One of the best things about opening Bellflower was that it gave us an opportunity to reconnect with old friends… and, more often than not, ask them for huge favors. Among other things, we had friends and relatives contributing art for our walls, helping us establish relationships with local farmers, and doing all of our design work. In almost every area of the business, we called on the most brilliant people we know, and, at the very least, asked them for guidance. And, in some instances, like with regard to our wine program, we asked for a whole lot more. When you come to Bellflower, there’s a really good chance that any glass of wine that you drink will have been influenced by the input of Chef Dan’s friend Jennifer Lucier, a woman with whom he worked several years ago, who has since gone on to become an accomplished sommelier. What follows is my conversation with Lucier about the work she’d been doing for Bellflower back in late 2019, as things began to get underway.
MARK: I should note, before we get started, that, as of right now, in late 2019, we’re still pretty early in this process, right?
JENN: I think at this point we have a pretty good foundation laid for the wine program and are really just now starting to jump into choosing the actual wines that will be listed. Outlining how we want to choose the wine, what aspects we are going to heavily focus on, and how the program will provide support to the food menu have been our main objectives at the forefront of this whole process.
MARK: Before we talk about the work you’ve set out to do with us at Bellflower, perhaps we could step back and talk a bit about how you came to know Dan. Do you remember the circumstances surrounding your first meeting?
JENN: Dan and I have known each other and been friends for going on thirteen years now. My first service industry job in Ann Arbor was as a hostess at the Gandy Dancer back when I was just 18. Dan began working in the kitchen very soon thereafter, and I began working as a server around the same time. I have always gravitated toward the back of house staff, and I made a lot of amazing friends in the Gandy Dancer kitchen. Dan was no exception. However, he definitely stood out amongst the loud and rowdy crew that worked there at the time; he was much quieter and far more gracious than one usually finds in a restaurant kitchen. Over the next couple years we became closer, and he started dating and eventually married my best friend, Kelli. I think that naturally cemented our bond, but we also discovered how well we work together. Whether it was a catering event or just cooking dinner in his and Kelli’s home, Dan and I have always leaned on the other for constructive feedback and have been able to build an honest and open line of communication that extends into both personal and professional aspects of our lives.
MARK: Had you worked in the industry prior to the Gandy Dancer?
JENN: I grew up in the south, in North Carolina, and got my start waiting tables at a local BBQ joint in Chapel Hill called Jim’s Famous BBQ. It was an incredibly casual place; think jeans, t-shirts with cartoon cows and pigs printed on them, and lots of “Can I get y’all some more sweet tea?”s. We certainly didn’t have a professional wine list (looking back, I can’t even imagine what was on it…) and I definitely didn’t have any inkling at the time that I’d be making this industry my career. But, it gave me a little restaurant experience and a taste for this line of work so when I moved to Michigan for school I didn’t have to think twice about what type of job I would apply for.
MARK: So when did you decide to make wine your life’s work?
JENN: I actually didn’t originally intend to stay in the service industry and went through undergrad at the University of Michigan with plans to attend law school and become a family lawyer. As luck would have it, I met my now husband while waiting tables in Ann Arbor and followed him to London after I graduated. He had taken a position as a professor at the London Business School and moving to London to attend law school seemed like a fantastic adventure to me. Unfortunately, reality caught up with me as I researched these schools and realized that becoming a lawyer in a different country is not so simple. I had an admissions officer at King’s College tell me point blank to find another dream.
At that point I really scrambled to find a different path: I had a philosophy degree from Michigan, ten years of service industry experience, and no clue what to do with any of it. Throughout all of this though, I was lucky enough to be eating at some of the best restaurants in London with my husband and our friends, and would always be handed the wine list and asked to make choices for the table. I always loved wine, always seemed to have a decent enough palate, and undoubtedly picked up a lot of information over the years working as a server, bartender, etc. At some point I finally realized what had been staring me in the face for so long. Wine was something I loved and was passionate about and I happened to have every big wine training program available to me in London. I took some time to research the different companies and chose to do my studies with the UK branch of the Italian Sommelier Association.
MARK: Do you remember your first glass of wine?
