Interview with Garrett Smith, Sommelier at Daniel NYC
Daniel NYC is probably best known for their two Michelin stars, but has also received incredible acclaim for their wine program. So not only is Daniel one of the top restaurants in the United States (and world!) Wine Spectator has awarded them with their highest distinction, their Grand Award, for many years. Boasting a 2000 bottle cellar, Daniel’s wine list is very strong in Burgundy and Bordeaux but falls short a bit in the Washington selections. Check out their full wine list at http://www.danielnyc.com/. As you will see, the selection wine is outrageously good (and pricey).
The wine service at Daniel is impeccable. While dining at Daniel I was fortunate enough to be served by Garrett Smith, CS. Garrett has an extensive history in fine dining and has also served as a sommelier at the famed French Laundry restaurant. The attention to detail during his wine service was one of the best I’ve ever seen. A few days after our amazing dining experience at Daniel, Garrett was thoughtful enough to sit down with me for an interview. I think you’ll enjoy his candid responses about his extensive background as a sommelier. Here is my interview with Garrett Smith, certified sommelier from Daniel NYC.
WWB: Can you talk about your background in wine and what made you decide to become a sommelier?
My father had been a wine steward on Cape Cod in the 1970s, and though we never had any expensive wines around the house as a kid, he instructed me on how to open a bottle from around the age of 5, and I had my own tasting glass at the dinner table. Wine was served with every dinner, so I never saw it as something to be abused, only appreciated. I took note of when my father would ask our favorite wine store owner what he thought would pair well with pheasant, or with salmon. Different wines meant different things!
I went to college to try to follow my father's path as an engineer, only to discover that calculus is much harder than I ever imagined. I returned home from my first year and began painting houses to earn a few bucks. When I realized just how incredibly boring that was, I decided restaurants were a good fit for my need to be around people. At my first restaurant job, the head bartender took a shine to me and I quickly rose out of the busboy ranks to become a barback, and eventually a bartender, whose job it was to maintain the cellars. I learned a little about wine, what its flavors were like, and a few facts about different types, such as that white burgundy was chardonnay.
I spent some time working in a small retail shop in Litchfield, CT, where I was forced to do research to learn about our products. There, I also got to taste a lot more wine. I was working also at a 5-Star inn called the Mayflower Inn as a server and a bartender. My manager found out that I was somewhat interested in wine, and allowed me to help him with inventorying the wines in the cellar. I took this on as a regular task, and before long, was included in tasting wines for the restaurant, printing lists, and was able to confidently recommend wines to guests.
Around this time, the inn was purchased by a hospitality company, and my boss approached me to tell me that this was going to be great for my career. How would this be good for my career, I wondered? He told me, that if I wanted to become a sommelier, this would allow me the ability to travel to other restaurants within the company and see California and other wine regions. I had never even heard of the word in Connecticut. I was fascinated.
I spent the next two and a half years saving money to move to California and become certified as a sommelier, through a great course I had found at what was then the Professional Culinary Institute in Campbell, CA. I made the move in September, 2010. I had to set up housing before I got there, given my budget, and it was horrible. I slept in a room with three walls, the fourth was a sheet, some filing cabinets and a sliding door. Single pane windows made it excruciatingly cold in the mornings. I biked to classes, and to my job in San Jose later in the day. But I got to spend my day around Master Sommeliers, tasting, decanting, learning about all these wine regions that were brand new to me. It was worth the poverty and the poor living situations.
A classmate approached me one day, saying that the French Laundry had posted a job, looking for a "Vintern," a cellar sommelier. Several people pushed me to apply. So, I whipped together a resume overnight and shipped it off, with my cover letter promising that, "Though I may never be the most talented or smartest person in the room, I will outwork everyone else in it, and should you give me the chance, I promise not to disappoint you."
WWB: What was it like working at the French Laundry? What kind of wine education did you receive there?
GS: After receiving the call to join the French Laundry, I felt victorious. I had been using their list to draw ideas for wines for my classes at the Pacific Culinary Institute, so was familiar with some of it. The depth, and length to be honest, were astounding and intimidating. I bought every book I could find that covered the regions they favored most. Nothing could have prepared me for the level of information awaiting me.
