Sommelier Saturdays at Del Frisco's Grille Santa Monica Educate with Interaction

The world of wine can be an extremely intimidating to enter whether you are new to the whole spectrum of wine or only to a region. With that trepidation comes a shyness to reach out for help sometimes but there are classes and events out there that can help with education. We heard of Del Frisco's Grille in Santa Monica hosting monthly Sommelier Saturdays with Sommelier Adem Sash and finally were able to attend one (on invite) to see what the program was like. The restaurant itself sits directly across from Santa Monica Pier so offers a fantastic beach view and the southern Californian experience, a fitting setting for a wine education class. Every class has a different theme, and our attendance was at the Loire Valley focused event which happens to be Duc's favorite region. The other guests were lively, eager to learn, and varying in regards to wine knowledge. We were pleased to see how well Adem was able to navigate a balance between the familiarity levels in his session, and we certainly had a fine selection of wines to go with the knowledge!

The Sommelier Saturday events take place in Del Frisco's private wine room which accommodates approximately 20 guests and is a structure to behold. Located toward the back of the restaurant, this enclosed room's walls are made of glass with racks of wine in between the panels. You feel enveloped in wine there in the intimate environment. Though there were several busy tables outside of it, we hardly heard the other guests.

The one leading all of the Sommelier Saturday events is Adem Sash, Del Frisco's Grille Santa Monica wine program director, who has more than 15 years of wine, mixology, and beverage management under his belt. He has worked all over the world as both a mixologist and sommelier so we knew we were in good hands. As a standing Court of Masters Level II Sommelier working on his Level III Sommelier certification, Adem is passionate about wine and we could see and hear it in his speech. He introduced the course as a way to present a specific varietal or region in the world while having fun and being interactive with the guests; as he put it, "If I'm getting a little too geeky, stop me with questions." Since our visit was on the Loire Valley, we were able to taste the following and others:

  • Marc Bredif Chinon
  • Les Clos Sacres (Joly)
  • Muscadet Sevre et Maine (highly recommended to pair with oysters)
  • Sauvion Vouvray

He began first with a definition of the region we would be tasting from its history to its topography to the common notes we ought to look for as we tasted. Even though every area has a completely unique soil, there are still commonalities to be aware of. Adem himself had visited the Loire Valley (the more than 600 miles of it), spending more than six weeks to get through it all, and called it one of the most beautiful areas of France for its rolling hills, castles, and rich viniculture. We were quickly captured by his fervor in talking about the wines. In between the tastes came appetizers though so sometimes the tables would turn their conversations to the Philly cheesesteak egg rolls or the cheese fritters.

Each of the wine tastings started off in the same manner and in a way that made complete sense to us. It allowed for the group to interact with each other and encouraged participation. Adem would start with the concept of our wines first. These were not blind tastings so we knew what the names and styles of our glasses' contents were prior to taking a sip; therefore, we all discussed collectively what characteristics make a certain style or grape the way it is. The novices could take notes here, and the experts could throw in their thoughts. When we begun with a Sauvignon Blanc, we talked about how it usually makes drinkers think of New Zealand and notes of citrus, grapefruit pith, and even grass. Talking about the typicity also gave us some insight into what Adem felt about wines and comedy came free that afternoon as he continued on to say Sauvignon Blanc reminded him of cat pee! He spoke of the age of the vines from which we were tasting, the common tanks and barrels used, and the ways producers handle particular grapes. For this one, neutral woods are used to not negatively affect the taste of the wine.

Next we would move onto the smells. Adem pointed out that the scents we described would be windows into our own life experiences - "Anything you do in your life is going to affect your smell." While some may have smelled green apple and honeydew, others commented on apricot and flowers. Because the vines of the Sauvignon Blanc were 1,000+ years old, it didn't have the grassiness from New Zealand or earthiness from a strong wooden barrel. Crisp, clean, and dry were the adjectives given to our first taste but for everyone, the taste did not match the nose.

