Welcome to Eater Atlanta's newest feature, The OenoFiles, where we chat with the smartest sippers of wine in the ATL. This month we talk with Julie Williams, general manager at 4th & Swift in Old Fourth Ward.
Atlanta-born and bred, Julie Williams is a natural when it comes to pairing wines with Chef Jay Swift's menu of modern American comfort. And with a culinary career spanning more than 18 years, moving up from roles like food runner at Chicago's Steakhouse to server at Ray's on the River, and most recently, beverage and floor manager at the powerhouse that is Bacchanalia, Williams knows her stuff. Here, she tells us about talking shop with her chef husband Tyler Williams (Woodfire Grill), feeling the influence of female culinary leaders like Anne Quatrano, and, of course, sharing her love of all things vino.
How long have you been directing the wine program at 4th & Swift? Since it's a pretty recent move for you, have you noticed any changes so far in how you approach the program there versus your previous work at Bacchanalia?
I started my position at 4th & Swift on December 27. I still feel relatively new, but I'm coming into my own. The difference with the program from where I was before is that I have a little more control over the wine list. This also means I'm responsible financially as to what our restaurant can spend on wines. I enjoy being able to learn the numbers aspect in addition to selecting delicious wines for our guests.
Both you and your husband [Chef Tyler Williams, Woodfire Grill] have changed restaurants in the last few months—do you ever talk shop about the challenges and opportunities of your new responsibilities?
We talk shop every night after work. At this point everything is so new for the both of us; it's hard not to talk about our jobs. On our days off, though, we focus our time on each other and our families.
In your roles as a general manager and a sommelier, how has your experience been as a female working in a male dominated field?
I don't really feel that being a female has affected my new position. Maybe more so, I don't notice it. At Bacchanalia, I was accustomed to working in a very female-driven environment. Many of my girlfriends are in management positions. I really feel that working for Anne Quatrano, being such a strong female figure in the Southeast, completely erased any sort of apprehension that I may have had in a leadership role.
How do you approach working as a new sommelier with an established wine list?
I'm slowly in the process of changing things on the list. I wouldn't say it's a complete overhaul, but I like the opportunity to introducing our staff and guests to new and different wines. Jay Swift has been such a huge support and involved in some of the tastings with me. I also feel the staff has been pretty receptive to the new items as well.
What's your favorite bottle on the list right now?
My favorite bottle on the list right now is the 2010 Maison Roche de Belline, Premier Cru, Montagny. I LOVE this wine. 2010 was such a great vintage for white burgundy. For the value, I could not pass up having it on my list. It's delicious!
Where do you begin when pairing wine with the chef's dishes? Are there any ingredients that pose a particular challenge?
After establishing the ingredients, you must look at how the dish is prepared. Elements such as char from a grill make a big difference as to which wine to pair. I usually pair from the most predominant flavor profile of a dish. Asparagus or broccoli can sometimes pose a challenge, but I always find something that will work.
Can you name the most strange/funny wine question you've ever received from a diner?
I had a guest who asked to perform a chakra test on a bottle to test if the wine was truly biodynamic. Turns out, the test proved it!
Do you have favorite oenophile customers?
I haven't yet had an opportunity to build close relationships with our guests at 4th & Swift, but I love people that are excited about wine and appreciate how it plays on all the senses. I love to see that look across a person's face when they have truly found a wine that they like right from that first sip. It's also such a gratifying feeling when I recommended the wine; I tend to take guests' reactions very personal.
Have you noticed a trend in diners' wine selections, whether it's a certain varietal, price point, or producer?
Pinot Noirs are definitely still a favorite because it's a comfortable choice. I have noticed, though, more people going for those "other" red varietals. At our restaurant, Spanish reds are very popular along with Rhone blends. Guests also love to try wines that are unfamiliar to them, which is why I find it very important for our front of house to try the wines I bring onto the list.
Have you had any VIP or celebrities come in and request pairings?
When I was at Bacchanalia, Robert de Niro requested help finding a wine to pair with dinner. That was pretty awesome.
Do you remember the most expensive bottle you've ever sold?
1997 Colgin, Napa Valley [$1,052].
Where do you think wine trends are heading next?
It's not so much a trend, but I feel that in regards to our current economy, guests are conscientious about their spending when it comes to wine. They want a really great wine at very low cost, little gems on the list, if you will. The small producers of inexpensive, esoteric wines are at greater demand than the big names out there that command the higher prices, and I feel the trend will continue to grow.
How do you recommend that a beginner start learning wine? How about collecting?
I recommend learning all about the noble grapes first. I think that one should be able to explain all of the flavor characteristics firsthand and then experience how terroir affects these characteristics. You can read about wine all you want, and while some of the information is quite interesting, nothing compares to tasting the wine. Everyone experiences it differently. From there, explore all of the other interesting and unique grapes that are out there from all over the world. It's so much fun. When it comes to collecting, I have just started myself. All I'm really doing at this point is purchasing wines that I like, and then studying drinkability and longevity.
Do you have a fave budget-friendly bottle?
Currently one of my favorite budget-friendly wines is 2011 Clos Lojen Bobal, Manchuela. Bobal makes for a really fantastic wine. I like to recommend it to Pinot Noir drinkers who are looking for something a little different. The wine is light to medium bodied. It is acidic with notes of tart cherries and smoke. The tannic structure is pronounced, but not overpowering. The cost on our list is a very affordable $35.
What's your favorite beverage to drink when you're not sampling wines?
I enjoy a light, herbaceous hand-crafted cocktail. I like soft, floral notes with frizzante.
What's your number one wine-rule to live by?
Order what you like. Don't feel pressured to order something at dinner because it's what you think you should order in regards to food or what people may think of you. Wine should never be pretentious! It should encourage an enjoyable environment at any given moment.