JENN: My first glass of wine would be a hard one. I grew up in a family where my parents had either red wine or bourbon nearly every night before and with dinner. My siblings and I were always welcome to have sips of whatever my parents were drinking and for special occasions or holidays were usually given the option of having our own little glasses of whatever was being poured. From the beginning I was always the one that pushed for more sips, more often than my brothers or sister did. I remember my parents commenting on countless occasions about how I always had a taste for wine and so I suppose it’s really not so surprising that this is the career path I’ve taken.
MARK: How about your first glass of good wine?
JENN: The first glass of good wine I definitely remember. Or rather, the first glass that really made an impression on me – we call this one’s “epiphany wine.” I was 19 and back in North Carolina for a few months, working at a local brewery. We had a small but decent enough wine list and one of my bartender friends would occasionally sneak me drinks in our plastic black to-go cups. One night after my shift ended he poured me a plastic cup full of Trimbach’s Pinot Gris and it changed the way I thought about wine. It was interesting and complex and didn’t taste like the cheap Pinot Grigio I was accustomed to at the time. I realized that there was more to wine than it just tasting nice and getting drunk. From then on out it became a regular occurrence for my mom and I to go to the store together so I could pick out wine and have her purchase it for me since I was still under-age. That wine and Trimbach wine in general have remained some of my favorites. I actually had the unbelievable opportunity to do a private tasting with Jean Trimbach a few years ago in London. Without a doubt, that is my favorite wine memory and wine experience of all time.
MARK: I know very little about the world of sommeliers. What kind of professional and educational gauntlet did you have to run to get to where you are today?
JENN: So, like I mentioned before, almost every wine training program is available in London so I really had my pick which route I wanted to take. I found that almost every certification was primarily just an exam without actual interactive class time. Basically, you get a study guide book for the different level examinations and it’s up to you to prepare yourself adequately. What I really wanted was a sit-down training course with the guidance of sommeliers and wine professionals throughout. The Italian Sommelier Association (AIS) had recently opened a branch in the UK (UKSA) that fit my criteria. While the AIS was a three year course culminating in an oral and a written exam the UKSA condensed the very same curriculum into a 6 month program with the same exams as those given in Italy. In fact, our written exams were sent back to be graded in Italy and the VP of the AIS flew in to administer our oral examinations.
The 6 months of training were actually incredibly fun though with an insane amount of information, reading, and tasting crammed into each week. We had class for five hours every Monday evening and were encouraged to attend as many of the trade tastings occurring throughout the city as we could each week. Obviously our training was heavily concentrated in Italian wine though they were prudent in ensuring we also thoroughly covered the rest of the wine producing world. When it came time to prepare for our exams I can honestly say I have never studied harder for anything in my life. We only have about a 50% pass rate and you’re required to wait until the end of the next offered course to retake it so to say the pressure was on would be an understatement. We had two weeks after our last class before our written exam to prepare and then, if we passed that, another two weeks until our oral exam. I think I probably studied ten to twelve hours a day, every day, in that time. Opening the email with our scores and seeing my name under those that had passed was one of the biggest feelings of relief I can remember.
MARK: What’s your philosophy as pertains to wine? And how, if at all, has it evolved over time?
JENN: I’d say my philosophy on wine is to first and foremost drink what you like while still remaining open to the massive world of other options out there. It’s totally fine to have a bottle or a grape or a region that you’re comfortable with and keep coming back to but there are over 10,000 varietals in the world and its pretty unlikely that there’s only one or two out there for everyone. I’m also very big into the idea of terroir – that a place and all that goes into it (climate, soil, terrain, tradition) are what really make a wine what it is. Dan and I recently had a conversation about how two different varietals from the same place can taste more alike than the same varietal grown in different regions. That’s why broad statements like “I hate Chardonnay” or “I only drink Cabernet” drive me crazy. There are so many different versions of each varietal that it’s nearly impossible to group them together under one sweeping generalization.
This brings me onto one of my favorite approaches when choosing wine: finding lesser known regions and varietals than one typically sees on a wine list. And maybe it’s not even both; it could be a relatively unknown region producing something like Chardonnay or Cabernet that is either completely unexpected or at an incredible price point because of its obscurity. One of my favorite wines to bring to a blind tasting is a red Bordeaux blend (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot) from Hungary that without fail, no one can ever guess correctly. I just don’t think many people expect a red wine of that caliber to come from Hungary! I always feel like I’m being let in on a really insider secret when I find wines like that and it always pushes me to find more.
