The Refuge Wine Thread

Hey everyone,

At the request of several other members, I’m starting a thread for those interested in asking questions about wine and everything beverage related. I introduced myself in the Professional Networking thread, stating what I do for a living.

A little bit about myself:

I’m a Level 3 Advanced Sommelier in The Court of Master Sommeliers. I work for a popular restaurant group in Chicago, and Ive worked at some great restaurants including Charlie Trotter’s, Sepia, and Grace. My background is in Data Science and Statistics, having been a Quantitative Analyst in my first career. However, wine has always been a passion of mine. I used to spend weekends in the Napa Valley when I was attending graduate school in the Bay Area. I learned a ton about wine and wine making, and always wanted to do something with wine in my life.

Eventually, I got to a point where I could “retire” from that career and venture in to the wine world. I’ve been a happier man ever since! It’s a great career, but working in restaurants doesn’t lead to having the most flexible times to golf. Usually my golf times are on Sunday/Monday, and early mornings during the week before heading to the restaurant.

So, with that being said, feel free to ask any questions related to food and wine!

In the Professional Networking thread, @Breaking88 asked the following:

“Would you say you’ve always had an advanced palate / knowledge level surrounding wine? Or is that something that comes along with studying once you decided this was the route for you?”

Great question! I noticed from a younger age, that I was able to discern flavors and aromas pretty easily. My mom, from a young age, was always cooking and so I was able to distinguish the smell of roasted mushrooms, rosemary, fresh garlic, basil, etc… When I first started drinking wine, I was able to notice some of those aromas and flavors and it intrigued me quite a bit. Having an analytical brain, I decided to read more about it and see what I could find out.

Once I began reading, I was fascinated with how one grape (Cabernet Sauvignon, for example) could taste so differently being grown in California compared to the same grape being grown in France. I thought it was amazing that soil, air, climate, rain, heat, type of wood that the wine was aged in, etc… would have such an effect on the outcome of the wine. I was hooked. I think anyone who studies wine will garner a great amount of knowledge. However, tasting and drinking different wines on a regular basis is what really helps to broaden your palate, and therefore narrow down what you like and don’t like.

When you go through enough of that, you quickly can determine more of what you don’t like, versus what you do like.

Ironically enough, the knowledge comes with repetition - as it does with golf. I find myself now going to a new club/course, and hitting the restaurant afterwards to see what their wine program looks like. More often than not, its what will determine if I come back or not! Sounds strange, right?

Feel free to ask anything you want!




Very cool. Best meal I had was at Grace back when an old friend was a line chef. He went on to go train at some insane places in US and Europe before dropping it all go into the Navy. Anyway…

Are you actively prepping for Level 4? Is that the clear next step? Is there a Master at your restaurant that you are under, or is it just you?

What’s your day to day at the restaurant? Do you actively pair new wines with the Chef, or are wines bought in bulk each season? Once the service starts, are you going to tables and helping explain wines or something else?

I love the food scene, so interesting.

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Love the thread.

As a wine idiot who knows nothing about wine other than the proper pronunciation of terroir, I have a few questions:

  1. What is the best relatively affordable wine to order on a date so that, on the off chance my date knows about wine, I don’t look like a buffoon?

  2. Do I really have to decant? Can I use an erlenmeyer flask as a decanter?

  3. What’s the best wine to pair with oven pizza?


Who is the best restaurant group in Chicago?

Who is the worst restaurant group in Chicago?


I’m not actively preparing for Level 4. It requires more time and money than the first three levels combined. Plus, there was a big controversy last year where several Level 4 candidates that passed, had to retake the exam because the Court discovered that someone else who took the exam cheated. So let’s just say that I’m not too happy with the state of affairs within the organization. There is not a Master Somm at my restaurant. 5here are many of us who are Advanced or Certified.

