Robert Ames doesn't just drink wine -- he eats, breathes and sleeps it. As sommelier to wine country favorites Brasserie Four and Whitehouse-Crawford , locals


Guiding Light: Picking the Mind of Wine Country Sommelier Robert Ames

Robert Ames doesn't just drink wine -- he eats, breathes and sleeps it. As sommelier to wine country favorites Brasserie Four and Whitehouse-Crawford, locals and visitors alike know if Robert's in the house, they're in for a treat. With tasting notes that frequently include descriptors like "bloody", "nettles", and "penetrating", there's not a tastebud overlooked in the collections he curates. Whether it's a local favorite or an Old World import, Ames aims to please.

See also:

A Kitchen Sink Conversation with "Winery Babe of the Month" Annette Bergevin of Bergevin Lane Vineyards

Breaking B(re)ad: Dan Thiessen's Wine Country Culinary Metamorphosis

Washington Winemakers are Crushing Big on Harvest 2012

A lot of folks are talking about 2012 as a banner vintage but others argue tougher years, like 2011, are going to be more spectacular. Which side of the argument are you on?

I am super excited about 2011. Obviously for the vineyard keepers and the winemakers it was many months of nail-biting with the realization that the vintage couple become a total disaster - or even a non-vintage to a large extent if we'd had an early frost. But, that being said, we didn't have an early frost the people that knew how to take care of their vineyards and stay on top of things produced fruit of the sort that is really unusual for WA and as far as the relationship between acidity, sugar and the amount of alcohol in the wine, and so it's certainly going to be a cingular vintage and the best wines of the vintage are going to be, I expect, unlike things that have come before and unlike things that will be made again.

Is there anything going on in Washington wine that you're really excited about?

There is! You know, the amount of time it takes just to manage the wine programs at Whitehouse-Crawford and Brasserie Four, I really feel like I'm far from an expert in what's the cutting edge. But I do like that Charles Smith has hired Brennon Leighton to develop a high-quality Chardonnay program -- I love White Burgundy and I love Chablis. I have a hard time keeping it in my basement after I buy them -- they just come back upstairs and get drunk! So, to have a focused program like that locally I find very exciting and I certainly think that Brennon is up to the task and that exciting things will happen there.

Obviously I don't have any money to get financially involved in any way, but the sorts of things I would like to see would be people looking to higher elevation vineyard sites and starting to dabble more in cool climate grapes -- Gruner Veltliner, for instance, or maybe some Riesling. It is getting warmer and warmer and things are going to have to move just to keep up with the warmer climate. I love those kinds of white wines and my intuition says there are opportunities to do some really exciting things so, I'll be excited to see that happen.

I keep hearing about vineyards going in around Lake Chelan, is that one of those cooler climate grape-growing spots?

I don't know that much about how different the climate and microclimate are but I know that Kevin Pogue feels like there is extremely high potential for really great vineyard sites up there. He's told me that all the greatest vineyard sites are where subdivisions are going to go in and nobody can afford to plant vines so I don't know how much will be realized. Nonetheless, I don't know how different the climate is but I know there is a lot of excitement that Kevin feels for that area. And he should know.

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Ames' tasting notes also double as entertainment
A lot of people come to Walla Walla and are overwhelmed by vast options for wine tastings. What would your advice be for a good plan of attack?

Good question. I would just say...the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance produces a really good brochure so get one of those, go through it, and note the wineries that most interest you. Then try to sort things out ahead of time because there are a daunting number of wineries and if you have a specific interest, you can no doubt find wineries that meet your needs if you plan ahead of time.

The biggest mistake I hear people make over and over again is overwhelming themselves by trying to do everything

Yes. Unless you're really practiced at tasting a lot of wines you're going to run out of time and energy fast. I would plan on 3-4 per day, that way you're not going to wear yourself out. It's going to become a blur and you're not going to remember what you really liked -- just don't overwhelm yourself.

Would you have any advice for someone looking to start a home wine cellar?

Well, even before they start getting a collection going I would have them think about storage and where their wine will be kept. Because once you start keeping wines, storage is absolutely everything. There's no point in laying down great Burgundies or first growth Bordeaux if they're going to be stored improperly; they're never going to become the wines you want -- they'll die. So first and foremost is figuring out a place where they'll have a chance to properly age. And that has to do 99 percent with temperature. You need a basement space or to spend the money on a temperature control system for the room and that is the most important thing.