MARK: OK, so walk me through how you came to be involved in this project of ours. How did Dan position it when he first brought it up to you? Did he start by talking with you about building a comprehensive wine program from the ground up, or did you start by talking about individual dishes, and asking you what you thought about wines that might best accompany them? In other words, did this start our pretty casual, and just kind of evolve over time, or did you know from the beginning what you were getting yourself in for?
JENN: Dan was actually not the person to originally approach me! He and Kelli had privately discussed the possibility of me being involved with the wine program and then Kelli brought it up while visiting me at the beginning of the year. It was during my next trip to Michigan that Dan and I seriously discussed my involvement though didn’t outline the extent of it. I knew that Dan was waiting for me to take the lead and show him how much I wanted to be a part of this endeavor. And so I took it upon myself to outline what I thought the program should look like based on what I knew about Dan, the direction of his menu, and the location of the restaurant. I put together a big presentation for him which we painstakingly went through during my next visit. I think once Dan saw the commitment I had to the restaurant, to him, and to creating the best wine program possible, it was decided that I would be involved in a pretty big way. From there we discussed flavor profiles of the food menu and eventually began figuring out what types of wine would best compliment his vision. Since his food has such a strong presence I knew it would be important to begin by tasting individual dishes and from there grow the wine menu around the initial wine we chose for pairings.
MARK: This is new territory for me. As I mentioned before, I know very little about wine. I know what I like, and what I don’t, but, beyond that, I’m kind of at a loss. I’d have to think, however, that it would be a pretty daunting task to work with a chef, especially one who is a friend, to try and construct a wine program that works well with a specific menu. And I think it would be doubly hard when, on top of that, we’ve also indicated to you that we want to keep the number of bottles to around a few dozen or so, and keep the price points relatively affordable. I mean, that doesn’t give you much room to work, does it?
JENN: I don’t know if I’d describe working with Dan as daunting. We have such a history working together already that I feel like I know what to expect and vice versa. I know that anything he puts himself fully into is going to be something worth giving my all to and we already have a foundation of mutual respect that makes trusting the other one so much easier. I’d say my main objective is to ensure my own standards stay as high as I know Dan’s are.
In regard to the price and size of the list, honestly, before we had even discussed the team’s wine objectives a small and affordable list was what I had in mind for Bellflower. I touched on it a bit within my philosophies of wine but I don’t think excessive prices are necessary for a comprehensive and exciting menu. There are so many incredible wines being made, it just may take a little more digging to find them at a price point we are happy with. I think it’s easy to just slap together a list with the big names from Burgundy, Napa, Barolo, Bordeaux, etc. and not care about the cost. There’s nothing interesting about doing things that way, even if our clientel’s pockets ran so deep, because at that point you are paying for a name, for the brand recognition, and not just for what’s in the bottle. Additionally, on the point of keeping the list small, I find that people are more interested in what you have to offer when there’s not a book in front of them to choose from. While there is a time and place for a huge wine menu I find that approach can be incredibly intimidating and off-putting for most people and results in a ‘point and pick’ situation where price is the main consideration. A small list is intentional, thoughtful, and there’s a purpose for each bottle’s presence. I am hoping to highlight wines that will please our guests and not make them feel like they have to break the bank in order to get a bottle or glass they will love.
MARK: The price-point is important to us, but not just because we want wines that people here in the community can afford, but because we want to be sure that we have wines that people will actually feel compelled to try. It’s something that we talk a lot about with regard to oysters, but the same, I think, is true of wine. We want to remove barriers to entry, as best that we can, so that people can try things for the first time at Bellflower. We’d love it if people, for instance, could try their first really great French wine with us, as well as their first oyster. So, I guess that’s a good place for us to start. Can good, interesting wines be had at relatively affordable prices?
JENN: I think we are definitely on the same page when it comes down to accessibility of food and wine. Introducing people to wines they may not have tried had they not dined at Bellflower is without a doubt one of my objectives with this wine list. I would love to broaden people’s minds about what wine can be and at a price point they’re comfortable with. I feel like so many people have it in their minds that wine extends to maybe 10 different grapes from either Italy, France, North and South America, and not much else. Keeping the pricing down I think is an excellent way to encourage someone to reach outside their comfort zone; if they have to spend a minimum of $15 for a glass of wine then they’re more likely to go with what they know. But if we can offer them something new and exciting and keep it around $8 then I think people will be more open to adventurous options.
