August Poehls is the new sommelier at Old Major, the LoHi restaurant co-owned by chef Justin Brunson. Beverage director Ryan Ravenscroft, who will continue to oversee the spirits and beer program, brought Poehls aboard last month to focus on wine service. Ravenscroft hired him after considering several candidates, "With respect to his guest interaction, you could just tell by the way guests were engaged in conversation with August that his advice on pairing recommendations was not being disregarded."
A North Dakota native, Poehls chased a saxophone career in Los Angeles that evolved into a love for and dedication to the wine and service industry. He worked for several years at Gjelina in Venice and is a certified sommelier having graduated from the International Sommelier Guild. After moving to Denver with his family, he was part of the opening team at the second incarnation of the Squeaky Bean in LoDo. Poehls sat down with Eater during his first week at Old Major, to talk about being schooled on wine, honor in the service industry, and how to deal with negative guests.
What is your vision for the wine program at Old Major? My initial vision is to learn it and hopefully taste most of it. Ryan is going to be the primary wine director for awhile and so my job right now is going to be on a smaller scale, working literally table to table. Talking directly to the guests as opposed to talking to reps and trying to put my stamp directly on the wine list, my goal is to put my stamp on people's individual experiences at Old Major. I want to get to know the room, get to know the staff, the wine list, and then just provide a stellar experience for people. Wine can elevate an amazing dinner to a life-changing experience in my opinion.
How do you see wine elevating the dining experience? It's that light switch moment where suddenly you get out of your comfort zone and you taste a food that you've tasted a thousand times but suddenly chef Justin has prepared it in a way that you have never seen it before. You've had 20,000 glasses of red wine in your life, but you never tasted a particular vintage of a particular grape from a particular region of the world and, all of a sudden, you've got all these things in front of you that look incredibly familiar and yet you're experiencing it for the very first time - those are the things that people talk about. Not just the "foodie community," which is a term that has just snowballed ridiculously out of proportion. Everyone in the world calls themself a foodie. I love food too. We all love food. It's sustenance. But to be passionate about something you don't need to have a nickname for it. I digress. That's what people talk about now, you go to any event, any concert, any publication people are talking about the new celebrity chef that opened a restaurant on the corner, or some varietal they've never heard of. That's how you can go from having a great dinner to something you're going to talk to twenty of your closest friends about over the next year.
Craft beer and cocktails are all the rage right now, do you think that wine has lost its coolness? Well, it's never going to go away. It's one of those industries where there may be peaks and valleys in its popularity. It's such a unique and interesting and profound thing to do, to grow grapes and turn them into wine. I also feel like there's a time and a place for everything. Sommeliers aren't re-inventing the wheel. Our whole lives are spent putting things together that belong together and so when I'm having a big juicy hamburger on a hot day, I want a pilsner. When I'm sitting in front of a fireplace at a ski lodge, I want a cup of hot cocoa. When I'm sitting down and enjoying a nose-to-tail pork experience, I want to have three different great wines in front of me for each course. They go together. Beer can be amazing and it's going to continue to get better and better. I know some of the great, great bartenders in this town and I don't think they would be offended at all to hear me say that there's a time and a place for an amazing cocktail, a time and a place for a well-crafted beer. When I'm sitting down at the dinner table, I want to drink wine with my food.
What is your approach to wine pairing? There are guidelines. There are things you should always follow. Like with like and certain things go together because they're grown where another product is harvested and it's just meant to be but, it's not a law. Ultimately, people need to drink something that they're going to enjoy. With a little bit of persuasion, a little bit of a friendly demeanor, you can just move them an inch to the left or the right. Get them into something that's similar but different and play with the pairings. That's what is fun about it. I can sit here all day long and tell you why this red wine is good with this red meat. I can read that to you off of 10,000 sights on Google, but ultimately what happens on a molecular level inside your mouth and on an atomic level inside your brain, are going to be different for each and every person.
