Sommelier Talk: The Metalhead with José Andrés

Andy Myers oversees the ThinkFoodGroup chef's many wine lists with a song in his heart
Sommelier Talk: The Metalhead with José Andrés
"The day I can convince Americans to drink Riesling and Sherry, we’re going to have such a better world," laughs Andy Myers of José Andrés' ThinkFoodGroup. (Greg Powers)
Jun 17, 2016

When asked how he got his start in wine, Andy Myers says it all began with punk rock. Joining a band right out of high school, he worked in restaurants waiting tables between tours. “Then one day—this is a shock—my rock aspirations didn’t pan out,” laughs Myers, and at 25, he snared a job as a server at Patrick O'Connell's legendary Inn at Little Washington.

Not long after, Myers invited his parents to dinner at the Inn, and with them tried a 1993 Albert Morot Beaune Premier Cru Cent-Vignes—a moment that put him on the path to the cellar life. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is why people lose their minds about wine!’” says Myers, now 44. The next day he approached the sommelier and asked if he could apprentice with wine.

That first foray into the cellar led to years studying for Court of Master Sommeliers exams, an MS certification in 2014 and almost a decade as wine director for Eric Ziebold’s now-shuttered CityZen in Washington, D.C.'s Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Today, as the wine director of José Andrés’ and Rob Wilder’s ThinkFoodGroup, Myers manages a diverse group of wine lists at restaurants specializing in different cuisines from around the world, including 12 Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners—and still finds time to drum for his metal band, Fuchida, "adored by tens of people." Myers spoke with Wine Spectator editorial assistant Sara Heegaard about his wine relationship with the beloved chef, the beverage trend he wishes would go away and the connection between heavy metal and wine.

Wine Spectator: Music is a passion of yours outside of wine. What's the connection between the two?
Andy Myers: I’m a metalhead who found punk rock second, and I’ll never give up on either of them. The connection I see between this music and the wines that actually speak to me is honesty, is passion. No one ever, ever started a metal band because they thought they were going to get rich. No one plays punk rock to get famous. If you do, you’re an idiot because it’ll never happen. And the wines that speak to me, the wines that are honest and true and passionate, no one’s making these to get rich. It’s someone who has a crazy idea about wanting to be a steward of this particular piece of land, and they want you to feel that passion that they have for this place.

I get really incredulous about shitty pop music, of which there is an infinite amount, and about shitty manipulated wines. It’s made technically correctly, and it has zero soul. Yeats said if it doesn’t make the "soul clap its hands and sing"—why would we waste our time on anything that doesn’t do that?

WS: What's your approach to pairing at Andrés' many restaurants? Are there any “rules” that you like to break or patterns that you like to follow?
AM: I’ve been working on pairings for what feels like my whole life at this point. And sometimes I get in this mindset like “There are no rules! Do whatever you want!” And then some kid will put something in front of me and I’ll be like “Dude, seriously, there are some rules, and this was terrible.”

I think the older I get, the more conservative I get in terms of pairings. Sometimes things work because they’re stone-cold classics, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Grüner Vetliner really likes vegetables—that’s a fact, I can’t change that. Fat likes sugar, so if you’re doing foie gras, I like doing sweet Rieslings, and protein likes tannins, so if I’ve got beef, I like Sangioveses, I like Cabernets with that.

But then I also have to remember that there are some people who want to drink Silver Oak with oysters. I don’t understand them, but I love them, and I will help them, God bless them—the world needs diversity.

WS: Your wine lists encompass a range of sizes and cuisines, from under 100 selections at Oyamel, Cocina Mexicana and Minibar to over 500 selections at Bazaar Meat by José Andrés. How do you work with Andrés to build a wine program?
AM: I’m really fortunate that José’s really accessible and incredibly smart, of course about food but also about wine, and smarter still about human experience, and about helping to nurture and know the guest experience. Usually, I will have an initial conversation with him about my ideas, like “Hey, chef, I’m thinking about 60/40 white to red.” And he’ll have some input on that, and then I’ll sketch a list out. … I’ll inevitably forget a [winemaker] friend of ours. He’ll be like, “You no longer like that friend?” And I’ll be like, “Oh no, I totally forgot that.” And he’ll say “It’s a good thing you have me around, isn’t it?!”

Other times it’ll be, “A little more Rioja; I think Rioja might be a little bit better with this.” Sometimes there are things on menus that will change when I’m in the midst of writing the list. Space constraints are of course an issue, and inventory as well—for a small restaurant, it’s not easy to float a quarter of a million dollars in inventory.

WS: What do you feel is the importance of mentorship to the worlds of wine and dining?
AM: There’s a tremendous amount of tribal knowledge in wine, and it’s difficult for a young sommelier to get. For example, the reason I’m really well-versed in Burgundy vintages from the mid-’70s on is because I drank them. There are incredibly talented young sommeliers today who don’t have access to them [because] they haven’t had somebody help them learn the ropes with that. A mentor is somebody who can expose you to a world that’s maybe a touch above your pay grade, maybe it’s a touch above your skill set, but it gives people an opportunity to see something that they want to aspire to and achieve, and I think that’s incredibly important.

WS: What do you see as important trends—good or not so good—in our evolving culture of restaurants, food and wine?
AM: I’m nervous about the trend of young sommeliers obsessed with finding that which has never been found. The trend of interesting over flavorful, or over delicious, is bugging me to death right now, so I wish that would go away. I’m sorry, but can someone just put a bullet in orange wine? I get it—everybody wants to make a mark and feel that their work has purpose and has meaning, but I wish there was more of “Hey, my purpose and my meaning is that I’m in hospitality and I need to be hospitable and make people happy and make people smile.” I think that gets lost a lot of the time.

I would like to see more of a focus on actual care and love for the humans that are coming in and are trying to forget about their hard day, or trying to get over a report that they need to get in by tomorrow, or the woes of life in general. Restaurants are supposed to restore people—everyone gets beaten down for 40 hours a week, and our job is to lift them back up. I would like to see that as a trend.

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