On July 8, 2020, one of the world’s most elite restaurants, the French Laundry, was preparing to reopen its doors after 13 weeks of closure forced by the COVID crisis. So it was quite the day for Andrew Adelson to start his new position as head sommelier of the Grand Award winner in Yountville, Calif.
Between navigating government restrictions and ensuring guest comfort, welcoming diners mid-pandemic seems like a daunting task—even for a restaurant known for its seamless service, with staff at the top of their game. But it’s a task that Adelson was eager and ready for.
He has been working in restaurants since age 14, when he took a job in his hometown of Los Angeles to pay for his skateboards. “I just fell in love with the energy of the fast pace of working in a restaurant, and the connection with people.” Adelson went on to hone his craft at increasingly high-level restaurants in L.A. as well as Arizona, where he attended college. He then returned to California, and starting in 2008, he worked at the Grand Award–winning Grand Del Mar in San Diego for about six years.
It was during this time that sommelier Jesse Rodriguez took Adelson under his wing, encouraging his wine interest and inviting him to classes. It also sparked an attraction to the legendary restaurant he works at today. “[Rodriguez] was always talking about the French Laundry, which was exciting,” Adelson recalls. “It was like this mythical place in the sky for me at that time.” He soon moved back to L.A. and was part of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group by 2014, first as a manager and then as head sommelier at Bouchon in Beverly Hills. When that location closed in 2017, all the stars aligned, and he joined the French Laundry team as a sommelier.
While the past year has been a difficult one for all restaurants, Adelson remains focused on the positives. “It’s been such a great opportunity for us to give people a place to come and have an experience during this incredibly challenging period of time. And also to support our neighbors who have taken a pretty big hit, not only with the pandemic, but with the fires,” he says. “So just being there for not only our guests, but for the community, has been really wonderful.”
Last month, as restrictions were beginning to lift across the country, Adelson sat down with Wine Spectator associate editor Julie Harans to talk about the challenges and joys of his mid-pandemic promotion, a life-changing Burgundy tasting and turning fine dining into fun dining.
Wine Spectator: Was there anything in your early life that foreshadowed your career in wine?
Andrew Adelson: I think what really connected me to wine was growing up in the San Fernando Valley—having fruit trees all around the house, hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains and being so close to those smells. Being a sentimental person, that all comes flooding back when you put your nose in the right glass of wine. That was really the big connection to me and what initially drew me in, that transformative feature of wine. It gives you the ability to remember the past. It kind of drops a pin in the moment, so in the future, you can go back to that place. And then it’s all the other facets of wine that grab even stronger hold of you, like geography, geology, history, personal stories, all of those things.
WS: Were there any aha moments or life-changing bottles that stick out in your mind?
AA: Oh, so many bottles. But the major aha moment was my first wine class on Burgundy, particularly the Côte de Beaune. It was a look at the major areas: Chablis, Meursault, Puligny, Chassagne. Having somebody talk you through the differences while you’re tasting them and really understanding, man, this is the same grape variety grown in the same country, in roughly the same region, and to see that it can almost be anything. Between Chablis and Chassagne-Montrachet, there are so many different shades of what [Chardonnay] can be and the difference in terroir. That was a big epiphany for me.
WS: What is it like to hold a job at the French Laundry after idolizing it for years?
AA: I do pinch myself every day when I walk into that cellar. We work very hard here and we have a lot of fun, so during service you don’t really realize it, but I’ll wake up at 3 in the morning and think, “What we do is really, really special, and I’m so excited to be a part of it.”
WS: What was it like taking over the head sommelier position in the midst of the pandemic?
AA: It’s been challenging, wanting to continue the legacy of the great wine directors that have come before me, but in a period of time where we’re not buying wine at the same rate. So it was figuring out what allocations do we take and who can we support. We want to support as many people as possible but be responsible to the restaurant. That’s been interesting to navigate, and we’re now coming out of that [period of a lower buying rate].
And just keeping the staff excited in the restaurant. Seeing people get excited about the program and different regions of the world takes me back to when I first started studying, and that’s something that we want to continue to do for everyone—from the newest members of the team who are running food and polishing glasses, to the captains that have been here for three or four or five years, who maybe didn’t have the opportunity or didn’t take the opportunity for themselves. Helping them understand the opportunity that they have here, and maybe giving them a little bit of a nudge to say, “Hey, why don’t we go tasting somewhere on our day off,” and seeing if there’s an opportunity for them to get more involved.
WS: After this past year, I bet it’s especially rewarding to welcome guests back into the restaurant.
AA: People are ready to party. They want to come out and they want to have fun. They always do here, but there’s certainly another level of people wanting to enjoy. Every night here since we’ve reopened, people are gathering from all over the country, and sometimes all over the world, and meeting here in Napa and coming to dinner here at the French Laundry, and it’s the first place they’ve been out. That’s really exciting.
We always want to give the guest the best experience possible, knowing that they’ve probably been waiting a long time to come here and they may never come back. We want them to take this experience with them and to cherish it and remember it always, and there’s a little bit more pressure on that now—I shouldn’t say pressure, because we’re ready and we want to give them that experience. And people are always here to have a good time, so when people are ready and willing to accept the experience, it’s easier to give it to them.
WS: What do you personally hope to bring to the wine program? Are there any particular styles or regions you’re looking to expand?
AA: There are some things that I personally am interested in that I would like to bring more of onto the list. Grenache from the Méntrida area in Madrid I think is really compelling, particularly the Jiménez-Landi and Comando G stuff. I’ve done some traveling out there, it’s really exciting. But I think we have such a great representation of wines from around the world, and I want to maintain that.
My focus is really building more of a culture for the entirety of the staff—the chefs, the food runners, the polishers, the back servers—to get involved and to enjoy wine. It’s easy to take it for granted when you live here. [At first] it’s exciting and you go out and you taste for the first couple months, and then maybe you forget about it because your focus is on work and life is full of craziness, particularly right now. But I want to create a space, a culture, for people to really enjoy wine. And it’s easy once you get it started because [the staff] all hang out together, some of them live together. So they can do that together, and then it becomes infectious, and that’s what we’re looking to do. I’m not saying that’s not present, but I want it to be much greater than it is.
WS: Any thoughts on the future of post-pandemic wine service?
AA: I want to make sure that people are having more fun in the restaurant. Chef and Michael [Minnillo, general manager], they like to say that this is fun dining, not fine dining, and I want to make sure that we’re taking that to the next level. Not in a casual way, but there’s like this bit of nervousness when you sit down in a restaurant, and sometimes it’s hard to start enjoying right away. You need to kind of break down this expectation or this nervousness, and we want to do that immediately so that people can enjoy from the moment they sit down.
And for me, one of the most intimidating aspects of dining in a restaurant like this is wine. So to make it as approachable as possible, and as fun and as educational as possible—without giving our guests an education, if you know what I mean— that’s what I’m striving for.
WS: How do you achieve that?
AA: It's more about the details, intention and thought when interacting with guests; asking questions and finding out more about them, such as their birth year and pouring them a glass of wine from that same vintage, or if they got married in Tuscany and suggesting a wine from that region. It's about reminding guests I'm a sommelier that's here to provide a great experience simply by an approachable, genuine and thoughtful interaction.
WS: The French Laundry added outdoor dining to accommodate diners during the pandemic—is that here to stay?
AA: Of course. There’s no going back. That’s the great thing about this restaurant. I’ve been here for going on four years, and even pre-pandemic I’ve seen so much evolution in the restaurant. It’s one of the things that makes me so excited about working here and running this program. It’s one of the few places I’ve worked that totally embraces change and is not afraid to push change, and it’s great.
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