You've tasted more wines that most people I know -- is there one that just blew your mind?

Yes, there have been. I would have to say, back to the very first wine I ever had that made me realize how wonderful a wine could be, was in Alaska having dinner one night at the Marx Brothers Cafe. Ken, the engineer I worked with, brought me the sludge and dregs of a bottle of 1953 Mouton Rothschild and it really recalibrated my whole understanding and expectation of what wonderful wine can be. That was the first time. And just three or four nights ago I had a Nikolaihof Reisling from the 2004 vintage, an Austrian Riesling, that was just absolutely unforgettable...really wonderful. So yeah, they're out there!

Are there any wines that you're super crazy about now?

I guess there are so many I don't know where to start. I just came back from 10 days in the Loire Valley and I've been finding myself more and more loving wines from the Loire partly because of how diverse they are and partly because I can afford them. I find Southern Rhone wines, the Chateauneuf du Papes down to the Cotes du Rhone, equally appealing. And I do have local favorites, which obviously, shall remain nameless.

How did you get introduced to, and interested in, wine?

I first got interested in wine back in the late 70s as a new engineer working for the State of Alaska Department of Transportation. One of the engineers I worked with was a partner in a small -- to use a hackneyed term -- "boutique" restaurant in Anchorage. It was the first small owner-operated fine dining restaurant up there and it was called the Marx Brothers Cafe. Ken, the engineer I worked with, was their wine guy. I was there the day they opened and they were pouring 1976 German Riesling by the glass and it was just spectacularly delicious -- the shelves at wine shops had lots of those Rieslings then and that's really what I cut my teeth on, which is common. It's the lighter, sweeter wines that people first learn to like. And obviously, I still appreciate and have enthusiasm for German Rieslings.

So, I started buying wine books and just had an interest that has never flagged. In the last five years living in Anchorage I was invited to be part of a small group of guys that would drink wine every week blind -- the wine would be opened in an adjacent room and would come to the table in decanters and I'd get to hear these guys talk about it. They were sommeliers and wine buyers and we met literally like every Tuesday, unless Christmas was a Tuesday, so 52 times a year.

Of course the whole time I was buying more books and doing more reading and traveling to wine countries like Germany and France and I decided, as I knew I was going to be leaving Alaska in the next few years, that my dream was to move back to Eastern Washington where wine things were really happening and find my way into the wine world. My first thought was to be a wine person for a restaurant but there were no restaurants that needed wine people so I figured I'd end up working for a winemaker or vineyard keeper or something like that. But when Grapefields, which is now closed, was getting ready to open I was here and ended up managing the wine program there from the day they started -- and that was 12 years ago. I also worked four years as the sommelier at 26 Brix and, in a nutshell, that's how I became somebody who makes their living buying and selling wine!

You manage the wine programs at both Brasserie Four and Whitehouse-Crawford, do you also do private orders?

Actually here at Brasserie Four we have a retail wine program and there are a few customers that will have something and ask, "Hey, that was great. Can you get me a case of that?" I'll do that when I can because a large part of our customer base is local and I've been doing this long enough that I know regular customers and what kinds of things they would like to see so I have the knowledge to get things that are going to make people really happy.

You've got a great international wine selection at Brasserie Four, is that mostly due to local demand?

Yes, we'll always have local wines here obviously. Having the wineries here in the valley is a big reason why there are restaurants like Brasserie Four here. We do definitely get customers from out of town whose primary curiosity here is going to be local wines so, of course, we have those too. But, Brasserie Four is a French restaurant so certainly the largest part of our wine inventory is French wine.

Wine is obviously a big part of your life -- does that also spill over to your off-time?

Well, when I travel it's definitely to visit wine regions. I've also been to London a number of times. The last couple times I've been the primary focus of the trip has been "restaurant-ing" -- in the last 20 years London has really become one of the great restaurant cities of the world. 30 years ago no one would ever have believed that would happen! But anyway, long before I catch the plane for London I have a dinner reservation for every night, having done a lot of research on the places I want to be exposed to and dine at. So when I go to London it's for restaurants and when I go to France, or Spain, or Germany, it's for wine country.

Is there anything we haven't talked about that you'd like to say to folks?

Every day you get up, you go to work, you do what you do and the reward for the day should be a good dinner. My philosophy is that the most important part of life is dinner and, obviously, a great dinner will have wine with it. I think that's the thought I'd like to leave with.

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