David Johnson has wine on the brain. Why not? It runs in the family. He can trace his familial roots in the wine and spirits business back to 17th century Jacobite revolutionaries. As a sommelier in training, he spent years in Europe, honing both his palate and his craft. Now back in Arizona, he is the sommelier that never sleeps. Or at least it seems that way, since he's put his oenophilic, overachieving pedigree to work on a wide range of wine-loving endeavors. Most nights, he can be found at Sol y Sombra in Scottsdale, where he's the Wine Director, overseeing an innovative all-Spanish wine list. He is also a successful wine broker, co-leader of the local Slow Food Convivia, and acting Wine Director for Phoenix's West of Western Food Festival.
Chow Bella: How is sommelier actually pronounced, is it some-all-yay or so-mall-e-yay?
David Johnson: It's some-all-yay.
CB: Where does the word come from?
DJ: It is loosely translated to 'keeper of pack animals.' It is from back in Charlemagne's time, he was the person who cared for the pack animals and carried the skins filled with wine. Wine wasn't all glamorous like people think of it today. It was more hygienic to drink wine than water.
CB: What does a sommelier do?
DJ: The primary job is to assist guests with the wine list and make recommendations when the guest asks for it. Wine should be a graceful thing. When people come in during these stressful and uncertain economic times, they don't need a geography lesson or vinoculture 101. If they ask, then I'll tell them.
CB: So if I'm at a restaurant and ask for help with a bottle of wine, should I be upfront about my price limit?
JB: Absolutely! Would you buy anything without knowing the price? A car? Furniture? No way! I've got to weigh a lot of things to pick a wine for someone, especially when the onus is on you as the sommelier. When a guest says, "Just pick something," that is a huge responsibility.
CB: In other words, don't be shy about saying, 'I only want to spend 25 or 30 dollars on a bottle.'
DJ: Not at all. A good sommelier will find the best bottle possible in that price point.
CB: Are you supposed to tip the sommelier?
DJ: Traditionally, yes. There are some assumptions that are made with the tip, like there are agreements between wait staff and the sommeliers. And to an extent that is true. But if that bottle of wine is smoking, a good rule of thumb is 10% is appropriate. When in doubt, slip a fiver or a tenner to the sommelier.
CB:Do you ever get weird tips?
DJ: Yes. I get concert tickets and baseball tickets. Once, in DC, a guy sent me an antique, gilded claret jug. It was gorgeous, and even had an English silversmith hallmark.
CB: How many bottles of wine do you have?
DJ: I have about 200-300 bottles at home in a Vinotemp wine cellar. I have about 80 to 90 cases at AZ Wine, and a lot of fine wine in Washington, DC, at Schneider's of Capitol Hill.
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CB: What is your most rare bottle of wine?
DJ: That is probably my '59 Cheval Blanc. It could probably bring about $8,000 at auction.
CB: Are you going to drink it?
DJ: On my 50th birthday.
CB: Do you drink wine every day?
DJ: I do, sometimes several bottles. It's unreasonable to be too moderate.--Sloane Burwell