Does it make your mouth water? No.
"The more your mouth waters, the more acid there is. Your mouth is trying to balance out the acid coming in. I prefer this over a New Zealand SB on a food pairing like halibut or scallops...something that wouldn't overpower the wine. Good one for swordfish too. The great thing about this SB is it does have that aspect of mouthfeel, almost feels a little creamy, not like a half-and-half but a 2% milk. That's what people like about sancerre - light, clean, floral, and has a creamy feel to it."

"If you think a wine is not up to par to what was said, send it back! Tell them it was described differently than what was given and you don't want to ruin your dinner. If the sommelier tries to fight with you, don't let him." 
As we learned about the tasted wines from Adem, we also learned a few facts here and there about wine itself. He showed us an example of a corked wine by taste. He also shared his own thoughts on the different ways that wines are corked presently and what the advantages and disadvantages to each style were. We were interested to learn about his affinity for screwtops which may remove the romance of drinking wine out of the experience but will easily never lead a wine to be corked.

"Screwtops are scientifically better. However, iff there is a dent in the screwtop, it can negatively affect the wine and make you sick. If the screwtop is absolutely intact, I say screwtop. If there is any variation on it though, I say no way. I'd much rather take my chances with a cork than a dented screwtop. I don't like synthetic corks from a nature perspective - you're hurting the Earth."
Once we moved onto the Vouvray tasting, the ranges of sweetness were explained to us from the winemaking perspective. As with all of the wines, he laid out common qualities, his own preferences, and the different pairings that would work well with each. For example, this particular Vouvray was recommended as a Thanksgiving wine!

Because the lesson was so comprehensive and followed the same outline in examining each wine, I could see it being a favorite monthly excursion for some. In fact, a few of the guests there that afternoon had been to all of the previous Sommelier Saturdays before. Since there is a new theme each time, they were never running into repeat sessions. There is also the promise every time of tasting a hard-to-find wine that would prove to become some guests' favorites. We were able to dig into Adem's own coffers and selection to try from the top producer in the Loire Valley who produces the most powerful white wine there. With a very small appellation of less than eight acres and an incredibly powerful soil composition, this winemaker has its own AOP designation and gets top dollar per bottle. Because they consistently sell out before being truly released, it was a treat to have some bottles from the less than 500 case production. Upon tasting these, we were very curious to hear what everyone else had to say - some mentioned peanut butter, mascarpone almond, and cream (signature features of the winemaker) while others like myself though of whiskey.

"When he goes through his vineyard, he picks every single grape that he likes and if he doesn't like it, he'll drop it to the ground. He doesn't sell it to anybody else - he doesn't care. He wants the best and absolute typicity in grapes. Other places will throw in underripe, ripe, and overripen but this is the best of the best. He only cares about the best. When you put enough time effort and money in it, this is what you get."
In addition to learning about the winemakers, corks, and the wines themselves, we were also given the opportunity to taste the differences between two wines of the same grape and region but produced by different people. Though the vineyards were less than a mile away from each other, what we tasted in our side-by-side glasses were vastly different. The same grape and same area did not mean the same wine; where one smelled like dark purple fruits, Luxardo cherries, peppercorn, and rose, the other could be compared to burnt caramel, vinegar, and musky dog. It was definitely an eye-opener to the differences one can taste in wines and a strong reason for any new or experienced drinker to keep on learning.

If you want to participate in one of the Sommelier Saturdays, they occur on the last Saturday of every month at Del Frisco's Grille of Santa Monica located at 1551 Ocean Ave. #105. At a cost of only $35 per person for tastings and food, it is a steal of a can't-miss class! RSVPs are handled at 310.395.7333. Our thanks to the team for the excellent session and all of the new knowledge we walked away with! It was educational without any uppity attitude, interactive, and sometimes even comedic with all of Adem's experienced but lighthearted insights.

Photography by Duc Duong. More photo available on Facebook here.