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Words on Wine: An Afternoon With James Hirdler

Words on Wine: An Afternoon With James Hirdler

Sunday, September 11th, 2016

W O R D S  O N  W I N E: A N  A F T E R N O O N  W I T H  J A M E S  H I R D L E R 

Anyone who has sat at Restaurant Alma’s bar in the last sixteen years already knows this, James Hirdler is the easiest person to talk to in the universe. Last Saturday the Alma Blog got to sit down and chat with him about wine lists, training servers, and how you can order wine that pairs well with food - and makes you sigh with happiness - even if all you know about wine is that it comes from grapes. We’re not quite sure whether it’s his soothing voice, his vast expanse of knowledge, or his completely unpretentious approach to wine, but hanging out with James Hirdler is like hanging out with your favorite professor from college who also happens to be your favorite older brother.

James has worked at Alma since 2000. He started as the Service Manager, learning about wine from his mentor, Jim Reininger, and then took over the wine program when Jim retired in 2008. He’s mentored generations of Alma front-of-house staff, and his passion for creating a healthy work culture and the pursuit of knowledge shine through in every question we asked him. We hope you enjoy these words from James and much as we did.  


AB: Tell us about how you came to Alma.

JH:  I had previously worked with Jim Reininger [the former co-owner of Restaurant Alma] at Lowry’s. I was going to meet an old friend at Dunn Bros, which is what this space [Café Alma] used to be. We peeked into Alma – they had just opened – and I saw some of the original staff from Lowry’s, so I stopped in to say hi to Jim, who offered me a job on the spot. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to waiting tables, so Jim said: “well, why don’t you just run the front of the house?” And that was that.

Jim, Alex and I worked together to put systems in place to help things run better. We were surrounded by talented people, but when it got busy, I learned we couldn't rush our way of cooking. What I really liked from the beginning was that Alex wasn’t going to put a single thing out of the kitchen that wasn’t up to his standards. So if we got really busy, there was a wait. It was nice that there was never an issue, at any point, with food. We didn’t have to think about that – it was always going to be good.

AB: How did you learn about wine? What was different about Alma’s wine program from the other places you worked?

JH: Well, first of all, early in my career I learned everything from Jim [Reininger]. When I first met him in the late 80’s, he worked at Sherman’s Café –  they didn’t serve wine, but he instilled knowledge in us, having us over to his house to share wine and talk. He did wine programs at the New French Café, and then at Lowry’s – where I really started to learn from him. I then worked at a couple places where Jim wasn’t, and I got to see what didn’t work in a wine program: where everything is about price points, buying the cheapest wine for the cheapest price and then selling it for the highest amount possible. Then I went to the 510, where the owners were very versed in wine. They specialized in Bordeauxs and wines like Opus One and various other hundred dollar bottles, which at that time in this area, was very cutting edge. That’s where I learned about higher-end wines and got to taste them. But I realized what I really wanted was more of the stuff I learned from Jim at Lowry’s, so when I found this place [Alma] it was perfect.

The things Jim liked about wine are the things I appreciate in everything: he liked wine to be charming, and he liked it to be distinctive. The same goes for people and food. What he liked about wine was reflected in how he lived his life. It was very cultured, and that didn’t seem like the traditional restaurant I had seen. There was something going beyond. The main thing about Alma -  the wine, the food, the people – is that it was healthy right away. When I thought I didn’t want to go back to a restaurant job, what I really was looking for was a healthy organization of some kind. Wine had been my number one passion in my professional life, and learning about it was hard to do in the Midwest. It was either this, or I would have gone to New York City or San Francisco. Alma was a little slice of all of that: little bit of San Francisco, in the atmosphere, New York in the cooking, and it was still Midwest – friendly, and healthy. A great combination of everything. In the end, I knew I would be a better person for working here.

AB: What was your journey at Alma in regards to wine?  

JH: When I first took over the wine list, it was huge. I wanted to put everything on it, I was so excited, and the wine list had no focus. Eventually it was like: “wait a minute, that costs money, and you have to sell it!” If you don’t sell it – you can’t really carry it. There was always an emphasis on working with what we had. We had this much space, we had this much money for inventory. It’s valuable to see the genius in working within your means. Alex was always clear: “We’re not going to buy a fancy light fixture until we have the money to pay for it.” The same went for wine too, and it was a great lesson.