MARK: Continuing on the subject of price, I’m curious to know your thoughts about how we, as an industry, should go about conveying the value of wine to our guests. And maybe it’s not as big of an issue as I think that it is, but I think about wine kind of like I think about live music. People who won’t bat an eye at spending over $5 for a glass of mass-produced domestic beer, for instance, will often balk about paying a cover charge of a few dollars for live music. I think a lot of us do that. It’s just how we’re conditioned. And my sense is that spending on wine might be similar for some people… like it’s not something that they’re accustomed to investing in. Obviously, at Bellflower, our service staff will know about the wines, and they’ll be able to talk about them knowledgeably, and convey the value, but I’m just curious about trends across the country. Are people beginning to value wine more?
JENN: I think it’s really interesting you brought up the idea of mass-produced domestic beer because I find it’s very similar within the wine industry here in the States. When I lived in London, smaller production boutique wines were offered at most wine bars and I saw people gravitated toward those more than mass-produced, big brand bottles. Moving back to the states, and especially to a city like Miami where cocktails are king, has been a huge adjustment. Almost every wine list I encounter here offers the same rundown of big brand California wine: Santa Margherita, Kendall Jackson, Simi, Duckhorn, Cakebread… And the thing about these wines is a lot of them aren’t cheap! There are so many exciting wines at a much lower price point but people are happy to purchase something they’re familiar with and feel like they’re guaranteed to like rather than an unknown option that may even be a few dollars less. What give me confidence that this is slowly changing in the States are the trends we’ve seen over the years, especially in Michigan, in regard to beer and spirits and to some extent the dining experience in general. I think younger generations are beginning to see through these mass-produced goods and want more curated options. Whether it’s a craft beer or a farm-to-table style restaurant, more emphasis seems to be placed on quality and like I keep coming back to, the intention and care put into a product. At this point I think the responsibility is beginning to fall on people like us to introduce people to more than just what, in the past, has been expected and considered acceptable. People have to be given the opportunity to grow.
MARK: Generally speaking, when people talk about the universe of wine, they tend to classify things in terms of region and varietal, right? They talk about Zinfandels, or Malbecs, or Cabernet Sauvignons from wine regions like Sonoma, Bordeaux and Napa Valley. I’m curious as to whether sommeliers classify wines in the same way, or if there are other ways that you subdivide the market.
JENN: I think generally speaking those tend to be the two big universal classifications. I think the approach does diverge a bit however, between how sommeliers versus other people choose their wine. I think most people tend to make mental notes like “ok, I liked that Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa so in the future I’ll remember to look for Cabernets from Napa” and that’s about as far as it goes, depending on the level of interest that an individual has in wine of course. I think sommeliers tend to make mental maps based first and foremost on a region, which then trickle down into varietal, the year it was made, and the producer. Most of the time that information can give you a pretty good idea of how a wine will taste before you even try it. For example, most people won’t consider the vintage of the wine when they’re choosing a glass or a bottle and some restaurants/bars don’t always even provide the year on their list. However, the vintage can be just as big of a factor as the varietal, if not sometimes more, when I’m choosing a bottle. Basically what I’m saying is that while the classifications may be pretty much the same across the board varying levels of importance are placed on each aspect of a given wine.
MARK: And would I be right to assume that, because of climate change, these changes between vintages are becoming much more dramatic?
JENN: Climate change absolutely has had noticeable effects on the wine industry. Grape and harvest quality are already so easily affected by unpredictable weather patterns. Anything from an early frost, late in the season rainfall, or unusual swings in temperature can have devastating results for an entire season’s crop and with climate change we’re obviously seeing these types of things happen more regularly. Additionally, as temperature averages have increased certain regions are dealing with consequences such as higher sugar production in their grapes which translates into lower acidity and higher alcohol percentages in the wine (something that is strictly regulated in many wine designations). On the opposite side of the coin however, we are seeing countries such as England benefit from these temperature increases as they are now able to produce exceptional grapes because of their milder climate. In fact, top Champagne producers like Taittinger have purchased vineyard land near Kent, England and are now faced with the problem of no longer being able to call their sparkling wine Champagne since these grapes are grown outside of the appellation.
