The world of wine generally remains mysterious to me, and I aim to keep it that way. Hit or miss, wine remains fun; I know too much about beer to revert to amateur status, so grasping the basics about wine suits me just fine.
The educational opportunities are welcomed whenever they materialize, but I don’t always seek them out.
For the past decade and a half, Brett Davis and Scott Harper have represented the other side of this wine appreciation spectrum. They’re the Louisville area’s Master Sommeliers, which is a very big deal, indeed. The Courier-Journal’s Bailey Loosemore explains why.
To those chasing it, the Master Sommelier title doesn’t just exemplify the epitome of wine knowledge and service — it’s embodies a way of life, accessible so far to only 250 people worldwide. Candidates who succeed are the chosen ones, skilled at helping their cities’ wine cultures thrive, while cities without Master Sommeliers like Nashville, New Orleans and Indianapolis, stay behind.
Louisville, in the heart of bourbon territory, is now home to two.
After receiving his now-wife’s permission and after six attempts at the master exam, Harper became one of them. The same year he passed, another master candidate who had studied with him, Falls City Hospitality Group partner Brett Davis, passed as well.
Scott worked for many years at the Bristol Bar & Grill, and earlier in 2017 he partnered with the Bristol’s ownership group to open Cuvée Wine Table.
Meanwhile, Brett’s restaurant management company is perhaps best known for Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar. The company originated Doc’s Cantina, which didn’t work out, and also owns a restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee.
As someone eternally fascinated by the process of selection — exactly how does an eatery or bar cull the thousands of possibilities to produce a manageable list of available libations? — this skull session with Scott and Brett provides numerous opportunities for reflection. Here’s an excerpt.
Brett Davis and Scott Harper are Louisville’s two resident Master Sommeliers having both studied and passed the exam together. Introducing myself to them a couple years ago after attending a Bourbon seminar they gave, we became reacquainted last summer barside over draft glasses of Grüner Veltliner at Harper’s Bristol Bar & Grille. Here’s the chatter.
DF: Louisville is growing for reasons other than only whiskey. As both of you are clearly successful in Louisville’s resurging market, and considering market growth in any city, what challenges and what problems might the good wine professional anticipate in planning an effective program?
Scott: Be mindful of where the market is going. New dispensing and preservation systems should be ‘green’ while taking care of your wine. The days of serving oxidized wine that’s been open for 3 days are gone. Coravin, Enomatix, Wine and K are all important to note when building your concept. Retrofitting your operation is expensive, outfitting it right from the beginning—not so much. The same thing from stocking Bourbons to craft beer being ‘on fire’ means making sure you’ve plenty of storage. If you don’t have as much as 50 wines by the glass are you a progressive program? Maybe you can be but you have to be more dynamic.
Brett: You have to read your market. I’m going from fine dining to what I call ‘fun dining’. Even though the economy is coming back people haven’t yet loosened their belts. We’ve begun doing ‘bubba food’ with a good beverage program which is an ‘everyman’s’ wine list, things customers read about and know the varietal they know of if not the brand. The same is true for whiskies and all spirits. I always have Bud Light in my restaurant because I want someone to feel comfortable while also being able to order the most eclectic beer available. It’s not about us, it’s about them.
Scott: Your lists should strike a balance between fun, cutting edge selections that are interesting for the cognoscenti but also have national brands for those people not looking for an intellectual experience in ordering.
Brett: People want to have fun, and are flocking to these middle brow concepts. Markets filled with people with disposable incomes want fine dining, sure, but do they really need white tablecloths? Keep it simple and down-home.
In short, to be a Master Sommelier is like serving as curator of a massive old school library with thousands of volumes, while calibrating selections for restaurants is the process of choosing a couple hundred of these books to be available for reading at any given time — and to determine ways to make the books entertaining for potential readers.
(Another theme of interest to me in the Furer interview is the relative inferiority of locally-made wines, though a discussion about this can wait for another day. As a novice positioned with two Master Sommeliers, I can’t possibly muster an opposing viewpoint … can I?)
