One of the great minds in Northwest wine is Erik Liedholm, the longtime wine director for John Howie Restaurants. His critically acclaimed wine program has been named Best New Wine List in America by Food and Wine Magazine, as well as been awarded the Best of Award of Excellence by Wine Spectator Magazine. Erik graduated cum laude from Michigan State University’s School of Hospitality Business. Erik is also the youngest member ever to be inducted into the Chicago chapter of Les Amis d’Escoffier. In addition to his extensive history in the restaurant and wine industry, he is also the owner and distiller of the award-winning distillery Wildwood Spirits Co. I had the great opportunity to sit down with Erik and chat about his career in wine. I think you will very much enjoy hearing about his story. Here is my exclusive interview with Advanced Sommelier Erik Liedholm.
WWB: How did you first decide that you wanted to major in hospitality and be a part of the hospitality industry?
EL: When I was growing up, my best friend’s dad had a restaurant in Lansing, Michigan. Even as a kid I could tell there was something special about this restaurant. It was a Greek restaurant but they served continental cuisine. They had a lot of great stuff, and everything they did was with great humility and hospitality. I saw that they treated their guests differently than other restaurants. I was mesmerized, and knew from a pretty young age I wanted to work in hospitality in some capacity. I’m from a family of academics, my mom was a music teacher and my dad [was] a professor of economics. Wine education became a way that I could take hold of my academic roots. I’ve worked in restaurants for most of my life; I was a dish washer in high school, and through college I was a cook with the intention of being a chef. My first job out of college was at a restaurant called The Golden Mushroom which was a great spot for haute cuisine. The chef was the first Master Chef in the world so naturally I wanted to learn from him. I worked in the kitchen during the day and served as the floor manager at the night. I basically had no life and had no sleep during that time, making only 21K a year working about 80 hours a week. The restaurant didn’t treat employees right but, I learned a lot about what not to do in the industry. The shining light was meeting and working with Madeline Triffon, the first female Master Sommelier. She was truly a gem and had not only great knowledge but great humility. She was engaging and made wine accessible; it was she who took me out of the kitchen and into the front of the house.
WWB: How did you come to know Chef John Howie? Can you talk about building the wine program at John Howie restaurants? What were some challenges that you faced? How do you try to cater your menu at both John Howie Steakhouse and Seastar Restaurant? How are these wine lists both similar and different?
EL: My meeting with John Howie was odd. I had left Michigan after having been a general manager at a few different places. I was the GM at an iconic place in Carmel where they held the Masters of Food and Wine event. That resort became a Hyatt, and Hyatt asked if I wanted to stay with them to open a hotel in Seattle. This was the Hyatt down on Pine and 7 th , and they were planning to include a high-end restaurant called ‘727’ with Chef Danielle Custer. I went up to Seattle to work on that in 2001, and it was well received. Then 9/11 happened and Hyatt laid a lot of people off. They said “OK, Erik you can do everything now,” — which meant that I was thrust into being the Food & Beverage Director for the entire hotel. One day I got a call that there was a guy in the lobby who really wanted to talk with me. It was John, and he told me that he was opening a restaurant in Bellevue and he that he had been advised to hire me to manage the beverage program. I thanked him and told him that I was not looking to move. A week later the phone rang and it was John again. He essentially gave me a blank sheet of paper and asked what I wanted. I put down everything it would take for me to move. The rest was history – seventeen years later I’m still with John.
When we first started our wine list was very safe. Over time we started to challenge our guests. Our goal was to gain their trust so that the next time they came in they would be willing to try something different. We evolved that way. It allowed us to expand. In the beginning, we were constrained by a lot of things, including storage – we just didn’t have the storage space needed for an expansive list. Even a week before we opened, we had no place to put the wine. John had originally envisioned putting the wine behind the bar and we had to buy what was essentially a closet. We were able to fashion some racks and make a very simple but functioning wine cellar. We were eventually able to add a few EuroCaves, but we were dealing with a lot of people who wanted cool wine and we still couldn’t do it efficiently. We had to hire a lot of sommeliers. One person would be on the floor while the other would be chilling the wines, which is a lot of work. The long way around this was to adapt to what our guests wanted, and we started to morph their wants into our list.
