o·ma·ka·se (ōməˈkäsā,ōˈmäkəsā/): (in a Japanese restaurant) a meal consisting of dishes selected by the chef.
“we had the five-course omakase”
In Japanese, omakase literally translates to “I leave it up to you.” It’s a way of turning control over to the chef, trusting that he/she will read you and orchestrate the ingredients and courses in the most sublime succession for your dining experience.
Borrowing from this concept, Caleb Ganzer, Head Sommelier of La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, has introduced a cleverly named, “Sommakase” option to his wine list. Guests sit back and let Caleb and his team do all the legwork of choosing wines for them – based on price points of $30 / $60 / $90. Caleb tells me there is no set formula or prescription to follow; the staff tailors a truly bespoke experience, pulling from the ~50 or so bottles they have open or can Coravin at any moment. More details and my interview with Caleb are below.
And with that, “I leave it up to you” to visit La Compagnie and enjoy this innovative and fun concept. I highly recommend.
Tell me how this idea all came together. All the details!
Caleb: This idea has been laying nascent in my sub-consciousness for many years during my experiences in the previous restaurants where I’ve worked. I’ve been simply waiting for the freedom in a program to bring this to the forefront and shine a light on it by putting it directly on the by-the-glass menu.
It’s the kind of thing that sommeliers have been wanting for years. Essentially it’s the opportunity for (a) the guest to be given an experience at a comfortable, preordained price point and (b) the sommelier to be given the trust and control to bring the guest wines he or she will enjoy.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you can’t have a stronger ally in a food & wine establishment than a sommelier. A sommelier is always & forever on the guest’s side. That’s not to say that any other position in a restaurant isn’t on his or her side, but we have a lot of face time with the guest and we have a vested interest in sharing our food & wine knowledge in such a way to ensure the guest can have as an amazing of a time as possible in our establishment.
The Sommakase opportunity helps initiate a conversation between the guest and the sommelier and immediately creates an even stronger bond of hospitality whereby the sommelier wants to go above and beyond to show the guest a truly remarkable time.
What has the reception been? Do people understand what it is?
Caleb: Despite the field of wine becoming ever more democratic and inclusive, there is still a lot of stress in making wine decisions for most people. We mostly just have to reassure guests that the Sommakase offering is what they think it is. They are usually pretty stoked in asking us about it and when they are finally told that, indeed, “we just bring you some wines that we know you will love based on your tastes, preferences and mood,” it’s amazing to watch the joy enter their faces and the relief they experience. To be able to relinquish control in the sommelier’s hands at a preordained price-point…it’s kind of a win-win for both parties.
Can you give me a couple examples of what you’ve served people and why?
Caleb: The beauty of Sommakase is that it’s completely bespoke. We don’t have “scripts” that we pour from.
Sometimes people want to see only the geeky stuff that we’re jazzed about at the current moment. I once brought exclusively Chardonnay to one guest who asked for this style of tasting experience. But not the typical oak-influenced Chardonnay one might expect. I started with super sharp Grongnet Blanc de Blancs Champagne from the Côte des Blancs and one of the raciest producers I’ve tasted in a long time. Then I brought Ganevat’s 100% Rien Que du Fruit, a surprisingly clean, albeit unfiltered, “glou-glou” style of white from the iconic Jura producer. Finally I brought Domaine de Montbourgeau L’Etoile – this is a very sherry-like wine from the Jura region as well. One foot in flor-aged aromatics and another foot in Burgundian texture. Three completely unique examples from one well-known, but often misunderstood grape.
Other times people leave it up to our sommeliers to put together a “full-bodied discovery red flight.” I’m happy to have a team who has the knowledge – and a list that has the flexibility – to please almost any palate. For this we started with a mineral, yet ripe Carignan blend from Domaine des Enfants, l’Enfant Perdu 2012 from Côtes Catalanes. Then we did Franck Balthazar’s Côtes du Rhône 2014, a unique Grenache-heavy blend from fruit Franck gets from Seguret in the Southern Rhône. Finally we introduced them to a Biodynamic Bordeaux by Alain Moueix at Château Mazèyres 2011 — uber-polished Merlot from Pomerol with a weight associated with this iconic appellation and a vivacity typical of the viticulture practice.