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Q&A with Sommelier Michael Lee of Spoon and Stable, Minneapolis

When Bill Summerville departed Spoon & Stable, arguably the highest profile restaurant to open in the Twin Cities (and Rick Nelson’s Restaurant of the Year 2015), people like me wondered what would become of the wine program. Summerville, former wine director at La Belle Vie, crafted a wine list I compared to prog rock; “distinctive” hardly started to describe the overall feel of the list. It’s been fascinating to see the changes that have happened since he left in the Spring of 2015.

The wine program at Spoon & Stable has for several months been in the capable hands of sommelier Michael Lee, a recent transplant to the Twin Cities and an awesome addition to our local wine scene. We sat down over a glass to learn his direction and desires for wine at Spoon & Stable.

Where are you from and what brought you to Minneapolis?

I am from Lawrence, Kansas and I spent the last three years in Chicago. My wife and I wanted to get out of Chicago, it is a great place, but just not for us long term.

What was your start in the wine world? Who shaped your initial ideas?

My first real exposure was taking the intro course through the Court of Master Sommeliers. I was still a line cook at the time, and thought it would be fun. The course really opened my eyes to the world of wine and I was disabused of the notion that all front of house people are lazy and not as dedicated as their counterparts in the back of house. My next influences came from the extremely knowledgeable sommelier team at Alinea. Seeing guys like Conrad Reddick who headed the legendary wine program at Charlie Trotters, Craig Sindelar, Steve Morgan, Andrew Algren, Kevin Caravelli, and Jonathan Leopold had a huge impact on me. I owe them a debt of gratitude that I can only pay back by being the best I can be. I hope to one day be as good at what I do as they are. They taught me to identify what I enjoy in wine and separate that from what a quality bottle looks, smells, and tastes like. Not everyone likes the same types of wine, a professional can tell what a great bottle is despite whether it is something they want to drink or not.

Explain the wine decision process at Spoon and Stable. Does Chef Kaysen get involved?

He likes to hear about where the program is going and my ideas for the future, but he is pretty hands off in the decision making process. 

Do you try the wines with the food?

Not usually, if we were to have a tasting menu that might change, but I like to try and fit the wine to the person more that with the food. Pairing wines with food is important, but as important is fitting the wine with the person. The wine can be a perfect fit for the dish, but if the guest doesn’t like it it doesn’t matter.

Are you tasting wines to aim for a particular style or varietal or price point? In other words, is it more of a scientific approach to selecting wines, or more organic depending on what the sales reps bring in?

My approach is more about finding the best value in as many styles, and price points as possible. More than anything it is about giving our servers the ability to be able to make the person at the table happy.

In what directions has the wines by the glass list evolved since you took over?

It has become more seasonal. I also like to have most of our wines by the glass list comprised of familiar grape varietals, but wines that are made extremely well.

And the wine by the bottle list?

The list had to be more condensed. We had seven French Cab Francs under $70. I wanted to make it user friendly for the service staff. The staff directs the wine experience in a big way every night. Trying to explain the differences between seven different Cab Francs from the Loire valley is an exercise in frustration and difficult for even top sommeliers to do.

The higher end of our list is even more important now with the closing of La Belle Vie. We’ve seen an uptick. For example, Chateau Palmer Alter Ego ($325) and Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon ($750) are both new and they are selling. We’re not reaching the stratosphere, but I’m looking into getting a few more of those types of wines.

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What is intriguing you right now in the wine world? What might we see (or not see) on the Spoon and Stable list?

I’ve personally had great wines from all over. Great Chilean wines. Great Australian wines like Jamsheed. I’m not necessarily Euro-centric. I just like good wines. A category I’m exploring right now is Greek wine … when you find a good one it’s always cheaper than you expect.

I’ve never had a Prosecco that’s done it for me. Never been a huge fan of Charmat method wines in general.

There’s much debate in the wine world right now about obscurity being an attribute. How do you feel? Are your customers looking for the odd and weird or unknown? How do you feel about established high quality domestic brands that have been around for 30+ years?

Obscurity is an attribute and can be exciting, and finding a hidden gem is an amazing experience but the quality has to be there. Obscurity for obscurity sake is stupid. People are looking for the weird and unknown, and that is something I like to have available, but obscurity is also relative. I read an article recently a friend of mine exposed me to about writing wine lists that included the comment that 20% of your list should be about what you would want to find on a list, and 80% what you think your guests want to find on the list. I like that idea, we are in the end a hospitality focused business, and it is sad when a wine professional lets their ego get in the way of that. I have no problem with obscure wines and wine lists that have a good amount of those kinds of wines, but if that is the way you go your staff needs to be extremely well versed in fitting those wines with what your guest is looking for. I have no problem with established wine brands, if and only if the wine is well balanced, and worth the price tag. What you find so often is that you can find something as good or better than many of the established labels for less. I think that many lists that are written to be esoteric are written to push people to try wines they otherwise wouldn’t. Those lists in my opinion end up just bewildering the guest and making them uncomfortable. Striking the balance of having a well rounded list with off the beaten path wines, making your guest comfortable, and finding bottles that over deliver for the price is the key for me.

If there’s one thing you’d love to hear from more of your customers, what would it be?

I just want our guests to enjoy their wine experience, and that is on us. Our job is to make them feel at home and relaxed. I will say that it would be nice if people in general didn’t get embarrassed about not knowing much/anything about wine. There is nothing wrong with not knowing, that is why we are here. That being said I need to educate the staff better than they are right now. We are pretty good in getting people the right bottle for them, but we can always get better, and I want our staff to be the best educated in the Twin Cities, and rival some great wine programs nationally.

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Spoon and Stable website and menu

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