Somme Wisdom: Brian Duncan Makes Us Care About Wine


Brian Duncan / Photo: Tom Gavin

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 won four James Beard nominations before opening Down to Earth Concepts, specializing in interactive wine and food seminars. Recently Duncan became a sommelier for Michael Lachowicz’s George Trois group.

I told Duncan that I thought most summits were about making wine more accessible and affordable to the general public, and he replied, “A lot of them would. to say this. At Bin 36, however, our whole concept has been designed around accessibility, which requires you to educate not only your team, but your guests as well.

So how do you make wine more accessible and accessible?

“Honor the guest experience,” Duncan says. “You have to start where the people are; then you have guided experiences. I’m going to give you an example. A very good friend of mine got married in Napa. My gift to him was to take a tour and at the first place we stopped, everyone ordered glasses of sparkling wine, and there were several people who literally drank the wine all the way. So I had to guide them on how you can get the most out of the experience, how to look at the wine, how to hold the glass, where to hold the glass, the color, engage all the senses, how to smell. And then I made them, on the count of three, drink a sip of sparkling wine, and they weren’t allowed to swallow it until I told them to. Then we talk about what is happening in each part of their language, during the tasting process, what they perceive in certain places. When you do an exercise like this it absolutely changes the person for the rest of their life. You begin to understand why things taste the way they taste, the textures. Then you get into the realm of food and wine pairing techniques, strategies that people can apply in their everyday lives. Slowing down and taking the time to think about what you eat and drink is a good rule of thumb for everyone. Don’t eat or drink too fast. Take your time. Think about it. “

I was curious as to whether his approach to wine selection changes from restaurant to restaurant, or if the general principles apply to all. “Wines can work better in one environment than another. The wines of Aboyer and George Trois follow Michael’s cuisine. It’s appropriate, and the food provides an excellent guide to creating a wine program. And as menus evolve and dishes start to change, I see opportunities, but food is still the guiding principle.

“And what a wonderful platform to work from! What I missed the most about the restaurant business was not the ninety hours I worked each week; it was the interaction with the guests. This is what I missed more than ever. I was producing wine in California and other places, and selling it all over the country, but I didn’t get the same overall satisfaction as when I interacted with the guests.

“I’m here to convince our guests to play with us; they entrust us with the food, so they can entrust us with the wine. Pairing is a lock and key situation. Wine should make food taste better, and food should make wine taste better. And so, with the little time I have with the guests, I give confidence in my decisions. What usually happens is that after drinking the first or second wine, they are on board.

Brian Duncan / Photo: David Hammond

There is a stereotype of the sommelier as being a pretentious and fanciful snob. Duncan is clearly neither of those things.

“People appreciate authenticity,” Duncan says, “and in multi-course restaurant situations it can be a little intimidating. I used to call these restaurants “houses of culinary worship,” where everything is very rigid and respectful. Neither the guests nor the servers are genuine and relaxed, and there is a cold stiffness. I’m just not made like that. When you enter my dining room, I am already waiting for you and I am waiting for you. And I want to know as much as possible about you, certainly without being intrusive, so that I can sense your needs and where we are going.

Because people sometimes lack confidence in their tasting abilities, they may be reluctant to tell you that they really don’t like a wine that has been served to them. Does this happen very often?

“A lot of times guests tell me in advance what they don’t like, but one evening I had a guest who seemed disappointed with a burgundy white. She had sipped the wine right after pouring it; she did not allow the wine to open. A few minutes later the temperature of the wine went down and she said, “This is beautiful! Sometimes the wine just hasn’t grown enough in the glass.

So this lady just didn’t take the time to let her glass of wine come to life. It was a mistake, and maybe she learned from it. Are there some common mistakes people make when ordering wine or pairing it with specific foods? Some people choose to drink their favorite type of wine, like, say, a cab or a pinot noir, with the food they order.

“There are bad reactions you can have with wine and certain types of peppers. If you have very tannic wines, the tannins can act like gasoline, and with alcohol heat takes fuel. The tannins, which create this feeling of puckering in the mouth, release more heat.

Everything Duncan said meant a lot to me, and I wondered aloud if anyone could be a sommelier, or if an exceptional sommelier really had to be born with innate abilities to discern the flavors of wines and create a wine. perfect match.

“Can people learn to be better tasters? Yes, ”Duncan confirms,“ and over the years I have had the privilege of educating countless people. Today, many of these people have their own careers in wine, they have their own restaurants, they have positions of influence in the wine industry. . It all depends on your ability to inspire people to care.


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