Welcome to the OenoFiles, where we chat with the smartest sippers of wine in the ATL. This month we hear from Justin Amick, general manager and advanced sommelier at the Spence and wine consultant for Concentrics Restaurants's consulting arm.
Justin Amick at the Spence. [Photo: Sarah Dodge]
Justin Amick grew up in the industry, watching his father, Bob Amick, develop dozens of restaurants from the Peasant Group to Concentrics. But with a basketball scholarship to Tulane in hand, Justin didn't follow in dad's footsteps straight off; it was while he shot hoops and studied business in New Orleans that Justin realized food and wine was his true passion—a passion he followed to NYC, where he learned from Tom Colicchio, and to Napa Valley, where he worked for the Trinchero Family Estates' winemaking team. Since returning home to Atlanta, Justin's received accolades from the Court of Master Sommeliers and is now studying for the Master Sommelier exam (which just 160 have passed worldwide). He took some time off to talk with us about managing the unique program at The Spence and to share a few tricks of the trade (it's all about acid, people).
How long have you been directing the wine program at The Spence?
Since we opened, about a year, I've been general manager and sommelier at the Spence. But I've been corporate wine consultant for Concentrics as an advanced sommelier and certified wine educator since I moved home in 2008.
Where do you begin when pairing wine with Richard Blais's dishes? Are there any ingredients that pose a particular challenge?
Richard's a trained molecular gastronomist; he's always playing around with interesting ingredients and preparations, so it makes it very challenging but very fun to pair wine with his food. There are so many elements on the plate that serve a purpose, and trying to find a wine to complement one specific flavor or more on the plate is exciting. Acid is a big component in Richard's dishes, which works out perfectly because I'm an acid freak when it comes to wines with acidity because they pair better with more kinds of food. The wines at the Spence are listed in two main sections of classic "tried and true" and more adventurous "leap of faith," then in order of acidity progression, all of which especially pair with Richard's cuisine.
What's your favorite bottle on the list right now? Why is it special?
That's a tough one because I change my list every week, constantly trying to bring new things on for people to try; we pour over 40 wines by the glass (including Champagne). My favorite wine by the glass?you know, right now it's really warm out and "real men drink pink," so it's rosé from the Basque region of Spain, a blend of red Basque grapes (Hondarrabi Beltza) and white Basque grapes (Hondarrabi Zuri), a rare specialty they call Ojo de Gallo. What's really cool about it is that it's a rosé of these two indigenous grape varieties that are really tart, sour, acidic, and super-refreshing. It's got just enough sparkle so it's almost like Champagne, but just barely. It's bone dry. I don't like rosé with a lot of sugar. It's light and perfect for this time of year. The producer is Ameztoi, one of the kings of the Basque region.
Can you name the most strange/funny wine question you've ever received from a diner?
You get 'em all the time and I don't look at them as strange, because as a sommelier we're supposed to make guests feel more comfortable with wine, which can sometimes feel stuffy or uptight. I like to ask guests what they typically like to drink and why, so one time I was trying to describe a wine and I used banana and some other tropical fruit to describe a white wine and the young lady said she didn't realize wine was made from bananas and all sorts of different fruits, so I tried to explain the chemical reactions in wine that cause different tastes, but she honestly thought I was bringing her a wine made from bananas and tropical fruits. Although you can ferment or distill anything into wine, I had to explain what I was bringing her was made from grapes.
Do you have favorite oenophile customers?
Yeah, not one in particular, but the coolest thing about the Spence's wine list is that it really challenges people to try something new. People often leave it in my hands because they've read about our list having wines from places like Romania, Slovenia, Lebanon, Uruguay, all by the glass. So we do get a savvy group of wine individuals who frequent The Spence because of our wine program.
Have you noticed a recent trend in diners' wine selections, whether it's a certain varietal, price point, or producer?
The trend is definitely that diners are much more willing to experiment than people give them credit for. It's really the operators, sommeliers, and restaurants that need to push the limit more, because diners will only buy or order what you offer them. So, if you assume they aren't going to try something new, then we're not giving them the benefit of the doubt. People want quality and they don't just want stuff that they can get anywhere. They're more experimental and price conscious, you know, in terms of knowing how much restaurants typically mark up. At the Spence we really try to price our wine list to sell. It's all about taking care of the guest, for sure.
Have you had any VIP or celebrities come in and request pairings?
We get a lot of celebrities at a lot of our restaurants. We also get a lot of wine aficionados in town that like to come to the Spence for our refreshing wine program.
Do you remember the most expensive bottle you've ever sold?
The most expensive bottle I've sold recently that should've been way more expensive than what I sold it for was a $500 bottle of 2009 Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, which could easily be on the list for $1,000 or $1,500. I sold it for $500, but it's just a testament for me sharing one of the best Bordeaux estates and best vintages in recent history.
Where do you think wine trends are heading next?
You know, honestly, I'm seeing that men are realizing it's not girly or wrong or feminine to drink white wine or rosé— and even with women, a lot of wine consumers for some reason have it in their head that white wines are not as high quality just because they're not expensive. There's no correct white or red. Especially living where we live?it's 80 degrees today. I'm seeing a lot more people learning that white wine is not only a great value and way to start a meal, but [it's also good] to have for the whole meal. A lot of people stick with classic pairings of meat with red, fish and chicken with white, but there are many whites that can stand up to different sorts of proteins and vice versa (there are light reds that are good with fish). I'm hoping that white wine is the next phenomenon that people are starting to enjoy.
How do you recommend that a beginner start learning wine? How about collecting?
There are so many great outlets, whether it's buying a simple book, or?really the best way is to consume different sorts of wine; go out and order something different than you normally drink, educate yourself about a different grape variety or place of origin. In the Atlanta community, there are so many great sommeliers right now—we've got five or six advanced sommeliers in the city and one master sommelier—go out and get to know these great wine professionals. There are also a lot of great classes, whether through the Court of Master Sommeliers, Society of Wine Educators, or the Wine and Spirit Education Trust—a lot of these programs have tiers for people just trying to learn more about wine. The single best online resource is the website for the Guild of Sommeliers.
Do you have a fave budget-friendly bottle? What would you suggest pairing with it?
You don't have to spend a lot of money to enjoy a really nice bottle. I don't have a specific go-to producer, but there are definitely varietals that always over-deliver for their price. I'm a Grüner Veltliner fiend—the great white grape of Austria. Most of the producers are super quality-minded and most them are under $20 a bottle. It's a great, refreshing, different bottle of wine you can enjoy in our warm climate of Atlanta. The great thing about Grüner is it goes with a lot of different foods—shellfish, oysters, any sort of seafood/nice piece of fish you're cooking—really, it goes with everything.
What's your favorite beverage to drink when you're not sampling wines?
If it's non-alcoholic, I should be the endorser of Coca-Cola for Atlanta. I'm addicted to Coca-Cola—I don't drink coffee, tea or milk, but I'm very Atlantan in that Coca-Cola is my drink of choice. Alcoholic beverages besides wine, I'd say Sazerac and Pimm's Cups are probably my two favorite cocktails.
What's your number one wine-rule to live by?
Eat what you want and drink what you want. So many people get so caught up in pairings, especially sommeliers, but at the end of day, it's about enjoying what you're consuming. All wine is meant to go with food— not all wine is going to benefit the food that you're eating at the same level, some pair better than others, but at the end of the day it's just about trying new things and enjoying wine because wine really does make everything better in life.
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