Describe your style of wine service. It's a dance. It's a ballet. There are things that a sommelier does that are done for a very specific reason to continue the flow of a dining experience. There are ways to experience the wine, open the wine, pour the wine. These things are just the way they are and no one is arguing that. When it comes to the way that you talk about wine, the way that you describe, pair, and explain the wine- these are things I like to take a little bit of liberty with. I'm a casual guy. I'm not a formal type of dude. I like to be a little bit eccentric, excited, and passionate about what I'm talking about and not read what it says on the back of the wine label. When it comes to service, you come to Old Major and see me across the room talking to somebody, and I might be slightly more animated than the last sommelier you had at the last place you ate that had a white tablecloth. There's nothing wrong with that- I love a great white table cloth dining experience, but I don't work in a restaurant with white table cloths and I don't work there for a reason.
What's your most memorable wine experience? The first time I ever went into a restaurant in Los Angeles called Lilly's when I was 23. It's not there any longer. It was a great little French restaurant. I walked in a Parisian bartender behind the bar named Antoine - he's going to be at my wedding next year. He's still one of my best friends. I'm new in town, I sit down and order a glass of wine and in French he asks me what I want. Sort of aggressively. I explained to him I had no idea what he said and I have no idea what I want to drink. I don't know anything about wine. So he pours me a tasting, three wines in a row. He poured a pinot noir, a Bordeaux, and a cheap zinfandel, and he asked me to put them in order of which I liked the most, without telling me what they were prior. I put them in order with the five-dollar bottle of zinfandel as my favorite, to the pinot noir, to the $185 bottle of Bordeaux as my least favorite. He just berated me and he told me why I was wrong. I spent a couple weeks hanging out there before they ended up hiring me. They taught me the gig- how to serve tables, a general comprehension of the French language, and they taught me about wine. From that time sitting there, sipping some boxed zinfandel to about three weeks later when I was really learning to appreciate Bordeaux and appreciate Burgundy, and the Rhone, and the Loire. They were literally teaching me without me realizing it- France, in a nutshell.
What is your dream job? Right now, I'm feeling really fortunate. I can see myself being here for quite awhile. If you set me loose in the world and money's not an issue, my dream would be to open my own place. I would like to have a nice joint that would serve eclectic small plates, hopefully I would have a talented guy in the kitchen, and there would be a saxophone, sitting on a perch in the corner. At any given moment I could just bust out with some tacky but overwhelmingly sexual performance.
How do you deal with negative guests? Everybody's different. That's an impossible question to answer specifically. Everybody has a back-story. Some people have had a rough day- a family issue, a bad day at work, or their kid is in detention that week. Whatever the case may be, it's usually not our fault, the collective our, I don't mean Old Major or me - I mean it's usually not the meal in front of them that's ticking them off. I think that's where you have to start from: it's realizing that they're maybe over-reacting and when that happens, it's important to be a good judge of character. Everybody handles those situations differently from a customer perspective, so my job is to figure out what kind of a person I'm dealing with very quickly and what's going to help in the situation. Are a lot of words going to help? Or maybe I should be quiet and listen? Is buying a free dessert going to help or do I just need to re-fill their water and very carefully back-pedal until I'm out of reach?
How do you figure out what type of guest you have at the table? You're good at it or you're bad at it, but it's a natural instinct. It's human nature to size someone up, this is what we do- we're mammals. There are some people who are really good at sizing a person up and two sentences into a conversation know what kind of an animal they're in the cage with. If you're not good at it, you can end up in a tough predicament. I embrace it. Throw me out there if someone's upset: I embrace that. I want to go over, switch up the scenario for them, and I want to make them happy. I want to force them to recognize that I'm on their side. I am a servant to them. I am, I truly believe that. I think there is a great deal of honor in the service industry. I think that it's lost its luster over the last 100 years, but there's a lot to be said for humbling yourself in order to provide a service for someone. I really mean that. That's not pillow talk. That's not sexy talk. My job is to unequivocally impress somebody and make them happy and that's it. It's not my job to be smarter than them, know more about wine than them. It's not my position to tell them what the right way to drink is or the wrong way or that you can't order a rose because it's the middle of winter. That's not my job. My job is to provide somebody with a great night. Because they pay for it and they have to go back to their lives the second they walk out of this place, but while they're here, they are part of our lives, and that's that.
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