It was a National Merit Scholarship that brought sommelier Dan Davis to the University of New Orleans to study history, but it was his brief stint at the Brennan family's Palace Café—a casual sister restaurant to the historic Commander's Palace—that left him eager to pursue a career in the restaurant business. After holding positions at Emeril's New Orleans and Emeril's Miami, Davis returned to New Orleans to work with the Brennans at Commander's Palace, where, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he began building a wine list that would earn a Grand Award in 2012. Davis spoke with assistant editor Lizzie Munro about his education as a sommelier, creating exceptional wine lists and guiding customers to unfamiliar bottles.
Wine Spectator: What was it like starting out at Emeril's?
Dan Davis: [After leaving Palace Café] I found myself drawn back into the business as the managing partner of a small bakery and restaurant, which, as fate would have it, was located a half-block away from Emeril's. Every night as I was shutting down my 12 tables I'd see throngs of people at Emeril's restaurant.
I started out at Emeril's as a busser because I wanted to learn what it was that they knew, because they were packing the place every night. I got in there just as Greg Harrington had won the Grand Award, so from day one, even as a busser, you had to be immersed in the very highest level of knowledge of food. And then, if you wanted to do anything beyond that, you had to learn about wine. So I had the great fortune to be inspired by Greg, who, while I was there, became a Master Sommelier.
As I moved up in the organization, I learned that if you want to give yourself a raise, you can, just by learning about wine and making your customers comfortable branching out into [unfamiliar] areas.
WS: After leaving to run Emeril's Miami location, how did you wind up at Commander's Palace?
DD: I got very homesick for New Orleans, and when I wanted to come back, unfortunately Emeril didn't have a position open. So I gave Ti [Adelaide Martin, Commander's Palace co-proprietor] a call and she said, "Come to Commander's and we'll find a spot for you."
WS: What inspired you to try to make the jump from a Best of Award of Excellence to a Grand Award?
DD: [After Katrina] we were closed for the first time in 125 years. It was a scary time in New Orleans and we didn't really know what was going to happen. [When we reopened] we all decided that we wanted to shoot for the moon. Ti's mom [Ella Brennan] had always dreamed of having the Grand Award at Commander's, so we made the decision to go for it.
WS: What changes did you make to the list?
DD: One of the first things I did was significantly expand our half-bottle selections [and our] by-the-glass offerings; we do half-glasses and full glasses of everything that we pour.
Commander's had always had a great wine program, [but] there were areas of the cellar that were deeper than I thought they needed to be. We had some sales and [offered] some really cool wines by the glass in order to get rid of some things and make space for the more cult-oriented wines. And then I just dug in. The Brennan name is so well-regarded in the business that people wanted to help and be a part of seeing this legendary restaurant rise to a new level of success.
WS: Were there any considerations in particular?
DD: [We had to] make sure that we had all of the must-have regions of the world represented in the areas that go well with our food, and then give our customers more of what they were already looking at. A lot of our business travelers like Merlot and Malbec, and a lot of things that sommeliers don't consider sexy. So we went out and found the very best selections that we could, and we expanded those areas instead of ignoring them. We found that our customers are very appreciative of that because they have more selection in the areas that they're comfortable buying. When they see that, they trust you and they'll listen. If you take what they like seriously, they're a lot more apt to take advice when you want to get adventurous.
WS: What types of wine do you find pair well with the cuisine at Commander's Palace?
DD: [Chef Tori McPhail] is, in my humble opinion, a modern master of all of the different cuisines that come into New Orleans cuisine, in what we call "Haute Creole," or the modern Creole. He really likes to delve into and explore the component cuisines—the Floribbean and African and Spanish [influences] that come together in this big gumbo pot we call New Orleans.
There's a lot of finesse in these foods, and every component of the dish has a story to tell. I think that with a wine that's overly alcoholic or overly extracted, it's hard to see past what the wine is saying. That doesn't mean that there's not a place in the program for those wines, but they're just difficult to pair with a tasting menu.