Diners drinking more wine and learning more about it

by Lynn Lofton

Published: July 19,2004

Drinking wine is becoming more popular in Mississippi as residents become more knowledgeable about the fruit of the grape and a larger selection is available, so say wine stewards at three of the state’s best restaurants, BRAVO! and Schimmels in Jackson and the Purple Parrot in Hattiesburg. Palates are changing as attitudes change.

Certified through the World Court of Master Sommeliers, Leslie McCarty has been at BRAVO! since it opened 10 years ago. She was a bartender and bar manager before completing the rigorous master sommelier certification process. She took over the wine program there in 1997 and has built the list to include 400 wine selections. There is also an extensive wine-by-the-glass list that McCarty changes out often to keep it interesting.

“We didn’t have much when we first opened, but in the past five to six years the state has gotten a lot better about getting better wines,” she said. “There are more brokers and we can special order through wineries. We can build a wine list to what we want it to be now.”

McCarty, 35, said until recently there wasn’t much to choose from on the state’s wine list. Selections were confined to California wines such as Kendall Jackson and Beringer. Now, she feels people in Mississippi have become more sophisticated and educated about wines.

She thinks diet and health are playing a role in increased wine consumption in the state. “Doctors are advocating that drinking red wine is good for your heart and it’s low in carbs,” she said. “People are learning to appreciate wine and that it complements a meal. People are definitely willing to spend money on wine.”

While she acknowledges that martinis are still a craze, McCarty finds that diners at BRAVO! are drinking a lot of dry, crisp white wines. Chardonnay has been replaced by pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.

“We have just about everything anyone would want,” she said. “We don’t push Italian wines because they’re earthy and bitter. In this town, people want wines to be fruity. That’s California and Australia wines.”

McCarty says the old rules governing the drinking of red and white wines is completely false. She recommends drinking what you want. However, she feels that white wine goes better with lighter fare.

“When deciding which wine to drink, it’s not necessarily the meat,” she said. “You must consider the entire ingredient list, the sauces and spices of the meat. You don’t want the wine to overpower the food.”

At BRAVO!, McCarty trains every server in the selection and serving of wine. The menu is diverse and includes duck, lamb and chicken in addition to the traditional Italian pasta dishes.

What does this master sommelier drink when she goes out to eat? “I’ve learned to appreciate every wine and I try to order something different every time I go out,” she answered. “I don’t limit myself, but I don’t like Merlots.”

At Hattiesburg’s Purple Parrot, sommelier Clint Taylor is so intent on educating diners on wine that he hosts monthly wine tastings. With 30 to 40 seats each time, the tastings are always a sellout. Participants are treated to at least six wines and a selection of gourmet cheeses.

“People are learning that wine makes food taste better,” he said, “and we’ve seen a great deal of increase of wine drinking with our customers.”

Taylor, 37, also trains the Purple Parrot’s staff so they can be well informed about wine. Staff members are allowed to taste wines after they finish their work shift.

Taylor, who’s been with the restaurant since 1987 and a partner with chef Robert St. John for 10 years, is pleased that the Purple Parrot received Wine Spectator magazine’s award of excellence. The award, one of several restaurants in the state to earn this distinction, is proudly displayed so travelers will know they’ve stopped at a restaurant that offers a good wine selection.

“Wine fans who’re travelling will probably think, ‘if they know something about wine, they probably know something about food,’” he said. “The magazine evaluates how our wine list pairs up with our food.”

Taylor, a member of the International Association of Restaurant Wine Professionals and the Guild of Sommeliers, feels people in Mississippi are becoming more adventurous in trying new wines now that more is available to them.

“Our customers are demanding more variety and keeping up and following the wine trend,” he said. “Red wine has gotten good press and more diners are opting for wine with meals and for enjoyment.”

He also feels the restaurants in the state and the regional cuisine have come a long way with the advancement of foods. Wine knowledge has kept pace. There are 180 wines on the Purple Parrot’s wine list and they pour over 20 wines by the glass.

“That’s a good way to sample different wines so we change the selections seasonally,” Taylor said. “People are more prone to try new things if they don’t have to commit to the whole bottle.”

He says pinot grigios go well with the restaurant’s Creole and Gulf Coast fare. There’s an emphasis on fresh seafood and spiciness and Taylor tries to pair wines that match up with that food. He says American wines are popular with diners, and the Purple Parrot doesn’t offer a lot of Italian wines because they don’t match the food.

“We tend to choose wines that are intense in flavor because we don’t like bland food in the South,” he said. “We try to expose our customers to different wines and encourage them to try new things.”

He thinks the Australians are producing great products at inexpensive prices, and their crisp, dry sauvignon blanc pairs well with foods in Mississippi’s hot summers. Overlooked are the German Rieslings, which he feels are underused and undervalued.

“The Rieslings are one of the best companions for our regional, spicy food,” he said, “but there’s not much demand for it.”

Taylor is currently experimenting with New Zealand wines and regularly attends wine tastings at other restaurants to stay informed.

“I take advantage of living within driving distance of great restaurants,” he said. “There are enough businesses promoting wine that anyone should be able to attend frequent wine tastings to learn more about wine.”

Jay Schimmel, owner of Schimmel’s on North State Street in Jackson, was born in Rolling Fork and grew up in Jackson. His wine education, however, took place in San Francisco where he spent 10 years.

“There wine is as common as bread on the table,” he said. “They are very open about having wine any time of the day, anywhere.”

After earning a degree in accounting from Ole Miss and working in the financial world, Schimmel followed his heart and went to culinary school in San Francisco. During his schooling, he worked at Wine Spectator magazine and was a wine buyer for two companies. He says the majority of this country’s world-class wines that can compete internationally are California wines.

When he returned to Mississippi five years ago, he noticed the mentality about wine drinking had eased up a bit and was no longer strictly a social thing. Having a glass of wine at lunch was no longer an issue in the Bible Belt.
Schimmel, 38, opened his restaurant soon after the 1999 general election when Ronnie Musgrove was elected governor.

“I noticed that the whiskey-drinking legislators were changing and drinking more wine,” he said.”I think some of them had made trips to the West Coast and been exposed to better wines. These wines had become available in Mississippi.”

He says when diners are exposed to better wines, their palates are more defined and that is what they want.

“Wines have become more accessible in stores and it’s become a hobby with many people,” he said. “That’s not what most of us grew up with here.”

With a moderate wine list of 150 to 200 wines, Schimmel’s gives people what they want. Schimmel says white zinfandel, Chardonnay, Merlot and cabernet are popular with his diners but he does try to push people into wines they haven’t tried before.

“I get enjoyment from recommending wine and like to think diners have learned something and had a great meal at the same time,” he said. “I’m seeing palates evolve here and people will try other wines as they get more familiar with them. I want them to ask me about different wines.”

He lists wine by the glass in the categories of interesting whites, interesting reds, pinot noir, Merlot and cabernet. He offers a taste of wine if a diner doesn’t want to buy a glass. He finds that Mississippians are attracted to reds that aren’t bitter, the ones with low tannin content.

“Those are the ones that are more drinkable,” he said.
His restaurant serves continental and American food for the most part with some Asian influence. There’s a concentration of fresh local foods and Gulf Coast seafood with some seafood flown in from Hawaii to offer more variety.

“When I go out to eat, I try to choose wine with what I’m eating. I read the menu first,” Schimmel said. “I do not limit myself and I try to complement the wine with the food.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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