In the SevenFifty Daily Supertasters video series, we choose the wines, then challenge some of the industry’s best palates to blind tastings in an effort to glean their extraordinary techniques.
Caleb Ganzer is the wine director and a managing partner at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a natural-wine bar and bistro in New York City. Originally from Wilmington, Illinois, Ganzer attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and spent his senior year studying abroad in France and working part-time at the Flute Champagne Lounge in Paris. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in international studies and French, he moved to New York to pursue a hospitality career in wine. Before starting at La Compagnie in 2015, he was a somm at Eleven Madison Park, as well as at Daniel and a few other Daniel Boulud Dinex Group outposts.
While La Compagnie’s 20-plus-page wine list is strongly focused on French wines, its offerings extend across five continents, and Ganzer is a master at presenting even the most exclusive wines in fun, down-to-earth, and captivating ways, as evidenced in the themed wine events he hosts, such as Compagnie’s annual Breakin’ Bojo party, which combines Beaujolais wines, breakdancing, old-school hip hop, and Ganzer’s favorite apparel—tracksuits. In December the bar will host a Very Mele Kalikimaka holiday pop-in, which Ganzer says will feature Hawaiian-themed holiday celebrations throughout the month and specials like Pét-Nat Punch, Hurricane Popcorn, and a version of the pupu platter with French vittles that Ganzer has dubbed the Oui-Oui Platter.
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After shooting our Supertasters video with Ganzer, SevenFifty Daily spoke with him about his approach to wine, his go-to bottle, and his new wine education app.
SevenFifty Daily: What was the epiphany that got you interested in wine—or made you want to become a sommelier?
Caleb Ganzer: It was while I was working as a server in college at a couple of Italian restaurants. My professors would come in and they’d be asking me questions about what wines they should be pairing with their dishes. It was the moment I realized anyone could be a teacher, and it made me want to learn more about wine and share that knowledge with others.
How would you describe your approach to wine?
I start by thinking about winemakers. I want them to come to Compagnie and feel comfortable. They are my “spirit animal,” so to speak. The best thing about most winemakers that I love, respect, drink their wines, and include on Compagnie’s list is that they’re at the top of their craft—they’re often humble farmers or folks simply living an enriched yet simple life. They’re the coolest, most down-to-earth people, who make some very delicious—and occasionally expensive and allocated—fermented grape juice.
For some reason, somewhere in the supply chain, some folks like to make wine a fussy beverage. I’ve never met any winemakers that I respect who treat wine as a fussy beverage. They approach it in a matter-of-fact, egalitarian, respectful manner, taking what they do seriously but not taking themselves so seriously. They wouldn’t feel comfortable in an uptight wine bar, but they do like their wines served at the right temperature, in a good glass, in a fun, festive, environment with good food on the table. This is my inspiration for Compagnie. Do right by the vigneron and everything will fall into place.
What do you love most about your job?
I love the creative outlets it offers. Sure, it’s a lot of hard work and boring Excel spreadsheets and emails, but there are also countless ways to use the wine bar format to add to the global dialogue around wine and food.
What go-to bottle of wine—or other drink—are you most likely to open on a night off?
Tissot BBF [Blanc de Blancs en fût de chêne (oak-aged Chardonnay)] Crémant du Jura. It’s probably the best sparkling wine dollar for dollar. I can often be found crushing a bottle of this. It’s sooo tasty!
If you had to guess, about how many wines would you say you’ve blind-tasted and formally evaluated for professional purposes?
What was your most memorable blind tasting—good or bad?
I’ll likely never forget incorrectly guessing Viura for Assyrtiko on camera.
How does blind-tasting help wine professionals better understand wine?
It helps you to develop a shared language around wine, which a sommelier or server can then use to communicate details about a range of wines to guests.
Do you conduct blind tastings as part of your staff training?
Occasionally. I don’t normally do blind tastings as part of our formal training, but many of our somms are studying for various exams and participate in blind-tasting groups on their own time. Sometimes I’ll pop a bottle and pour it blind during service and let them think about it. This is how I usually introduce new wines that we serve by the bottle so the staff have a chance to taste things that aren’t by the glass.
Compagnie’s daily “mystery wines” are a fun exercise in blind-tasting—how does it work?
It’s kind of a lovely, quirky little game that I actually inherited from the bar’s Paris and London locations. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it in the beginning, but I’ve learned to love it. The best part is that there’s a hugely positive response from nonindustry folks. It doesn’t really follow the rules of traditional Court of Master Sommeliers or Wine & Spirit Education Trust blind tastings—it’s more fun and finite.
The mystery red and white wines are always ones in our bottle list that cost less than $100. Each guest gets a glass. If they guess the wine right, they win a bottle; if they get it wrong, they buy the glass. We keep the wine a secret until it’s guessed or we run out of the allotment intended for mystery-wine consumption, and then we reveal it en masse via our Instagram. It keeps the game fun, festive, and fair—it also allows folks to narrow down their guesses if they think they’re on the right path.
Do you apply any of the skills you’ve learned from blind-tasting in your day-to-day work as a wine professional?
Yes. It can be helpful to notice where “look-alike” wines pop up in blind tastings. For example, I often confuse Châteauneuf-du-Pape with Amarone, but by recognizing their similarities, I can use that as an opportunity to introduce a guest who loves one of these wine styles to the other, and vice versa.
What’s your number one piece of advice for people who want to improve their blind-tasting skills?
Go into each and every glass objectively—and deductively. Don’t bring any emotion or preconceived notions into it, because it clouds your judgment.
What’s been your most memorable wine experience?
Saving up my tips and splurging on the tasting menu and premium wine pairing for my 22nd birthday at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. Because they were buying so deeply so early on, they had amassed enough Château Haut-Brion 1982 to be pouring it that night with the beef course—and it blew me away.
What can you tell us about your new app—Vknow?
I partnered with the adaptive learning technology company Area9 to create Vknow. It’s a first-of-its-kind customizable online education course that teaches people about wine in a fun and unpretentious way. The lessons are based on a user’s individual wine knowledge and needs. It’s an app that gives a leg up to professionals who are just starting out in their careers, but it can also benefit seasoned hospitality vets who’ve been tasked with training a team of newer folks. It drastically shortens the learning curve for wine service—and wine knowledge in general. I’m very excited about the positive feedback I’ve been getting.