Levi Dalton, 35, always knew that he was headed for a career in fine dining: With both parents in the restaurant business, he never imagined himself doing anything else. His first break came in college when he began as a waiter and then sommelier at the Federalist in Boston. Later, Dalton moved to Palm Beach, Fla., to explore French and Mediterranean cuisine at Daniel Boulud's outpost there before heading to New York, where he served as beverage director at Masa Takayama's namesake sushi restaurant.
Following a trip to Japan, Dalton began a three-year run as wine director at Michael White's Convivio and Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning Alto in New York, where his focus shifted to wines from southern and northern Italy. With those restaurants' closing last year, Dalton has returned to the Boulud restaurant group, and is currently assigned at Boulud Sud, near Lincoln Center. Dalton recently spoke with Wine Spectator about how his experience with Japanese, French, Italian and Mediterranean cuisines shaped his palate and informed his unique approach to pairings.
Wine Spectator: How did you get started working as a sommelier?
Levi Dalton: It wasn't my first restaurant job, but I worked for Daniel Boulud several years ago and it really set the basis for what my view of fine dining is. It was incredible getting to work with that culture. One of the things about Daniel's organization, and this is true today, is that it's a really amazing team of wine people. There's a lot of depth of wine experience there, and so you're really around people all the time who can just offhandedly tell you things that are really important to how you think about wine.
WS: What was it like to work with Japanese cuisine at Masa?
LD: Working at Masa exploded the whole idea for me of wine pairings, because they actually don't look at it that way. What they're doing with sake and with beer, mostly with beer, is that they're not looking at it as a pairing. I'm talking about the Japanese guests. They use the beer how we would use a sorbetto palate-cleanser in a long tasting menu. Between each bite of fish, they're clearing the register of the palate with beer to start anew. There's just not the sense that you're supposed to pair the two flavors together.
WS: And at Convivio?
LD: [Chef Michael White] would always set up a tasting menu that went antipasti, seafood pasta, meat pasta and then fish and meat. You were faced with a problem conceptually as to how you were supposed to [match] that. You would do a white with the antipasti, and a heavier white with the seafood pasta, and then your inclination is to do a lighter red, a Dolcetto or a Rossese, with the meat pasta. And then what do you do with the fish? It was a conundrum.
WS: How did you solve the problem?
LD: I would use orange wines [white grapes macerated on their skins] to pair with the fish because even though they have white wine characteristics, with acidity, they also have that depth of concentration that you associate with the tannins of the skins of the grape that we find in orange wines and in red wines. Then I would move back to a full-bodied red to finish with the last meat course. Orange wines can be a very valuable pairing tool. They also have pairings that make them sing. It's kind of like Sherry. There are certain foods that you can have with fino Sherry that really bring it out. With orange wines, things like uni or shiitake mushrooms, those kind of umami foods, have a way of really picking it up.
WS: What are some of your favorite orange wines?
LD: Gravner, Radikon, Vodopivec, Paolo Bea and Dettori.
WS: When pairing food and wine, is there anything you focus on in particular?
LD: The progression of flavors was really drilled into me by Daniel early in my career. I did a pairing menu for him and I put a Sauternes in with the foie gras and he really wasn't happy about it. Even though it's a classic pairing, he felt that you can't think of each course by itself. You almost have to do a pairing menu backwards. You have to start with where you're going to go and then work back. So you start with the last wine and then you think about how you're going to get there, because that has to be the finale. That has to be the most complex, the most deep. You want to build and crescendo.
WS: What about pairings at a more casual restaurant, like Boulud Sud?
LD: We don't have so many set tasting menus. There's a lot of emphasis on sharing and on small plates. You're really looking almost every time for a bridge between the different flavors on the table, for wines that can do a lot of different things. When you think about wines that do that, often you're thinking about Burgundy, which we have a lot of, or Fiano di Avellino, which I love, or Greek whites, things from Santorini, like Sigalas, or Gaia, things that really have a root in those places where the food is coming from.