The way I see it, food and drink can ultimately come down to perception. Sure, my lady loves hot dogs, but my good friend's gag reflex gets busy just by thinking about what they're made of… let alone actually consuming one. And who doesn't have a friend who's had a “that one time in college with Jose Cuervo” story that's forever ruined tequila for them? Perceptions can be difficult to alter when it comes to eating and drinking.
Wine, I think, shares that potential for polarity. There are circles that view wine appreciation as a snobby art or reserved for the old-school. And for the uninitiated — with all of different grapes, regions, wineries, god knows what else, etc. — it can be daunting as hell. I swirled these thoughts around like a glass of fine California Zinfandel in preparing for my chat with Mark Bright, the co-owner (along with chef Josh Skenes) and sommelier at Saison in San Francisco. Rated 2 Michelin Star, Saison is a tasting menu-only restaurant known for their food/beverage pairings that's pretty much re-defined the meaning of a “special occasion” joint. Dude works at one of the most forward-thinking restaurants SF, but he has a down-to-earth approach that's easy to like. After awhile we were talking about the glory of Dunkin Donuts, his Chicago upbringing, late-night industry smores parties, and yes, of course, vino. After all, this was a guy who poured me literally twenty different glasses of wine to go along with my meal when I ate there. It's what he does.
Okay Mark, so, for the layman — what do you feel is the responsibility and duty of a sommelier?
To assist the guests of a restaurant in finding the right wine for their experience that evening– everything from the best pairings, to what they personally would enjoy, etc. Also, to educate the staff, and purchase and operate the beverage inventory on all levels. Additionally, to be a professional and to continuously represent the world of wine.
Your bio says that you've been passionate about wine since your first trip to Europe at age 15. What went down on that trip and where do you feel the love really started?
Everything began on that trip, because up to that point I was never really exposed to it. Growing up in Chicago, wine just was not very present in my family. When I was in Europe I had a chance to be exposed and to taste, and to learn of the history of some of those regions, which were so interesting to me that I decided to dive into it more.
<strong>Chicago, interesting. Can you talk about what your food world was like there at that early stage?
Well when it comes to food & cooking, what I learned afterwards helped put into perspective those food experiences growing up. Like every time we ate pork at home, it would be cooked so hard and so dry that pretty much all the protein was taken out of it, all the juice would be taken out of it, etc. So I had to get over a fear of food from those kind of experiences in a way. I had sushi for the first time in my teens, but you know I was always told that “Oh my god, you could die from eating this.” I came from an Irish family growing up in Chicago, with a mother who was Hungarian and an Irish father. So we're talking lots of Midwest food. Lots of fast food, junk food, etc. Lots of meat, bad vegetables, lots of corn of course.
I can't believe I'm hearing you talk about fast food. This is awesome.
Don't get me wrong, I still go eat fast food. I haven't become picky in any way. I have no problem with fast food cheeseburgers, I have no problem with Dunkin Donuts. Sure, I cook my food more properly now and eat healthier overall but, I'm not afraid of my past in anyway whatsoever. I embrace it.
Incredible. I have some friends on the east coast who swear by Dunkin Donuts.
Dunkin Donuts is the best, man. It's been the best forever and always will be the best. It's why I didn't understand Krispy Kreme when it first opened. Dunkin Donuts makes like true, fleshy, heavier, thick donuts you know? And when Krispy Kreme came out, these things were like, air-puffs covered in sugar. I was like, “what is this?”
I mean like, I've seen stories about people ordering and consuming Krispy Kreme dozens at a time though. I think because they are much lighter?
Oh man. I just got a stomach ache thinking about it.
So back to wine. For someone who is a complete wine novice, who might be interested but doesn't know where to start — what would you recommend?
Getting into wine is actually pretty simple, in terms of the basics. Sure there's more complex stuff when it comes to you know, getting into wine making, etc. Once you have the basics though, you just start to explore that world as much as you can. Go to tasting, go to wineries, see the barrels, taste all the different varietals, different regions, different grapes, different terroir, different vintages, different wine-making techniques. Then you start to understand those differences and what they mean.
Almost like a full immersion into a culture or another country when you're learning a new language.
Exactly. The basics that you learn are kind of like learning a new language. And once you understand what these words mean, you pretty much got it. It's as complicated as you want to take it though. You can take it deeper into the wine world if you want, or you keep it just to the basics. Whatever works for you. I will also emphasize though — learning how to taste properly. And how to describe what you're tasting. That's all part of those basics.
And the more kinds of wines you taste then, theoretically, will help that?
Definitely. Especially for beginners, that's one of the hardest things. Picking out aromas, flavors, etc. Seeing descriptions that say thing like “apricot,” “white flowers,” or whatever — connecting the flavor to what is in your mind.
