5 Bottles

How a Newly Minted Master Sommelier Sells Wines

Jackson Rohrbaugh at Seattle’s Canlis on the importance of listening and observing on the floor

portrait of Jackson Rohrbaugh
Photo courtesy of Jackson Rohrbaugh.

In our series 5 Bottles I Sold Last Night, sommeliers and wine directors talk about the bottles that they’re selling, giving tips and context for making the sale.

Industry honors like James Beard Award nominations come with some added responsibilities. The fun part, of course, is the recognition and celebration. What comes next, however, is the real measuring stick of long-term success: maintaining the high standards of quality and service that got you there.

That’s something we’re constantly striving for with the wine program at Canlis. Since opening in 1950, the restaurant has set the standard for fine dining in Seattle. Our commitment to excellence is reflected in everything we do, from how we guide guests through our 88-page wine list to how we polish stemware. We are constantly refining every part of our service to create a truly memorable dining experience for guests.

As assistant wine director, I work closely with director Nelson Daquip, who has been an invaluable mentor throughout my career, to curate and oversee our wine list. Our vision is twofold: We consider it our duty to introduce people to great new things from standout Washington vintners like Kerloo Cellars—we can be a voice for someone who is getting started and doing good work—and we showcase the great classic wines of the world, especially Rhône reds.

On a more personal level, as a sommelier, you have to always keep fine-tuning your observational skills. I always think back to a story Nelson once told me about this brash, cocky, opinionated young somm who had the chance to sit down with one of the best winemakers in the world, and guess who did most of the talking? Nelson taught me early on not to be that guy. I’m thrilled to have earned my MS pin, but I never miss the opportunity to learn something new, whether it’s a new-to-me winemaker or more about the guests I’m serving.

Here, some insight into five bottles I sold last night (the prices shown are what we charge in the restaurant).

The wine cellar at Canlis. Photo courtesy of Canlis.

1. Monier-Perréol Les Serves Syrah, St.-Joseph, France 2013; $135

I had a table ask for something cool, funky, savory, and peppery. There are a few places you can take someone with that, but when they say savory and peppery, I’m already hearing a northern Rhône Syrah in my head. Then you ask, “Do you mind a little bit of funk or animal character?” If their eyes light up, you say, “Okay, we’re going to take you down the rabbit hole to the northern Rhône.” This is a 2013, so it sounds like it might be too young or too structured, but they open up very early and you can drink one with only a couple of years of age on it. It’s the epitome of a Syrah producer from this region: funky, balanced, and very earthy.

2. Domaine Ostertag Fronholz Grand Cru Riesling, Alsace, France 2012; $85

I sold this bottle of dry Riesling to a couple who were looking for a wine to celebrate her birthday. She loves dry Riesling, and they wanted something to go with their black cod and salmon, so I guided them to this bottle. Riesling often gets overlooked when people are thinking about entrées or wines to drink throughout an entire dinner. Sometimes Riesling is considered the appetizer wine and nothing else, but if there’s one white that can go the distance with food pairing, this is it. They were willing to spend more, but to me this wine delivers texture, richness, and palate-cleansing freshness for a pretty awesome price.

3. Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California 1985; $475

I had some regulars who were entertaining overseas businessmen, and they were looking to impress. They gave me a $400 budget per bottle, and they wanted a white and a red. The red needed to be something aged and special. They gave me these guidelines and let me go for it, so I decided to swing the prices in favor of the red. I poured them a great white Burgundy for around $300 so that I could have the freedom to spend closer to $500 on their red. And this one is an absolute showpiece of an aged Napa red. They were floored by it. I got a taste of the wine, and it was a perfect example of aged Cabernet Sauvignon: spicy, powerful, and full of tertiary notes, with a nice streak of fresh green bell pepper.

4. Domenico Clerico Pajana Barolo, Piedmont, Italy 2010; $225

A woman asked me to help her family select a variety of wines. There was a big difference in tastes at the table. She was pretty wine savvy, but she was concerned that her family might not want the same types of wines, so she asked me for help in picking some crowd-pleasing styles. She liked Italian wine, and her brother liked big, spicy New World wines, so I had my work cut out for me. Many Italian wines can seem acidic or sharp to New World palates, so I wanted to avoid more rustic producers. I ultimately guided her toward this bottle to start the meal. This is a producer that makes oak-driven, polished, and fruit-forward examples of Nebbiolo that are major crowd pleasers. Her brother loved it, and so did she.

5. Terre des Chardons Bien Luné Grenache/Syrah, Rhône Valley, France 2015; $48

Some guests asked me for a low-sulfur wine. They were also looking for something Old World and savory that wasn’t too tannic. Carving wine into opposing camps of sulfured and nonsulfured is not something I’m a huge fan of in general, but I think certain wines really benefit from sulfur. We just brought on this wine, which is made in a part of the Rhône Valley called Costières de Nîmes. Their budget was $50 to $75, so this wine actually came in slightly under budget and fit the guests’ needs perfectly. It’s medium bodied, fresh, and peppery, with a very low intervention style of winemaking. It’s so fresh and thirst quenching that you could put it in the fridge an hour before you open it. They were floored by it—I could tell by how quickly the wine disappeared.

—As told to Blane Bachelor

A native of the Seattle area, Jackson Rohrbaugh has accumulated several industry honors in his career, including the Rudd Scholarship, participation in the Finals of the Young Sommelier Competition, and, mostly recently, his master sommelier title. At Canlis, which in spring 2017 earned a James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Program, Rohrbaugh works closely with wine director Nelson Daquip to oversee the restaurant’s 88-page wine list.

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