Chef News

Wine Talk: David Johnson of Oakville Grocery Co.

David Johnson, the wine director at Oakville Grocery Co., dispenses unpretentious wine advice as a bonus to this week's Chef Chat with his business partner, Chef Walter Sterling.

Johnson, a self-proclaimed historian, discovered a Scottish ancestral relation who wound up in the wine business. Johnson says he was smitten with the novelty and glamour of it all at first but then describes his "eureka moment" where he was savoring a fine wine and a world renown wine expert asked him straight out what he thought.

"I answered him kind of innocently, because I was kind of doing this self-effacing thing," Johnson says, "And [the wine expert] said, 'No, you're really good at discerning wine.' And when he said that, it was kind of like he was giving me the green light."

Johnson, who's since worked on all sides of the wine industry, has a contagious curiosity and enthusiasm about wine. Today he shares what he's drinking now and why he wants to be your "wine robot."

Favorite wine to serve right now? Grüner Veltliner. Albariño. Sauv Blancs. Whites. Bracing, nice bright whites. I can't imagine in this weather, when it's all hot and muggy, drinking a big old Malbec. I know people like it, but for me, it's just refreshing to drink something cool and cold with bracing acidity.

Last wine you drank that blew your mind? I drank Tannat from Uruguay not too long ago that was just awesome. Tannat is one of those grapes that doesn't really set the world on fire, although it's very loved where it's from. And I don't drink it for this reason, but it's probably the healthiest grape to drink as far as powerhouse antioxidants. I think it has 70 times more antioxidants than Cabernet Sauvignon, which is a whole different animal. And it's not just that it blew me away, it blew me away for the money. You're talking about an under $10 bottle of wine that's just layered in texture and amazing, not so squeaky clean and hygienic.

Any wine you would never serve? I might not stock white zinfandel, but if a lady came in here tomorrow and said, "I want white zinfandel from eastern California in the Sierra foothills," I'd be ordering that tomorrow for her. Because it's really not me, it's what she prefers. I want to be a wine concierge. I want people to think of me as "Oh, he's like my wine robot. I'll just tell him what I want, and he'll get it."

Pet peeve about the wine industry? I think people play it safe all the time and they just get kind of stuck in a rut. That's the thing that bothers me: the branding of wine has become this Supreme Being. It is kind of an intrinsic American value that it becomes more about the brand. It's boring for me to do the same thing every day.

What's always in the kitchen at home? I can tell you something that isn't always at my house: wine. I'm in the wine business, so I try to keep that out because I'm sick of it when I get home. Now scotch and gin, that's a different thing. They're always there.

What's the next trend in wine? Local. Wherever you're at, whether it's Ohio or Missouri or Arizona or New Mexico. People are into their own local wines. The one big point is that yes, California makes premium wine, but it just got a head start. People are going to new places and making exciting wines. And it's an evolution; it's a process not an event. So people are going to have to be patient with their local wines.

(This is a bonus installment of this week's Chef Chat with Oakville Grocery Co.'s Walter Sterling. Check out parts one, two and a recipe from Sterling.)

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Hannah E Williams