MARK: OK, so as for the Bellflower wine program, as I understand it, your first task has been to acquaint yourself with Dan’s menu, and give thought to wines that would work with each of the entrees that he’s developing. How’s that process been going?
JENN: The process has actually gone really well so far! Dan has cooked through a good portion of his entrees for me already and I think we have landed on some pretty spectacular pairings for the dishes I’ve tried. His creativity with spices and chilies had me a little concerned initially because they aren’t always the easiest flavor combinations to pair with but because he was so thorough in his explanations of the dishes we were able to pick some fantastic bottles that worked out beautifully in the end.
MARK: The way I’ve been envisioning this – and I could well be wrong – is that you’d start by finding the perfect wine for each of Dan’s, say, eight primary entrees… delicious, compelling wines, ideally from small, non-corporate vineyards, that really work in tandem with the dishes, playing off of one another… and then go about rounding out the wine menu, filling in whatever gaps might exist, ensuring that, across the portfolio of these two dozen or so wines on our list, we’ve covered all of our bases in terms of region, varietal, etc. Is that close to being correct, or are you coming at this in a completely different way than I’ve imagined?
JENN: That is exactly correct! We really want to first and foremost make sure the wine list provides the support for the food to the best of its ability and then from there offer a menu that is not only comprehensive in terms of varietals and regions but that is unique and exciting and as we discussed, offers people more than what is typically expected.
MARK: What would be the most awesome thing you could imagine overhearing someone say upon sitting down at Bellflower and opening up our wine list?
JENN: I think something along the lines of “I want to try everything on here” would be up there in terms of compliments. At the end of the day, this list is supposed to keep guests coming back and wanting to try more.
MARK: Assuming this is your first time doing something like this, what is it that you generally do as a sommelier? And are you finding this fun, rewarding, etc?
JENN: Yes, this will be my first time helping build a wine program from the ground up and is the sort of thing I have been working towards doing full-time. I love being involved in the restaurant industry while still having a little separation from the day to day operations that I would face if I were to work as a sommelier on a restaurant floor (late nights, holidays, weekends, etc). I am currently setting up a consulting company that I hope to one day grow into importing and distribution as well. Prior to this I have been working privately with clients, curating wine dinners and tasting events. I have been very lucky in the sense that my husband’s profession has afforded me a lot of incredible contacts through the universities he has been involved with.
MARK: OK, I’m hesitant to ask for specifics, as I know that we’re really early in the process, and that you haven’t made any definitive decisions yet, but I was wondering if you might talk about one of the dishes that Dan’s prepared for you, and the thought process you’ve been going through as you’ve tried to identify the perfect wine to accompany it.
JENN: Like I mentioned earlier, we have a handful of pretty amazing pairings already but the one I am maybe the most excited about is our pairing for the duck dish. Dan has this beautiful duck leg that he is confiting and serving over the most unbelievable tomato gravy and with a thick slice of cornbread sourdough alongside it. I love to do somewhat untraditional pairings and after Dan described the dish to me my immediate reaction was to pair it with a rose. Most people I think would go straight for a red and on the night we tasted the dishes I made sure to bring a couple backup options but a rose was really what I wanted to do. Obviously to do that bold of a pairing means it needs to be spot on and so I had to find the right bottle to make it work. We landed on a Malbec and Syrah blend from Mendoza that is just bursting with notes of young raspberry, mild tropical fruits, white pepper, and scallions. It is bright and fresh with some unusual savory aspects that really connect with the tomato gravy. Everything I set out to accomplish with that pairing came through. We found a wine that was bright and crisp enough to cut through the richness of the duck and the gravy without contending with or being overpowered by the spice and tomatoes. And because we went with a region that isn’t the most well known for producing rose we were able to get a more than reasonably priced bottle. I knew people would be doubtful it could work so I was beyond elated when I saw Dan’s reaction confirming that it was the right choice.
MARK: When Dan explained the concept of Bellflower to you, and what we were hoping to accomplish here, what were you very first thoughts regarding wine? Did certain vineyards come immediately to mind, for instance, when he talked about how we were hoping to approach New American cuisine through the foodways of the Gulf region?