What's it like working at French Laundry? Imagine combining a drill sergeant-led boot camp with a culinary arts master class. The level of exactitude is beyond anything I've ever seen. For example: Our sommelier station, which consisted of five drawers to the side of a low-boy Sub Zero, on top of which was a three foot wide by twenty inch deep slab of granite, had to be "taped down" daily. This entailed getting a small linen tablecloth, folding it to leave a five inch gap for our spit bucket and pen holder towards the back, and folding the sides to fit tightly against the walls on either side. Then, cut ten equal length pieces of TK's famous green painter's tape. Note that I said "cut". Yes, cut with scissors, this masking tape, at exact right angles so that when you place two pieces perpendicular, they make a perfect square. These ten pieces would be placed equidistant, and opposite each other, and stretched to tighten the cloth. I would then spray it with a water mister, to smooth it out and allow it to be stretched tight like a drum. I still think mine looked better than anyone else's.
I also oversaw the transition to the iPad wine list, an unheard-of thing before this time. It was a bit clunky at first, the communication between the system and the devices, but before long I had perfected the science of it. We even eventually built a spirits list, and used mini iPads for that, building in a secondary platform to run those from.
The cellar sommelier's main tasks involved the organization of all three cellars; two on premise, and one warehouse in Napa. Through the brilliant system now known as Binwise, every bottle had a bin, a spot where you could immediately track it and find those bottles, and barcodes to scan at inventory time. The cellar wasn't in disarray at all when I started, but I set my goal to be able to find every wine faster than anyone else, and have the order so exact that a numbskull could walk in and find any bottle within thirty seconds. The other three sommeliers, after about a month and a half, really just had to walk in and tighten their tie. I had the rest covered.
Three cellar books – and an up-to-the-minute inventory - were printed daily, so we could see from every station in the restaurant how many of each wine were in what locations. New boxes of wine would be stacked from the floor to the ceiling starting on Tuesday, my first day in of the week, and I would have them all processed by Sunday. I developed a pretty standard rubric for processing: White wines, keep six (three in the main cellar, two in the inner cellar, one in the sub-zero) unless expensive white burgundy, then keep three to four, and ship the remainder to our warehouse. Reds, keep six of Pinot Noir, everything else three to four, and the rest gets shipped. Oh, and I did the driving to Napa, as well. We called the warehouse "Siberia," since it was far away and cold. Here were shelves of bottles perfectly lined up in alphanumerical order. Thomas' cellar was here too, and I also managed that. In short, there is a lot to do, and a lot on my plate.
I worked as the cellar sommelier for four months, though they tried to get me to stay. The GM thought I was superfluous, a luxury item at the time, the fourth sommelier. So, I went down the street to Redd [restaurant], where I learned to become a floor sommelier. Eight months later, I was able to return to French Laundry. My boss told me he had had to cut back his ordering because they couldn't a) process the orders quickly enough or b) find the wines anymore without me there. A huge compliment, and testament to my abilities as a cellar manager. Now, I finally got to serve guests at this wine palace....and still do all of my other chores, too.
Wine service at French Laundry is pretty spectacular. No drips allowed. No backhanding (showing the back of your hand to a guest), always a smile, formal behavior but not up-tight and stuffy. It was natural but no-frills, no mistakes. I broke a glass on the terrace once and was sat down to make sure I could continue service. "Of course," I answered. "Could you please just ensure that no more of the branches from the tree will drop on my arm in the middle of service?"
Over the course of my two total years at French Laundry, I learned how to gauge guests' interests in wines, how to pair wines quickfire (daily menu changes meant daily talks about pairings; I learned to trust my gut and read a dish instantly and have the kneejerk pairing), how to be elegant in service as well as how to lead a guest to what they didn't even know that they wanted but would be eternally thankful for. Oh, and I tasted more wine, and more of the best wine on EARTH than anyone should ever be allowed to. I kept records of everything over my two years, every single drop I tasted. It's fun to look back and see the wines that changed my palate and my passion.
