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Ed Young On Wine

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Drink Global, Eat Local: tayst's Adrien Matthews Talks Wine.

by Ed Young, Frugal Feature Writer.
Photos by Jerry Hall
September, 2011

"We're crazy! We'll do things no other restaurant will do!" I sat down a few weeks ago with Adrien Matthews, Wine Steward at tayst restaurant on 21st Ave. It was one of the most interesting and refreshing interviews we've done for this newsletter. Read on and we think you'll agree.

tayst restaurant - Adrien Matthews - click to enlarge

EY: What do you mean when you say you are crazy?

AM: Customers can try any wine in the house without buying a whole bottle. We will open any high-end bottle, regardless of vintage or price, if the customer commits to two glasses. For other wines, we'll pour a glass, or even a portion of a glass, and charge accordingly.

EY: Don't you lose money and waste good wine doing that?

AM: Absolutely not! We started this as an experiment. Of the first 23 bottles, 20 were either finished at table, or the customer took the wine home (permissible under Tennessee law). The other three were purchased by other customers. We not only didn't lose money, we gained good will and gave our customers a wine experience they wouldn't have had otherwise. We actually sell more bottles by offering tastes.

tayst restaurant - Adrien Matthews interview - click to enlarge

EY: I'm interested in how you select the wines for your list.

AM: Wine lists are only for people who don't talk with me directly. The first purpose of a wine list is to get a conversation started. We have regular customers who haven't looked at the wine list in years. Sometimes they know what they want and we go from there, but a lot of people like to be surprised and want to see what I can come up with that they will enjoy.

EY: That's quite a tribute, to generate that much trust.

AM: We do the same with food. When someone comes into our restaurant, anything in the house is available. We have wines that aren't on the list, such as Chateauneuf du Pape and Amarone, that we'll retrieve and open. If the customer doesn't see anything on the food menu that attracts their interest, or doesn't even want to look at the menu, we'll discuss their taste and mood and go back to the kitchen. If we have it, we'll prepare it. You'll never see the words "No Substitutions" in this place.

EY: How do you go about matching wines with food with that kind of policy?

AM: Most of the time, wine orders follow food orders and that makes it easier. I've had tables of four that ordered duck, chicken and steak and they want one bottle of wine to share. I can handle that, although I might suggest a glass of another wine for one or two. We don't worry too much about pairing the wine with the food for two reasons. First, the perfect pairing is what the customer wants to drink. I wouldn't recommend a Malbec with sea bass, but if the customer wants that they get it. Second, it is important to know how the dishes on the menu are prepared. It is sometimes possible to match the wine with a sauce, or the vegetables accompanying the dish, or even a substantial garnish. Also, although this may be heresy to some, I'll sometimes recommend a contrasting wine rather than a complementary one.

EY: A contrasting wine? Really?

AM: Yes. Interesting things can happen when you do that. For instance, I recently matched a Malvasia [white sweet wine] with a steak. The wine had enough acidity that every bite of the beef duplicated the initial taste. After dinner I like to pair a Port with a good bleu cheese.

EY: Jeremy Barlow, your owner/chef, is known as a very creative guy. In fact, he was just asked to participate in preparing the annual dinner for the James Beard House in New York.

That's quite an honor, but it seems to me that having such a creative and flexible chef makes your job more difficult.

AM: Not really, because we are on the same page of giving the customer a pleasurable and personalized experience with maybe a few surprises. Jeremy challenges the staff and the customer. Food is not mere sustenance, and wine is not just a supplement to the meal. Challenges can produce outcomes that are much more than expected.

tayst restaurant - Adrien Matthews interview - click to enlarge

EY: I notice that your wine list is relatively modest for a fine dining restaurant, and that your categories are rather unusual.

AM: Well, a wine list should be inviting and non-threatening, and frankly, fun. Some years ago I had the experience of dining with my wife at a high-end restaurant on a "splurge" occasion. The wine list was in a three-ring binder and was so extensive that I felt intimidated. We don't do that here. Also, the wine list shouldn't "talk down" to customers. We try to include selections that people who know wines will notice as well as ones that will pique the curiosity of those less knowledgeable. Unlike Europeans, Americans get committed to only a single varietal. We try to offer alternatives. For instance, for people who only drink Pinot Grigio, we put Picpoul (a Rhone white) on the list as another choice. Another reason, frankly, for keeping our wine list relatively small is that tayst is in a building that was formerly the office of an insurance company. We don't have a basement or a cellar as such. We use wall racks and probably have fewer than 150 bottles in-house at a given time.

EY: What about the categories?

AM: That is the fun part. We have "Bright Whites", "Sweeter Whites", "Voluptuous Whites", "Mysterious and Memorable Whites", "Bubbles" and "Blush". For reds we list "Big, Bad Reds", "Friends of the House", "Dirty Reds", and "Softer Reds". We usually offer three to seven choices in each category, and they are all available by the glass or bottle. Customers seem to enjoy those descriptions.

EY: The wine list contains some surprises (at least to me) such as a Zinfandel from Washington State, a Chilean Gewurztraminer, and a German Dornfelder. You cover an unusual range of places and countries too, such as Sardinia, Israel, and Lebanon.

AM: Our motto is "eat local and drink global". We want people to have wine experiences they aren't likely to get at home.

tayst restaurant - Adrien Matthews interview - click to enlarge

EY: The restaurant business is a very tough business to operate successfully, and you seem to be doing something right.

AM: Next February tayst will be eight years old, and I've been here the entire time. I think our success comes from sending customers home with a good feeling about the personalized food and wine experience they've had here.

Read Ed Young's previous articles: Click Here.