Over the past 15 years, Aria has continued to be one of Atlanta's finest dining destinations. The wine list at the restaurant is deep and diverse and curated with an attention to detail that fits with the exceptional service Aria is known for. Eater recently talked with Aria's general manager and wine director, Andres Loaiza about his background wine, his ongoing wine explorations, and what it's like to maintain a wine program at one of the city's best restaurants.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became interested in wine.
I came to Atlanta looking for work in engineering and spent some time waiting tables. I had some great managers who saw that I was good with people and told me I should work my way up in restaurants. I spent some time at Kyma where I was mentored and first began to really study wine. In the beginning, I thought that if I really want to take care of people I need to know all that the restaurant offers. I started to study wine and tried get my head around it. I'm a pretty curious person and I can be kind of obsessive about things. Funny thing is, when you start reading about wine, you think you are just reading about Pinot Noir, but then you end up spending 25 minutes reading about geology and culture. Instead of turning me off, that aspect of wine continues to pull me into the subject. I'm now a Level Two Certified Sommelier and I'm also a certified Specialist of Wine. In November it will mark eight years that I have been at Aria.
Do you remember your lightbulb wine, the wine that made you first say, "wow"?
I remember one time a supplier came to me when my wine knowledge was pretty good, but still developing. She showed me a series of wines from the same producer, Vincent Girardin in Burgundy. She showed me Pinot Noir from Volnay, Savigny-Les-Beaune, and Santenay, all made by Girardin. I think it was the first time I tasted a lineup from the same producer, so that's part of it, but that's when the lightbulb went on for me. This is the same person, making these wines in almost the same manner, from vineyards just a few miles from each other, yet each wine was unique. The difference in soil composition, the difference in terroir, it was there. It was like, "Ah, now I get it." I still think about that experience now as I explore regions. Like now I'm exploring Italy on the list and I continue to think about regions and microclimates as I consider what each wine from each tiny little place is trying to tell me.
Can you tell us your philosophy and approach to how you stock the wine list at Aria?
There's always an ongoing exploration, not in the sense of chasing fads, but always looking for wines that perhaps we once couldn't get in Georgia. Maybe it's a new Chablis that's hand-harvested, so let's explore that a little bit. Overall, I look for wines that are food-friendly, and to that extent, that are seasonal and work with our changing menu.
So, how do you approach pairing wines with dishes on the menu?
Throughout the year I change the list to match our changing menu which always reflects the season — like the short rib dish that chef Gerry Klaskala is known for. If you are having that dish throughout the year, in the spring you see a different array of vegetables which changes the tone of the dish. This opens the door for different pairings. As it would when that dish is prepared in the winter months when it gets more muscular. I like to explore different regions and what is going on with wine in different and unique places, but I realize I'm not curating a wine cellar for myself. I obviously have to think about what are customers want and matching food to the dishes we serve.
What are a couple of your favorite budget-friendly bottles on the list now?
We have some great half bottles on the list that deliver nice value like the Silvaner from Wirsching that is $30. — great quality and a great bottle. Silvaner is a food-friendly white wine with lower acidity than Riesling. We're also just about to add to the list a nice Frappato from Arianna Occhipinti's Tami bottlings. We'll have that on the list by the glass as well. Those are exciting wines that offer terrific value. We also have some amazing Muscadet on the list like the 2010 Quatre from Domaine de la Pepiere for $59.
How about some splurge bottles on your list if I'm out celebrating?
If you are up for something off the beaten path, we have this great Rose from Chateau Simone in Provence for $132, a really cool Rose that you usually don't see around. It's almost the color of Burgundy. We also have a good number of back vintage and rare wines on our Cellar Selections list, like the 2011 Domaine Charvin Chateauneuf-du-Pape for $169 and 1990 Olga Raffault Chinon Les Picasses for $119. Those are both drinking really well right now.
What's an interesting wine region that's captured your attention recently?
Wines that are fascinating to me right now are Sicilian wines. I think they themselves are exploring and trying to really find what Sicilian wines mean. The topography there is so funny that it probably allows for a good amount of diverse styles. Those wines are fascinating to me. For an old favorite, Champagne is really interesting and important right now. I went to a Champagne master class recently where we talked about big houses versus smaller, grower Champagnes. For a long time we only saw one large blanket of what Champagne was like. The grower Champagne movement allows us to see the differences and little moving parts that make Champagne unique and interesting. Many people grow up thinking Champagne is a special occasion wine, but it is so versatile you can drink it with so many cuisines. It's not just for celebrations.
Aria has been an institution of fine dining in Atlanta for a while now. How have you gone about developing and maintaining relationships with your customers?
Our customers tend to know the wines they like. I think we are fortunate in that we have built a reputation for good quality food and consistency. That gives us a little bit of freedom as wine stewards on the floor. People lean on that reputation of consistency and good quality so they are more willing to let us take them on a trip. Our customers here tend to be very open and willing to let us choose wines for them. We also have a large percentage of regular customers who allow us to work with them with wine. We've certainly seen an uptick in the last few years with customers' wine and spirits knowledge. People are much more knowledgeable now. It challenges us, which is a good thing. We have to always continue to explore and look for good quality, interesting wines.
What are you drinking these days when not drinking wine?
I'm on a tea kick. I'm hooked on tea. I'm almost feeling now with tea the way I felt with wine 12 years ago. I've always respected tea, and enjoyed it, but a couple months ago I really discovered the beauty of tea. All the things you can do to the leaves to get the final product, the things that can be done during the brewing process. I'm the crazy person at home right now who has little pouches of tea and five different infusions going and I'm keeping track of infusion times and different tastes. I'm looking at differences between pots and the materials used, like using clay versus cast iron. Also, the size of the vessel and how that changes the infusion based on the type or color of the tea. I'm freaking out about tea.