.
· Wine Trips Mean Adventures for D.C.'s Sommeliers
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[Photo: Schuyler in France]