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Somm Sez: A Fresh (& Big) Start

Posted on  | February 28, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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Alpana Singh, Proprietor/Master Sommelier, The Boarding House, Chicago

Few sommeliers in America have enjoyed a trajectory as steep and rapid as Alpana Singh. In 2000, at the age of 23, she became the sommelier for Chicago’s acclaimed Everest. Three years later, she became the youngest woman to become certified as a Master Sommelier, and soon shifted into a larger role as wine and spirits director of the Lettuce Entertain You (LEY) group. Singh left LEY late in 2011 but stayed in Chicago to pursue a project of her own: The Boarding House. The multi-level space is divided into the First Floor Wine Bar (featuring a chandelier made with 9,000 wine glasses); the Dining Room; and, below ground, a more loungeish Cellar. All three have been packed since the December 2012 opening.

THE BEVERAGE NETWORK: Do you have a go-to region or type of wine?

ALPANA SINGH: I would say Southern Rhône and Spain. We get a lot of customers that like California Cabernet; Rhône and Spanish wines pair well with food but the style is not far off.

TBN: What is a favorite current pairing from your menu and list?

AS: Pierre Gonon St. Joseph ’09 with Bavarian sausage and choucroute. The smokiness of dish with Northern Rhône Syrah is fantastic.

TBN: Do you do special wine promotions?

AS: No. But I isolate a page of “top wines of the moment” toward the front of the list. We change that about every four weeks.

TBN: What software system do you use to manage your list/inventory?

AS: I have a spreadsheet on Google Docs. An outside company comes in once a week to do bar and wine physical inventory, so I can monitor the differential between purchasing and selling. Spoilage by the glass is important.

TBN: Do you have a system for managing your wine orders?

AS: I get nightly reports of what was sold. Our master is set up listing bottles on hand, with another field that allows me to punch in number to order. I can download that as an order sheet. I order Monday for Tuesday and then Thursday for Friday.

TBN: What were some of the challenges in starting from scratch?

AS: First was not knowing what to put on the list. My taste leans toward classics; I did not know if people were more into esoteric or still drinking California. Also just the general size of the list. At Everest no one ever questioned the length of the list. We have storage limitations here at The Boarding House. I originally aimed for 350, and tasted 1,400 wines to start. Eventually we wound up at 500.

TBN: What are some wine trends you have noticed recently?

AS: Chinon. Loire in general. We went through 50 cases of a Chinon—the distributor’s entire supply—then switched to Olga Raffault and it still is very popular. Also Syrah; I don’t know why some people think people are not ordering Syrah. Something I think is coming: esoteric grape varieties from California. Arnot-Roberts and Palmina are two examples. Younger winemakers are geeking out and there is a lot of potential to work with interesting grapes.

TBN: What advice do you find yourself frequently telling your staff?

AS: My motto is: it’s all about the palate not the price point. We have enough price points for a spectrum. Even if someone wants to spend three digits, the style comes first. We do wine training once a week, and this is why we spend a lot of time on comparative tasting, so they are set up to recommend wine in the style a customer asks for.

TBN: What is another wine program that you admire?

AS: Frasca in Boulder. Bobby Stuckey has a super Italian selection that matches the cuisine, and impeccably trained staff.

The Boarding House

Cuisine: Wine-inspired global cuisine
Selections on wine list: 500
Bottles in inventory: 2,000
Price range of list: $38-$1,400
Average bottle price: $65
Sweet spot on list: $50-$80
Wine list strengths: Champagne,
France, Pinot Noir, small producers; the list itself, organized mostly by grape, but then sectioned by style/region and annotated with eclectic wine quotations
List format: 3-ring binder; 50 total
Wines by the glass: 2 sparkling;
7 white; 9 red
Price range by the glass: $10-$28
Stemware: Schott Zwiesel Tritan Forte
Preservation system: None; turnover is frequent and each part of the restaurant starts with fresh bottles every shift


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