Since opening in April 2014, Lusca has received numerous accolades for its fresh, inventive food and expansive and diverse beverage program. There aren't many restaurants around town where one can find back vintage Chateau Musar or Lopez de Heredia on the same list alongside Sherry by the glass and more than a dozen unique bottles of sake. Eater Atlanta recently sat down with Stuart White, general manager and beverage director at Lusca to talk about his passion for wine, sake, and finding the right drink for each dish.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became interested in food and wine.
Restaurant work was a means to pay my way through school, and it turned out that I enjoyed restaurant work more than what I was studying. I found wine when I was very young. I was 19 and was working as a busboy at Murphy's in Virginia-Highland. I got promoted to be a waiter at lunch time and the staff at Murphy's were really great at exposing us to wine. I had a lot of my first experiences with wines there — experiences I still remember today, like pairing foie gras and Sauternes, and trying wines with age, getting the opportunity to go back several vintages to see how aged wines develop. So I was hooked from that early age on the restaurant and beverage industry. Wine was my first love, but I know quite a bit about sake and cocktails. I've been here at Lusca for about a year. The chef, Angus Brown, and I are good friends. We met at Miller Union, and then he left to do his own thing at Octopus Bar. I helped them initially set things up at Octopus Bar while I was still at Miller Union before I made the move over here about one year ago.
Do you remember the first wine that made you really say "wow"?
I can't remember a specific wine, perhaps, but trying old Burgundy was what fascinated me the most — that something could taste so earthy and still have balance and be refreshing and enjoyable. Tasting old Burgundy was definitely a lightbulb experience. And the foie gras and Sauternes experience I mentioned earlier was a food-pairing experience that really set a light off for me.
Can you tell us your philosophy/approach to how you have stocked your wine list at Lusca?
I find that the average customer here in Buckhead is really pretty wine-savvy. They know a good bit about California, they know Burgundy, and Tuscany to a certain extent. So they don't come in here looking to blow it out with those types of wines. I try to find them something different, maybe a value wine, a wine that tastes like a good Burgundy, but at a much lower price point. Or I try to find a wine from a unique region that has similar qualities to something they normally drink. That is my favorite thing to do, and because of that, my list has a focus on unique and smaller areas like the Jura in France. Or my current favorites like Piedmont in Italy or the Loire Valley in France.
What are a couple of your favorite unique, budget-friendly wines on the list now?
There's actually some great value Sherry on our list. Like the Orleans Borbon Manzanilla Fina Sherry on the list for $7 per glass. We do a lot of oyster and raw bar stuff here and Sherry is a great match for everything from raw oysters to ham. The Loire Valley is also a current favorite region for value wines that pair well with all sorts of foods. The Domaine du Closel Savennieres La Jalousie, a Chenin Blanc, is on our list for $50 and it's rich and decadent, but also dry and not overdone. It's all organic with very little manipulation, and it's a pure and expressive wine that goes well with many raw and fresh dishes on our menu.
I think it's interesting, and pretty awesome, that Lusca has a rather interesting and diverse selection of back vintage wines on the list. Can you say a little bit about this?
It was started by Tim Willard, the former sommelier here. It was meant to be an accessible way for an average consumer or wine lover to be able to come in and try a wine that has aged to its full potential. Right now we have anything from 1980s German Riesling to early ‘90s Spanish Rioja. These are wines that can age incredibly gracefully. Tim set the program up and it had been easy for me to continue that. Often, we only get a couple bottles of an aged wine and we try to save those bottles for customers we know will really appreciate it. Oxidized and orange wines are becoming more popular, and there are some older vintages of that type of stuff available as those wines age really well. There is a new consumer who really likes those developed flavors that you can get from much older wines — not just orange wines, but wines that have been aging for a while. Part of this has to do with the natural wine movement that's really moving towards wines that are much more expressive of what they are and where they are from. There's a similar movement going on with sake.
Since you mention sake, tell us more about sake and how it found its way to be an integral part of your list.
We keep a good bit of sake on the list and it keeps growing as my knowledge gets better and deeper. Similar to the natural wine movement, there's a movement to get back to a more traditional style of sake. During World War II, basically due to a lack of rice, there was a period, and this continued for many years, in which they added liquor or sugar to hide imperfections in the sake. It got to the point where quality took a nose dive. Current sake drinkers are demanding producers bring the quality back up and return to more traditional methods using less manipulation. Sake is unique in that technology has actually improved the quality of sake overall, unlike wine, where more traditional producers are focused on using more natural methods.
What can you tell us about the sake on the Lusca list now?
Most of the sake we offer is Junmai style, which in Japanese means pure rice. Basically, Junmai doesn't have liquor as an additive to arrest fermentation to add flavor. Junmai is just rice, water, yeast, and the mold, called koji, which creates an enzymatic process that breaks down and ferments the sugars more easily.
What are the biggest misconceptions most people have about sake? Why isn't it more popular in this country?
I think there is a residual effect from the quality levels dropping from the 1950s through the 1980s. You drink too much of that rot-gut sake that had sugar added and you wake up with a nasty hangover. The sake we serve is at the very top quality level of all sake, in the top 15 percent of all sake. The best part is sake is easy to enjoy. It doesn't have to be a complicated thing. If you see the word Junmai it is probably a good thing. Working at Lusca where we focus on so many beautiful raw ingredients, sake is a wonderful thing to have up my sleeve when people want to try something new or out of their comfort zone.
Can you talk a little bit about pairing sake with food?
As a certified sommelier, from a food and beverage pairing standpoint, sake opens up a lot of interesting possibilities. Wine and food pair together nicely, but as a Western-style sommelier, you see food and wine paired together in a specific way. Often we focus on similar qualities coming together, like a wine with grassiness and goat cheese, those types of similarities really play off each other. Sake is interesting in that the beverage sits as a foundation and it is really meant to make each food taste more like what the food really tastes like. Rather than add a flavor, or contrast a flavor, sake has this enzymatic reaction, this amino acid thing, almost like an umami-like quality. If you are going to spend money on the fattest level of tuna, which is very buttery with a subtle flavor, you don't want to take anything away from that. A nice Junmai daiginjo sake is so restrained and elegant that it will make all of those subtle mineral flavors in the fish pop out. Wine evolved to match with the cuisine of the Western world, whereas Japanese sake was first and Japanese cuisine was built around sake. It's sort of the opposite of what we traditionally do in the West.
What are you drinking these days when not drinking wine and sake?
Well, to be honest, I mostly drink wine and sake. However, I was recently in Oaxaca, Mexico, and was able to drink a good bit of artisanal mezcal. I think that's something the American consumer should look forward to. In Mexico, you have countless artisanal mezcals, some fermented in concrete, some barrels; we even tried one fermented in leather. Amazing stuff. Maybe with more interest we'll get more of the artisanal mezcals here as they are amazing.
— Eater Atlanta contributor Dennis Attick