In short, The French Laundry is the height of the wine-food relative universe for me, as it is indeed a "mecca" of cuisine, perfectly located in Napa Valley, the most spirited wine region in our country. A destination for foodies and wineos alike, with a list of wines and spirits thousands deep. It was the first time someone truly took a chance on me, and allowed me to prove myself worthy, which I hope I did. I wish I could have stayed there longer sometimes, but the east coast beckoned me home.
WWB: How did you decide to come to Daniel NYC?
GS: Daniel was on my radar for a long time. I had first met him [famed chef Daniel Boloud] when he came to eat at the Mayflower Inn, in Washington, CT, early on in my career there. All I remember was that we kept the kitchen staff around and the dining room open late in the afternoon for this big-shot chef, and I got to serve him along with my manager. I remember his old-school Ferrari, too.
I left the French Laundry when I did, because they had asked me to step back from the sommelier position to learn all of the other positions, from bottom to top. I agreed, as it seemed to be in my best interests to know every facet of the place I loved. I already was in charge of so much, and was one of the trusted few to drive guests around at night, to maintain the outdoor heating equipment, and so many other everyman tasks. I picked up the food running position quickly, and anxiously awaited my next promotion. For whatever reason, there was a small exodus, and a number of food runners quit within a few weeks of each other. Short staffed, I relented and kept working. I knew this stuff cold. It continued for six months, and I heavily missed the wine side of things. I was allowed to work inventory and take trips with the sommeliers to vineyards to meet winemakers, and so on, but I missed the wine service. Between that and family, I decided a move was worth it, and Daniel popped up again on my radar. Head sommelier Raj Vaidya reached out, and I flew to New York CIty to work a night.
WOW. What a space. It's breathtakingly massive compared to The French Laundry, a cathedral. The wine cellar, a complete shock. Massive, everything in one space, and super-duper old school, with bottles nested on top of each other. Printed wine lists, comprising a bible, sectioned into reds and whites enough to think that it could indeed be old and new testaments. A bit more "traditional," shall we say. A new challenge.
Raj sealed the deal. He was so blunt and honest, I couldn't say no to him. He knew I had something to prove, and was hungry for the chance to do so. I was opening wines on my "stage" night, even. It felt natural. A whole new lot of producers to research, though!
WWB: Daniel's wine list is very strong in Burgundy and Bordeaux but is a bit weak in Washington in my opinion. Can you talk about some of your favorite wines from Washington and is there any movement for expansion with Washington reds?
GS: Your opinion could not be more correct in this fashion, sir. I believe the most wines of Washington origin we've ever had at one time is perhaps three: I recall having Leonetti Reserve 2009, Gramercy Cellars John Lewis Syrah 2009 and a magnum of Figgins 2006 all on the list at once. Compare that to French Laundry, where a litany of wines from Cayuse, Quilceda Creek and Andrew WIll made for a strong selection of Washington State wines. To be quite honest, I've never gotten the request for many Washington wines. Selling the John Lewis Syrah, for instance, was as a result of a question from a guest as to whether or not we had any wines that a Master Sommelier owned or made. You can see how "SOMM" has impacted our profession!
Now, that is not to say we don't deserve to have more wines from Washington State. I just fear they would not get the proper attention from our clientele. From my perspective, wines like Quilceda Creek are a good likeness of Bordeaux, often times much more so than the wines of Napa Valley, as the earthiness is more pronounced in Washington. Cayuse, well, that's a bit different. They're lavishly textured and hugely aromatic, always fascinating to me. I find them divisive, however. That's the beauty of wine, though. People love what they love. You see that on a list like Daniel's, in that we have a pretty good idea of what our clientele desires. You have to expect that heavier, oakier Chardonnays aren't necessarily a sommelier's best friend, but look at our list and you'll see many that I would put in that category. We try to pick the best of them, like Aubert, Lewis, Kistler, but you get the idea: we have them because it's in demand. I think in New York, the understanding of Washington wine is lacking. Sadly, even the understanding of Oregon Pinot Noir is less than what I'm used to. I do believe that they have a place with Daniel's food, though. Someone like Cayuse or Leonetti should have Daniel Boulud cook a dinner to pair with their wines, invite some wine writers, and celebrate it. I think the Syrah and Grenache wines are perfect for DB, as he loves his Chateauneuf-du-Papes, and the Merlot and Cabernet-based reds with his beef duo would be dynamic as well. The wines just need a Champion in NYC somewhere, I think.
