The Art Of Wine: 9 Lessons From World Champion Sommelier Enrico Bernardo

By Sisi Liang and featured on Forbes LifeStyle on 2/23/2017

Enrico Bernardo. Source: Bernardo Wine.

Enrico Bernardo became the youngest world champion sommelier when he achieved the title in 2004 at the age of 27. I have recently been lucky enough to meet Enrico at La Pizza Fresca Ristorante in New York City, through a small gathering after a wine auction. Late at night, the restaurant was quiet, and only a charming bartender and the owner of the restaurant (who would lock himself in a super packed basement wine cellar, working for hours on end) were there. In our small group, people celebrated being able to find rare and exquisite wines in the auction and took a moment to cherish the lovely evening. Enrico, an Italian living in Paris, happened to be passing by New York. When asked if he’s ever tired of people constantly asking him to recommend wines at dinner tables, he said never. We joked about how Europeans don’t care about their dental health. In the cozy and relaxed ambiance, with low lighting, delicious pizzas, and a magnum of 2009 Faiveley, meeting Enrico was like Gil Pender (a Hollywood screenwriter) curiously meeting Hemingway in “Midnight in Paris.” When I asked him to do an interview later, he kindly said yes. Below are nine things I learned from our conversation.

  1. Let curiosity be your nose, and follow your nose.

Sisi Liang: How did you start in wine?

Enrico Bernardo: “I was a cook and did training at school in Milan. Wine came into my path when I was 17 years old because the best sommelier of the world in 1978 was a teacher in the school at that time. I was curious and would ask him about how he tries wines and how he’d pair them with food, how I can be a better chef if I understand what it means by ‘balance,’ ‘flavors’ and ‘aromas.’ I discovered wine at that moment, and since then I never stopped because I was just curious and would tour different countries around the world, meeting people and do wine tastings in many places around the world, and I fell in love.

 “The cooking school was in Milan, and they taught Italian cuisine and Italian wine. Then I moved to France when I was 21, and I started to discover the French cuisine and French wines. Of course, at that moment I was so young, so I didn’t have enough knowledge, so I had a lot of things to learn and understand. But France and Italy were good countries to do that since they are so complex and rich about food and wines. For me, it was not hard work and at the beginning, it was a hobby, because my objective was to open a restaurant and be a chef instead of a sommelier, so wine was just to complement that. But after a few months I understood that wines were more than an object for me, so I transformed my passion into a profession. But for me, it is really a hobby, and I don’t feel like I’m working: it’s about trying wines, and listening to people... It was a passion and what has never changed was to share wine with people, to learn and spend time with friends and guests, so I don’t have the impression of working, honestly. But of course, the quantity of information is so high that you feel you are lost sometimes in the wine world.”
  1. Wine concept restaurants Il Vino and Goust: Leave part of the meal to the chef & sommelier, and you open up opportunities for magic

SL: You created the wine concept restaurants Il Vino and Goust in Paris. Was it your intention to simplify the complicated and sometimes overwhelming wine world for the customers?

EB: “In a way, yes. On the other hand, I was a cook and a sommelier so when I opened the restaurant I decided to make it a wine-pairing restaurant. You choose the wine and then trust me for the food. I try to create the best dish that can be best paired with the wine that’s selected, so for this restaurant I don’t do this for a lot of people. I have 45 customers every night, so that, as a sommelier, I can speak with every guest about the wines. This is Il Vino, which is the main restaurant I created. It’s the more important one because I opened it 10 years ago and it’s all of my career. Goust, on the other hand, is a more traditional one, where you choose the dish and experience a blind tasting of wines that the sommelier chooses to go with the dish. So the guest can discover the wines; whereas in Il Vino, you only choose your wine.”

SL: How do the customers react to each of them?

EB: “The quality of the food and service is similar and we admit 45 guests in each restaurant each night. They both have one mission. But one restaurant [Goust] is more accessible to most people because you get to choose the food even if you know nothing about the wine. Guests can have a normal dinner. Il Vino is only for people who enjoy wines and they want to have a good time with the wines and want to share time with the sommelier and experience the emotions in the wine tasting. If you want the wine experience, Il Vino is more focused on the sommelier’s work. Therefore, people who go to Il Vino tend to be more well-versed in wine. They are the people who know or like wine. But they don’t need to be an expert. We have 99% of our guests who just have fun with the wines, who only want good wines. We have a big wine list. The guests choose the wine, or they trust the sommelier on what to do.

