Behind the Bar: Dave Johnson at Sol y Sombra

In case you were wondering: Gin was the first flavored vodka; the word "sommelier" originally meant "keeper of pack animals;" and organic spirits will be the next big wave in designer drinks. Oh, and Grey Goose is not any better than any other vodka -- it's all marketing.

That is the word, according to Dave Johnson.

But the slow-talking, laid-back sommelier of Scottsdale's Sol y Sombra seems anything but a wine snob.

A guy who could make a bum feel comfortable in the Ritz, Johnson showed up for our interview in a baby-blue T-shirt and old jeans, sat down on a couch and just started talking -- about wine, about liquor, about history, agriculture, anthropology, generational differences -- and even about a cocktail or two.

And what he said changed our drink order for good. This guy is an encyclopedia of all things wine and liquor.

Johnson plies his trade at Sol y Sombra, which Chef Aaron May opened in April of 2006 to bring tapas to the Valley's masses. It's all lounge-y swank inside -- greys and suedes, mirrors and high windows. This north Scottsdale spot is serious about food. And Dave Johnson is serious about what goes with it.

"Many people are deeply passionate about wine -- and it does elicit deep passion," he says.

A native of the UFO capital of the world, Roswell, New Mexico, Johnson broke free and has since lived all over the country -- and the world -- strictly in cities with a culinary agenda, of course. ("You know how some people are groupies for bands? I was kind of a groupie for great chefs," he says.)

He was 23 and living in Scotland when he met some traditional, French négociantes du vin (or wholesalers of wine) and "naively" began his future career. That led from D.C. to New York to San Francisco, and, as of 1998, to Phoenix.

Johnson insists that we are unknowingly living in a burgeoning culinary hot spot.

"I've met all these celebrity chefs and worked in some of their restaurants and met these great, world-class, Michelin star chefs," he says. "But you know what I kind of take pride in now? That we're in this emerging culinary scene -- right here in Phoenix." He adds, "We're at a new, bold frontier."

And, though he can casually discuss the rising popularity of "brown spirits" and the "effervescent spritz" to an Albariño white, Johnson seems to be more about living the good life than writing the rulebook.

What's his favorite wine? "The one that's in front of me, usually."

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Lauren Gilger
Contact: Lauren Gilger