Of course, my central question is about Brett’s reference to a Bud Light comfort level for beer: If one is an expert on wine first and foremost, is his or her minimum acceptable level for a dumbing-down point substantively different for the grape than it is for the grain?
Put another way: When it comes to the inevitable descent of offering a comfortable choice, does a Master Sommelier find it easier to do so for a beer than a wine? Is there a place for Gallo … for Kessler blended whiskey? Or are these impossible, while Bud Light forever probable?
Debating questions like this is why I’ve had so many enjoyable tasting sessions with both Scott and Brett over the years. As a final example, consider this preview by Bridgett Weaver in Louisville Business First.
Oskar’s also will carry at least four brands of a Scandinavian liquor called aquavit, which Liz said tastes something like gin, but with more specific flavors. It has notes of caraway, juniper and dill. With the liquor, they will offer cocktails with herbs and fruits.
There will be a typical craft beer selection, as at Grind, with 10 tap lines, and a “pretty extensive” can and bottle offering, Jesse said. But the couple wanted to make sure to give the bar and restaurant a neighborhood feel, so all of the go-to domestics will be available, too. And beer will be for sale by the pitcher.
“It was important to us that it was fun but also approachable — both from a food point, but also from a price point,” Liz said. “I think we did that.”
Expensive imported spirits and Scandinavian foodstuffs inexplicable in the Louisville market? I’m solidly for it, having been blinded by aquavit on several previous occasions. However, kindly note that yet again, when it comes to the reassurance necessary to quell potential squirming, “domestic” beers are the preemptive cure.
As a side note, does anyone care to wager whether the “craft” beer brands from Oskar Blues will be available at Oskar’s?
I’m slowly working my way around to a specific point (the gallery erupts in cheers), which is occasioned by this recent article by Caitlin Bowling at (Insider Louisville).
Red Herring’s executive chef Jacob Coronado and bar manager Clay Livingston are now part owners of the bar and restaurant — and their first order of business was to change the dinner menu.
The plan was always for the two to build up “sweat equity,” which would later turn into real equity in the business, Livingston told Insider. However, the process was sped up when restaurateur and Red Herring co-owner Brett Davis left to work at a Michigan winery.
Davis is no longer involved with Red Herring. Mo Deljoo, who owns the building and is an entrepreneur, is still a co-owner of the restaurant and bar.
Our mutual friend Kevin had tipped me to the prospect of all sorts of positive changes in the offing for Brett. If it hasn’t been made clear already, I think very highly of this man and wish him all the best both personally and professionally.
But when one of only two Master Sommeliers in Louisville goes to Michigan to work in a winery, it strikes me this is a story meriting slightly more coverage than an aside in an article in just one local publication — no offense intended with regard to Caitlin Bowling, who’s a fine reporter.
The only constant is change, or changing of the guard. Many thanks to Brett and Scott for their efforts toward making Louisville such a wonderful food and drink city.
As an added bonus, here’s a post from Potable Curmudgeon dated August 24, 2005. Both Scott and Brett were in attendance that evening, and I’m very glad Diana was driving.
At the recent L & N beer dinner, a chat with table mates led to the setting of a date for a meal, accompanied by wine and beer, the idea being to compare pairings of both libations with food — and to give the Curmudgeon something to write about for the next issue of “Food & Dining” magazine.
Deadlines have a way of sneaking up on you.
Last night was the night, and the Bristol Bar & Grille in downtown Louisville was the place. It was a gorgeous, cool summer evening, with a light breeze coming in from the terrace, and a view of “old” Main Street across the way.
We join the party well in progress:
Beer highlights included Lindemans Cuvee Rene Gueuze with fried calamari, Schneider Weisse and a Bibb salad (including Stilton cheese, walnuts and mandarin oranges) and Stone Smoked Porter with the glazed pork chop and baked potato at the bottom of the photo.
Great wine, mostly reds, and all European, flowed courtesy of the three high ranking area wine gurus in attendance. It’s always a treat to receive instruction from the best.
With a closing port flight available, only one dessert beer made it onto the table.
My only regret is that I have but one liver to give for research like this.