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Wine Time in a Beer Town: Service for the Nervous

Snobbery out, spontaneity and sly humor in: That's the trend among today's sommeliers and servers.

Max's Wine Dive
Max's Wine Dive
Ruth Tobias

In case the message wasn't perfectly clear here or here, the reputation of wine professionals as pretentious is way outdated. For one thing, pretension involves, well, pretending. Contrary to the widespread suspicion that they just fabricate all those flowery descriptions, most sommeliers came by their references to "pencil shavings" or "lemon drops" or "barnyard funk" after years of studying the world’s countless wine regions and varietals to obtain knowledge that can’t be faked. (One doesn’t just guess the answer to a question like "What is the key grape in Rias Baixas?") For another thing, that condescension you think you hear is usually a sincere attempt to gauge your own knowledge—to meet you at point A before moving on to point B. But if you’re still convinced these guys are all walking a thin line between haughtiness and smarm, maybe it’s time to visit a couple of restaurants that will change your mind.

First up: Max’s Wine Dive. The name alone suggests a commitment to irreverence, and general manager Chris David ensures that this branch of a Texas-based franchise lives up to it. It’s not that the wine list itself is unserious—on the contrary, it’s ample, smart and scattered with finds from industry darlings like South Africa’s A.A. Badenhorst, Portuguese estate Quinta Do Crasto, and J.K. Carriere in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. But exploring it is still supposed to be fun, and the staff sets out to prove as much.

For instance, they aim to describe wines in ways that engage even non-oenophiles; rather than mentioning, say, minerality, they might ask, "What does concrete smell like after rain on a hot day?" But to the staunchest cocktail drinkers, David will offer a proposition: "We’ll give you one, but then let’s try something else. If your life is so terrible that you have to pound martinis, let’s do shots of bubbly instead. We call them flim-flams. Knock one back and let it come out your nostrils. Now that’s a morale booster if you’re having a bad day."

And for anyone who’s on the fence about trying something new, Max’s two-glass commitment policy amounts to a gentle nudge in the right direction, applying as it does to any bottle on the list. "I don’t have my DRC allocation yet," says David, referring to world-famous Burgundy estate Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, "but when I do, I’ll pour two glasses for you. I’ll have a serious conversation with you about the fact that those two glasses are going to be $500 apiece, but I’ll pour them." (Granted, anyone who’s got a grand to drop on a whim can probably afford to splurge on the whole bottle, but that’s not the point.) Further encouragement comes in the form of some cool deals, most notably during Max’s twice-daily happy hour, when the bar will pour select wines you rarely see by the glass, such as Barolo, for 50% off. You’ll also find a small selection of "Yesterday’s Favorites" listed on a chalkboard at a 15% discount.

To the staunchest cocktail drinkers, David will offer a proposition: "We’ll give you one, but then let’s try something else. If your life is so terrible that you have to pound martinis, let’s do shots of bubbly instead."

Next up: Coohills. The advantage to iPad wine lists like the one at Tom Coohill’s LoDo haunt is that they can provide a lot of information your server might not have time for; the disadvantage is that (like every other piece of technology in our lives) they can impede real human interaction. Good thing sommelier Samuel Belcher isn’t one to let that happen. Want to test that assertion? Go in one day, chat him up a little, order a bottle or two. Then return a few weeks or even months later: He’ll remember your name, what you talked about and what you drank. (We can attest to this personally.) He claims to have a photographic memory, though that kind of personal touch would be no less impressive if it were the result of meticulous notetaking. But then, says Belcher, "impressing people is just the name of the game. You want them to remember you in the same way you remember them," because such rapport fosters trust: "When they feel as though I know where they’re coming from," he can lead them down new and unexpected paths, for instance toward the nontraditional wine pairings he favors. "It’s an unwritten rule not to pair high-alcohol wines with spicy food, because they intensify the heat," he notes by way of example. "But if the customer is someone like me, who really loves spicy dishes, I’ll say, ‘We have this lamb sirloin with harissa; if you want to get the most heat out of it, let’s grab a Cab and sweat while we eat.’ It’s so much of a good thing—but not too much."

The same could be said of Belcher’s sense of humor, which becomes apparent the moment he introduces himself to you wryly as the "Sammelier"—a nickname from his colleagues that he calls corny but clearly gets at least a small kick out of. In fact, his wit on the floor is so quick that it will come as no surprise when (if) he reluctantly admits he did amateur stand-up back in Chicago. "Any pro will tell you being funny is all about timing," he explains, adding, "I like the fact that I can make people laugh; I’m there in part to entertain people. But I’m also there to provide a meaningful experience—I don’t think most people want a comedian as their server when they go out to dinner. You have to manage your own personality, because it’s not about you."

Look it at this way: A few decades ago, the world of fine dining was well-known only to wealthy Americans. Cable and the Internet have democratized cuisine—and though wine has yet to follow completely, charmers like David and Belcher exemplify the more easygoing, egalitarian form of hospitality that is now the rule in the industry, not the exception. Just the other day, if you were in the lounge at Randolph’s, you’d have heard a guest ask if he could get his beef carpaccio, a dish that’s raw by definition, well-done—and heard the bartender, after pausing for a moment, respond, "Well, that’s not possible in this case, but…" and gently steer toward him something she thought he might like "even better." We all want to be shown that kind of consideration while we’re learning something new—and given that there’s always something new to learn about wine, the shift in attitude is as welcome as it is welcoming.