Matthew has been on a rather unexpected journey to get to his current role in wine. Prior to working as a sommelier, he was a school teacher for 10 years in Special Education, a job which he said was actually “good prep for a life in wine and restaurants.”
I met Matthew recently at a wine event at Brabo, part of a regular pairings series they are running to educate guests on various regions and styles. Matthew impressed me with his ability to teach (not surprising, given his background) and with the almost boyish fun he had in pairing the wines and talking about them.
He also has a knack for wine descriptions, a trait that, as a wine writer, I admire & enjoy.
A white wine aged in 35% new French oak “smells like money.”
Or a 1999 Chateau Lynch-Bages has a “nervousness” with the “tension between the fatty bacon in the dish and the graphite austerity of the wine.” It was a totally energetic pairing.
Or, my personal favorite, the 2005 Chateau Guiraud was the “baritone of Sauternes” with its low, muted acidity and rich rounded sweetness. That’s good stuff.
You can read more about Matthew and see the interview below the fold. And fun bonus fact NOT included in the interview, but disclosed to me by his PR rep.. .he apparently is covered in grape tattoos. Now that’s commitment. See more below!
When and how did you fall in love with wine?
I honestly can’t remember the first moments when I started to fall in love with wine. Thankfully, wine is one of the few things that I’ve encountered that lets you fall in love with it over and over again. Between the people I get to work and study with and the constant endeavor to learn more about the interaction of food and drink, I can’t imagine ever falling out of love with wine!
How’d you end up a sommelier?
Before I started working in the wine business, I worked in special education as a crisis counselor. As we all know, teachers and school staff aren’t paid very well in this country, so I was bartending at night. I had the good fortune of working for a great sommelier named Nelson Carey who owns a fantastic wine bar in Baltimore. Nelson offered to help me take the Court of Master Sommelier courses. I fell in love with the process and the community and soon passed the first two levels. Before sitting for the Advanced exams, I made a bet with myself that if I passed on the first go that I’d leave my day job and change careers. I had to call my own bluff when I passed. I accepted a position out at The Inn at Little Washington and the rest is history.
What type of training or experience prepared you to become a sommelier?
I’ve been working through the Court of Master Sommeliers program. I’m currently an Advanced Sommelier and studying for the Master Sommelier exam. Equal to the study and effort that go into preparing for exams, the mentorship and camaraderie of great sommeliers has been incredibly valuable.
How did you end up at your current job?
I was looking to become part of a larger organization (Kimpton) and have the opportunity to work with Emily Wines, MS.
Tell us something interesting about your wine program.
What might be most interesting is that we’re actually three distinct wine programs here. We have the large, expansive program in the main dining room in Brabo, the more casual bistro-style list in our Tasting Room, plus a full retail shop called the Butcher’s Block. It makes tasting with vendors interesting to be able to have several possible outlets to place wine.
If you could only pick one bottle, what would you order off your own list — and why?
It would be really easy to pick something extremely pricey, but when I thought about what on the list might be really interesting to drink right now, I came back to a 2007 Koonowla Riesling from Clare Valley. Australian Rieslings really start to hit their stride after 5 year or so, so I’d love to see how it’s drinking right now.
What’s the best value on your list?
I really think there are several places to look for values on our list, but I think you get the most bang for your buck out of our Spanish list. Both whites and reds have selections that will drink well beyond their price tags. Bodegas O’Ventosela makes a white blend called ‘Gran Leirina’ that just astounds for the money. If you’re feeling red, the Syrah from Marques de Grignon completely over-delivers.
Forget about your wine list. What wines are you most excited about right now? And why?
I’m a huge fan of cool climate varieties and have become smitten with the wines being produced up in Ontario, near Niagara. They’re growing the usual cool climate suspects (Riesling, Pinot Gris, etc.) but are really coming into their own with Pinot Noir and Syrah.
Who is the most famous person you’ve ever served — and what did they order?
In the DC area, we have the opportunity to serve many famous people, especially from the political arena. That being said, we’re also very discreet. Nice try, though!
What do you like to drink?
I’m definitely an equal-opportunity drinker. Just like music, it is usually driven by my mood and what else might be on the table. It can be cocktails, beer, wine, tea, sake or anything else that sounds interesting. Aside from the harder stuff, I’m also a huge coffee geek.
Do you enjoy beer? What about hard liquor?
I’ll drink almost anything, but my beer drinking does seem to vary with the season more than most drinks. Throughout most of the year, I’m drinking lean, crisp pilsners and pale ales. Once it cools off, I tend to move to maltier styles, especially porters. I tend to seek out lower gravity beers but don’t mind the occasional heavy hitter if it’s balanced.
Having started behind the bar, I still have a huge soft spot for liquor and cocktails. Much like wine and beer, as long as the spirit is well-made, I’ll be happy to find a home for it. There really isn’t a group of spirits that I don’t enjoy, but if pressed to pick one, I’d grab a bottle of Chartreuse.
What is most rewarding about your job?
Teaching classes to our staff and watching the light bulbs flicker on. It’s incredibly rewarding to watch people take information that you’ve presented and see them implement it later that night.
What’s least rewarding about your job?
I try to find some positive aspect to even the more mundane or trying parts of what we do. I’m pretty lucky to get to talk about wine most nights, so I can’t complain too much!
If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing?
Hopefully, I’d be back working with special needs students.