There is some overlap in the wine lists at Seastar and John Howie Steak, but the clientele at Steak tends to be more particular. I want the Steak sommeliers to be comfortable with their wines and I’ve given the wine director at Steak autonomy to choose things that he thinks will work well with the menu and the clientele. I’ll jump in if the wine director needs help, but I want him to have a say. The director at Steak also has my blessing to hire sommeliers that work well with him. Seastar is a seafood-driven restaurant while John Howie is a steakhouse. At Seastar we sell almost an even amount of white and red, but at Steak they sell about 80% red wine. Our main sales goal is to make the guest happy. It’s easy to recommend an expensive wine but we try not to do that; we have a lot of inexpensive wines that will show marvelously. We also use the proper stemware for everything, regardless of price. Seastar does so much more volume in terms of big parties. It’s challenging to do tray service at Seastar, but you need to have service that’s quick and professional and thoughtful. At Seastar we have about ten sommeliers on staff – a number of them work part time, and we have a few full time people. I try to set them up for success, and I know they are hoping to inspire their guests, so I like to include some of their favorites on the list. The list here will vary slightly given who is on the floor at a given time – for instance when we had an Austrian MS here for four years, he was great at helping guests learn about Austrian wines.
A lot of the sommeliers at Seastar participate in an annual team trip to Napa or go to France with me to blend our own champagne cuvee. We have a good symbiosis between the front and the back of the house and everyone is genuinely on the guests’ side. The wait staff doesn’t run interference, they want to be sure that the guest gets what they want. We take a lot of pride in our staff, and want our guests to be treated wonderfully. But there is such a thing as too much wine information for the guests. Wine people are known to wax on about little details forever, but we try to really engage the guests and give them the right tidbits rather than cite stats or specs.
WWB: What were some of your greatest challenges in achieving your Advanced Sommelier certification? Were there parts of the exam that came more naturally or were more challenging?
EL: I took my Advanced Sommelier exam back in 1998. If I were to take the Advanced now, I think the theory portion would be really hard. Back then, the only questions on Portuguese wines were Port related, and New Zealand and Australia were not big players yet. I really didn’t know what I was getting into when I took my Advanced Sommelier exam. I just tried to focus on what I knew. The service part was really tough for me – here you are trying to pour and explain wines to someone who knows more than you. The hardest part for me was the blind tasting because back then there were no guidelines for how to speak to the wines. Now they use a sort of grid, and the candidates know what characteristics they need to touch on for each wine. But I felt pretty good going in to the exam because I didn’t know what to expect. Ignorance was bliss because I passed the first time.
WWB: What are some of your favorite pairing options at Seastar Restaurant?
EL: I think it’s important to first realize that there is danger in taking wine pairing too seriously, but there are some good rules that you can follow. My philosophy, even as a chef, has always been to match the size and weight of the wine with the richness of the food. You look at acid, tannin, alcohol and sweetness; they all play a role in terms of matching wine with food. So does preparation – is the halibut fried or poached? What are the side dishes? Sometimes the prominent flavor component on the dish isn’t the main component. If you have a cookout, you’re not necessarily paining the wine to the burger, but to the grilled onions and mustard.
My favorite pairing at Seastar is for the Hot and Sour Soup. I think this dish is absolute the best. The soup has an intense heat and different textures, with shrimp and mushrooms. Still wine doesn’t work with this. I think the best pairing is a Brachetto, which is sweet and lightly effervescent, it’s perfect.
WWB: When you are not carefully curating the wine lists at John Howie Steak and Seastar, what are some of your favorite wines of the world? What are some of the best wines that you have sampled over the past few years?
EL: Well, just recently I was in France with a good friend of mine. We drove down to Burgundy for my friend’s birthday and went to some incredible Burgundy tastings. I think one of the best wines I had was a white Burgundy, the 2012 Ravenaux ‘Le Clos’ Chablis. It was only 120 euro and it was just so good. But nine years ago for my fortieth birthday my wife gave me a 1970 Vega Sicilia ‘Unico’ and that was the best wine I ever had. That was just a magnificent wine.