David O'Day is the wine director for some of the fastest-growing fine-wine franchises in America. Working at the original Dallas Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse 19 years ago, O'Day became intrigued by the sommelier's job, coming in early to help him stock the cellars. Today, O'Day oversees 10 Double Eagles around the country, each with a wine list topping 1,000 selections, plus six Del Frisco's Grilles and 19 Sullivan's Steakhouses. In total, O'Day has built and overseen the wine lists for 31 Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners, abiding by two guiding Del Frisco's principles: "Do right and fear no man" and "Don't let the bastards grind you down." He talked to Wine Spectator about how he creates top lists in diverse markets, his favorite experiences in wine and what he'd pick for pairing with a range of steak cuts and styles.
Wine Spectator: What goes into consideration when pairing a wine with steak?
David O'Day: Finding out [the customer's] needs, and then finding out the cut—whether it's a filet, a strip, a rib eye—and how it's prepared. Is it charred? Are we doing any sauces with it? Is it peppered? Then taking into account the regions they like and the style of wine they like. Then checking the tannins, the acidity level, the sweetness, the body of the wine.
WS: Let's go a through a few different styles and cuts. What do you personally like for rib eye, sirloin, filet, short rib and hanger steak?
DO: If it's a big, juicy rib eye, of course something with a little more acidity and tannin structure, whether it's a Barolo or a big Cabernet, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Hermitage. For sirloin, perhaps a St.-Emilion would be a nice pairing, if [the guest] likes a bigger, fuller style. Or if he likes a big California Cab, I can take them to Châteauneuf-du-Pape or a Syrah, and it's a totally different style than what they're used to, if they're open to it.
A nice Pomerol, maybe a bigger-bodied Pinot Noir might work with a filet. [For short rib,] a nice Syrah or Grenache-based wine. A Spanish wine might work with that as well. Maybe a super Tuscan blend would work with a hanger steak. There are so many different ways to go, I would never say that one particular is a classic end-all pairing with a steak.
WS: What about for a New World wine drinker?
DO: Maybe a nice big Malbec from a single vineyard. Santiago Achával—I've always been a big fan of his [Achával-Ferrer] wines.
WS: What is involved in building extensive wine lists for different markets?
DO: Well, we don't do a core list, which to me is refreshing. We go into each market and source all of the distributors we can, and then we go deep into their portfolio and see what they have to offer. So in each city you always find something new, something different. And you take the best of the best. In D.C. we have almost 20 different distributors for a Grille that has 450 [or] 500 wines. With a [Double Eagle] usually I start four months in advance for buying. We're contacting the wineries, seeing what's available. We have great relationships with Napa Valley. They open up their cellars. When we opened up [the newest Double Eagle in] Chicago, dozens and dozens made available back vintages, large-format bottles, signed or etched 3-liters or 6-liters.
WS: What are some of your favorite regions to travel to?
DO: Every region I get excited about. I've been to Bordeaux four or five times; every time I go I get excited about seeing these classic, beautiful, old châteaus. They're older than this country; they've been making wine for hundreds of years. The history behind it, the terroir is incredible. Alsace is incredible: little picturesque villages and vineyards, the church and the steeple. One of my goals is to travel every winegrowing region in the world. So I've got a ways to go.
WS: Do you have any specifically memorable wine experiences?
DO: One of the best days I've ever had as a wine professional was with the Guigal family in the Rhône Valley. Marcel and Philippe hosted me in the afternoon, which we spent barrel sampling through the single vineyards, and then finished up at La Pyramide in Vienne for lunch. Being able to see the vineyard, be with them in the cellar, see their passion for their art. They had asked me if they would mind if they had some guests from Burgundy touring, and I said of course not. And it turns out it was Joseph Henriot from Bouchard. With one of the greats from the Rhône and one of the greats from Burgundy, that was a special day.
I learn something new every day with my job. Whether it's about a new winery, a region, a law. And that's one of the things that intrigues me: No one will ever finish that book on wine. There's just too much to know, and it's constantly evolving, constantly changing.