JENN: I think above all else my initial reaction was just one of excitement! Over the last decade I have bore witness to countless restaurants planned around the kitchen table in Dan and Kelli’s home and to finally see this one begin to materialize (and to be a part of it nonetheless!) has been incredible. I don’t think there was a specific vineyard or anything in mind but rather the mindset of how can we make this the best wine program in the area? Dan and I have talked at great length over what the correct approach to make this happen would be and I feel like we are very much on the same page at this point. What we are ultimately looking to create is a varietal driven list that offers beautiful pairing options for the food but additionally can stand on its own and provide guests with opportunities to explore new and interesting options while remaining unpretentious and accessible.
MARK: I’m curious to know if you’ve found any particular training regimens productive and useful for restaurant staff. I mean, it’s one thing to pick great wines, and write about them in a compelling way on a menu, but our team members who are interacting directly with our guests need to be able to talk about wine knowledgeably, and I’d like to know your thoughts on how we we might get there as an organization.
JENN: I’ve worked as a server for a handful of restaurants throughout the years, each with a very different approach to their wine training program. It really is incredible how many places expect their staff to describe and sell wine that they aren’t even allowed to taste. Unsurprisingly, the restaurants that were more hands-on in their training were more successful. This meant regular staff wine tastings where the servers were able to not just taste what they were selling but ask questions, discuss flavor profiles, and give feedback about the menu and what was popular among their guests. At the end of the day they are the ones interacting with the clientele and their opinion and appreciation for what they’re selling makes a massive difference. I would love to have someone on staff that is able to help run these tastings when I am not on site, whether it’s through notes I can provide remotely or preferably, someone who is confident in their tasting ability to take on an active role within the program in general.
MARK: I asked Dan the other day, in a conversation about dinnerware, whether or not you and he had discussed glasses at all. He said that, while you hadn’t said much about wine glasses, you had some really strong opinions on decanters and champagne flutes that I should ask you about.
JENN: I’m not super concerned with glass brands or the style of glassware if it’s of good quality. To me that means thin stemmed glasses without too much fuss in the design. I suppose I tend to follow a less is more approach. When it comes to sparkling wine, I typically will drink out of white wine glasses rather than champagne flutes as I find the aromas in the wine are far easier to perceive when using a full glass. The shape of the flute tends to hide the nose and, especially when doing tastings, that can be a big problem. I know a lot of people love the ritual of drinking from a fancy flute but from a practical standpoint they aren’t terribly useful. As far as decanters are concerned, I think the less is more idea is quite important. Pouring from a flat and wide bottomed decanter or one with an intricate and complicated pouring spout is bothersome even in one’s own home, let alone tableside in a restaurant. Just like champagne flutes, the appearance may be more impressive but they just aren’t always practical.
MARK: One last thing. Assuming some folks reading this might not have a chance to come in and join us at Bellflower, would you like to make a general recommendation? What’s something new or interesting that you’ve come across that you’re enjoying turning people onto?
JENN: I would say the best advice I have for those interested in wine would be to utilize the resources available to you. Whether that is a local wine bar or shop, a big chain such as Total Wine, or just your local supermarket, try to know the bartenders, sommeliers, consultants, etc. working in your area. Become a regular and ask questions about what you’re purchasing or ordering and don’t be afraid to try something new or even something you have never heard of before. Wine professionals are usually more than happy to share their knowledge with you and provide recommendations. A lot of my favorite wines I’ve found doing just that. Lately, I have really been enjoying wines from places like Georgia, Hungary, and Lebanon. These are countries that have some of the oldest wine growing regions in the world but just haven’t had the same presence on the world stage as France, Italy, Spain, etc. Recently, I have seen them more readily available though and it’s a trend I’m hoping will continue to expand! Additionally, I am getting very into sake as a substitute for wine when pairing with food. There are so many different types and styles of sake which pair in unique ways with food since sake doesn’t have the acid component that can make pairing wine with certain foods (salty, umami, spicy) difficult. I’m always looking for something new to add to my knowledge base so I’m sure once I feel completely comfortable with sake, I’ll be on to something else. There is certainly no shortage of new information to learn when it comes to wine.