“For Goust, after blind tasting, the guests are usually surprised by the wines. Most of the times they wouldn’t expect what they were drinking. We start with simple wines that are around 30 euros per bottle, and we arrive at 10,000 euros per bottle. We have more than 2,000 labels, so we have a lot of choice. By the glass, of course, we are between 8 euros to 25 euros per glass of wine. You have 3 choices. One is to do a blind tasting, which is 95 euros for 4 glasses of wine with 4 courses. Of course, these are cheaper wines due to the cost. Then you have the a la carte, by the glass, with a starter, a main course, a dessert, and 3 glasses of wine, and you would spend around 120 euros per person. This would be higher quality wines. And if you want rare wines, you’d choose by bottle among 2,000 labels—those would be the more rare, more aged, more exclusive wines.”

Enrico Bernardo decanting a red wine. Source: Bernardo Wine.

  1. Combining earlier training in cooking with expertise in wine gives Enrico the edge and the focus to do his art

SL: How do you pick the chef?

EB: “The chef is a young chef. I give him the permission on how to do the recipes around the ingredients, then we try it together, we try the wines, and then we do the pairing of the food and wine. I collaborate with the chef. The chef needs to be sensitive to the wines, but he’d be a young chef, and the chef is me eventually because I decide what I want to work into the cuisines. Then we have a chef who produces the recipe.

“When I created the restaurants, I had a sensation of the restaurants, a feeling about what kind of guests I would attract, how many restaurants and what kind of cuisines they’d propose. I decided to do that because I’m the only one doing it this way. It was really a natural thing for me to do. When I went to restaurants myself I would choose the wine, and never choose the food, and then I’d say to the chef, do what you want with the food, but I want to drink this wine. And 9 times out of 10, the chef would never know what to do with this request, so it was the sommelier who would do the work for the chef. So when I opened the restaurant, I know that I’m a sommelier but I also know cuisines, and I do it this way because that’s how I do it myself when I visit restaurants. It’s the way of my life for me, and I never try to do different.”

  1. The sommelier keeps it intriguing by changing the wine list every 6 weeks, and for wine lovers, "the most important thing is to be open to the wines”

SL: What are the most important things to you when it comes to buying and serving a wine? And how do you manage the cycle of buying and serving at the restaurants?

EB: “For the wine list by the glass, I change it every 6 weeks. And this is the seasonal wine menu. How do I decide? Every wine has a life, so I try to pick the best moment to drink. When it’s too young I’ll never serve it; when it’s too old, I stop serving it. Regarding the seasons, I serve different wines in the winter than in the summer because the seasons affect how the wine would taste—they change totally from spring to summer to winter.

“The most important thing is to try and be open to the wines. Don’t come with old experiences, but keep coming to be open to discover new flavors and aromas of wine. Because wine is not just about the grapes. It’s incredibly variable with an infinity of difference. So I suggest the guests to be open to more than one region or one producer since otherwise, it’d be a very limited vision of the wine.”

  1. For wine lovers: "It's important to buy wines every year."

SL: How do you evaluate a wine and how long do you hold it after buying it?

EB: “It’s important to buy wines every year so that you’ll have the different vintages to see the continuity of the wine year after year. Of course, for some wines you don’t need to store it for aging since after a year or two you can drink it. But others you can wait for 10 years or 20 years, depending on the complexity of the wine, the origin, and of course, the storage of the wine at the wine cellar. But for that you need experience. It’s difficult to teach someone that way. Everyone has a different budget for wines, and a different taste—some people prefer young wines, others prefer more aged wines. So there’s no universal rule, but I suggest to buy wines every year, both young wines and more aged wines. When I buy wines, I have an idea about how long a wine will age. I also taste wines en primeur every year—it’s my job. I just tasted a lot of 2016’s from the barrel over the weekend [in December], when the wines just finished fermentation.”

  1. The sommelier is an artist who follows one’s own intuition instead of trend

SL: How do you determine customers’ demands?

