Chow Bella

Wine Somm Dave Johnson Takes Managerial Position at Davanti Enoteca and Ponders the Demise of the Sommelier

See also: Chef Peter DeRuvo to Head Kitchen at New Davanti Enoteca Add another familiar name to the talented lineup who'll be working at Davanti Enoteca, slated to open in early August. Wine sommelier Dave Johnson -- best known for his stints at Atlas Bistro and the defunct Sol y Sombra -- will be an assistant general manager at the restaurant, and one of his duties will be to create fun, informative wine tastings and wine dinners there.

Clearly, his role will be slightly more managerial and slightly less wine-centric than gigs of the past, a situation Johnson views as a sign of the times. His most recent job, for example, was floor manager at Nimbus Bistro, the Tucson-based brewery that opened a second location in the Scottsdale Seville last year. How telling is that?

According to Johnson, sommeliers are an endangered species. They'll either adapt or become extinct -- just like the dodo bird and the maitre'd.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, wine sommeliers were a huge part of the Phoenix and Tucson dining scenes. In the early '90s, Christopher Gross employed Steve Olson (before his Wine Geek superstar days) as a sommelier at the original Christopher's and Christopher's Bistro.

Meanwhile, Mary Elaine's (the Valley's revered -- and now defunct -- fine-dining restaurant at The Phoenician) was swimming in wine somms, often having three or four of them on the floor on any given night.

But when the economy tanked in 2008, many of Arizona's resort restaurants and independents were hit hard. If it came to paring down the staff, somms often looked like more like pretty baubles than necessities.

Johnson cites other reasons for the sommelier's demise. For one thing, customers are far more educated about wine these days. They've moved from Merlot to Barolo, and they don't need a sommelier to help them navigate a wine list.

Second, fine dining has all but gone away. So the customers who once bought $250 bottles of wine (the same customers whose free spending supported a sommelier) don't have a suitable local outlet for that kind of splurging. When they want to go crazy and spend princely sums, they probably head for Las Vegas, a town that still has a boatload of sommeliers.

Then, too, the enormous popularity of craft beer and culinary-inspired cocktails in recent years has surely taken a bite out of the wine business. When a customer can buy a fabulous local beer for $6 or a gorgeous, fussed over cocktail for $10-$12, a $60 investment in a bottle of wine seems a lot less appealing.

Johnson also says the Big Box wine sellers -- Costco, BevMo and Total Wine -- also have played a part. They've not only put small retail wine shops out of business but also have taken away business from the high-end restaurants still standing. How? By training customers to buy at Big Box prices.

The swell who might have bought a $150 bottle of Staglin Cabernet Sauvignon at a restaurant now knows he can find that same wine for $58 at BevMo. So he'll save the money and drink it at home. In fact, he'll put in a cellar and stock up on the good buys now available to him!

Here are a few of the significant sommeliers Arizona has had over the years, who have either taken jobs in other states or have taken other kinds of wine jobs.

MS = Master Sommelier (attained by less than 200 people in the entire world)

Richard Betts, MS: worked at Janos in Tucson, moved to Little Nell in Aspen, now a winemaker Bobby Stuckey, MS: worked at Janos, moved to French Laundry, opened Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, also produces and imports Italian wines Desmond Echavarrie, MS: worked at Mary Elaine's, moved to French Laundry Jennifer Eby: worked at Mary Elaine's, moved to Wynn in Las Vegas Thomas Ratcliff: worked at Mary Elaine's, moved to Wynn, now works for Gordon Ramsay Steak in Vegas Dale Sparks: worked at Anthony's in the Catalina's, worked at Mary Elaine's, now managing director of Quench Fine Wines

And here a few of the great sommeliers we have left (there are more, certainly, but these are confirmed):

Regan Jasper: worked at Fuego Bistro and Hacienda del Sol in Tucson, now wine and beverage director for Fox Restaurant Concepts Scott Casey: worked at Lon's at the Hermosa, now working on new (and soon-to-be disclosed) restaurant concept Greg Tresner, MS: head honcho at Mary Elaine's, still at The Phoenician

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Nikki Buchanan