If you’ve been to the restaurant in the past few weeks, you may have noticed a new staff member on the floor. Her name is Barbara Pitcher, and she’s our very own wine steward. Barbara is there to help guests navigate our wine list, choose pairings for dinner, and try something new or special. We could tell you a lot about her, including the fantastic pairings she’s made so far!, but we figured you’d rather hear directly from her. Read on for a Q&A with Barbara covering everything from how she got into wine to her recommendations for wine beginners.
Q: So what is it that you love about wine?
BP: Where to start with this question? Properly paired, wine and food showcase each other in a dance of aromas and flavors. Sometimes that pairing can be like a tango and other times like a waltz. For example, Söntés has a bulldog beet torta on their menu right now that, when paired with the Domaine Michel Thomas Sancerre, is a favorite. This combination of the beet torta and Sancerre has the sensuality of the tango down pat. However, guests recently wanted to share the beet torta but their tastes were very different in wines. He definitely wanted red, but she absolutely wanted white. As we built their flights of wines, he enjoyed a Raptor Ridge Pinot Noir and she enjoyed Leira Albariño; in both of these pairings there was more of a waltz of flavors.
Q: Why do you think it’s so fun to share wine with people?
BP: Another thing I love about wine is the camaraderie that it brings to any occasion. While growing up as a Southerner, gracious hospitality was always the focus, whether eating at home, at “the club,” or at a fine dining establishment downtown. Wine, properly served, always heightens the sense of hospitality.
At Söntés, it’s delightful to chat with our guests and learn if they’re celebrating a special event that evening or just enjoying one another’s company. I want to learn if they’re hungry for something special they love at Söntés, or looking to be dazzled with something new on the menu. After that, we get to chat about the wine menu. The guests share their preferences, and then we have a fun time chatting about the pairing. The goal is to look for particular flavors in the cuisine, or where it originates, for each course in order to choose complementary bottles of wine, flights of wine, or even just a glass.
Q: What has motivated you to continue pursuing the Sommelier Certification?
BP: There is SO much to learn, and the more I study, the more there is that I want to learn! For instance, the terroir of a region (sometimes even just a portion of a vineyard) has great influence on the grapes and thus the wine. Also, the food that comes from an area is hugely important in figuring out what will taste best with the wines from that area. The history of wine from each region within most countries around the world is endlessly fascinating and somewhat like reading a le Carré novel. Books about wine pairing are like curling up with A Year in Provence. Pulling all of this knowledge together into a wine flight that enhances an evening is priceless.
Q: How did you first learn to love wine?
BP: I learned to love wine when I lived in Tuscaloosa. My second job was working for two wonderful caterers who introduced me to MANY things I never dreamt I’d get to experience (including cooking with Julia Child!), and where there was great food there was great wine. Okay, not much California wine in the early 70s, but there were some very nice French and Italian wines!
Q: Wine can be intimidating for many people. Where do you recommend a beginner start?
BP: Essentially, wine is a memory maker—shared experiences, good food, and good wine are wrapped into the memory, so it’s easier to remember what things went well together and what both the food and the wine tasted like. If someone is new to wine, or perhaps new to alcohol, start with Champagne, or at least sparkling wine. Champagne or sparkling made in the méthode traditionnelle style such as Cava, Prosecco, Crémant. Sparkling is festive, romantic, goes with ALL foods, can begin or end a meal or evening. It just plain works!
Once you’re accustomed to sparkling wines, find a few whites and then a few reds. Start with fresh whites like Albariño, Vermentino, or even a good dry Riesling and then move to “bigger” whites like Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. These days more and more folks also want to mix Rosé into their lighter wine selections. I say, definitely! Enjoy knowing that we don’t have to repeat the Kool-aid style Rosé anymore.
After the whites, try the reds next just like in a tasting progression: start lighter and more accessible, then move on to the bigger and bolder varieties. My first reds were Chiantis—probably because I could mostly afford pizza, or at best pasta, and Chianti is very pizza/pasta/tomato sauce friendly, so this “pairing” worked. Then came Côtes du Rhône. When I first tried it I thought, “Wow, this is great!” It’s still a favorite wine of mine; there are some good ones that are “daily drinking cost friendly,” and there are also some amazingly famous ones that are priced like jewelry instead of wine. I started enjoying big Cali Cabs while living in New Mexico; they were delicious with the beef and the spices. My favorite wine festival remains the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Festival held in late September each year. It’s a GREAT place to start learning about wines because they have hundreds of vintner tastings, wine dinners, cooking classes, cheese pairing classes, auctions, and more!
Don’t forget, there are plenty of wines in between the whites and reds mentioned above (especially reds), and lots of great foods. And of course, memories too.