May 2009 issue
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SOMMELIER SPOTLIGHT Sandy Block, Legal Sea Foods, Boston Ruth Tobias
By lay standards, enology is way up there in the hierarchy of arcana. So when even your wine-industry colleagues are scratching their heads over your esoteric background, you know you’re a real connoisseur’s connoisseur.
In 1992, Sandy Block, now the vice president of beverage operations at Boston’s Legal Sea Foods, became the third Master of Wine in the United States. But he’d proven his erudition well before that, namely as a doctoral candidate in American intellectual and cultural history at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he was writing a dissertation “on the stories the country’s leaders were telling to develop a sense of national identity,” as he describes it. “I’d written a few chapters; I was really into it. The topic still fascinates me.”
Meanwhile, he was also waiting tables and discovering a taste for wine. He eventually realized that “my developing passion would allow me to integrate a lot of my research skills, but also to travel and communicate with other people and get more instant gratification,” he says. “There would be incremental learning every day, instead of just this mountain I had to climb alone in the library”—or, for that matter, the obstacles he had to dodge as a server. “I spilled a plate of fettuccine alfredo on a woman’s bouffant hairdo once,” Block recalls. “Becoming a sommelier was practically an act of self-defense.”
After 10 years on the floor at the seminal 1980s French restaurant, Le Bocage, and elsewhere in Boston, Block moved into distribution in 1990. “Rather than just educate the people at one restaurant,” he explains, “I could influence a much larger group of people.” But he didn’t stop there; ever the passionate teacher, Block began writing for numerous regional wine publications and lecturing at area schools, including Boston University’s Elizabeth Bishop Wine Resource Center, where he remains on the advisory board.
In 2004, he was offered the position at Legal, to use the local nickname for the 34-unit East Coast chain that now serves 8 million diners a year, including incoming presidents—its seafood chowder has been served at every inauguration since 1980. Talk about an educational forum. “It was not in my game plan to go back into the restaurant world,” admits Block, “but this was such a unique opportunity. The challenge was, how do you motivate a lot of people to take it to the next level?” President and CEO Roger Berkowitz, he says, “has a huge, huge commitment to the wine field. He owned a winery in France for a while; he owned a wine distributor. But he had a list that was a little frozen in time, and there were five or six wines from the same winery here, three or four there. I wanted to stay on top of industry trends, take advantage of emerging regions and varieties, give the list more diversity. I also had a problem with the way the wines were presented, with the service, with the storage. I thought it could be attacked by staff training, creating what I called a ‘beverage culture.’”
Block compiled a 125-page training manual for an 18-hour course he named the Beverage Seminar Certification Series, which ends with an hour-long exam that every beverage manager is required to take. Many of the Legal general managers, servers, and even chefs also go through the course. Block created a blind-tasting panel “to get them away from, ‘I like this wine; I like the person who’s selling it,’ toward thinking about how we were going to work with the characteristics of the wine to make it go with the food,” and ultimately to engage in “a better conversation about beverage.”
At first, he worried, “Oh, these young people are going to be too intimidated to say anything in the presence of this wine expert. But they’re really free with their opinions. People say this generation is so hard to work with; I find them to be very engaged. They think wine is cool.” As a result, the teacher is becoming, once again, a student. “I really listen to them, too,” says Block. “If I think a wine is outstanding, but I’m out in left field because no one else agrees, well, they’re the ones who have to sell it; I won’t put it on the list.”
As a result, Legal’s wine list now exhibits the same eclectic yet user-friendly sensibilities as its menu. “We like pushing the envelope and getting this great number of people to try new or esoteric things,” observes Block, “but there’s always a judicious mix to help give them an on-the-spot perspective. For instance, we’re a seafood restaurant, but if it’s a red wine with the right profile, they’re going to be drinking it.” In fact, there’s a special section on the list titled “Red Wine with Fish!”; others include “Great Shellfish Wines” and “Sweet Wines We Love with Spicy Dishes.”
Although the list is “micromanaged to fit each market,” Block notes that “I’ve been in Chile a lot recently, and we’re really excited about Carménère, as well as Grenache or Garnacha from Spain, Australia, and France.” As for whites, “We’re working with a Portuguese Vinho Verde, which is sort of an insider’s thing, but it’s catching on. And we’ve put a couple of Aligotés on the list.” Laughing, he adds, “The jury’s still out on that.” Meanwhile, he has also assisted in improving on-site storage, though he admits “it’s always a challenge, retrofitting to accommodate our higher-volume needs. New restaurants we’re outfitting with systems like the only Enomatic in Atlanta.”
Block remains on the learning curve to this day. “There just aren’t enough hours in the day,” he says. “I don’t see how I could ever get bored. But I did just complete a novel that has nothing to do with wine.” Watch out, Jay McInerney.
Legal Sea Foods
One Seafood Way
Boston, MA 02210
To view the complete wine list from one of Legal Seafoods' restaurants, click here.
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