Sommelier Talk: Scott Tyree

Grand Award-winning Tru's sommelier and wine director finds a wine for every dish
Mar 12, 2007

Scott Tyree, 45, is the sommelier at Chicago's Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning Tru. Tyree has worked there since its opening in 1999. Prior to that, Tyree was the first sommelier at another well-known Chicago restaurant, Shaw's Crab House. He now oversees Tru's wine program, which offers 1,700 selections from a 23,000-bottle inventory and manages a team of two additional sommeliers who staff the dining-room floor each night.

Tyree takes his work very seriously, yet is low-key and very approachable for diners. His knowledge covers a wide range of wines, and it's often put to the test by chef Rick Tramonto's innovative cuisine. Like many sommeliers, Tyree found his way into the business by happenstance rather than following a preordained career path, but found himself driven by his passion for wine.

Wine Spectator: What first got you interested in wine?
Scott Tyree: My interest was first piqued when I was an 18-year-old exchange student in a small village east of the Bordeaux region of France. Coming from a small Missouri town, I had never tasted quality wine or experienced a culture where wine was a part of everyday life. I never dreamed that wine would become my passion, and a very important part of my life.

WS: How did you become a sommelier?
ST: After graduating from Northwestern University with a Radio, Television [and] Film degree, I took a part-time night job as a bartender at an upscale Italian restaurant in Chicago. I was fortunate to work alongside an incredibly talented sommelier named Henry Bishop. His disarming humor and encyclopedic knowledge of Italian wine was incredibly inspirational. Later, I was encouraged by my friend and mentor, master sommelier Joseph Spellman, to follow my heart, trust my palate and consider a career as a sommelier.

WS: What is the hardest dish on the dinner menu at Tru to pair with wine, and what do you pair with it?
ST: A deconstructed beef tartare dish gave me fits for the longest time. There were so many disparate elements in the dish and I tried everything with it: Champagne, rosé from Provence, Alsatian Pinot Noir, even Madeira. Nothing worked. One night I was sitting at a local tapas bar sipping a Manzanilla and eating jamón when it occurred to me to try pairing sherry with the tartare. It worked and was a big hit. It doesn't sound like a likely pairing but you never know until you try it.

WS: What is your go-to wine-and-food pairing?
ST: Riesling in all its styles and forms goes with just about anything with Asian flavors.

WS: Even with Asian cuisine's notorious wine killer, ginger?
ST: You're right. I was too general with that statement. Specifically, Riesling with Thai-influenced flavors like mint, peanut sauce and chiles. Champagne and other sparkling wines are my go-to choices for sushi, sashimi and Japanese cuisine and, I think, prove worthy of taming ginger. I also prefer sparkling wines with some of the regional dishes of China.

WS: How do you emphasize value on the wine list at Tru?
ST: One of the goals of our wine team is to establish a friendly dialogue with each guest that intends to enjoy wine with dinner. Since part of the sommelier's job is to determine a price range that fits each guest's comfort zone, the dialogue requires we recommend wines at various price levels. A simpler approach might be to ask the guest directly how much they prefer to spend on wine. Both approaches require the ability to "read" a table. I agree with many of my colleagues who decide to include a wine list category for wines of good value, but I chose to not go that route as a way of developing a trusting relationship with our guests. If someone leaves Tru raving about the great $25 Gigondas that was recommended, then they're likely to feel less intimidated by the sommelier and feel encouraged to come back to the restaurant. For me, to see someone excited about a good value wine is as satisfying as seeing a guest savor a rare Burgundy or Bordeaux.

WS: What is your favorite wine region?
ST: I love Champagne, Burgundy's Côte de Nuits and Spain's Rioja. However, last year I visited Germany for the first time and had the closest thing to a wine epiphany that I've ever had. I could spend the rest of my days tasting the wines of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Nahe and be completely content.

WS: How many bottles do you have in your personal wine cellar, and what are some of your favorites?
ST: Actually, I don't really collect. I have a bunch of wine at home, mostly Burgundies, Rhônes, Austrian and German bottlings. But since I'm an impatient person when it comes to wine consumption, I probably end up drinking my wines way too soon. It's just too enticing when I go home and see all those great wines staring at me!

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