Also, I always wanted to see if I could get the best of something. To this day I am always searching for the best wine from the best region at the best price – can I find that one wine? When I finally get that bottle in my hand, it feels like such a success. Usually the best wine is not the most popular or the biggest name. Making a connection through introducing a great wine to people is such a joy, and once they taste a wine they love, it gives credit to everything else on our list. There’s a lot of really good wines for thirty dollars. I don’t like overcharging, and I am determined to keep wine interesting. 

AB: So how do you put together a wine list? 

JH: I am lucky enough to work in a place where the dishes are eclectic. If you work at steakhouse, you buy those big cabernets and burgundys, because you do want to buy towards what the kitchen tends to make. Here, every component of each dish is well thought out, so you can pair the wine with any of those components, which gives you freedom. It’s also fun. I like a little bit of everything, and the wine list reflects that. Alex finds inspiration from everywhere, and you can’t find a single category, really, for the food. At first, all I could do was taste the sauces and look to traditional pairings, but I learned we couldn’t have just one style of wine to go with a dish. We had to have a variety. It’s good to use the traditional “101” wine and food pairings as a guide, looking to the flavors of each component in a dish as a guide, but at some point you need to let your taste buds take over. Nobody likes the term “think outside the box” but you have to put your own stamp on something. 

As I spent time on the floor, I found a lot of people wanted to start their meal with a white and move to red wine for the entrée, and there was a lot of seafood on our menu, so then I had to find reds that pair with seafood. For a long time that went against tradition. Of course it's hard to beat a Chablis Premier Cru that pairs perfectly with seafood, but If you pair white wine with seafood because just because you think you are “supposed to” you might encounter a strange acidic component that makes some fish taste sour, or even metallic. You have to look at wines individually. Pairing red wine with seafood is commonplace now – light bodied reds, because you’re usually not just getting a piece of fish on plate – there’s other things with it. You’re pairing the components – not just the protein (with the exception of richer meats - you allow the natural fats to bring out new tastes in the wine and favor the protein over the components). 

From the start, the main point of what I learned from Jim was that food and wine will taste completely different together. Food doesn’t taste the same without wine, and vice versa. If you’re just having a glass of wine at home by itself – which is great – it’s going to be a different taste experience than alongside food. Both are good. Wine should be fun, just have fun with it.

AB: So how do you pair? How do you do it at home? Is it technical or intuitive?

JH:  Like in just about anything, it’s nice to understand traditions. It makes it even more worthwhile when you find something surprises you. The first person that had foie gras with sauternes – a dessert wine, in the middle of the meal – was like: “bingo! Eureka!” There’s different methods. The traditional method is if something was grown in a certain place (and there was limited transportation back then, they grew the wine and the food next to each other), you’d pair those. You’d have briny white wines grown in the Loire that go with shellfish because that was the diet. Same with Spain: maybe you’re in Priorat, you’re in the middle of a desert, and all you have is this type of food, and the wines that you grow inherently go with it. That’s how it was way back when. There’s a legitimate thing about that. Then we got better at cooking and better at growing wine, and everything now is a little bit subtler. Knowing the basics is good. Let’s call it respecting tradition.

If you are at home and you want to pair something, there’s actually something really exciting about trial and error, because there’s no such thing as “right” and not everyone has the same palate. Our relationship with wine is evolving with the world of food. We now have an opportunity not to grow our food and our wine next to each other. We’re surrounded by so much that I recommend taking advantage of it. Find your own tastes. Try the traditional pairings and learn from them. Most people would never drink Australian Shiraz without a big, fatty lamb shank or something like it, and that’s a shame because as time goes on, the Shiraz from Australia has gotten subtler, the wines deserve to break away from some of the tradition that’s trapping them in a single role. Besides, some traditional pairings might not work for people. You don’t have to like Cabernet! Find something else that pairs with your steak! Who knows, it might be perfect.

AB: What are some good resources to learn about wine? Especially for people who don’t work in the Restaurant industry.

JH: Let me tell you, the best invention ever for anything, and it might be the world’s downfall – is the internet. I gotta say, it’s a lot of fun buying wine books, and I do it all the time - I love books. But if you’re making a dinner, and you don’t want to spend two weeks reading a book, you can go to the internet and search “Pheasant pairings” or “sauce pairings”. It seems like that would be the lazy way out, but what’s fun about that is there’s a lot of different opinions. It’s fun to read different people’s takes on the same thing. I don’t mind learning from anyone. So, short term, I would definitely recommend the internet, and then everyone should get a copy of Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible. It’s two things: it’s very easy to read, and it’s Danny Meyer’s favorite wine book, and I respect him. It was Jim Reininger’s favorite wine book too, and you can put it on the coffee table and just page through it because every page has something. She talks in such an entertaining way that even if you don’t like reading about wine, you can enjoy it.

