Master Sommelier Ian Cauble On Why Pinot Noir Rules, Proper Wine Temps and Changing the Industry

We're Talking Grapes

BY // 03.08.21

love to talk about wine with people who share my passion for it. We open bottles, we trade stories about travel and soil types, terroir and residual sugar, and we talk of taste and food and restaurants. We recommend wines to one another, we drink, and we learn a lot.

In Wine Talk, I introduce you to friends, acquaintances, and people I meet as I make my way around the world, individuals who love wine as much as I do, who live to taste, who farm and make wine. You’ll appreciate their insight, and I hope you’ll learn something from them as well. 

Perhaps you’ve seen Somm, the 2012 film that chronicled the attempts of four men to pass the Master Sommelier exam. It’s an entertaining — and at times overly indulgent — look at the process, and has spawned sequels and Somm TV, an entire streaming service devoted to the world of wine.

Ian Cauble was in the film, and he passed the test. Today, he is one of only 269 individuals in the world to hold the title, conferred by the Court of Master Sommeliers. The organization and its nonprofit educational arm, GuildSomm, recently have been beset by sexual misconduct allegations. You can read about the controversy here.

“I was deeply sickened to hear of the reports of sexual harassment and abuse. There is no room for that behavior in this, or any, industry,” Cauble says about the issue. “I stand with those who are ready to make long-overdue changes and create a more equitable organization.

“We must hold ourselves to the standards of excellence, integrity, and humility that we wish to exemplify.”

Ian Cauble founded SommSelect in 2014.

In 2014, Cauble founded SommSelect, to “Bring the sommelier experience home,” he says. He is the chief wine officer of the company, an online venture that includes a daily offer, a wine shop and monthly clubs. David Lynch, whose work at Babbo — at one time my favorite restaurant in New York — joined Cauble at SommSelect in 2017 as editorial director.

Today’s selection at the venture is the 2019 Château du Carrubier, “Cuvée Ingénue” Rosé, and I especially like the Germany selections in the shop, such as “Bacharacher Hahn” from Toni Jost (2017) and the 2014 “Hocheimer Hölle” from Domdechant Werner.

I spoke with Cauble a week or so ago, via Zoom, and learned that SommSelect was profitable. We discussed the complexities of shipping wine, and we talked about Riesling and Germany and Austria.

I look forward to tasting with Cauble in person, but until then, here he is in Wine Talk.

James Brock: How has COVID-19 changed your work and life?

Ian Cauble: COVID-19 has obviously changed almost every aspect of daily life for people all over the world. In the face of a pandemic, and so much loss of life and suffering, the first and foremost reaction is just one of sadness for those who have lost loved ones, and tremendous gratitude to health care workers and frontline workers who have done so much to keep us safe and keep “normal” life going as much as possible.

As a business owner, of course our No. 1 priority has been to keep our staff safe and healthy. Some of us have been able to pivot our jobs at SommSelect to working from home, but we have an incredible operations team who have been working in our warehouse under new safety guidelines during COVID and making sure that we’re able to fulfill our orders for customers during the pandemic.

Since we have always been a completely online, DTC business, our model and infrastructure was already very COVID-friendly, and it has been interesting to see people who probably never thought they’d want to buy wine online realize that it’s actually pretty awesome to have wine that’s been hand-selected for you just show up at your door.

As the chief wine officer of our company, one of my main responsibilities is sourcing wines from new producers and regions, so that usually involves a lot of travel in a given year. Cearly all of that came to a screeching halt last March. Of course, I’m itching to get out on the wine route again once it’s safe to do so, but thankfully our suppliers are sending us wines to taste with our team here in Sonoma, so the business hasn’t skipped a beat.

I’m just extremely grateful to all of the people who have helped make that possible over the last year.

JB: Tell us about three wines you think are drinking well at the moment. What makes them worthwhile? How about a food pairing for each one?

IC: The first wine I would mention is a Nebbiolo from Piedmont called Conti Boca DOC 2012 ($70). I bought a case from one of our (SommSelect) Daily Offers two years ago and the wine is now firing on all cylinders. I open it with special guests that come over for dinner, usually paired with a slow-braised beef cheek pappardelle with fresh parmesan.

This is an incredible wine made in miniscule quantities just northeast of Barolo within “Alto-Piemonte” (high Piedmont), where it is slightly cooler, with the vineyards sitting in the foothills of the Italian Alps. Until recently the family farmed only about five acres of vines, and the wine is reminiscent of a top-class Barolo/Barbaresco meets fine red Burgundy. The higher elevation leaves more floral notes in the wine and the alcohol is a bit lighter, leaving more tension and minerality.

