A grueling match-up of some of Atlanta's best sommeliers came to a close last Wednesday, with a single victor emerging. Brian White of the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta was named the best sommelier in the city in the 2nd Annual Atlanta's Best Sommelier Competition! He was kind enough to take some time to talk with Flavors about his experiences at the competition and his journey to get here.

If you would like to enjoy a fine-dining experience and check out their amazing selection of over 700 wines you can visit Atlanta Grill in the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta at 181 Peachtree Street, NE, Atlanta, GA 30303.

Flavors: How does it feel to be considered the best sommelier in Atlanta?

Brian: It’s of course a sensational honor to be considered the best at anything ... it’s a great honor. Most of the people were much younger than me and were some of the finest talent in the city certainly, for example there were competitors from Restaurant Eugene and Woodfire Grill.

Flavors: Did you have to train specifically for the competition, or did you already feel prepared?
Brian: I did, and I didn’t. I actually participated in the first annual competition and did not make it to the final round. This time around I knew what was expected and I focused on spirits and diverse wine knowledge especially old world wines. The service round was the second night where we had to run a station and we had to interact with the customers - which is what I do every night so it was like second nature.

Flavors: How long have you been an oenophile?
Brian: I’ve been into wine for well over 20 years. It's something I first got into the restaurant business, when I first realized that’s what I wanted to do.

Flavors: Did you always know you wanted to be a sommelier or did you come upon this profession later?
Brian: Well wine has always been one of the focal points in my career - something I showed an immediate talent for. About ten years ago I decided to get my certification and decided to follow my passion.

Flavors: I know it takes a great deal of training to be a sommelier: What the most challenging part of your training?
Brian: The wine tasting format has always been the most challenging for me. It’s something you can’t get past: You have to do it. It takes a lot of focus and you have to be able to evaluate the wine based on aroma , flavor and color, and the criteria is regimented for you to get to the final evaluation and you have to do it for every competition so that’s been the greatest challenge. It takes a lot of practice and coaching from a mentor to be able to do that.

Flavors: Tell us how you became the sommelier at the Ritz-Carlton.
Brian: Actually, it was due to Michael [McNeil], I was sought after for the position. Michael called me and told me the position was available. They were looking for someone experienced and mature; they had a lot of younger applicants. I feel honored they chose me and I still do to this day.

Flavors: How do you choose wines for The Ritz-Carlton's Menu?
Brian: It’s actually a very simple process, I put myself into the guests' perspective. The Atlanta Grille is our restaurant and I spend all night talking to guests. We do a wine tasting every Thursday and I really get to know our guests, and I start to know what they like. There are wines that have a time-honored prestige of course, and they’ll always be available at the restaurant. The third thing I look for is diversity: At the Ritz-Carlton we have over 700 selections. We have a diverse group of guests from all over so I want to make sure there is a representation of wines from around the world.

Flavors: If you had to pick just one wine currently on your list that you were most excited about, which one would it be, and why?
Brian: You know, it’s like I said there are over 700 wines, so that’s an interesting question. Right now I’m excited about some Italian wines. There’s one called Guissepi Lonardi and he calls the wine Privelegia: It’s a  2005 vintage, a Northern Italian red, and it’s a blend of 50% Cabernet Franc and 50% Corvina. The grapes are slightly dried before pressing similar to an Amarone ... It’s so unique and bold and it really pairs great with foods.

Flavors: What do you pair it with at the restaurant?
Brian: Probably our braised beef short ribs are best with that. You want something hardy, definitely something braised and stewed would go really well; and anything with mushrooms would probably be great with it, too.

Flavors: Do you have any easy tips for wine consumers for pairing foods?
Brian: Sure. You know, I’ve always thought part of the fun of enjoying wine is making that next new discovery, they drink the same old wines but for me that gets stodgy and boring, so it’s really important to try new wines all the time and find out what you enjoy the most. I think that’s why I really like wine: It’s part of the mystique.

Flavors: Is it a different set of rules if you're in the store or at a restaurant?
Brian: At a store they have consultants, so you can always ask for advice and at restaurants the servers tend to be pretty knowledgeable.  There are lots of possibilities. You don’t have to spend a lot of money - there are plenty of wines to get at a low price level. I would say it’s probably easier at a restaurant setting because the servers have knowledge of both the wine and food so they’re able to give great recommendations. For example, at any given time we have about 40 different types of wine available at the Ritz-Carlton and we’re always happy to give you a taste.

Flavors: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
Brian: It’s a never ending process of learning that keeps driving me. It’s why I’m constantly interested in wine. I feel like there’s always something to learn, you never hit a brick wall with wine. Really, it’s infectious, teaching other people. The great thing about the Ritz Carlton, is that they promote that and they want us to know more constantly because we pass it on to our guests.

Flavors: Thanks so much for your time Brian, and congratulations on winning the title of Best Sommelier in Atlanta!



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