WWB: Can you talk about some of your favorite tastings that you've had a Daniel and how being at a restaurant with that pedigree can improve your wine education through knowledge, blind tasting, etc.?
GS: The beauty of Daniel, as opposed to say, The French Laundry, is it's more organic in our knowledge. Being more "old-school," we don't force-feed knowledge with quite the fervor of TFL, or other top restaurants. Here, our passion is present and the quest for knowledge is expected and understood. You'll be called out by your peers for not knowing something. It is, in many ways, a self-policing unit. The wine team is similar. For example, out west, I could not have carried on at TFL unless I was pursuing my MS diploma, despite the cost and stress that come along with studying and taking these exams all over the bloody place. Not that I don't want to pursue it, but at my own pace and when I have the cash to spare. At Daniel, I am actually the only sommelier to be Certified. Nothing against the Court of Master Sommeliers, but our Head Sommelier, Raj, I would place him next to someone like a Larry Stone or Paul Roberts in his knowledge, passion and respect. He's been around this business for ever, has a phenomenal palate, and when someone like Aubert de Villaine walks into the room and addresses him by name, well, you know the sort of respect he carries. We are all immensely lucky to do what we do, where we are, with the wines we have access to.
One night, we had a dinner which had been auctioned off for charity, a dinner with a collector of fine wines. Well, this collector, whom we knew well, brought Bordeaux from first growths dating back to 1901. Where the heck else am I ever going to taste those again?
He later had a whole slew of 1982 Bordeaux paired against each other, then ‘89 Haut Brion versus La Mission Haut Brion, at one point several 1985 Burgundies, and so on and so forth. The unique thing is the ability to form in our memories a taste, associate it with a label, a picture if you will, and let that algorithm form and adjust or adapt over time. I think sometimes that people want to be a sommelier just to taste these wines, which I 100% understand. The point behind tasting so much is to be able to, without consulting your library - and I do have a library of wine books about fifty deep, all of which I've read cover to cover - be able to clearly and concisely convey to the guest what they should experience from a certain wine. If I hadn't tasted both DRC and Noellat from the mid-1960's, and read about the vintages in Burgundy from that decade, how would I be able to conscientiously give a description of Rene Engel's 1969 Grands Echezeaux? I've never tasted it, but I know the cellar it came from, I know the producer, the vineyard, and the vintage. I can give a great estimation of how it should taste. If it's an off bottle, then we won't serve it. If I'm completely off base, I shouldn't be doing my job. It's a tough learning curve, especially for the newest member of our team, who hadn't been a sommelier anywhere before. We tried for a while to get him as involved as possible, and he just loved wine, and absolutely inhales hordes of information with ease. He's easy. Once in a while, though, you see him get really excited about something and it doesn't taste the way he thought. That's just experience. Sometimes I have to put it in context. We tasted a whole bunch of 1959 First Growths (Latour, Lafite, Mouton) and he wrinkled his nose at the Mouton. Yes, compared to the Latour and Lafite, which are COMPLETE aberrations, like just plain mutants considering how fresh they are at this point, the Mouton needs to be put in context. Think that this wine is Fifty-six years old, dude. Feel the texture, the balance, the grace on the palate, The aromatics were a little funky, so it wasn't a perfect bottle, but the structure was immaculate, and the tastes sensual and slightly savory. For a lesson on Terroir, google the old Baron Philippe Mouton Rothschild joke about when he asks for his wine and the waiter insists it is his wine, but the old man knows it is not. This will tell you just how much difference a few feet can make, and the Lafite and Latour of the same age were rockstars, while this Mouton was dynamic, but maybe just a 98 out of 100!
So, when you see sommeliers tasting, remember, it's so that we can help you! Remember that sommeliers are generally paid much less than the Head Waiters, even though it is considered an elevated position, because as I say, sommeliers are paid in "experience" - these tastes are golden. Our education is also quite fun. It's not every restaurant where these opportunities of this magnitude are available, and many will sacrifice to work at a restaurant of Daniel's caliber. It's been a splendid two years.