Jordan Smelt has been the wine & beverage director at Cakes & Ale since 2012. Smelt is a certified Level Two Sommelier who schooled himself in all things wine and beverage while working at Holeman & Finch in the late 2000s. He currently oversees the beverage program at Cakes & Ale and the new and highly lauded Bread & Butterfly. Eater recently spoke with Smelt about his development in the food and wine business and what it's like to create and continually refine wine lists for two of the top restaurants in greater Atlanta.
Tell us a little bit about your background, how you became interested in wine, and your role now at Cakes & Ale and Bread & Butterfly.
After college, I spent some time working in food and beverage at a large convention hotel in San Diego. I realized I didn't want to work in a hotel of that size, I needed something smaller, and I loved San Diego, but at the same time, I didn't love San Diego. I moved back to Atlanta and started working with the Sedgwick Restaurant Group. I worked with Concentrics for a few years and then in 2008 was hired simultaneously at both Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch. The four years I spent there certainly pushed me down the path of wine and food being a real career, not just a way to earn money. After a year, I was the general manager at Holeman & Finch and I also had started building the wine program. Those were good days, there was a lot of good energy at Holeman & Finch in those days.
After several years, I had become really interested in wine and started thinking about my favorite place to drink wine and dine around town. Turns out that Cakes & Ale was where I most often found myself when I had time. I absolutely loved the wine list in their early days â it was such a chef's wine list. It was totally Billy Allin's list. I approached Billy in the spring of 2012 over a pint of Guinness and told him I wanted to work for him and take over his wine list and beverage program. It was a short conversation, and he welcomed me on board. I've been with him sever since.
'... there is constant evolution of both the food and wine menu at Cakes'
How do you approach pairing wines with dishes on the menu at Cakes & Ale considering the menu changes often according to season and what's available locally?
My partnership with Billy has been phenomenal, though we are separated now more than we've ever been with Bread & Butterfly opening. Billy and I used to talk and taste wine nearly every day. We have developed a dialogue that has led to a real synergy between food and wine. I look at things he's done on the menu and realize, "shoot, I need to make changes to the wine list." Similarly, he'll see changes to the wine list and will have the same reaction in regard to the food. We push each other all the time. Bill and I both get bored quickly with menus, so there is constant evolution of both the food and wine menu at Cakes. It's one of the reason we work so well together. It works for us. It's very special and very unique. It's been a lot of fun.
Can you tell us your philosophy regarding wine as part of the dining experience?
Wine is special in the sense that unlike a beer or cocktail, a bottle of wine is meant to be enjoyed with others. It's meant to be shared with friends. I think sometimes people see a bottle of wine on a wine list and think it's too expensive, but often that is a misperception. If four people are going to spend $11 to $12 each on a cocktail or glass of wine, than you can afford a $45 to $50 bottle of wine. When you are out dining, as a consumer, all of the value is in ordering wine by the bottle. Plus, when you order by the bottle you are getting a new bottle of wine, not a wine that has been sitting open for some time. This is why diners should rely on sommeliers. When you are out at a restaurant that has a sommelier or wine director, rely on that person. That is what we who do this job want to do. On a busy night, when the kitchen is backed up and things aren't going well, I'm happy to see a customer who wants to talk wine. It's what I love to do.
'... all of the value is in ordering wine by the bottle'
Tell us a little bit about the wine list at Bread & Butterfly?
Bread & Butterfly is meant to be a bistro, a brasserie, an all-day café, a place where you can tailor your B&B experience in any way you want. We are open for breakfast, we're open to grab a coffee on your way to work, for lunch with friends, or dinner for a group. We have a great versatility in the experiences we provide. That being said, the menu has a lower price point then Cakes & Ale, in true bistro style. The menu is full of soulful, warm and classic dishes that you will want to come back for. I knew I wanted the wine list to be smaller and more concise. I toyed initially with the idea of only serving French wine and no wine by the glass. I did talk myself off that ledge. I wanted the list to be very much like a French café wine list with smart, reasonably priced bottles. We pour a good bit of Loire Valley wines, many by the glass. We also have a nice selection of Champagnes and sparkling wines, and several are under $50 per bottle. We also have a small section of esoteric American wines on the list.
What are a couple of your favorite bottles on the B&B list right now?
The Les Capriades Pet Sec, a sparkling wine from the Loire Valley that has bracing acidity. It just grabs you. It's mostly Chenin Blanc and it is bone dry and goes well with various foods. It's perfect for a group of four people to go along with a fist course of oysters or shrimp remoulade. We also have the Sancerre from Hippolyte Reverdy on the list at $55. It is one of the best Sancerres out there. For reds, I really like the Bourgogne Passetoutgrain from Robert Chevillon which is on our list for $45.
What's your favorite wine region?
The Loire Valley. It's why Loire Valley wines make up a large portion of the list at B&B. The Loire offers so much versatility and it is arguably the greatest wine region for paring with an array of food choices. I also really like sparkling wine. I wish more people would drink sparkling wine as part of the meal. So many sparkling wines have incredible complexity and match so well with food. We still have a belief in this country, that stems partly from popular culture, that sparkling wine is only to be consumed as part of a celebration. It can be so much more than that.
'I wish more people would drink sparkling wine as part of the meal'
You've certainly seen some changes in the Atlanta/Decatur dining and drinking scene in the last 10 years. What's changed around here over that time?
Things have changed, but then again, they haven't. Obviously, our cocktail culture changed in large part due to the work that started at Holeman & Finch in 2008. That same type of change could happen with wine if people took more chances. There really aren't enough good sommeliers in this city, which is unfortunate, as there are a lot of young people who could step out and push the envelope a little bit. Atlanta is so spread out, I think sommeliers sometimes feel shackled by their neighborhood or their clientele. They don't take chances with serving wines that they know are better, or wines they love, because they don't think people are going to buy it. That's unfortunate because the public doesn't know what they like yet. I've had so many experiences tasting something that I had no idea I would like. It's the job of a sommelier to teach people, to show them a wine that is new and different and interesting. There is a large percentage of the dining population that wants to learn about wine, they want to know why a wine is on the menu, why a specific wine might be special.
What do you drink when not drinking wine?
I love a good cocktail as much as the next guy. I love a good rye Manhattan, I love a proper Negroni. When it's hot, you'll see me drinking a simple gin and tonic or just a cold beer. I stick to what I know and what's good. Often, at the end of a long night, a simple Pilsner Urquell is just perfect.