Somme Wisdom: Brian Duncan inspires us to become interested in wine


Brian Duncan / Photo: Tom Gavin

Brian Duncan, recognized by Newcity in 2020 as a “The best man who will tell you which wine to drink” was one of the founders of Bin 36, Chicago’s legendary wine bar. Duncan has been named a gourmet wine cellar Wine Director of the Year, and he received four nominations for James Beard before founding Down to Earth Concepts, which specialize in interactive wine and food seminars. Duncan recently joined Michael Lachowicz as a sommelier George Trois group.

I told Duncan that I think most of the Somms have the goal of making wine more accessible and accessible to the general public, and he replied, “A lot of them would to say That. At Bin 36, however, our entire concept was designed for accessibility, which requires that you train not only your team, but also your guests. “

So how do you make wine more accessible and accessible?

“Honor the guest’s experience,” says Duncan. “You have to start where the people are; then you have guided experiences. I’ll give you an example. A very good friend of mine was having a wedding in Napa. My gift to him was to take a tour and when we first stopped they all ordered glasses of champagne and there were several people literally drinking up the wine. So I had to show them how to get more out of the experience, how to look at the wine, how to hold the glass, where to hold the glass, the color, appeal to all of the senses, how to smell. And then, when I counted to three, I let them have a sip of champagne and they weren’t allowed to swallow it until I told them to. Then we talk about what happens in each part of their tongue, during the tasting process, what they perceive in certain places. If you do such an exercise, it will change the person for the rest of their life. You begin to understand why things taste the way they taste, the textures. Then move into the area of ​​food and wine pairing techniques, strategies that people can use in their everyday lives. It is a good general rule for anyone to slow down and take the time to think about what you are eating and drinking. Don’t eat or drink too quickly. Take your time. Think about it.”

I was curious to see whether his approach to wine selection would change from restaurant to restaurant or whether general principles would apply everywhere. “Wines can function better in one environment than in another. Aboyer and George Trois wines follow Michael’s food. That’s reasonable, and the food is a great guide in creating a wine program. And as the menus evolve and the dishes change, I see some options, but the food is always the main idea.

“And what a wonderful platform to work with! What I missed most about catering wasn’t the 90 hours I worked each week; it was the interaction with the guests. I missed that more than ever. I made wine in California and a few other places and sold it across the country, but overall I wasn’t as happy as I was with diners.

“I’m there to convince our guests to play with us; they entrust us with the food so that they can entrust us with the wine. Pairing is a lock-and-key situation. The wine should make the food taste better and the food should make the wine taste better. And so, with the limited time I have with guests, I create confidence in my decisions. What usually happens is after you have had your first or second wine you are on board. “

Brian Duncan / Photo: David Hammond

There is a stereotype of the sommelier as a presumptuous, chic pants snob. Duncan is clearly none of those things.

“People value authenticity,” says Duncan, “and in multi-aisle situations it can be a little intimidating. I used to call such restaurants “culinary places of worship” in which everything is very rigid and devout. Neither the guests nor the waiters are authentic and relaxed, and there is a cold stiffness. I’m just not made for it. When you come to my dining room, I’ve been waiting for you and I’m waiting for you. And I want to learn as much as possible about you without being intrusive, so that I can sense your needs and where we are going. “

Since people sometimes lack confidence in their wine tasting skills, they may be hesitant to tell you that they really don’t like a wine that has been served to them. Does that happen very often?

“Guests often tell me in advance what they don’t like, but one evening I had a guest who seemed disappointed with a white Burgundy. She had drunk the wine as soon as it was poured; she didn’t let the wine open. Just a few minutes later the temperature of the wine dropped and she said, ‘It’s beautiful!’ Sometimes the wine just didn’t develop enough in the glass. “

This lady just didn’t take the time to bring her glass of wine to life. That was a mistake, and maybe she learned from it. Are there common mistakes people make when ordering a wine or pairing it with certain foods? Some people choose to have their favorite wines – such as a cab or pinot noir – with every meal they order.

“There are some bad reactions one can have to wine and certain types of chili peppers. In wines with a high tannin content, the tannins can act like gasoline, and with the alcohol, the heat has fuel. The tannins that create the mouth-cracking sensation release more heat. “

Everything Duncan said made a lot of sense to me, and I wondered aloud if anyone could be a sommelier, or if an outstanding sommelier really needs to be born with innate skills to recognize flavors in wines and create a perfect combination.

“Can people learn to taste better? Yes, “confirms Duncan,” and over the years I’ve had the privilege of educating countless people. Many of these people today have their own wine careers, they have their own restaurants, they have influential positions in the wine industry. It all depends on how well you are able to get people excited about caring. “

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