What do the legendary restaurants Lespinasse, Le Cirque 2000 and Montrachet all have in common, other than having served some of Manhattan’s savviest wine clientele with Wine Spectator Grand Award wine programs? At one time or another, they all had a sommelier named Bernard Sun. Alone, it’s an impressive resume, but Sun has since added another crown jewel when he joined Jean-Georges Management in 2005 as corporate beverage director. Today he oversees the wine programs at 11 restaurants, including the highly lauded Jean Georges, a Best of Award of Excellence winner located at the southwest corner of Central Park. Sun recently spoke Wine Spectator about restaurant wine service and etiquette.
Wine Spectator: What are the finer restaurant wine service points that you emphasize at Jean Georges?
Bernard Sun: I don’t think it’s any one specific item, per se. I would say it’s taken as a whole because service is beginning to end. It’s a set sequence that the guest expects every single time. For me, it’s all about the little details and that you don’t take any short cuts.
WS: Do you taste a bottle of wine at Jean Georges before you serve it to the guest?
BS: Yes, we do, because we want to make sure that the bottle we send to the table is correct and unflawed. We don’t have the guest decide whether the bottle is good enough or not. If we decide the bottle is not good, we will present a new bottle to the guest and let them know that the first bottle was not good. A more practical reason is that we get [asked] one question all the time: how is this wine drinking? Well, unless you actually taste the wine how would you know how it’s drinking? We [taste] half an ounce of a wine and it gives us volumes of information.
WS: Do you also offer a taste to the guest?
BS: Yes, because the guest has to agree also. The guest is paying for the bottle, so they would need to approve that the bottle is in good condition as well.
WS: What should a guest do if he or she doesn’t agree?
BS: You just mention it to the sommelier. A good sommelier will be receptive because a second nose is better than just one. It could be something that the sommelier missed, which is very possible, and this is when you can go back and recheck the wine and make sure it’s OK.
WS: When do you decant a wine?
BS: When you have young reds and young whites, but older wines are a little bit tricky depending on how old and what the wine is. For example, a 20-year old premier cru red Burgundy that’s drinking at its peak is very delicate, so you don’t really need to decant it. I also don’t think you need to [decant a wine] when you have seven people at a table and one bottle. By the time you pour the wine out, it’s already decanted because you only have about 3 ounces in each glass. But most of time, yes, most wines can use a little decanting.
WS: What are proper serving temperatures and are they important for restaurant wine service?
BS: Wine shows better when it’s served at the right temperature. Pinots, especially, should be a little cooler. Cabernets too. I like them somewhere around 55 degrees. Whites should be around 40 degrees.
WS: What about Champagne?
BS: I like Champagnes even a little bit colder. The great vintage Krugs are beautiful when they warm up, but you can always let that happen in the glass.
WS: How do you approach a wine list when you’re dining out?
BS: I usually let the sommelier pick. I’ll give them a price point as to what I want to spend and I’ll tell them a category, like full- or medium-bodied red, and let them do their thing.
WS: Price can be a sensitive subject for some diners. How can they approach the topic discreetly?
BS: It is a very delicate point. When you’re looking at the wine list and talking to the sommelier, you can point to a price and say, “I’m looking for something like this.” Or if you’re worried that people will be looking over your shoulder, you can come a little bit earlier and talk to the sommelier before you sit down. That’s another way to do it if you want it to be a more frank discussion.
Jean-Georges Wine List Highlights
Strengths: Bordeaux, Burgundy, California
132 years of Château d'Yquem: 39 bottlings spanning from 2003 ($336, 375ml) to 1871 ($6550, 750ml)
Burgundy Benchmark: 26 bottlings from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, including seven vintages of Richebourg back to 1995 ($2200)
Burgundy by the Glass: Domaine Lignier-Michelot Chambolle-Musigny Vieilles Vignes 2008 ($30, 6 ounce glass; $15, 3 ounce taste)