A sommelier speaks: James Hayes

James Hayes is associate wine director at The French Laundry, Washington St, Yountville, California

What’s your top tip for wine lovers picking a wine from a restaurant list?

Engage the sommelier and be comfortable talking about your likes and dislikes. Don’t be afraid to start a dialogue about the bottles that have worked in the past and those that haven’t. A good sommelier knows his or her list and should function as the liaison between what you want as a customer, and what is in the cellar. With clear direction and a bit of collaboration selecting a great bottle together can be easy.

How important is food and wine matching?

Wine is there to support the cuisine – not to overshadow it. We opt for classic, elegant pairings that let the food shine. We also make sure to keep the selections unique for everyone – our guests all have their own set of preferences. Instead of having a set flight or pairing for everyone, we prefer to have a conversation at each table to get to know some of their likes, dislikes and expectations. By tailoring everyone’s experience individually we are able to connect the guests to their own experience. They are a part of the process.

What region would you like to have more of on your list and why?

Burgundy. Because there is simply nothing better – white or red – to serve alongside our cuisine. The range of flavour you can achieve from those two grapes is amazing and there are so many applications with food. From Chablis to Chambolle, old to young, there is nothing I would rather drink with dinner.

Less, because it is such a complex and involved region that it can take quite a bit of a Sommelier’s focus away from other parts of the list. Keeping a big list of Burgundy is not easy – there are huge variations in price and provenance, and so much producer, vintage, and site knowledge required to make the right choices. Shopping for Burgundy can be hard work.

What do you do when a customer claims a wine is corked or faulty but you don’t agree?

In my opinion, it comes down to good service. On the dining room floor my role is to do whatever it takes to make our guests happy – unfortunately, sometimes the right thing isn’t always the easy thing. At the most basic level, guests come to our restaurants to eat and drink things they enjoy. If someone feels a wine is flawed, my opinion isn’t what matters – they are telling me they don’t like something on the table. My responsibility to replace it with something they do.

If that situation happens with an ’82 first growth, I don’t think it should be treated any differently than if it were a less expensive wine. Perhaps there are people out there who might knowingly send something like that back if it wasn’t what they had expected (as opposed to really being flawed), but from a service standpoint I have to trust the guest and be willing to do the right thing to make them happy. The true colours of a restaurant come through in a situation just like that.

The full interview, including Jame’s worst nightmare and what he is drinking at home, can be found in the May issue of Decanter magazine (out 1 April) – click here to subscribe.

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