Marian Jansen op de Haar, 51, came from her native Netherlands to the United States in 1978. Once here, her initiation into the world of food and wine started at various gourmet shops, and she soon specialized in wine and cheese as a buyer for Marche Gourmet, a high-end gourmet shop in Scottsdale, Ariz. She moved on to become sommelier of Café de Perouges and Mr. Louie's, both in Phoenix, before returning to Scottsdale in a managerial role at the Ruth's Chris Steak House, a high-end national chain of which nearly 100 locations have earned Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards.
Jansen op de Haar joined Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in 1998 as a consultant and has served as national wine director for the chain since 2000. Based at the Fleming's in Newport, Calif., she is responsible for creating the company's wine list and thoroughly educating the staff about wine. The Wine Spectator Award of Excellence was given to 52 Fleming's Prime Steakhouses nationwide this year for their 180-selection wine lists, which include the Fleming's 100, a selection of 100 wines available by the glass.
Wine Spectator: How did you first become interested in wine?
Marian Jansen op de Haar: I grew up with wine. I'm from Europe, so I started drinking wine when I was 13, 14. When I moved to the United States, I was 21 and I was looking for wine to drink. You couldn't get that many European wines at the time, and I [also] wanted to drink American wine. This was 30 years ago, and there wasn't that much on the market. So that's how I got interested, just trying to find something I can drink.
WS: What is your favorite wine?
MJ: People ask me that all the time, and I must say I don't think I have an answer. I always say my favorite wine is "good wine," [laughing] because there are some varietals that I like, but there are always exceptions. Pinot Noir and Riesling are probably my favorite grapes if I have to choose. I drink light whites for everyday drinking, but I like serious reds. Famous reds, too, if I can get my hands on them.
WS: How would you describe the wine program at Fleming's?
MJ: We have 100 wines by the glass, [the Fleming's 100], at every one of our places. [All wines by the glass are offered by the bottle, with an additional list of 80-plus wines available solely by bottle.] We have 57 restaurants, and 70 of those wines by the glass are national selections and the other 30 are chosen by local wine managers to adjust to their market, whether it's regional wines that they want or wines that suit the likes of their particular locale. For instance, in Boston, they like Italian wines. In general, the East Coast is more familiar with European wines. In California, most people don't think about drinking anything but California wines. … [To ensure the by-the-glass selections are served fresh] we keep the wines temperature-controlled—35° F to 40° F for sparkling; 45° F for whites; 60° F for reds and Ports. In addition, we only open one bottle at a time and we sparge them with argon gas.
WS: What are some of the challenges in selecting wine for a chain?
MJ: Well, you hit it on the head—chain. The challenge is to get it everywhere at the same price. You're picking a wine, and you think it's a good value for the price. Then they say except in this state—it's five bucks more here. Then it becomes less of a good sell, and I don't want to put those wines on the list, because it's not fair to local restaurants. That takes a little work. My problem is not so much quantity, which I think is a problem some other places may have, because we have 100 wines by the glass. I need smaller quantities of particular wines, but sometimes distribution is hard, and liquor regulations are hard, so I usually deal with the wineries. Of course, we get wine through distributors, but I make my selections directly through the wineries. Sometimes I have to talk them into expanding their infrastructure if that's what it takes.
WS: You have a national staff. How do you find time to supervise everyone?
MJ: We have wine managers in each location. That's who I communicate with about our wine program. Education is a big chunk of my job. I wrote a curriculum for wine managers, a three-year program. When we open a new restaurant, there's a new manual for service, and I teach the managers to teach the bartenders and service managers after I leave so that way everybody is educated.
WS: How do the wine selections pair to the food on a Fleming's menu?
MJ: It's not quite as hard as you think. We have meticulously prepared food, but it's relatively simple in ingredients, so that's actually a good thing for wine. So just having a fruit-forward, balanced wine will balance most of the food. It's a simple formula, but I don't think there is ever one wine for one dish. With steak, most people will have a bigger red wine, if they like it. Napa Cabernet and steak—I mean, why try to reinvent the wheel—that's a no brainer! I do prefer to match the different cuts with different style wines. Mostly less tannic, moderate intensity reds for filet, such as a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, California Merlot or Australian Shiraz. With New York strips the tannin level can be a little higher because of more marbling in the steak. Here a Napa Cab, Washington state Merlot or Cab, or any moderate to full intensity red would be great, including Zins, Malbecs, Riojas and Shiraz. For ribeye, the most marbled cut, a full intensity and higher tannin wine is great, including Cabernet Sauvignons, Barolos and Priorats.
WS: What are some of the more unusual pairings you recommend at Fleming's?
MJ: Because I like Riesling, especially German Rieslings that are off-dry … I love those with spicier foods, so I usually tell people about that. Most of them are not willing to try anything with sugar in it. Sugar seems to be a dirty word. But it really isn't. These are very sophisticated wines. We have calamari that is sweet and sour and spicy, and it's great with Riesling—perfect! Also, we have a barbecue shrimp with butter, and Riesling is also good with the spice and butter.
WS: "Green" wine is the focus of this year's Fleming's 100 program. Tell us more about it.
MJ: A lot of wineries in Napa, California, Washington and certainly in the south of France and other parts of the world have been into growing grapes sustainably, because that makes the most economic sense—it doesn't just make sense for the environment. I always leaned toward choosing wineries that pay attention to sustainable agriculture. If they do it organically or biodynamically, more power to them. … Our program always goes on for a year—June to June. It always shapes itself while [I'm] tasting wine, because new trends will come out, new grapes will be in vogue, and I tend to taste more of them because I want to know more about them.
WS: For your own personal consumption, and entertaining at home, what wines do you always have on hand?
MJ: I have something of everything, so depending on my guests' request … Personally, I like complex, lighter wines, so I tend to drink those. When I have people around, I pay attention to what they like, or if I have a dinner party, I like to have three or four wines for every course, because it gives me a chance to try even more wines, and that's how I taste!
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