EB: “I can’t know the trend. And each country is different. When you speak to collectors from different parts of the world, they have different ways to drink wines. There doesn’t exist one trend. For example, in the US there might be a trend of Burgundy wines, in China, it could be Bordeaux, and in Japan, it’s old vintages of Burgundy and Champagne. So it’s impossible to constantly know the trend. I’m not a trendy guy. I know what I like, I have different choices, and I try to decide the best for everyone. But for sure I don’t adapt myself before the trend arrives. When the trend comes, I try to find some solutions for the guests, but I don’t want to be the guy who constantly follows trend. The Chinese are into Bordeaux and the rich, red wines such as Merlot, Syrah, and they even produce Chinese wines in that direction. Of course, you have a minority who have not experienced Bordeaux and start to move into Burgundy. But there are limited people who drink wines there, compared to the Chinese population. Hong Kong is different, though, and is more into Burgundy.”

  1. Bordeaux wines were hurt by the “Lafite bubble” several years ago and will remain relatively obtainable going forward

SL: What have you noticed in the wine industry recently?

EB: “In the past few years Bordeaux got so expensive that people began to discover other regions, such as Rhone and Italian wines. Bordeaux really changed the condition of the market in 2009 and 2010. They were so expensive that people changed the view of Bordeaux and saw Bordeaux as something more unobtainable. In more recently years, though, that has calmed down quite a bit and Bordeaux became more obtainable. I think now that people understand better how it works in Bordeaux, in the near future, Bordeaux will remain more accessible than it was in 2009 and 2010 because people are discovering other regions. The Lafite bubble back then hurt the Bordeaux wines.”

  1. Looking back and going forward as a sommelier: “I’m more precise in everything”

SL: In the past decade or a dozen years, since you became the world champion, how have you evolved?

EB: “I know better, of course! I drank more wines, so I know better. I’m now 40 years old and when I won, I was 27. Now I have more experience, I’m more balanced and better than 13 years ago. I’m more specific in the wines, especially with the different vintages, and at different wineries. I know better about the strategies of the vineyards at the most important wineries, and I know better how the wine ages in the future, so I’m more precise in everything, because ten thousand wines are all different, and they age as your expertise progresses.”

  1. The progress of wine-making: better technology makes better wines for a broader audience

SL: Do you think the wines are better now than a decade ago?

EB: “Yes, I’m quite sure. The wines now are better than before. Before, you had more impact of the vintage. Now, the wine makers really know better about how the plants react and how to work with the wines in the wine making facilities, where technology has been getting better for wine making too.”

SL: Do you think good wines are more affordable now?

EB: “Yes. Now you can find cheaper wines that are very good. Technology has made the simple wines very good and you can make good wines in simple vineyards. Technology doesn’t change the terroir because that is made in the vineyard not in the wine-making facilities; but technology can adapt to different vintages—in bad vintages, technology can do something right. In great vintages, of course, nature takes the lead.

“I see that there are more and more new consumers in wine now, and I think the world production of wine has changed the quality of the wines, because the consumers have the experience and the knowledge, and they want to find the quality. I think the good wines are going to become more and more expensive; while the simple wines will find a new market, and they can become more expensive if they provide higher quality wines. I’m very positive about how the wine productions will change. So the wine drinkers are becoming more sophisticated in their tasting, and therefore their preferences will be more specific.”

Enrico Bernardo in the wine cellar at his restaurant Il Vino. Source: Bernardo Wine.

Afterward: the art of wine continues as long as one cares to make it.

A while ago I watched a documentary "A Year in Burgundy" and was deeply inspired by the French farmers who make an art out of wine-making, and saw the way they interact with their vines and treat their wine as a living and breathing thing. Enrico reminds me that the art of wine doesn't stop there—the art continues on the menu, in the kitchen, on the dinner table, and in the conversation—as long as one cares to make it.

Sisi Liang currently works as a senior consultant, focusing on regulatory stress test modeling, and financial risk practice. Before her current role, Sisi has experience in Equity Research covering metals mining (production and commodities), energy, and the media sectors. Sisi holds a BA in English and Mathematics double major, with Honors, from Washington and Lee University, and an MS in Quantitative Finance. Her passions for forecast modeling, the poetic and commodity elements in wine, yoga, along with her curiosity in the interconnectedness in diverse fields have drawn her to the collaboration of auctionforecast.com.

Email: sisi.liang@auctionforecast.com