A New York Sommelier Reveals His Secrets

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Cliff Rames is a sommelier at the Caudalie Vinotherapie Spa at The Plaza Hotel in New York and founder of Wines of Croatia, which promotes wines produced in Croatia.Here, Rames speaks about the life of a sommelier, why small vineyard wines are worth their higher price tag, and how to discover well-priced wines of value.

How did you decide to become a sommelier? How long have you been in the wine business?

I’ve been a wine geek my whole life but didn’t formally become a sommelier until 2007, when I was certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers. I had previously worked in the restaurant business as a cook, in journalism, and in the non-profit sector.

It was through my love of food and cooking that I realised wine and I were a perfect pairing. Wine is a confluence of the natural environment, farming, science, art, travel, and poetry. It speaks to my soul and reflects who I am as a person.

As a sommelier at the Caudalie Vinotherapie Spa at The Plaza in New York, what is your process for recommending wines?

The Caudalie Vinotherapie Spa has a wine lounge where we mainly serve Bordeaux. The family that founded Caudalie also produces wine at the Château Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac-Leognan, Bordeaux. So our cellar includes wines from the Château across different vintages. But we also have a small collection of other Bordeaux, Barolo, Sauternes, Israeli Cabernet, and Long Island wine. I ask the guest what they like and match an available selection to their taste and price point.

What things should people consider when they buy wine?

Foremost, they should consider what they like. It’s always the first question I ask when someone asks me for a recommendation. Once you’ve established a baseline, you can begin to explore similar wine styles from other varieties or regions.

One of the greatest rewards as a sommelier is introducing someone to a wine they would have never tried were it not for my recommendation. Watching their surprise and smile when they say, hey that’s really good, is priceless.

Of course, at the end of the day, price is a huge factor, so it’s important to pay attention to a guest’s price range and not try to hoist a wine on them that they cannot afford. That guest will resent it and never return to your establishment.

What determines the price of a bottle of wine?

I am completely amazed when I see a bottle of wine – especially an imported one –that costs $6 in the wine shop. I wonder, how can they spend a whole year growing those grapes, then several more months fermenting them and making the wine, then bottling, labelling and shipping it all the way to the US, paying duty and taxes, and still be able to sell it for $6! But a $6 wine is mass-produced in the millions of bottles, and even a small margin on high volume can equal profit.

Ultimately, the price reflects the labour that went into the bottle: the technology available to the winery, the cost of oak barrels (or cheaper approaches such as wood chips), and packaging & marketing. Handmade wines from family estates always cost more. Small producers produce small amounts of wines from small vineyards. It’s the care and attention that goes into a bottle that is really reflected in the price.

I’m not saying that cheap wine is bad. But growing a grape plantation in a desert where they otherwise would not grow without irrigation or fertilizers in order to producer another generic $10 bottle does not offer me any appeal. Knowing that some family worked the land and farmed the grapes themselves, picked them by hand, spent many sleepless nights worrying about the weather, the vines, the fermentation, and then bottled and labelled the wine at the estate really holds an allure for me; it’s the kind of wine I’m willing to pay more for. Call me a romantic!

With the current state of the economy, people are buying cheaper wines. Where can you get real value for your dollars today?

The “value wine” category is a minefield. Some of what is available is decent for the price and quite drinkable. Others, not so much. Just today I tried a $8 Chianti. Without mentioning names, to me it tasted like cherry-flavored oak water.

You have to select carefully and understand that the category has its limitations. But good value wines are easy to find. Italy offers some amazing value if you are willing to try something different. There is some interesting and tasty stuff coming out of Sicily and southern Italy. A really value-driven region to watch is Alto-Adige, which is producing some lovely white wines at reasonable price.

Spain is still a go-to region for value, with new regions like Toro showing promise. For fun and food-friendly sparking wine, you can’t beat Spanish Cava. South America continues to offer nice quality at value prices: Chile’s quality keeps getting better, and Argentina has flooded the market with low-priced Malbec, one of the best selling red wines in the US market, although quality is inconsistent, so read the wine review magazines and blogs to seek out the winners.

What are your top five wine recommendations, and why?

The following five choices I recommend for their value, meaning the quality you get for the price.

1. Riesling is an underrated and often-overlooked wine offering many delicious choices. It is such a food-friendly wine that is also perfectly refreshing for a summer-patio sipper. Few wines go better with sushi than Riesling. And no, not all Rieslings are sweet! Most are off-dry or dry. Germany, Washington State, Australia, and New Zealand all produce excellent Rieslings that can be had for less than $20.

2. Cava from Spain or “Cremant” wines from France (Burgundy or the Loire Valley) are great sparkling wines. Have an urge for Champagne but can’t afford it? This is where you should go.

3. Vouvray is a white wine made from the Chenin Blanc grape, which is native to the Loire Valley of France. Vouvray is soft, juicy, with bright acidity and loads of lush peach, melon and citrus flavours and a hint of powdered limestone minerality. Definitely worth a try.

4. For mysterious reasons, demand for Syrah has plummeted in recent years. Yet it remains a very yummy, approachable and value-driven category, especially California Syrah from the Central Coast, Mendocino County, and Sonoma. Save Syrah by giving it a whirl!

5. While there is a lot of poorly made Zinfandel out there, easy-drinking, juicy and decent “Zin” can be found in the under $20 category. If you enjoy red wine with lots of boysenberry, raspberry, dried fig and warm spice flavours, then California Zinfandel could be for you. The origin of Zinfandel has also been traced back to Croatia, which gives it a special place in my heart.

Many people believe that more expensive wines are better. How can you ensure you’re getting a good value at varying price points?

Do research. Read reviews. For international wines, pay attention to the name of the importer of the wines you like, and try his other offerings. And ask the sommelier or wine shop personnel for recommendations. That’s why they are there.

In the end, take the fun approach and try different things. The adventure in wine is that there is so much to try at all the price points. Travel the world via your palate and taste, taste, taste!

On an average day, how much wine do you drink?

For personal consumption, I usually drink 2-3 glasses a day. But I’m always tasting new wines. Yesterday I served as a judge at a wine competition and tasted over 130 wines. But I was spitting them out, so that’s not really drinking.

What are your future wine aspirations? Do you think you’ll always be in the wine business?

My main focus right now is on Wines of Croatia, a project I founded to raise awareness, promote and educate people about wine from Croatia. I write a blog about Croatian wines as well as post daily tidbits on Facebook.

I am also helping to organise the first ever grand tasting of Croatian wines in NYC, which will be in June. It’s very exciting! My ongoing goal is to introduce Croatian wines to the US consumer and help raise awareness about Croatia as a wine producing country.

In the future I plan to get more involved with wine tourism in Croatia, do more teaching and consulting, and write a book about Croatia. While I’m always open to new ideas and experiences, wine is my passion, my mistress, and my life. I expect it to stay that way for a long time to come.

What do you like to spend your money on, besides wine?

My dog Smokie, books, music downloads, clothing, travel, and food and eating out (not necessarily in that order). Except for Smokie — she’s always Number One.

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