Usually my day to day includes tasting with vendors, editing the wine list, reprinting wine lists, running analysis on sales, forecasting, demographic trends. All of it is data analysis, which is what I did in my previous career. Now I apply that knowledge to pricing a wine list and determining what to put on a list. The wine team also works with the staff on tasting, knowledge base, new wines, etc… We will taste wines and pair them with new dishes, along with talking with guests about wines and what to select. The best part of my day is talking with guests about wine, and helping the, choose something that they would never choose on their own. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of being comfortable with something, and therefore not having the will to try something different. Especially when you have to pay for something that you don’t know if you will like or not. That’s where I step in; to help and guide that process.

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Great question! My advice is to go with something from the Balkan region. Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, etc… There are many truly fantastic wines in those areas that are similar in style to many of the great Italian wines across the Adriatic Sea. Most Americans are unfamiliar with wines from the Balkans. Check out the Babič grape from Croatia or Vitovska from Slovenia.

Not at all. The general rule of thumb is to decant when there is a large amount of sediment present in the bottle. The sediment is usually a result of unfiltered (natural) wine, or wines with considerable age. The other reason for decanting is to speed up the oxidation process in the wine. Decanting introduces a larger amount of oxygen into the wine, which unlocks many of the nuances of the grape. Wines that are younger and more full-bodied will benefit from decanting, as the oxygen will peel away the “tightness” of the wine, and make it more plush and approachable.

Lol. 3 Buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s!

Kidding. Personally, I would drink a fuller-bodied rosé from the Loire Valley of France with oven pizza.


Lettuce Entertain You has always been fantastic. I’ve never Gad a bad meal at a LEYE restaurant. One Off Hospitality is also fantastic. Avec, Big Star, and Publican are some of my favs. Then of course, there is Hogsalt with Bavette’s and Au Cheval.


I’m heading to Croatia on vacation next summer but no destination specifically in country yet. Any particular winery we should try to check out if we’re nearby?

Second, what region (domestic or international) is most exciting to you for wine right now?

I’m in.

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I assume you’re aware that our own @Tron has advanced wine knowledge? I think he’s also a Sommelier but I have no idea what level (and it may be his wife who is)

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What is the rhyme and reason with which you make suggestions to patrons over dinner? Is it all about what they’re ordering? Is it more based on what’s in that’s good right now? Also how do you determine the price point at which to recommend to a table/customer? This has always fascinated me because more often then not when we’ve had the sommelier assist us at dinner they’re always in the ballpark on what we like to drink and what we want to spend.

Awesome! Thank you for the great answer to my semi-serious question. I’m sure the women that I date will be grateful that I won’t have to ask “what reds you got” to waiters at restaurants in the future. I am also extremely excited to be able to tell friends who come over to watch trashy tv that the wine we’re drinking with our oven pizza was hand-picked by a sommelier.

One quick internet nitpick, though, Georgia isn’t in the Balkans. I know from the new Top Gear thing on Amazon, though, that they’re one of the oldest wine growing regions on the planet, so I’ll definitely keep an eye out.

This might be a dumb question, but have you ever had rakija? I worked at a tribunal with a bunch of folks from the former Yugoslavia, and they loved rakija.

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I really like bold and jammy Napa cabs, what should I try to branch out a bit?


@Hala-Mark-Rey Thank you for starting this up!

What are your thoughts on the coravin? Thinking it may make its way under the tree this year…


Do you have any wine shops in Chicago you’d recommend?

I second Grace being best meal of my life so far! Was super lucky to get in there for 1 year anniversary with my now wife, because they ended up shuttering very shortly afterwards. Can’t wait to try Chef Duffy’s newest endeavor in the spring hopefully

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Thoughts on the aging potential of a 2013 Clos Ste. Hune? I’m conflicted on what to do with it…

@Hala-Mark-Rey I’ve been given a broad tip that almost everything from California in 2012 is an easy choice to purchase. Is this true? It’s seemed to be from some small anecdotal personal experience so far. If so, is it just due to that particular year’s weather?