Secrets of a Sommelier
How much can a former punk rock guitarist possibly know about wine? In David Denton’s case, a lot.
Arlington resident David Denton has an extensive list of acronyms trailing his name, but not the usual M.B.A., Ph.D. or M.D. Technically, he is David Denton, CWE, CSS, IBWE. Certified Wine Educator. Certified Specialist of Spirits. International Bordeaux Wine Educator. Oh, and Advanced Sommelier. This summer he may add one more credential to the list when he sits for the Master Sommelier (MS) exam. It’s an invitation-only designation that fewer than 200 people hold worldwide.
Denton is an oenophile with many roles. As a wine writer for Sommelier Journal, he has landed coveted interviews with icons such as wine critic Robert Parker, whose famous 100-point rating system influences buyers around the world. As a wine instructor—currently at Capital Wine School in Friendship Heights and formerly with the Wine Academy of Spain—Denton has shared his passion with hundreds of students, most of whom are wine professionals seeking designations like his. He also serves as a blind tasting judge for the annual Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition.
But he is perhaps most visible (locally, at least) as a sommelier at Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill, where he helps oversee a list of more than 600 American wines. The restaurant’s guests often include political A-listers, such as the Obamas and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not to mention celebs like Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Tom Hanks (whom Denton recalls as having gotten up after his meal to greet every guest in the expansive main dining room).
If you presume wine experts to be a stuffy lot, think again. Denton met his wife, Maria—a fellow wine instructor and the portfolio manager for Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy Champagne brands in D.C.—in Orlando while performing in a punk rock band together (she was a singer, he played guitar). They moved to Virginia 10 years ago, where they now share a condo in Crystal City.
From there, Denton has ready access to many of his favorite dining spots. He can get a taste of Spain with a quick walk to José Andrés’ Jaleo (he’s partial to the garlicky gambas al ajillo); or sample vintages from around the world via the extensive by-the-glass (BTG, in wine shorthand) selection at Tallula, just up the road in Lyon Park. To satisfy his duck cravings, he ventures a little farther afield, to Peking Gourmet in Bailey’s Crossroads.
On that culinary note he offers this tip: Chinese food goes well with reds such as Pinot Noir and Merlot (follow him on Twitter @DavidDDenton). Here’s what else he told us:
What makes this an important area for food, wine and spirits? Or is it?
If you look at the per capita income of places like Arlington County, Fairfax County and the District, this is one of the wealthiest regions in the country. People want the good life. People here are also educated. They want to eat food that is good for them, that is globally influenced. With all of that demand, how could you not have great restaurants?
Charlie Palmer’s wine list is nearly 100 percent American, save the occasional sherry or port offering. What are your thoughts on the state of domestic wine?
Speaking for myself as a sommelier, I am trying to show that American wine is not just California wine. It’s also Virginia wine. It’s Maryland wine. There are now bonded wineries in all 50 states. And there’s a difference in style between the West and East coasts. Wine on the East Coast has more earthiness and funkiness. It falls somewhere between European style and Napa. I remember 10 years ago, people thought Virginia [wine] was a joke. To dismiss Virginia now is as crazy as dismissing Napa.
Before [Virginia winemakers] were just making and selling wine. Now they are putting more thought and planning into the entire process and fine-tuning their expertise. They are hiring consultants from France. They research what is going on with the soil. They have learned not to plant in a place where grapes won’t fully ripen due to temperature, or where they will just bake in the sun. A few feet makes a difference when you’re considering what will grow. Is the location best suited for Cab Franc or an Italian varietal like Nebbiolo? Chardonnay or Viognier? Today there are people coming from other countries to learn about winemaking here in Virginia. The stage is more national and international than ever before.
What do you do on your days off?
Honestly, I like to visit vineyards for pleasure. I love asking viticulturists, “Why are you pruning this way? Why are you using this clone or that clone?” If you’re in Napa, you see [vines] below your knees and above your head. Both may be Cabernet. I ask why they are [trellised] differently. A winery is a winery—barrels and fermenters. People always say, “Let’s tour the winery!” But I head to the fields. The vineyard is what it’s all about.
Where do you go in Virginia?
I enjoy RdV, Linden and Barboursville. I like to walk through the vines with Luca [Paschina] at Barboursville. He’s the winemaker, but I think of him as a viticulturist. We discuss pruning and planting.
You manage a large inventory at Charlie Palmer with wine director Nadine Brown—more than 3,000 bottles. How do you stay on top of it?
The wine flows quickly. We move three to four [different types of bottles] in and out each week. Everything has a place in a spreadsheet, so accounting and reordering isn’t too hard. But there are some core wines—like Lail Blueprint from California—that don’t leave the list.
How do you work with the chefs to build a wine list that complements the food?
We react to the menu. Each chef has his or her own style. The current chef [Jeffery Russell] is very clean, with some Creole and Asian influences. When we are tasting and buying wines, we keep the cooking style in mind, more than individual dishes. With this chef, for example, we know we can back off big wines and go for ones that are more subtle.
How much influence do individual wine companies have on a restaurant’s list?
If you go into the District or New York and it looks like one particular producer or distributor owns the list, there’s a reason for that. It’s because they do. It happens more often in hotels, where a distributor may, for example, offer to shoulder the cost of printing the wine list in exchange for the restaurant carrying its wines by the glass. [In the most egregious cases] cash is handed over in stuffed envelopes by distributors who want to be on a restaurant’s list. But these are the types of places I don’t go. Most restaurants are honest and straightforward.
