Sommelier Talk: The Professor, Sandy Block of Legal Sea Foods

One of the first American Masters of Wine talks education, tariffs, drinking at the airport, which wines sell with fish—and which don’t

Sommelier Talk: The Professor, Sandy Block of Legal Sea Foods
A veteran of wine with an open mind, Sandy Block is equally at home in the classroom where he teaches and the "Board-O Room" (right) for private dinners at LSF. (Chris Sanders / Courtesy of Legal Sea Foods)
Feb 21, 2020

It's quite possible that Sandy Block has matched more bottles of wine with seafood than anyone else in the restaurant world. Since joining the Massachusetts-based Legal Sea Foods (LSF) restaurant group as vice president of beverage operations in 2004, Block has built LSF into a East Coast–spanning wine destination with dozens of locations, including seven that hold Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards for wine-list excellence.

A onetime doctoral candidate who instead pursued the notoriously grueling Master of Wine certification, Block has long been an expert in wine history and culture. Though his team serves thousands of drinkers, he doesn’t neglect less-known, emerging wine regions. He’s been able to track decades of change in drinking trends too: People didn’t do red wine with fish as often 15 years ago, he notes. “I like matching people with wines they would like,” he says. “I enjoy the immediate payback you get when somebody smiles and says, ‘That’s delicious.’”

Block also teaches wine history at Boston University, where he has developed his own curriculum for the accredited Wine Studies program. Wine Spectator editorial assistant Shawn Zylberberg spoke with Block to discuss his humble beginnings, the wines that have come on strong in recent years—and those that have disappeared—and why it's important to offer Champagne at under $13 a glass.

Wine Spectator: When did your passion for wine start?
Sandy Block: I was working on a doctoral thesis, and I was probably too young and too undisciplined at the time to finish it in the appropriate amount of time, so I had to get a job. I worked in a restaurant starting as a dishwasher and I noticed that these people who served the wine seemed to have a pretty cool job—certainly better than being dishwasher. The owner had his own private collection that was part of the list and it attracted wine lovers.

I worked my way up and became a waiter. Then one day the sommelier left and the owner said, “I want you to be the sommelier.” I said, “Why me?” “Because you’re the only one that can speak French,” he said. Every wine on the list was French. I got the first edition of the [Hugh] Johnson World Atlas of Wine and I read up on the wines that we carried. I started to go to wine tastings and eventually fell in love with wine. It combined theology, chemistry, biology, history, language, culture and gastronomy, and it seemed like it was an endlessly fascinating subject. You can’t ever master this stuff.

WS: When you became Legal Sea Foods' wine director in 2004, what changes did you want to make?
SB: One of the first things I did was introduce blind tastings, which is a major part of the Master of Wine program. Blind-tasting is the primary method we [use to] choose wines. I put together a robust educational program for our teams, and we focused not only on knowledge but practicality, matching wine and food, and how to present wine. Our challenge is, with 30-plus restaurants, how do we approximate the quality experience when we’re dealing with thousands of diners?

WS: How have people’s tastes been shifting since you joined LSF in 2004?
SB: One of the major shifts I’ve seen is that we used to be 75 percent white wine and now people are feeling much more comfortable drinking red wine with fish. White wine is a much slimmer majority than it was 15 years ago.

I’m shocked that in some of our restaurants we’re selling more Sauvignon Blanc than Chardonnay; I would’ve never predicted that 15 years ago. We’re selling almost no Australian wine, whereas it was a powerhouse 15 years ago. One of the other major trends is more wine by the glass and less by the bottle. When I train the staff I tell them, “You have a really hard job. Unless you’re a mind reader, you have no knowledge of a guest’s experience level with wine, so you have to find subtle ways to ask them what they enjoy and recommend things that are in that comfort zone, while noticing if they are interested in experimenting a bit.”

WS: With your value-driven approach to buying wine, are the tariffs affecting this strategy? [Though the government announced last week it has tabled the potential 100 percent tariffs on wine from the European Union, 25 percent duties on many French, Spanish and German wines remain.]
SB: My first love was French wine, so it’s very painful to reduce the number of French wines. It’s our broadest category of imported wine. We’ve had to raise prices and work with importers and distributors that have held a line on price. Some importers are able to take the long view and say, “The most I can raise is 5 percent,” and absorb the costs. We change our wine list every six months, in January and July, so we have to deal with the reality.

WS: Is there a certain region that is popular among your guests?
SB: They love New Zealand and the Loire, which I’m excited about; Alsace as well. Oregon is a magic name among our customers: primarily Pinot, but also Chardonnay. Interestingly enough, we’ve been very successful with Greece. I have a section on my wine list called “Great Shellfish Wines” where I put Muscadet, Albariño and also a wine from Santorini, and people are impressed with it. … I’d like to see us getting more wine from Spain and Portugal—especially Spain, because I think they make some of the best red wine with fish in the world, specifically Garnacha.

WS: You also curate lists for your airport franchises. How does the approach change?
SB: They are smaller lists made for quick turnover. We find the airport to be an interesting dynamic. A lot of single business travelers want half-bottles, and we sell an enormous amount of them at airports. We are at Boston Logan, Reagan D.C. and Philadelphia airport.

WS: Do you have a favorite wine at the moment?
SB: Alsatian wines and German Rieslings, as well as Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley. But most of my cellar is Rhône, Bordeaux, Burgundy and California.

WS: How do you increase visibility of a value-driven wine program?
SB: I always tell the staff when I’m training them: “What’s a great value to one person is outrageously expensive to another.” We’re selling Jordan Cabernet at $75 and people might’ve come from a steak house a week ago and paid $140 for it. On the other hand, if you go up to a party that’s unfamiliar with wine and doesn’t know the brands or what they cost elsewhere, and you show them Jordan at $75, they may be offended. Many restaurants take popular wines like Cakebread and Jordan, and they jack them up a lot because they want people to learn the more esoteric wines that they’re interested in pushing.

We have the opposite approach. We want people to talk about the fact that they got Taittinger Champagne for $12.75 a glass at Legal Sea Foods. We’re making plenty of money, just taking a shorter markup than other people. That’s the best way to spread the word without making it sound like you're bragging.

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