Olivier Flosse began his career in the restaurant industry as a waiter in his hometown of Marseille, France, where he first learned the art of wine service. After earning an enology degree in Bordeaux, Flosse moved to New York in 1999 to assist then-wine director Jean-Luc Le Dû at Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning restaurant Daniel. He continued his career in chef Daniel Boulud’s restaurant group as wine director at Café Boulud before joining the London-based Marlon Abela Restaurant Corporation (MARC) to open Gaia in Greenwich, Conn.
Today, Flosse oversees the 800-plus-selection wine list at A Voce in New York, also a MARC restaurant, where chef Missy Robbins took over in the kitchen this past September after working at Chicago’s Spiaggia for five years. Flosse spoke with Wine Spectator about life as a teenage sommelier, the challenge of transitioning from directing wine service at fine French restaurants to building an award-winning Italian wine list from scratch and the amazing potential of well-aged American wines.
Wine Spectator: How did your career as a sommelier begin?
Olivier Flosse: I started as a waiter at a very well-known restaurant in Marseille called Le Petit Nice and the head sommelier had an assistant. The assistant broke his leg, so the sommelier asked me if I wanted to help him downstairs—moving cases, clearing the cellar—and I said, “All right, no problem, but on one condition: When the assistant returns, I want to enroll in wine school.” Well, after two or three weeks, the assistant never came back, so I was asked to be the assistant sommelier at age 16, and soon I went on to wine school, where I learned to love wine.
WS: What brought you to New York?
OF: I was working [in Oxford, England,] at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons with Raymond Blanc, and I knew that Daniel was looking for a sommelier and they called and asked me if I would be interested in coming over. I said, “Of course, I would be honored and pleased to work there.” I worked at Daniel for two and a half years, and then Café Boulud. After that, Mr. [Marlon] Abela asked me to come work for him.
WS: Was it difficult to leave the prestigious Boulud family of restaurants?
OF: It was kind of very funny, because I have known [Abela] for almost 15 years. Mr. Abela was our No. 1 customer when I was sommelier at La Chevre d’Or in Eze, France. He was just 18 years old and he was drinking Cheval-Blanc ’47, Yquem 1900, and I became close to him. And it seemed wherever I worked, he was always there—he came to Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, he came to La Chevre d’Or and he went to Daniel of course.
WS: What did you learn from chef Boulud and his staff?
OF: Matching speed with quality—that is, I think, the perfect description of working for Daniel. Quality and speed at the same time. And be on the top of your game every single day. There are no “bad days.”
WS: What were some of the challenges of building a wine list for A Voce, an Italian restaurant, after spending your entire career working in fine French restaurants?
OF: I was not nervous. I love Italian cuisine—I come from the south of France, so I was always close to Italy. For me it is like my second country. Italian cuisine is extremely good to match with wine. It is about a simple ingredient that is well-made. I was not scared; I was very pleased to discover something other than French cuisine. As a French people, we should learn to love other cuisines as well—it is very important.
WS: Describe the wine list at A Voce.
OF: The wine list is divided between three different countries. Of course, first Italian—our list is 70 percent Italian—and then French and American wines. The concept when I created it was to have the pleasure to drink whatever you want with Italian cuisine. It’s not necessary to have a glass of Barolo with a plate of spaghetti.
WS: Which dishes at A Voce do you think make particularly successful pairings with wine?
OF: First of all, I always ask the guest what kind of wine they like. Because it’s not about my taste; it’s about the taste of the guest. Missy’s Sarde dish [marinated Mediterranean sardines with fennel, radishes and a chile sauce] pairs well with a nice fresh wine from Campania, especially Cantina del Taburno Falanghina 2008. It is a great summer wine, well-balanced with a lovely acidity and complex flavor. She is also serving a Tubetti of grilled squid, basil, garlic, dried orange and chiles which I like to pair with a Donnafugata Ansonica-Catarratto Sicilia Anthìlia 2007 from Sicily. It creates an incredible match between flavors and taste—a complexity and bold connection between the food and the wine.
WS: Are any dishes at A Voce particularly difficult to suggest a pairing for?
OF:There are some specific ingredients whose textures and flavors make them difficult to pair with wines. We have two different dishes that utilize asparagus, the Mezzaluna [half-moon shaped pasta stuffed with asparagus and ricotta] and the Asparagi con Stracciatella [asparagus, creamy Pugliese mozzarella, chives and extra-virgin olive oil]. The characteristics of the asparagus are often not compatible with the acidity of many wines, but we can always recommend a nice glass of Prosecco.
WS: Is there any wine you are particularly excited about this summer that you’ve been recommending frequently?
OF: We currently are offering a mature wine from Napa—Beaulieu Vineyards Private Reserve 1987. It defines maturity, complexity and texture. Good wines are made to be aged, and the Beaulieu Vineyards is a perfect example. … I am in love with aging American wine. Unfortunately we drink them too early. We don’t have the patience to put them away and let them relax and age like we do with French wine. I have been tasting incredible American wines that have been allowed to age, and that really turned me on. I did some blind tastings—I didn’t know I was tasting American wines—and they were 15, 20, 30 years old and I was blown away by the quality of the wine. Aged American wines can be outstanding, as good as French wines.