How do you find the best wines?
Relationships and tastings are the only way to build a top wine program. Part of my job is to go to tastings and meet with importers and distributors. As a sommelier, you want to build connections with professionals who will listen to you if you have an idea for your list.
Do restaurant patrons ever suggest wines for you to add to your list?
This happens maybe six to eight times a year. If it’s available for us to carry, we’ll check it out. Chances are, if you’re asking for it and you’re a regular, you’ll buy it.
What are your busiest times of the year?
During the fall and spring releases, we are shown hundreds of wines. Summer is really dead. December is incredibly important for the wine industry from a sales standpoint—Champagne especially. More Champagne is sold in that month than in the other 11 combined. There’s a reason why restaurant holiday parties are held in January.
Which parts of the world are producing wine that you’re excited about? Which regions should we be watching in the future?
Canada. Maybe it’s global warming, I don’t know, I’m not a scientist. But whites, mostly, from British Columbia are ones to watch. I would also keep an eye on China over the next decade because of its booming population. Ten years is a relatively short period of time, but I think the culture of wine will have spread far enough [by then] to have an impact on China’s wine production and quality. China is also an important marketplace for U.S. and European wines. In fact, Napa is the first and only wine appellation to be recognized by China [meaning that only wine made in Napa can be sold as Napa wine]. Champagne isn’t yet protected there, but Napa is.
When diners confess to having little knowledge about wine, how do you approach them?
I listen. I want to introduce interesting wines and raise their overall experience. People sometimes look at the sommelier and they get scared. The best way to get them to feel at ease is to make them laugh. If someone says, “I don’t want to spend $500,” I’ll respond with, “So, a little over $1,000 then?” If people can see you’re not snotty or pushy, they relax. I’m not their enemy. I’m just a wino.
Are there certain wine descriptions that you hate?
I want to ban the word smooth. It doesn’t mean anything. Texture is everything. For example, I try to explain how much acidity [a wine] has. Is it high in acid like lemonade, or lower in acid, like orange juice?
What types of wines do you wish you saw more of on wine lists?
Rhônes [from Southern France] of all types—especially varieties of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. And more selections from Southern Italy.
Is there a minimum that people need to spend to get a “decent” bottle of wine?
No. Winemaking is so well done now, and there is so much competition, that even at its lowest end, it has to be delicious. Grocery store wine is very good. I drink Jacob’s Creek [an Australian producer whose wine typically sells for less than $10 per bottle] as everyday wine.
How does a restaurant determine how much to charge for a particular bottle?
It depends on the restaurant owner and the buying price, but the average restaurant’s profit margin for wine is 33 percent. So you’re looking at [paying] two to three times what it costs us.
Did you ever see yourself as one day having all these titles and certifications?
No! I was a musician before I stumbled into the wine business. My wife took a management position at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Fairfax, then I got a job in the kitchen there, and one thing led to another. People ask me “Why did you choose wine?” I didn’t. Wine chose me. I just feel like I’ve been along for the ride.
Do you still play guitar?
Is there a connection between wine and music?
I’ve noticed that whenever I’m talking to a group of wine professionals, eventually someone compares putting a blend together to making music. Many wine professionals I know are passionate about music. Antony Moss, a Master of Wine who lives in London, loves to talk about opera. When I drink Champagne, I listen to 1940s singers and standards, like Sinatra and Sammy Davis—grown-up music.
What kind of wine goes with punk rock?
Punk rock is more Côte-Rôtie. These are wines from the northern Rhône river valley [in France] marked by big fruit.
What do you drink at home most often?
We have a few small wine fridges and a rack for day-to-day bottles. I’ll usually go for something easy, like a Côtes du Rhône from Guigal, a Rioja from Tondonia or Banfi Chianti. Or Cava. We drink a lot of Cava [sparking wine from Spain].
Do you have a favorite wine territory?
Spanish Rioja, in my opinion, is the best wine in the world, in terms of quality for dollar. You can get a Reserva [aged three years] for $14 and it’s fantastic. These wines are always blends. The region is also the second most beautiful wine country I’ve ever been to, behind Tuscany.
Is there a grape that you just don’t like?
Pinotage [a pinot noir-Cinsaut hybrid, grown mostly in South Africa]. It tastes like a fireplace and smells like a Band-Aid. Maybe not all of them, but most of them.
Describe your perfect meal.
Maryland crab imperial with Ruinart Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne. Or a New York strip steak with a Pichon Baron [Bordeaux]. The Pichon Baron estate is located across the street from Château Latour. You get the same terroir, for an eighth of the price. For dessert, my wife, Maria, makes a great crème brûlée. I pair it with Sauternes from Château Rieussec.
What’s your favorite guilty pleasure food and what would you drink with it?
Easy. Popeye’s fried chicken and a super buttery, unfiltered chardonnay from Newton Vineyard in Napa. In a red Solo cup.
5 Wine Pairings for Spring
- Nicoise salad with Tempier Bandol Rosé, available at Chain Bridge Cellars in McLean
- Roast chicken with Chateau des Jacques Moulin-à-Vent Beaujolais, available at The Curious Grape in Shirlington
- Grilled steaks with Château Lanessan Bordeaux 2009, available at Total Wine
- A fish first course with Drappier grower Champagne, available at Schneider’s of Capitol Hill (not distributed in Virginia)
- Grilled swordfish with Dagueneau Pouilly-Fumé, available at Total Wine
Jessica Strelitz is a Ballston-based food, wine and spirits writer in need of a bigger wine fridge.