I know what I know because I knew what I didn’t know.
When I started out as a cook, I didn’t have much use for wine knowledge. I had plenty of shitty beer knowledge, and the only mixed drink that I knew of was called a Mind Eraser. I even ‘dated’ a married woman who was ‘classy’ because she drank Gran Mariner. I was 18 and her husband had a Corvette Stingray that she’d let me drive around while her husband was at work. He ran a steakhouse in a ‘classy’ strip club in Denver. They were ‘classy’. I was a cook in a Red-Sauce-Italian joint. I clearly didn’t know shit about shit. And honestly, I didn’t care.
When I went to culinary school I also got a job at the Brown Palace hotel in downtown Denver. I needed to build my resume, and this was the place to start. I worked at the Palace Arms restaurant inside the hotel. The Palace Arms is their high-end-fancy-old-suit and tie restaurant. We wore the tall toques; the tall hats that you see in old movies that show the kitchen and French guys yelling above the steam. That’s exactly what it looked like and that’s exactly what it felt like. It was hell. The boss was a short little shit of a man that was a dick just to be a dick. He owned a “Sorry-about-your-penis” Harley Davidson that was too big for him.
I went to school from 7AM until 2:30 PM. I had to be at the hotel by 3PM to start my shift. We did our meal prep down in the basement of the hotel in the prep kitchen. All of the hotel’s restaurants did their prep here including four other restaurants, the catering department, and room service. It was a zoo. I had roughly an hour to do all of my prep, collect all my mise en place (mise) and run it all upstairs to my kitchen, down a maze of hallways and up a narrow stairwell that only allowed for one person at a time to navigate. We started service at 5PM.
Once, “Sorry-about-your-penis” (SAYP) saw me finishing up my mise, place my cutting board on top of a trash can (I was finished using it) and wipe down my station. SAYP came over and dumped all of my prep in the trash. All of it. I had nothing for service. Like I said, it was hell.
My saving grace was our Maître d’hôtel. We’ll call him Bernard.
Bernard was an Italian guy. Amazing dresser, eloquent, gracious, kind and knew EVERYTHING about wine.
Our clientele at the Palace Arms was old people. Old rich people. Our menu reflected that. Our number one seller was beef wellington. It’s old but very classic. That being said, our wine list was also very old…and that’s a good thing. Old, French and filled with what’s called, Grand cru wines. These are the best of the best.
Bernard liked me, and I liked him. He’s a teacher. That’s really his job – to teach. Not just me, but the dining public.
At the end of service every night, Bernard would line up seven or eight coffee cups in my pass (the pass is a little window that separates the kitchen from the dining room) and pour whatever wine was opened that night. My dumbass got to taste some of the most luxurious and sought after wines in the world. Bernard would line them up from lightest to heaviest. Meaning, a lighter bodied wine to a bolder, richer styled wine. He guided me through what the varietal (grape) was to how the wine was treated (oak, stainless steel etc…) and why. It was one of the most eye opening culinary experiences of my life. I was starting to grasp why wine was an important component to the ‘Experience’ of dining. It was food too. It was (literally) the juice that lubricated the meal. That changed everything for me.
My fascination with wine has led me to a career as a wine buyer, seller and professional taster. Wine is a deep subject. It has no end and you shouldn’t be afraid of it. It’s a subject in science, history, religion, agriculture, food, chemistry, medicine, war, passion and love. It’s really a gift. And I want to share my love of it with you. Don’t be afraid of asking questions – like I’ve said: None of us came out of the womb knowing shit about shit.
I love you