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Sommelier Talk: Brahm Callahan of Boston's Grill 23 & Bar

This Master Sommelier is making waves with his creative take on a steak house wine list
Photo by: Todd Mazer
Brahm Callahan's life in restaurants has led him to cultivate some of Boston's most expansive and intelligent wine lists.

Samantha Falewée
Posted: March 11, 2016

Updated April 13, 2017

Brahm Callahan is used to being the youngest on the scene. He was waiting tables and working odd jobs in fine dining restaurants before he graduated from middle school and selling wine before he could legally drink. Now 33, he earned the Master Sommelier title in 2015 and was soon promoted to corporate beverage director of the Boston group that includes Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner Grill 23 & Bar, a steak house.

Callahan oversees a list with more than 1,900 wine selections at Grill 23 & Bar, plus the programs at Himmel Hospitality Group’s two other restaurants, Harvest (in Cambridge) and Post 390, which hold a Best of Award of Excellence and an Award of Excellence, respectively. A Massachusetts native, Callahan has witnessed the Boston culinary scene grow to embrace newer and more varied tastes.

Wine Spectator editorial assistant Samantha Falewée caught up with Callahan to discuss the impact of education on his path in wine, the Boston culinary landscape and the eternal question of whether white wine can pair with steak.

Wine Spectator: How did you get your start working in restaurants?
Brahm Callahan: My dad’s girlfriend got me a job when I was 13 in a fine dining restaurant, serving sorbet as the palate cleanser between the third and fourth courses [laughs]. I later worked my way through every possible job you can work at a restaurant and was working as a somm by the time I was finishing college.

WS: Did you think at that time that you wanted to focus on wine as a career?
BC: I had no idea. I finished my master's degree in classics and ancient history at Boston College, and was going into my doctorate. By now, I had worked my way up to wine director at the restaurant Excelsior. My graduate adviser told me, “You’d be much happier working with wine. See if it works out; your doctorate will always be here.”

I wanted to make myself as qualified as possible to be taken seriously on the floor. I have a baby face—most people didn’t think I was old enough to drink when I came to the table to try to sell them wine. So I started studying at the Court of Master Sommeliers and took my introductory course and my certified exam a week apart. Now I’m dabbling in the Master Cicerone, which is a silly difficult exam for beer.

WS: Given your perspective, what did you think of the documentary Somm?
BC: [My dad] couldn't comprehend it. The first time I sat for my master's exam, I failed, and I remember him and my family saying, “How can you be working this much and studying this much and not pass this exam? You must be fooling around” [laughs]. The documentary helped shed light on how brutal it was. I also think it showed a lot of the passion that many people in the wine industry have. But some of the best sommeliers I know are not court-certified. I have very little bias in that.

WS: What are the wine styles on Grill 23 & Bar’s list that are doing particularly well right now?
BC: The strength of our list is certainly domestic reds. We sell an enormous amount of Cab and Cab blends. We have almost 20 pages of American red wine. How the program really separates itself is our vintages. We have offerings back to the late ’60s, early ’70s for a lot of classic domestic producers. We have Caymus Special Selection back to ’76, Mondavi back to early the ’80s, Ridge back to the mid-’70s.

WS: Are there more limitations or opportunities that come with working with a menu that is based so strongly on steak?
BC: The opportunity is to sell a lot of wine! I always say that there are plenty of white wines that pair very well with steak. One of the best pairings I’ve ever had in my life is a ’97 Trimbach Riesling Clos Ste.-Hune with our 100-day aged rib eye. The Riesling had mushroom and earthy notes coming through that played off the beefy flavor developed in the steak, but with plenty of acid to cut through the richness—just an amazing pairing.

WS: What wines are you currently excited about?
BC: Sicily is an amazing hotbed for innovation right now. You’re seeing a lot of fruit-forward but very mineral-driven wines that have a foot in both [New and Old World]. They can appeal to a range of palates. Nerello Mascalese is like if Syrah and Pinot had a baby: plenty of fruit, alcohol, good grip—an interesting wine.

WS: Can you tell me about the food and wine scene in Boston?
BC: It’s changed enormously since I got here. Ten years ago it was a very different city. You’re seeing a lot of really driven, talented chefs coming up.

Boston’s been a “classic” city for a long time. When I say classic, I mean California Cabernet, Bordeaux, Burgundy and some Italian reds. Now millennials are willing to try things from not necessarily classically represented regions. There’s been a proliferation of Greek wine, a lot of Eastern European wine; the Portuguese market share’s growing too.

WS: What's it like being a beverage director for multiple restaurants versus your days working the floor?
BC: Each restaurant is like having a kid: They’re all different and they all have things you love. I enjoy that the restaurants are constantly changing; you have to know several different kinds of food, clienteles, wine lists, cocktail programs. I like talking to people, and I chose the Court of Master Sommeliers because it is a service organization. The positive of moving to upper management is that I don’t have to work the floor all the time. But I like to be on the floor if I can and help my other sommeliers.

WS: Any fun stories from working on the floor?
BC: I had a couple last year that had seen the movie Somm and asked me to identify the wine at their table blind, using the grid [of wine characteristics]—in the middle of dinner service—and I did [laughs]. Being in hospitality you see all sorts of crazy things that happen, and often. That’s part of the appeal. Being on the floor is completely organic. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. I enjoy that. I’ve seen all sorts of things.

Fred Vogel
Oregon —  March 11, 2016 10:48pm ET
While the food pricing is doable, the wine pricing is a joke. Anyone in their right mind would be better off BYOB (if allowed) than being subjected to such folly. If no BYOB is allowed, Pasadena.

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