As the sommelier of McCrady's, a typical afternoon involves many activities: ordering, stocking, and editing the wine list to start. But my most important task is, of course, choosing the wines to accompany dishes. For any dish, selecting a wine takes careful selection, but imagine trying to pick a pairing for one of Chef de Cuisine Daniel Heinze's amazing dishes. It's a daily challenge.
For instance, last summer we got in a great assortment of summer melons, so Daniel had made a dish featuring beautiful ribbons of whatever melon we had that day (honeydew, cantaloupe, sprite) rolled into loops and sitting on a bed of orange blossom yogurt. Each plate was then sprinkled with cucumber salt and lots of wild fennel fronds. To top it off, a juice of cucumbers and shishito peppers with a touch of mint would be poured around the melon table-side.
With so many fresh and fruity flavors, I thought something with similar fruit flavors, a touch of sweetness, and/or delicate bubbles would be nice. We tried several sparkling options, a couple of Rieslings, and a few other fruit-forward whites, but we weren't quite satisfied with any of them. In the moment, we decided that the Foggy Ridge "First Fruit" Cider was best. The bubbles cleansed your palate from the rich yogurt and the light apple flavor was really refreshing with the melon. It was nice ... but not perfect. The high acidity of the yogurt made the cider a little tart. We ran with it for a night, but I couldn't get over wanting an even better option to pair with the melon dish. Then I started thinking about sake. Sake is not a beverage that I utilize very often, but every now and then it is the only thing that works. I tried three, but only one, the Tozai Snow Maiden, really stood out. It's unfiltered so it has a similar creamy texture to the yogurt and a fragrance of vibrant fresh melons. Plus, sake has very low acidity so it didn't get tart with the acidity from the yogurt. When choosing a sake as a pairing, I am always a bit nervous that it will be too out of the ordinary for some guests. However, once people got past it's cloudy appearance and tried it with the dish I got more compliments on that pairing than any other one on the menu. It's those kind of challenges that I love and one of the reasons I chose to this profession.
This year my role got even more challenging when David Howard, the owner of Neighborhood Dining Group, came to me with an interesting and fun task: to craft Minero's beverage menu. Now this was a major change of pace for me because even as a wine lover I know people prefer to drink beer and margaritas when eating Mexican food. Cocktail creation was something I had only played around with and overseen at the McCrady's bar. However, I'm a lover of tequila and mezcal, so I knew I would love putting together that list. My goal was to create tasty, unpretentious, and affordable cocktails that incorporated seasonal fruits and various Mexican-inspired flavors.
My next role? I'm now the beverage director and educator for all the Neighborhood Dining Group properties. Of course, I have some bittersweet feelings. Though I'll not claim to have always loved the night hours of a restaurant job, I'll miss spending so much time on the floor of McCrady's. The nightly service along with the close interaction with the guests and the staff has always been one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Even though I'll be traveling more to launch Minero Atlanta, McCrady's will always remain my home base as it's the most wine-centric of the restaurants and I don't want to lose touch with the vast world of wine, my initial passion that started it all.