What do you like to drink after a shift? “While my post-shift drink of choice often depends on the kind of day I’ve had, ultimately, I am looking for something crisp, refreshing and uplifting in style. If the day was a real grinder, then I am probably reaching for a heavily chilled/stirred gin Martini (Plymouth Gin), a crisp lager-style beer, such as a Kölsch (Sünner Kölsch), or a crisp, clean pilsner (Pilsner Urquell). I find I always go back to classic old-world styles of beer. After one palette cleansing beer, I am ready to dig into some wine. If I am drinking wine at the end of a long day, I want lighter bodied, higher acid versions, such as German/Austrian whites and reds, Bourgogne. While I am looking for a quality sparkling, I find I am not all that picky at the end of a long day, I just need refreshing juice.”
What is the all-time best dive bar jukebox song? “Following college, I moved to Austin, Texas, where I remained for about 14 years. Why is that important to know? When it comes to dive bar jukeboxes, I still prefer a little twang in the background because it makes me feel at home. Throw on Johnny Cash’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Rusty Cage” or a Hank Williams’ tune, and I’m happy. These songs speak to not letting anyone or situation beat you down, which I find oddly uplifting. I was, however, raised in Chicago so I will also throw a little soul and blues in and call out Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” or “Freddie’s Dead.””
Name the first good wine you ever drank and where you had it. “Growing up my first jobs were in restaurants. I got my first tastes of classic wines from classic old-world regions via many a great guest. Anything left behind in a decanter was fair game as well! Sometimes, I think the leftover decanter was a wink-wink kind of extra tip. The first moment of ‘wow, I need to know more about this juice’ was a Bordeaux, which I can’t quite recall specifically, but I think it was a high-ranked grand cru classé from Pauillac. It’s possible it was either a Pichon Longueville or Pichon Lalande, with about three ounces left with plenty of sediment in it. I remember it having this deep exotic earth funk backed by a freshness at the same time. It actually just made me stop and daydream for a bit in the middle of a crushing shift.”
What book on wine, cocktails, spirits or food is your go-to resource? “For wine, I always go back to The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, no matter what the edition. When it comes to spirits and cocktails, I love The Waldorf Astoria Bar Book by Frank Caiafa. If I need a food resource, I grab Larousse Gastronomique edited by Prosper Montagné.”
Name the wine region that took you the longest to truly understand. “Even after all these years, I am still learning about Burgundy. The thing I love the most about the journey of a sommelier is that the quest for knowledge is the most enjoyable part.”
What’s your favorite wine and food pairing? “When it comes to pairings, I am drawn to anything that is spicy and moderated by sweetness. My favorite pairing is German Riesling and Khao Soi. Additionally, I love a more hedonistic aged Napa Cabernet, Barolo or Barbaresco with red meat, preferably with some char.”
What’s the most common wine myth you have to debunk? “When talking about wine, the truth is often misrepresented when it comes to sulfur content. Sulfur is safe, in fact, it is everywhere! It tops the elemental chart and there is often more sulfur in many common foods we eat every day than in the wine we drink. Sulfur is the natural byproduct of fermentation and fermentation is natural to the process of producing many of the foods we eat.”
What’s your favorite bottle of wine under $20? “It is nearly impossible for me to pick just one wine. To me, that’s like picking your favorite song which, for most of us, changes moment by moment. With that in mind, when I am shopping and want to stay under $20, I look for southern Rhône options. Some others to consider are Languedoc-Roussillon, which has lots of great deals, Loire Valley Chenin, Piedmont’s Barbera, Spanish Grenache or Monastrell.”
What’s your favorite bottle of wine over $500? “I love older vintages of Champagne from top houses like Salon 96, Duval-Leroy and Krug. After that, I look for old Bordeaux and Napa Cabernets, Grand Cru Burgundy from Ramonet, Ponsot for whites (Montrachet) and Dom Leroy and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti for reds (Vosne- Romanée).”
What tool do you use to open a bottle? “I use a long, sharp blade. I recommend a simple version, such as the Vintage Image from France. It’s light, durable and very simple—nothing fancy, but works perfectly. For old corks, I use any two-pronged opener, like the Ah-So or the Durand.”
Brian Phillips is the advanced sommelier of The Capital Grille restaurant group.
Interview has been condensed and edited.