What was your first experience with it where you realized it's importance, or where you realized how highly you valued it?
I am still learning how everything works together and how they affect each other, this will be a life education, learning till the end. This is the most important fact to learn as a sommelier.
As for Saison and the staff that works there, do you actually go down the entire wine list and have them taste so they are familiar? Now that would be epic.
There's no way we could do that, too many old wines, too many expensive wines, etc. Stuff we sell by the glass, stuff that we pair with food, I share that with them for sure though so they're familiar. And that's every day because we are constantly changing the menu, constantly having new wines come through, etc. Aside from that, any customer who wants something deeper on the list will probably just call me over anyway.
A meal there can be quite an intense experience. One of the things you guys are known for is the pairing between wine/beverages with individual courses. Can you talk about the process a bit between you and Josh Skenes, the interplay, etc., and how the perfect pairing is discovered?That goes back to ingredients in particular, specifically what's going on in the food in relation to what's going on in your picks.
We first talk about the dish, this gives me the window of wines that may be good. We then taste the elements of the dish seperately, this allows me to understand the textural elements more that the aroma and flavor (which is most important for wine pairings), then I taste a few wines that I have put in that window and pick what I feel is the best, then listen to our guests, this is extremely important.
Do you ever, like, freestyle it from time to time on your picks? Maybe like if you're feeling or not feeling something on a particular night, if the vibe calls for it, or do you stick strictly to a pairing script?
Every night. Every single night I'm freestyling something. Because every night there is a new dish that comes out of nowhere. Sometimes Josh will just throw something out there, so I have to be ready for it.
That shit must keep you on your toes.
It's great for me actually, my favorite part of the evening. I love it.
Now, I've read a bold critique of Saison before, with someone saying that it's actually too much wine or too many kinds of wine, that you guys get people drunk with the quantity. What's your take on that?
[Laughs for awhile] I'm actually glad you brought that up so I can finally respond to that. You know, we don't purposely pour a lot of wine, we're not trying to get people drunk. But I mean, we have a 20 course menu. So in order for us to really pair wine — and we pair a few courses together even — we pour a couple ounces per course. And yes we will re-pour, as we don't want people running out before their food is gone. But the reality is, every human can control themselves. They don't have to drink everything we pour them. They don't have to ask for refills. They don't have to finish what we pour. Some people are like “Oh my god I'm so drunk,” but it's not our fault! You have your own choices. We're not shoving the wine down people's throats. It's simply the nature of the beast. It's a long menu so yes, there's a lot of wine. It's what the experience calls for.
[Bright along with co-owner/chef Josh Skenes]
A couple things stood out to me about what you served there, specifically you dropping some sake and beer out of nowhere with a couple dishes. How has that gone over with people?
I think people dig them, one because they are great and work together, two it allows them to learn more about and try different beverages, and they it also helps to have everyone to think outside of the box. It's about what is best with the food–not wine necessarily. The whites I use are heavy because it is what the menu needs. Just because most wine pairings in the world have half white and half red, doesn't mean ours has to.
You guys had some serious 80's jams bumping in the kitchen. Phil Collins, Genesis, etc. Interesting environment for a 2 Michelin Star restaurant, no?
It's actually the same music in the dining room and terrace. It's music that reaches a large group and is fun and comfortable. I don't think that anyone listens to elevator jazz or background music at home, so why force people to do so here?
On a similar note, if wine was in a band, what kind of music would it make?
Wow, good question. The Smiths I guess?
I guess it all depends on the time of the day, but that makes sense to me. I love the Smiths but, beyond that I listen to a ton of different music in my car. You know, driving it might be classical music –not because I have road rage or anything– but makes me think a little bit. At Saison, we listen to stuff like Passion Pit, M83, MGMT, all that kind of stuff.
Give me some Saison lore. Some juicy gossip.
We use to have legendary industry get togethers on Saturday nights, before we were closed for two days. Other chefs and sommeliers from around the bay area would come and join us and we would drink and talk about what everyone is doing–and cook we'd cook smores on the hearth.
Smores! Did you guys actually cook those yourselves for everyone at these parties, campfire style?
Yeah! Sometimes we would cook all the smores and then hand them out, but a lot of the times we'd all be drinking and talking and just leave the smores out for everyone too. You know, going back to my father — when I grew up, he had a funnel cake fryer business. So I have the best, like killer funnel cake recipe. Sometimes I would warm up the oil on the Molteni stove and cook funnel cakes too.
Will these little post-service get togethers ever make a comeback?
You might be seeing it again. Maybe. On a much smaller scale though… I mean part of the reason we stopped doing them was because like 200 people started showing up. It was ridiculous. Not trying to have the police show up or anything.
What do you like to listen to when you're sipping your favorite beverage?
All depends on the day and what I am drinking.