Image credit: Jordan Curet/Aspen Daily News
Greg Van Wagner is the Wine Director for two of Aspen, Colorado’s most popular restaurants, Jimmy’s and Jimmy’s Bodega. A “rising star” at just 28 years old, he makes wine recommendations on a nightly basis to locals and tourists alike, from the casual $40 bottle to the splurge $1,500 bottle. We asked Greg to talk about certain topics that come up while serving wine at big-time establishments in major tourist hubs — our questions/topics and his answers are below.
If you’re a rising star yourself in the sommelier world, or planning to join a restaurant in a major tourist hub, Greg’s advice might help you in a pinch. For those of you in the Bay Area, or traveling here, be sure to check in with our course calendar as Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser might be offering a SOMMDAY School Workshop–one of two such courses in the series, designed to equip you with the tools to be the best sommelier you can be.
6 TIPS FOR SOMMELIERS WITH GREG VAN WAGNER
1: READING THE LOCAL PATRON VS. THE TOURIST.
Greg’s tip: Whether the guest is a local, or a visitor to Aspen, I want to get a read on the experience they are looking to have at the restaurant as quickly as possible. Perhaps they had a brutal day of travel, or maybe a big day out skiing or hiking in Aspen? Or, we have many locals that come in with visiting friends and family and are looking to have a great celebratory evening. Locals and visitors are almost always excited to share their day’s adventures, which makes my job easier as I can then more easily gauge what kind of evening they are looking to have, from a quick dinner with a glass of wine, to a full blown evening of cocktails and multiple bottles.
2. TELLING THE STORY OF A PRODUCER.
Greg’s tip: There should almost always be a special reason as to why a producer is on your wine list and usually that reason is tied to a story. However, not all guests want to hear that story! Each guest is different. Some ask point blank about a producer, or multiple producers, while others aren’t as interested in chatting and will have a wine picked out before I even approach the table. My role is to help the guest have the best dining experience possible and sometimes that can mean I don’t say much!
3. WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR RECOMMENDATION IS MET WITH DISAPPROVAL.
Greg’s tip: If you make a wine recommendation and the guest doesn’t truly enjoy the wine, you must take the wine back. Must. From there, you need to determine what the guest didn’t like about the selection you suggested, take that feedback, and align the feedback to another suggestion. In my experience, if this does happen, I have most likely misread the situation, or didn’t ask the right prompting questions. The best way to avoid this is to ask what the guest drinks at home. This is the best way to understand what they are going to like in the restaurant. Trying to rely on a guest telling you they like “dry white wines,” or “big reds,” simply isn’t enough information. What’s dry to one person, isn’t necessarily “dry” to another.
4. DO YOU HAGGLE WHEN A PATRON OFFERS UP A PRICE RANGE?
Greg’s take: When a patron offers up a price range: It gets honored, period. When you have a price range and an understanding what they like to drink, then it should be easy to make a spot on recommendation.
5. WHAT TO DO WHEN A GUEST ORDERS A DISH THAT WILL KILL YOUR WINE PAIRING.
Greg’s tip: Most likely, if a guest is ordering a wine with a particular style of food, they have almost always had the pairing before. And, if they haven’t, then they will most likely ask me my thoughts on the pairing they are creating at the restaurant. I can always say that their selection may not be a classical pairing, but using a prompt like “if you have enjoyed this wine and dish before…” and get an answer one way or the other, you often learn that yes, they know the pairing they are creating. If you try to push fans of Napa Cabernet to order a Riesling with their sushi, (simply our of “correctness”) you will have a high failure rate. If a guest suggests to me that they want to be taken out of their traditional preferences, then of course I am more than willing to jump in.
6. WHEN TO LET GO AND TRUST YOUR GUEST.
Greg’s advice: I am most passionate about taking the guest’s lead and understanding how the guest(s) want to enjoy their experience in the restaurant and in turn, follow their lead. Is about creating a memorable experience for the guest and their friends and family. It always feels satisfying when you are able to play a part in a guest’s great experience.
Greg Van Wagner is a certified Sommelier and Wine Director of Jimmy’s An American Restaurant & Bar and Jimmy’s Bodega, both in Aspen, Colorado. Greg began his career at the award-winning Frasca Food and Wine restaurant in Boulder, CO. His love for spirits and cocktails led him to Oak at Fourteenth, where he served as bar manager and was able to further cultivate his knowledge of wine and spirits. He spent several years serving as the Maitre d’ at Element 47 in The Little Nell, a five-star, five-diamond resort nestled slope-side on Aspen’s illustrious Ajax Mountain. The opportunity to work alongside multiple Master Sommeliers and a grand-award wine list deepened Greg’s passion for wine. Greg is currently studying for his Advanced Sommelier exam, which he will sit for in April 2016.
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