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Wine Talk with Kevin Rathbun Steak's Joon Lim

Welcome to The OenoFiles, where we chat with the smartest sippers of wine in the ATL. This month, we talk to Joon Lim of Rathbun's Restaurants.

Joon Lim. [Photo: Jena Anton]

Joon Lim is the antithesis to the "stuffy sommelier" stereotype. He's young, passionate, and driven, starting out with an interest and a copy of Wine for Dummies and working his way up to a much-coveted invite to the Master Sommelier Exam. Master Somm is a designation only 211 people currently hold, and it's only awarded after a demanding three-part multi-day test. He credits Rathbun's Restaurants partners Cliff Bramble and Kevin Rathbun with mentoring him in the industry and helping him advance to be one of the best sommeliers in the city. He's won such a distinction from Taste of Atlanta's Best Sommelier competition, and is currently hard at work studying for that Master Somm Exam. You can catch him now at Kevin Rathbun Steak, where his laid-back style and serious chops (if you will) make for a pretty special meal from start to finish.

How long have you been at Kevin Rathbun Steak?
I'm currently a server with Kevin Rathbun Steak, but I once directed the wine program at Rathbun's, our sister restaurant. I took a step back to study for the Master Sommelier Exam, to which I was invited. I've been with the company for almost three years.

Where do you begin when pairing wine with food?
I break down the basic flavor profiles of the dish—is it sour, sweet, salty, savory, and/or bitter, and which one is the most prevalent? I then consider the weight of the dish—is it light, or rich and heavy? I look for the showcase component of the dish, whether it'd be in the form of a protein, vegetable, or sauce, and pair it with a wine that will highlight the star ingredient. I take lessons from classic combinations, something as simple as peanut butter and jelly. You have the rich component which is peanut butter, and the acid from the jelly that cuts through that. The sweetness levels in both complement each other and don't try to overtake one another. So, could it also be that a rich, creamy risotto can go just as well with a jammy Amarone or Zinfandel? I think there's a great textural bridge between the two.

Are there any ingredients that pose a particular challenge?
Teriyaki sauce. It's so sweet and it always wants to take center stage over the other ingredients in the dish. It easily clashes with most dry table wines out there. I feel that sweet sauces magnify the astringency in a wine, making the acids seem very bitter. I prefer a low to moderate acid wine with residual sugar, like a Grand Cru Gewurtztraminer Vendange Tardives from Alsace, France.

What's your favorite bottle on the list right now? Why?
Aldo Conterno Barolo Colonnello 2004. Nebbiolos pair beautifully with steak. Naturally high in acid, high in tannin, and a truffle-like minerality. It's perfect with a well-marbled, dry aged rib-eye. Aldo Conterno respected traditional practices while embracing modernity, favoring shorter maceration times to make his wines approachable upon release. His wines are about structure and elegance.

Can you name the most strange/funny wine question you've ever received from a diner?
I welcome questions with open arms and have not found any of them strange. We have highly educated guests who ask very valid questions. I will, however, share with you a funny moment at a table while I was serving a guest. It is the MS [Master Sommelier] standard to walk clockwise around the table when pouring wine for a guest. However, this type of formal service isn't always possible to carry out at our restaurant due to space constraints and proximity to other tables. One particular evening, I proceeded to pour a sample of Justin Cabernet Sauvignon. The guest tasted and approved the wine, and gave me the nod to pour for the others at the table. Just as I began to walk counter-clockwise, the guest looked up at me and told me to walk clockwise. He did the twirl motion with his fingers and everything. He was very insistent that I walk clockwise around the table. I still wonder to this day if he was an undercover master sommelier who came to secretly judge my performance.

Do you have favorite oenophile customers?
Yes, I do. There's a core of regular guests with whom I always hold thought-provoking discussions. They're curious and genuinely want to learn more about wine. It gives me an opportunity to learn from them, as well. There are guests that bring in wines from their vast cellars (yes, I mean cellars, as in plural) and graciously share with the staff. I've seen a lot of great wine come through, wines I could never access on my own. I know what some of the greatest wines of the world taste like because of such generous guests. There are other guests who come in and tell me to pick something out from the wine list that they might enjoy, and that's always fun. They leave their entire evening in my hands.

Have you noticed a recent trend in diners' wine selections, whether it's a certain varietal, price point, or producer?
I've noticed an increasing number of diners asking for California Pinot Noir from the central coast—wines from Gary's Vineyard in particular. Gary Pisoni has a fine reputation of which more people are becoming aware. He sells fruit to other top producers in the Santa Lucia Highlands, as well. Given that the wine is a single-vineyard designate, "Gary's Vineyard," is always proudly written on the label to let consumers know of its quality origins. Another producer that diners frequently ask for is Kosta Browne. I recently had a guest ask if we had the one from Santa Lucia Highlands, further confirming my suspicion that Pinot Noir from that appellation is really taking off.

How do you handle pairing requests?
Being a steakhouse, one would think pairings aren't as common, but people are asking for recommendations on wines based on the particular cut of beef they choose. I have recommended bold and rich Pinot Noirs to go with rib-eyes, elegant Beaujolais to go with tender cuts like filet mignon, and an Australian Riesling to go with dry-aged steak! I know you're going to want an explanation for the last one there—I felt that the stony earthiness in the Riesling resonated well with the strong minerality of the dry-aged steak.

Do you remember the most expensive bottle you've ever sold?
Dalle Valle "Maya" 2009, $725/750 ml.

Where do you think wine trends are heading next?
There's a lot of talk now of alternative varietals being planted in our country such as Albarino, Pinot Blanc, and Tannat. People often ask me what the next "it" grape is, and I don't know the answer to that, but diners are becoming more adventurous and are seeking new experiences away from the old Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. All 50 states produce wine, and I wish more choices were available to us in our respective markets as far as American wine.

How do you recommend that a beginner start learning wine?
Pick up a book and grab a glass.

How about collecting?
If you're asking about my personal collection, it's really non-existent. I keep drinking what's in it. I have a couple cases of wine stored up, but my collection doesn't really increase in size beyond that. Collecting is a delicious hobby, and I'm not good at it.

Do you have a fave budget-friendly bottle (how much does it cost)?
Terre dei Roveri Barolo, $34. It's the best Barolo for the money I have EVER drunk.

Favorite beverage to drink when you're not sampling wines?

What's your number one wine-rule to live by?
To always maintain humility—the world of wine is vast, there's always someone you can learn from. No one knows it all.
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Kevin Rathbun Steak

154 Krog Street Northeast, , GA 30307 (404) 524-5600 Visit Website