I want to go back to wine being for everybody, and a lot of wine writers are determined to make it an “exclusive wine club” thing. It shouldn’t be that way, it should be friendly. Karen makes it friendly.

Another great resource is Twin Cities Wine Education. They put on wine classes twice a month and they’re great. Classes are fun – you get served wine and then you talk about the wine, and not in a condescending way.

AB: How do you order wine at Restaurant when you don’t know that much about wine? How can you help a server help you find something you like?

JH: If you have any idea of what you’re looking for, or even if you don’t, I would recommend having an open mind and letting the server guide you. It’s like getting your car fixed: either you’re the person who’s like: “I need to know every little thing you’re doing”, or you let the people who fix your car... fix your car. You’re there to experience what the place has to offer. Trust your server to guide you to something. If you want to bring a question – because you don’t want to get a Sicilian wine that tastes like pickle juice – you’d want to say something like: “Nothing too experimental”. But when I go out to eat, I don’t want to do too much thinking. I want to enjoy the night and the person I’m with. Have an open mind, trust your server, and if you’re looking for something specific – bring one quick question about body or flavor. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you like. If you like sweet, there might not be a ton of options, but we’ll find something for you. Never let the stigma, or the fear of someone being patronizing get in the way of drinking something you enjoy. No one should ever be patronizing when they talk about wine.

My last piece of advice is when you get a wine, don’t be afraid to say that it's not really what you’re looking for. There’s a thing these days where people get a dish and if they don’t like it, they won’t say anything, which is crazy. It’s the same thing with wine. If you don’t like it – send it back. It’s absolutely not a big deal. We’ll either serve the rest of the bottle as a special or we’ll send it back to the purveyor if it’s corked. You can send anything back. We want you to have something that you really like. Period. That’s it. Don’t even assume: “well, if they recommended this, it must be good”. None of that. If you don’t like it – send it back. You only have so many years in this life. You shouldn’t have to suffer through somebody else’s tastes.

AB: Can you talk about training servers in wine knowledge?

JH: This place is about explaining everything, influencing, teaching, and coaching. We don’t hire anyone who doesn’t inherently love food and wine. So usually they come with their own questions. If you find someone who is excited about the subject, they’ll have no problem learning how to describe it. During training, you want to find ways of talking about things that are exciting and engaging. If it’s not exciting or engaging, we need to discuss it – how can we make this better, together? That’s an essential part of the process. No one does anything really well when they don’t like it. People perform well when the highest expectations come from themselves. You want the server, by the time they hit the floor, to anticipate more questions than you even realize. Any question: “What’s good?” – they can work with that! Servers should be able to take a question and have at least three answers. When a guest asks for a certain type of wine, a server should already have several suggestions on hand. That comes from service staff tasting all the wines, several times, and giving them confidence to be able to say: “I totally get what you’re saying, and I’ve tried this, and I love it, and I think will you, too.”

AB: What wines are your current favorites when you drink wine?

JH: My preference is complicated, but easy too. I like simple things that are elegant. Right now for whites it’s Savennieres, which is a Loire Valley Chenin Blanc. For reds, I like Barolo. I like Italian reds. Traditional, simple, elegant, romantic. There’s something romantic about wine anyway, but there’s definitely something romantic about traditional wines.

AB: How can people who may not know that much about wine go to the wine store and get something they like for a reasonable price?

JH: It starts with, number one, finding a person that knows what they’re doing. Keep going to that person, ask them questions, and let them guide you. Usually wine stores employ people who are knowledgeable and love wine, and they don’t have an incentive to sell you anything in particular. They want you to experience, the same way I do when you come to Alma. Also, do a little bit of your own research and have a direction. Research, combined with trial and error are building blocks for good questions. If you try something you like, whether that be at a restaurant or at home, write it down and then bring it to the store: “I liked this, what do you have that’s similar?” That’s how you get to know your own palate, and you can gain more independence in your choices as you go on. When you go to a wine store, skip the description on the back of bottle, skip the wine score, skip the recommendation from some wine article, go to whoever is working there and trust in the experience and passion they have.  Never be afraid to make a mistake. Never be afraid to try something new. If you don’t like it? It’s just an experience. At the very least, you’ll have a story.