Name: Louis Phillips
At the moment: USA-Nevada
Please, tell us a little bit about your first encounter with wine & the wine industry? Any particular mentors at that time?
A great 1st encounter was a visit to Heitz Vineyards in about 1980 (unfortunately just after Joe Sr. had just passed), wherein I showed up on the day they were “blowing out” the 1974 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard (to this day, this bottle is considered perhaps the greatest wine ever created in California). Mind you that the price was a princely $40/Bottle- more than most high end Bordeaux at the time. I had no idea what Heitz Martha’s Vineyard represented – but I did know tasting it was an ethereal experience. I purchased 2 cases for about $1000.00 (which probably equaled what I had spent on all wine purchases to that point). Interestingly, a single bottle of that wine sells for about $1500 from a broker today. Alas, I consumed my last bottle on the evening of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. That was a BIG quake and I think we all thought that was “The End” so I guess I thought it might be my last bottle.
As for mentors, we had a tasting group where we mentored each other. We invented themes for tastings and food/ wine pairings. I was running a Rock & Roll nightclub in the S.F. bay area at the time so the group was full of colorful characters. There was no shortage of drinking and opinions and those were some great Bacchanals!
What specific traits or skills should a Sommelier(e) possess for professional performance and is there any person with those qualities you especially admire within the wine industry?
Know your stuff! There has never been more to know as a Somm. The number of regions, varietals, winemakers, styles, molecules and the important players are mind-boggling today. Study, taste and earn your stripes. Just as important, be yourself, don’t follow trends! If I hear one more “natural-biodynamic-low alcohol – dirty sock smelling-orange wine fanatic – winemaker-producer-artisan” espousing how much purer he/she is, while trying to pawn-off undrinkable swill, I may have to swear off my vow not to take human life. I mean that sincerely. Being true to yourself will free you to select – oops I mean curate – wines that taste great and match well with not just food, but LIFE!!!
The person I admire most is my great friend Mrs. Dawn Birtch. She is a dynamic, knowledgeable and generous wine broker in the Lake Tahoe region and brings joy to all!!!
What would be your advice to a young Sommelier(e) i.e. Commis Sommelier(e) where to look finding an adequate position at home or abroad? Any further tips?
1)The Zeitgeist site is the most comprehensive listing of Somm jobs I have seen I spend a lot of time writing articles here in the U.S. so I think I interact with more restaurants, wine bars and shops than ever. Based on that I’d say for tips for job seekers:
2)To get a job you should be a)very young (nobody here seems to even consider someone over the age of 29); b) get your certifications as a Somm, and c) be willing to immerse yourself in the wine world and the business you work for. Obsession is the path to success.
When a customer asks for advice selecting wine what would be the best approach?
If they haven’t given you clues about dishes they will order and typical wine style preferences – ASK QUESTIONS! Also remember that food can affect the perception of a wine more than visa-versa, therefore if the party is wine-centric be sure to emphasize the match in relation to the wine. Work in their comfort zone unless invited to do otherwise.
What’s your philosophy about glasses? Are you working with well known brands or are you considering new brands as well and how do you determine?
Rona Crystal is dramatic, elegant and durable. I have also worked with Riedel and Schott Zwiesel (both good brands although the Riedel seemed a bit fragile), and unfortunately some sub-standard glassware as well in my career. From Rona I have Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and dessert wine styles that I use for wine events and at my home.
What advice would you give people on pairing wine with food?
Again, the most important part of the process is to determine the guest’s palate and preferences. Within those parameters there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Suggest something in their sweet spot that also matches the molecular profile of the food. An exception would be if they are wide open for a new and exceptional wine experience – then if you are confident in your knowledge and instinct, and especially if you know their budget limits (hopefully the sky’s the limit), let it fly. I have taken groups that were more used to high end California cult wines and turned them on to Clarendon Hills Astralis from 2003/2004 at $600/ bottle and made raving fans out of them!!!
Should a Sommelier(e) taste the guest’s wine?
Assess would be a better term. Sight, smell, and only if necessary taste. A professional (competent and confident) will be able to assess if the wine is flawed or not before a taste is necessary in the vast majority of situations. Of course if the guest specifically asks if a wine is sound, or offers some for you to enjoy, tasting is acceptable as well. Make sure it is acceptable within the policy of your employer to share a guest’s wine.
What are the key ingredients for creating a wine list for a restaurant and what is your opinion on some ridiculous pricing on wine in restaurants, do you have tips on how to determine markups?
First of all I take umbrage to how freely the terms “ridiculous pricing” and ”excessive markup”, are bandied about. Is it ridiculous to work hard to get rare wines, store them correctly for years or decades, buy and maintain the finest crystal glasses and decanters, train staff, take the time to prepare (decant, keep at correct temperature, etc.), and provide correct service procedures and advise those who wish for that, and provide a top-shelf atmosphere? NO – none of those things are “ridiculous”, and they all have hard costs. If bottom line price in relation to wholesale is the main criteria, please grab a boot and go drink under a bridge.
How do you manage to stay on top of the changes in the wine industry?
Study, taste, network and engage every day! I read, watch video, visit wineries, write, taste with wine-crazed people, talk, listen and think about wine obsessively.
How would a new vineyard get the attention of someone like you to notice their wine and what’s the best way for producers to improve their chances of being listed?
I think most commercially successful new ventures that garner attention from the wine press and public are those that are promoted by people who are already powerful in the wine world, or promoted by the famous (actors/musicians). So my advice for marketers is to get some buzz behind your brand by aligning your brand with the powerful and famous.
If you were a wine, which variety would you be, and why?
Syrah as it’s adaptable and almost always complex, interesting and delicious.
What are the top 3 types of wine (your faves) would we find in your home wine collection and what’s your desert island wine?
Right now in my cellar I have a bunch of Bordeaux back to the 1960s. Old Burgundies and more recent new world Pinots. I also have a lot of daily drinkers of mostly California Cabs and Syrahs from the 1990s -2000s. And some nice bubbles. I know that is more than 3, but I love them all as you would your children and cannot leave any out!
I was born in 1957 – not a great year on most regions. However, I recently acquired a 1957 CVNE Gran Imperial, so let’s go with that for a desert island wine.
Any interesting suggestions about magazines or online platform.
Wine Business Monthly is a magazine that unbiased, science-based, creative and extensive in their coverage of the professional wine world. Whether you are a grower, winemaker, winery GM, Somm or any fashion of wine professional try it! As a consultant in older fine wines the professional version of Winesearcher.com is also invaluable. As I previously stated, the Zeitgeist site is the most comprehensive I have seen for those seeking employment, or to just see what’s going on in the industry. If Levi Dalton would get off his Orange Wine/Mt. Etna/Natural Wine soap box, I would recommend his podcast.
@ by Dominik Kozlik – Zeitgeist Sommeliers – International Sommelier Positions – www.sommelier-jobs.com
Dominik Kozlik e.U.
4020 Linz, Austria