When Christopher Miller, 33, graduated from Tulane University with a degree in finance, he knew little about wine. On a ski trip to Washington, however, he attended a tasting at DeLille Cellars (in a Seattle suburb) and was hooked. He packed his bags and moved to Seattle, where he attended sommelier school and began working as a busboy at Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning restaurant Canlis. He worked his way up through the ranks, eventually becoming sommelier.
Miller was recruited by Wolfgang Puck's flagship, Spago Beverly Hills, almost four years ago. For a year, he worked alone, building the wine list and working each of the 13 sommelier shifts per week. Since then, the staff has grown to three full-time sommeliers plus part-time staffers, while the wine list has increased tenfold and now includes more than 3,000 offerings from around the world. Spago earned a Grand Award in 2010.
Wine Spectator: When you first arrived at Spago, what was the wine list like?
Christopher Miller: When I first got here we had about 300 selections, and it was a very casual environment for wine.
I would say Spago has a dual personality. ... In 1982, it was a little pasta and pizza joint up on Sunset. It was a trattoria, and it had plastic chairs and it was in a small room. It caught on because Wolfgang is pretty amazing, and so over time, we evolved into a Michelin two-star restaurant, but the wine just never caught up.
Wolfgang wanted to see that evolve, and that was one of the reasons that I was hired after working in a Grand Award program with nice stemware and a higher level of service and a little more formality—not stuffy, by any means. Wolfgang would not go for that.
WS: What was your primary focus in expanding the wine list?
CM: My predecessor [Kevin O'Connor] had an extreme dedication to smaller boutique producers ... so a lot of our selections are based on that, but I've also filled it in with some of the larger verticals of some of the more well-known people.
We had already a ridiculous amount of Burgundy, and it's fabulous. Most of the credit of our Burgundy selection goes to Kevin. ... I did most of the work on California; I expanded Italy quite a bit as well, but we had almost zero representation from around the world. I think more than anything else what I brought to the list was a sense of balance, because the purpose was already there.
WS: Are there particular wine regions that you concentrate on?
CM: We have a pretty diverse menu, especially being the flagship. We have an eclectic selection where we can really showcase what Wolfgang does and, well, he does it all.
Most of our food is not terribly heavy, so we always have a substantial selection of both domestic and French Pinot Noir, and then Riesling. Riesling and Grüner. We're huge Austrian wine fans and it's not just because Wolfgang's Austrian—although that has something to do with it—but it's that it's generally complementary to food and specifically to our own cuisine.
We're also very dedicated to representing California. We're blessed with an amazing area for wine so I've put a lot more emphasis on being as local as possible. Santa Barbara to me is a fantastic winegrowing area so we have a pretty substantial selection of what's going on in the Central Coast of California.
WS: Do you have a personal cellar?
CM: Yes I do. I started up about two years ago and wow! It's amazing how quickly that thing fills up! I'm a better buyer than I realized.
WS: What do you collect?
CM: Burgundy, both red and white, Riesling and a fair amount of Champagne. I like Champagne with age and it's very difficult to find it on the market afterward. You can always find Bordeaux, and you can always find California Cabernet on the aftermarket, so part of the idea of me being so focused on Burgundy and Champagne in my personal cellar is simply because once it hits the market it disappears and you never see it again. There are very few wines that I can't find for you within 48 hours when it comes to Bordeaux, whereas in Burgundy it just disappears.
WS: What are you drinking now?
CM: I had a stunning rosé last night. Domaine du Bagnol, from Cassis in Provence. It's possibly my favorite French rosé made. Absolutely beautiful. There's also a small Champagne producer, Ulysse Collin, that I've been trying to get into lately.
WS: Anything else?
CM: Palmina [in Santa Barbara County] makes incredible wines, probably the best in the world with Italian varieties outside Italy. So many sommeliers are (rightly) skeptical when it comes to New World producers trying their hand at Italy, but this is the exception. I've sat in on many blind tastings of Palmina versus Italy, with consumers and sommeliers, and I have yet to see one person regularly pick out which one is Palmina and which is Italy. And that's with the crowd knowing that both are involved in the flight, and Palmina going up against both modern and traditional producers. Steve Clifton is a genius.
ON THE LIST AT SPAGO
Nikolaihof Riesling Smaragd Wachau Vom Stein 1992 ($395): "Imported direct from Nikolaihof's cellars. For those familiar with the quality and price of the wines, this one's a steal despite the seemingly hefty price tag."
Cayuse Syrah Walla Walla Valley Bionic Frog (multiple vintages, $245-$260): "Washington wines don't get any respect in Southern California. This icon is on my list for a good deal less than retail shops—luckily, no one seems to notice."
FOOD AND WINE PAIRINGS:
With California Heirloom Tomato Salad: Diatom Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills Clos Pepe 2009. "Extremely high-acid to complement the tomatoes. Very clean, crisp, and the salinity in the wine adds a fleur de sel component when paired together."
With Roasted Devil's Gulch Rabbit Loin: E. Guigal Hermitage 1987 (375ml). "Probably my favorite half-bottle of wine on the list. Purchased direct from Guigal's cellar, and at its perfect peak right now. Closer to a black pepper-flavored Pinot Noir than what most people think of when they hear Syrah."