Peter Birmingham is the beverage director and general manager of Hatfield's, a Los Angeles dining institution that reopened in February in the space formerly occupied by Michel Richard's Citrus at Social. Birmingham credits his parents and a great uncle as being the first to introduce him to the ways of gracious entertaining, fine food and wine, fishing and hunting.
He began his restaurant career as a teenager in Tulsa, Ok., bussing tables at the Chalkboard, which he describes as "a magical bistro in a decrepit old downtown building where Salon was poured by the glass." After three years with Ambrosia restaurant in the Tulsa Sheraton, Birmingham undertook an extensive food and wine tour of Europe, then returned to the States and, as a protégé of wine professional Jim Arsenault, became beverage director for Capital Management and Development Corporation (now Capital Restaurant Concepts Ltd.), in Washington, D.C.
Birmingham went on to become an operating partner at Sonoma's Bistro Lunel, followed by positions at Rose Pistola and Elisabeth Daniel, both in San Francisco, and Norman's on Sunset, in Los Angeles. He has also been a beverage consultant for numerous Los Angeles restaurants. Birmingham spoke with Wine Spectator about his focus on aged wines, good food-pairing advice, and trying his hand at vineyard work during a "harvest from hell."
Wine Spectator: Tell us a bit about the wine program at the new
iteration of Hatfield's.
Peter Birmingham: It shares the sense of what Quinn and Karen Hatfield started with, which is choosing well-made, small-property wines that represent great flavor from the place where they're grown. The old location had a rather obscure selection, and I wanted to bring some more familiar grapes to go along with the obscure stuff.
WS: What's your approach to creating a list that complements the menu?
PB: Quinn does Italian cooking utilizing global ingredients. He has a deft, nuanced hand at his seasoning, so I tried to find wines that offer that same type of balance. I look for reds that have a minimum of four to seven years of age, so there's a little more suppleness and roundness of character. I also try to find unusual grapes that don't usually get a chance to shine at the table, like Xinomavro from Macedonia or Baga from Portugal, Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra. [Coonawarra] is not a terribly familiar region of the wine world, but Cabernet is well-understood by most wine drinkers, and [the region] makes some astonishingly great Cabs.
WS: So there are no reds younger than four years on the list?
PB: I'm not going to force the issue of age, but one thing I'm always surprised by in L.A. restaurants is how many young wines there are on lists, when there's great opportunity for finding really superb vintages that are readily at your disposal. That extra year or two in bottle gives great secondary aromas, more complexity and richness.
WS: Can you give us some examples of bottles fitting that age profile from the new Hatfield's list?
PB: Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet Les Combettes 1999 is one. Louis Pato Baga Beiras 2003 is another.
WS: Tell us about your great uncle who got you started on wine
PB: Uncle Marion [Perry] was a very old-school, hardworking individual who sent himself through Yale Law School at the turn of the 20th century. He was generous and garrulous, just full of life and knowledge. When I was 12 years old, he brought over a 1966 Dr. H. Thanisch Berncasteler Doctor Spätlese Riesling. We tasted it with a simple chicken salad with a Waldorf base. So you had the nuts and the grapes and the creaminess of the mayo and this tender poached chicken, with that wine—it was like the blind was thrown up on the window and the light came streaming in. I understood what good wine flavor was all about, and I was hooked on what wine and food could possibly be together.
WS: At one point in your career you worked in a vineyard, an experience that you've referred to as the "harvest from hell." What happened?
PB: I was working in Washington, D.C., for Capital Management. In 1989, I'd been working there for four years, six days a week with a total of two weeks off. I thought, "I'm going to try my hand at a real vineyard job." I flew out to work a harvest at Lambert Bridge, which was owned by Jerry Lambert at that time. When I arrived in August, Jerry said, "I've never seen such an abundant crop, and we've had the most perfect weather. I'd say 1989 could be one of the best California harvests ever, if the weather holds out."
Then of course the rain started, and it rained and it rained and it rained. I remember vats of Sauvignon Blanc [grapes] that looked just like wet rats, and the sugars being barely at 22 Brix. It would have made fine lemonade if it didn't have botrytis and gray rot. I realized then that if you gamble and lose, you can lose huge in the wine business.
WS: Care to share some good general advice about pairing food and wine?
PB: You don't need to think about the protein as much as you need to think about the sauce. That's going to give you a better final relationship between the food and the wine.
Most of my successful wine pairings have been contrasts rather than allegiances. I like to pair unusual grapes with traditional dishes. One that really stands out in memory was conceived with Daniel Patterson [at restaurant Elisabeth Daniel]. It was bluefin belly tuna sautéed in duck fat, wrapped in a gelée of ouzo and finished with fleur de sel and cracked peppercorns that had been freshly roasted, so their aromatic intensity and warmth just sparkled. We paired it with a bone-dry Silvaner from the Rheinhessen that had five years of age on it. It had secondary aromas of lemon peel, but also that slightly emerging racy gasoline kind of scent that seems to haunt most German wines when they get to be a certain age. And with the length on the palate along with the finish of the peppercorns—the whole thing had a remarkable flavor that kind of twisted and curled in your mouth.
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