Sommelier Talk: Beth von Benz

The sommelier at New York's Porter House brings a flair for creative pairings to the classic steak menu
Apr 24, 2007

Boston-born Beth von Benz, 49, has been a sommelier in New York for 15 years, working at Ansonia, Estiatorio Milos and Judson Grill before her current gig as wine director at Porter House, which opened in the Time Warner Center in October 2006.

Von Benz first got interested in wine while working summers with her sister, Amy, who managed a catering company in Bar Harbor, Maine. With a clientele list that included the Rockefeller and Ford families among others, von Benz was exposed to numerous great collections and got her first tastes of many fantastic wines.

Wine Spectator: How did you become a sommelier?
Beth von Benz: I moved to New York City in 1983 and one of my first jobs was at Café Luxembourg, where I was inspired by Diana Van Buren, the wine director at that time. She held wonderful wine tastings with slideshows of places that she had visited and was very passionate. It was contagious! I then bought wine for a few small restaurants downtown as a consultant, followed by Ansonia, which was my first sommelier job.

WS: Does working at a steak house take any of the creativity out of putting together a wine list?
BVB: Not at all! I am having a lot of fun doing the list at my first steak house. I think I have managed to incorporate many interesting and lesser-known wines on the list, especially in the domestic selections where there are many small-production, boutique possibilities.

And astonishing to me is how much Pinot Noir we sell. I hate to be cliché and blame it on [Sideways] but I must admit I am surprised to see how many people have steak or red meat and pair Pinot Noir with the entire meal. In fact, Pinot Noir has practically replaced white wine on my list! People who might usually start with a Chardonnay are now all beginning with Pinot Noir, so my Pinot Noir list has grown considerably since our opening.

I also have a selection of 30-plus half-bottles that offer people a chance to try something new or different, but not have to invest in a full bottle. These are all categories that you would not think would suit a wine list in a traditional steak house.

WS: How do you emphasize value on the wine list at Porter House?
BVB: I love my Zinfandel list of 20 selections. Zinfandel is still such a good deal and a great steak house wine, especially when compared to the pricing of California Cabernets. We also have value wines on the list from places or varietals such as Zinfandel, Syrah, Spain, Italy and the Rhône Valley, as well as most all my white wines.

WS: What is your personal go-to wine-and-food pairing?
BVB: At Kelley and Ping's (a Thai restaurant located in SoHo), their crispy boneless duck glazed with soy ginger and tamarind paired with a rosé Champagne, such as Charles Heidsieck.

WS: What is your favorite wine region?
BVB: Southern Rhône, Alsace, Piedmont and too many others to list, sorry!

WS: How many bottles do you have in your own personal cellar, and what are some of your favorites?
BVB: Only about 300 bottles—it is difficult in a small New York City apartment. We have our front hall closet filled with a large wine refrigerator, so no room for hanging up our coats! We have some great old Châteauneuf-du-Pape that we brought back from the Rhône. Some grand old Bordeaux, and my husband is Australian, so we have some older Australian wines that we love. A smattering of Burgundy and Piedmont too.

WS: What kinds of dishes do you like to cook at home?
BVB: We often host wine dinners with friends in the wine business. Everyone will cook a different course. Usually we see what we may be drinking and create a meal around the wine selections. I bake desserts—pear almond tart or peach tarte Tatin—and have gotten quite good at making sorbets and ice creams in the warmer weather. We have a table that can fit 10 people for a sit down dinner, rare in small city apartments. We have had some wild dinner parties here and have hosted many a visiting winemaker from France, Italy or Spain.

WS: If you ever made your own wine, what kind of wine would it be?
BVB: It would be driven by where I made it. I would love to make wine in southern France, in particular in or around the Rhône Valley.

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