In Conversation with Sommelier Erin Ryan White

Erin Ryan White (pictured, left) is the sommelier at August, the contemporary French restaurant owned by award-winning chef, John Besh in New Orleans. With 33 years of far-reaching experience, White brings her highly approachable and informed style to pairing wines from a cellar that has put August on the list of “America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants” by Wine Enthusiast magazine. Kaveri Ponnapa spoke to White in a freewheeling interview on behalf of Sommelier India.

What brought you to the world of wine?
It has all of the things I like wrapped into one. It has the beauty of colour and fragrance, flavours and energy. Like all art, it makes you feel. All wine has something to say. In some wines you may not enjoy the experience, in others, it may be heaven in a glass. It is never boring because it changes every year. It can be a history lesson or you can close your eyes and travel via your senses. A deep sniff of a Barolo and you are back in northern Italy.
August is featured on Wine Enthusiast magazine’s list of America’s Best 100 Wine Restaurants, how have you influenced the selections?
The list is definitely more French than any other country. Bordeaux can be a bit big so there are only four selections. We have a diverse wine list but the sheer number of selections in certain regions suggests what I think pairs with our menu. Our menu is Contemporary French so Burgundy is favoured and Sauvignon Blanc tends to be from the Loire Valley and not New Zealand. I love New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc but it is not as subtle by intention. Pinot Noir choices outnumber other reds. Most styles are represented but some regions have only one or two selections. It is a subtle but effective way to influence selection.
In India, many diners are eager to experiment, but also slightly intimidated and cost conscious. You have a significant by-the-glass selection. How do you direct this to your and your guests’ advantage?
My open bottles are tools. I can sell a glass with the first course of seafood and a bottle with the main course. All dishes on the menu have a glass pairing. We can do a personalised pairing for you with whatever you choose to eat. We have a better profit margin on wine by the glass, which makes it worth the effort. The guest spends the same money as if buying a bottle but may get four or five different wines to try. It is more interactive with the staff, if you are feeling adventurous and want that kind of dinner experience. If a quiet conversation over dinner is the night you desire, a bottle is better.
I like to be able to pour a sip of wine if words fail. Sometimes a guest may not understand what minerality tastes like. I can pour a sip of Sancerre and it is clearer. One sip is our baseline. From that sip the guest will say “too dry,” or ” just right”. I always give two price points from the cellar. They can choose what is a comfortable price.
August has a BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle) policy with no corkage fee. Would you like to comment on this?
John Besh, believes that we have invited guests into August and they are like a guest at home. August is our home and Besh is a very gracious person. The BYOB policy is a part of his hospitality. A way to make a friend and a return guest. Most people are respectful that selling wine is how we pay our staff and do not abuse this policy. I have to say this year there have been some real gems, 1945 Château Haut- Brion, 2003 DRC Montrachet, 1991 Musigny, Comte de Vogüé. I get to try some amazing wines that people bring from their own cellars!
What are your top selling wines and how have they changed over the years?
Pinot Noir is our top selling varietal. We also sell the most of what we are excited about. I sell a lot of Crozes-Hermitage Blanc, 100% Marsanne from Ferraton Père & Fils. It goes with four dishes on the menu. Very versatile. Dry, but rich like a Chardonnay, it has clean minerality like a Sauvignon Blanc and profiles of stone fruits and almonds. It is perfect, paired with Marcona almond-crusted, soft shell crabs over a brown butter custard, topped with a warm tomato and green bean salad. It’s moderately priced as well. You can sell whatever you believe in.
What would be one of your most memorable pairings on the August menu?
It was a vegetarian course of squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese and roasted tomatillo, paired with a 2001 Château Musar white, (Obaideh and Merwah, native Lebanese grape varietals) from Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. This wine was strange for many people and definitely out of their comfort zone. It has a lightly oxidised sherry-like character. They were unsure about it and I would ask for patience. It was exciting to see them change their opinion. I have been doing a flight of Madieras with our cheese course after dinner as well. Madeira may be making a comeback!
You have spoken elsewhere of pairing wines not just with the food but also with the personality of the guest. Could you explain?
This is my 33rd year in the wine business. I have spent a lot of time doing just that. I think wine is very personal and what you select should meet your guest’s needs, not what you would want to drink. I think of it as an energy reading more than a psychoanalytic review. Did you have a tiring day? Is this a business dinner with powerful men? Are you celebrating a birthday? Is it very hot outside? All these things influence my suggestions.
There still are fewer women than men in this field. What are some of the challenges you face, if any?
This is simply my own experience. European maitre d’s did not believe women had a place in fine dining. There was some resistance from guests as well. It was also usually men who selected the wines. I was tested by a regular guest when I first started. He was a ship captain and very much in control. He asked “which of these three wines would you select?” There was only one right answer. If I had gone for the most expensive bottle, rare but not the best choice, he would have lost his trust in me.
I think the biggest challenge was working the dining room while I was pregnant. It was at The Windsor Court Hotel, rated #1 in the US at the time. It is a very formal dining room. Our GM was very progressive and never thought to remove me from the dining room. It really did surprise diners. I bought a beautiful Hino & Malee designer suit to help look the part. I always spit when tasting wine, so it was not a problem continuing, and my sense of smell was very acute. I think I survived all the tests and came out winning! You always have to do your best. I found that the hurdles in my way made me leap higher, rather than blocking my way.
What is the most memorable bottle you have opened in the recent past?
I think it was 1967 Château d’Yquem, from Sauternes, Bordeaux. I did not expect it to be as amazing as it was. I already really loved dessert wines but had questioned spending a lot for Château d’Yquem. I don’t question spending on Burgundy or Riesling. However, the 1967 Chateau d’Yquem is in the all-time greats record book and belongs there. It was mind-blowing. Stored in pristine conditions, it was a revelation. Layers of nectarine, honey, coconut, burnt orange peel, orchids and cardamom. I will never forget it. ❖

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