What The Wine Pros Know

Written by Wini Moranville
Photos by Duane Tinkey

Ben Nelsen
Sommelier, Splash Seafood Bar & Grill

After high school, Ben Nelsen lived with his aunt and uncle in Switzerland, where he gleaned a fascination for the interplay between food and wine. After knocking around Europe for a while, he launched his career in the restaurant industry at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, later working at Gateway Market, Bistro Montage and Baru 66 before joining the team at Splash. In August 2012, he passed the Court of Master Sommeliers’ Certified Sommelier Exam, which is the second of four levels in this challenging examination series. Splash’s wine list has received the Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator every year since 2001.

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Favorite Tried-and-True Region or Varietal: Riesling
“I currently have 18 rieslings by the bottle. It’s a wonderfully bright, high-acid wine that’s incredibly versatile and food friendly, and it comes in a range of sweetness levels—from bone dry to extremely sweet and everything in between.” His top pick: Pewsey Vale Eden Valley dry riesling [1].

Favorite Under-the Radar Varietal or Region: The Sonoma Coast
“This massive wine region offers a very cool climate, high winds, a rugged coastline and a lot of cult wineries. Wines here often express great minerality and complexity, thanks to the interplay between the sunlight and fog.” He suggests trying Radio-Coteau Sonoma Coast “La Neblina Vineyard” pinot noir [2].

I Wish People Would Drink More … Bubbles 
“I’m particularly interested in small-grower Champagnes right now. Most of the larger Champagne houses buy (rather than grow) their own grapes; lately, however, some growers have started producing their own wines. Billecart-Salmon [3] is one such grower/producer. The brut reserve is rich, full-bodied and dry, with that quintessential yeasty quality. I took Veuve Clicquot off my wine list to make room for this one.”

Stephen Volkmer-Jones
Wine Director, Des Moines Embassy Club

Stephen Volkmer-Jones has been professionally uncorking wine since 1980, when he began working as the maitre d’ at the late, great Guido’s restaurant in the Hotel Savery. During those years, he swirled, sniffed and sipped his way through Wine Spectator tastings in San Francisco and New York, gleaning insights from Kevin Zraley, Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson and other kingpins of the industry. He later worked for wine distributors, a gig that sent him to vineyards from Chile to Oregon and had him raising a glass with the likes of Michele Chiarlo, Claude Taittinger and Eric Rothschild. He joined the staff at the Des Moines Embassy Club in 2010.

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Tried-and-True Region or Varietal: Loire Valley, France
“I am in love with Loire Valley wines. Although known more for their whites than reds, they do a full range. You know when you’re tasting a wine from this region—they have minerality, a freshness and acidity in the fruit that’s subtle but well-known. Bottles from the Loire do not taste like wines from anywhere else in the world.” His top choice: Domaine des Cognettes Muscadet Sèvre et Maine [1] (look for the “Sur Lie” bottling).

Favorite Under-the-Radar Varietal/Region: Sicily
“The bar is being raised in Sicily; they’re making wonderful, wonderful wines. I especially like nerello mascalese; it brings some grenache-like tangy-berry characteristics, but with the subtlety and nuance of pinot noir. Though never hugely tannic, it offers structure, so it does age well.” His favorite: Graci Etna Rosso “Quota 600” nerello mascalese [2].

I Wish People Would Drink More … Riesling
“People always assume riesling is sweet, or they think it has to be bone dry to go with food. The best examples have a touch of honey in the fruit that is pleasing, yet they come across the palate with acidity. I particularly recommend Selbach-Oster Graacher Domprobst Spätlese (Mosel, Germany) [3], a light, intense bottle that takes you to the edge of both sweetness and acidity—without going over.”

Damon Murphy
General Manager, 801 Chophouse

The wine list at 801 has snagged awards from Wine Spectator magazine every year since 1994 (with the exception of 1998). In 2009, the restaurant’s wine program made the leap from the “Award of Excellence” to the magazine’s next-higher ranking, the “Best Award of Excellence,” an honor that Murphy has maintained. Murphy has been with 801 for eight years and is now approaching 20 years in the industry.

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Favorite Tried-and-True Region or Varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon
“Cabernet sauvignons from Napa Valley, in particular, are my personal favorites. I like wines that are big and bold, and I like them young—we’re already serving 2010 vintages. Napa Valley’s intensely fruity wines pair especially well with our USDA-grade prime steaks.” His recommendation: Neal Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon.

Favorite Under-the-Radar Varietal/Region: Cabernet Franc
“I think as a general rule, blending grapes (such as cabernet franc, petite sirah and grenache) are often overlooked. Yet they can be successful in 100 percent bottlings on their own. Cabernet franc is dark and very dry up front; it’s something a cabernet enthusiast might enjoy, as might someone who likes a good, chewy malbec.” He especially enjoys York Creek Vineyards cabernet franc.

I Wish People Would Drink More … Half Bottles!
“Diners often think they have to buy one 750-ml bottle to see them through dinner, but for a great dining experience, try ordering a different half bottle for each course. For example, you can start with a white, move to a red, and finish with, perhaps, a Port or Champagne.”

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