Brian Duncan, recognized by Newcity in 2020 as “The Best Man to Tell You What Wine to Drink,” was one of the founders of Bin 36, Chicago’s legendary wine bar. Duncan was named Gourmet Wine Cellar Wine Director of the Year, and he garnered four James Beard nominations before opening Down to Earth Concepts, which specializes in interactive wine and food seminars. Recently, Duncan came on as sommelier of Michael Lachowicz’s George Trois Group.
I said to Duncan that I thought most somms have the goal of making wine more accessible and approachable for the general public, and he replied: “A lot of them would say that. At Bin 36, though, our whole concept was designed around approachability, which requires you to educate not only your team, but also your guests.”
So, how do you make wine more approachable and accessible?
“Honor the guest’s experience,” Duncan says. “You need to start where people are; then you do guided experiences. I’ll give you an example. A very good friend of mine had a wedding in Napa. My gift to him was to do a guided tour and at the first place we stopped, everybody ordered glasses of sparkling wine, and there were several people who literally drank the wine right down. So, I had to guide them through how you can get more out of the experience, how to look at the wine, how to hold the glass, where to hold the glass, the color, engaging all the senses, how to smell. And then I had them, at the count of three, take a sip of the sparkling wine, and they weren’t allowed to swallow it until I told them. Then we talk about what’s happening in each part of their tongue, during the tasting process, what they perceive in certain places. When you do an exercise like that, it absolutely changes the person for the rest of their life. You begin to understand why things taste the way they do, the textures. Then you move into the realm of food and wine pairing techniques, strategies that people can apply to their everyday lives. Slowing down and taking time to think about what you’re eating and drinking is a good general rule for everyone. Don’t eat or drink too fast. Take your time. Think about it.”
I was curious to know if his approach to wine selection changes from restaurant to restaurant, or if general principles apply across the board. “Wines may work in one environment better than in another. The wines at Aboyer and George Trois follow Michael’s food. That’s appropriate, and the food provides a great guidepost for creating a wine program. And as the menus evolve, and dishes begin to change, I see some opportunities, but the food is always the guiding principle.
“And what a wonderful platform to work from! What I’ve missed most about the restaurant industry was not the ninety hours I worked every week; it was the interaction with guests. That’s what I was missing more than ever. I was producing wine in California and some other places, and selling it around the country, but I wasn’t getting the same overall satisfaction as I got from interacting with guests.
“I’m there to convince our guests to play along with us; they trust us with the food, so they can trust 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 amount of time I have with guests, I instill confidence in my decisions. What usually happens is after they’ve had the first or second wine, they’re on board.”
There’s a stereotype of the sommelier as being a pretentious, fancy-pants snob. Duncan is clearly none of those things.
“People appreciate authenticity,” Duncan says, “and in multi-course dining situations, it can be somewhat intimidating. I used to call such restaurants ‘culinary houses of worship,’ where everything is very stiff and reverent. Neither the guests nor the servers are being authentic and relaxed, and there’s a cold stiffness. I’m just not made that way. When you come into my dining room, I’ve already been waiting for you and expecting you. And I’m wanting to garner as much about you as I can, certainly without being intrusive, so that I can sense your needs and where we’re going.”
Because people sometimes lack confidence in their wine-tasting abilities, they may be hesitant to tell you they really don’t like a wine that they’ve been served. Does that happen very often?
“Often guests tell me in advance what they don’t like, but one evening, I had a guest that seemed disappointed in a white burgundy. She had sipped the wine right after it was poured; she didn’t allow the wine to open up. Just a few minutes later, the temperature came down on the wine and she said, ‘It’s gorgeous!’ Sometimes the wine simply hasn’t evolved enough in the glass.”
So that lady was just not taking the time to let her glass of wine come alive. That was a mistake, and maybe she learned from it. Are there any common mistakes people make when ordering a wine or pairing it with specific foods? Some people choose to drink their favorite kinds of wine—like, say, a Cab or Pinot Noir—with whatever food they order.
“There are some bad reactions you can have with wine and certain kinds of chili peppers. If you have wines that are highly tannic, the tannins can act like gasoline, and with the alcohol, the heat has fuel. The tannins, which create that mouth-puckering feeling, release more heat.”
Everything Duncan was saying made a lot of sense to me, and I wondered aloud if just anyone could be a sommelier, or if an outstanding sommelier really needs to be born with innate abilities to discern flavors in wines and create a perfect pairing.
“Can people learn to be better tasters? Yes,” Duncan confirms, “and over the years I’ve had the privilege of educating countless numbers of people, Many of those people today have their own wine careers, they have their own restaurants, they have positions of influence in the wine industry. It all depends upon how well you’re able to inspire people to care.”
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org