When this wine is paired with the correct dish, served in a big Burgundy stem at just above cellar temp,  it can be magical. The production is so small SommSelect gets about 300 bottles a year only, and it is sold as a daily offer.

The next wine I love right now is Walter Scott “La Combe Verte” 2019 Chardonnay ($36), from Willamette Valley. Walter Scott is an up-and-coming superstar in the Oregon wine scene who makes wines very similar to Burgundy’s famous village of Puligny-Montrachet, where many of the greatest white wines on earth are made every year.

The latitude, soils and climate of the Willamette Valley are all very similar to Burgundy, and that allows producers to make incredible expressions of Chardonnay that can fool many great tasters into thinking the wine is in fact from a famous site in France costing much more.

The “Combe Verte” is the entry-level wine from their offerings, which gives the viewer a sneak-peek into how good their top wines are, as their “entry-level” wine is better than other producers’ best offerings. This wine was included in our Explore 4 wine club as one of the four selections this month, where we focused on Oregon. It is a chameleon with food. I have enjoyed it with yellowtail nigiri sushi, and it can pair beautifully with a simple roasted chicken and potatoes.

One tip: Make sure to decant their wines for 30 to 60 minutes, as they often need oxygen to open up properly. Also, do not serve this wine too cold — about cellar temp (55 degrees) or so is perfect.

My third selection would have to be Knoll “Schütt” Riesling 2017 ($68), from Austria’s Wachau region just outside of Vienna. The Wachau is one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world and is an UNESCO World Heritage site. These terraced vineyards are a sight to behold, and they produce some of the most spectacular dry white wines in the world.

Weingut Knoll is one of the top producers in the region, and I feel honored each time I get to visit and taste the wines. They pair impeccably well with Cantonese cuisine, and I really enjoy pairing his Rieslings with fresh steamed fish with jasmine rice along with bok choy sautéed with ginger and a touch of sesame oil. The simplicity of the dish allows the deep complexities of the Riesling to shine.

Alternatively, bring a bottle of Knoll Riesling to a dim sum restaurant and prepare to be addicted to the experience. You will never forget it.

JB: If cost was no consideration, tell us the one bottle you would add to your personal collection, and why.

IC: I would add Domaine de la Romanée-Conti – Romaneé-Conti 1990. It is one of my favorite vintages in Burgundy, from my favorite producer, and is approaching its peak of drinking now. There are other wines that might be older and rarer, but the odds of drinking perfection are extremely high.

JB: What is your favorite grape, and why?

IC: My favorite grape is Pinot Noir. This is a tough one, but Pinot Noir has the ability to express so many different personalities all over the world. My favorite region of course is Burgundy, but other areas around the world are starting to make stunning expressions of Pinot Noir.

Other than DRC noted above, the wines produced by Domaine Leroy are extraordinary, and her Musigny Grand Cru is truly magical. I rarely get to taste it.

JB: How about one bottle that our readers should buy now to cellar for 10 years, to celebrate a birth, anniversary, or other red-letter day? 

IC: I would recommend Krug Champagne, Grand Cuvée in magnum or three liter. Before I started SommSelect, I worked as the United States ambassador for Krug, and that was an experience I will never forget. To see how these wines evolve over time is truly special, and one of the very best wines I ever tasted was an older bottle of Grande Cuvée out of a 3L right after I passed my Master Sommelier exam.

In terms of price to quality, there are a few wines in the world that can compete, and the pleasure factor is an 11 on a 10 scale.

JB: Where is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle (outside of your home and workplace)?

IC: I usually end up at Cadet in downtown Napa. Everyone that works there is extremely knowledgeable and kind, and the prices on the wine list are not much more than normal retail. It makes it easy to go in there and drink a couple of special bottles without breaking the bank. Their selections are top-notch.

JB: If there was one thing you wish everyone would keep in mind when buying and drinking wine, what is it?

IC: I think most people drink white wine way too cold and red wine way too warm. I also think people should be investing in nice glassware because, just like a speaker is to music, your wine will be only as good as your glass you are drinking out of it in terms of aromatic complexity, etc.

Zalto makes some great glassware to consider. Their Burgundy stem takes drinking Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to another level entirely.

So many corks to pull … (Photo by Emma K. Norris)

JB: What is your “wine eureka moment,” the incident/taste/encounter that put you and wine on an intimate plane forever?

IC: When I returned from traveling overseas for a year and a half after college, I came home broke. I borrowed money from my dad to buy a suit and ended up getting a job at the Wine Merchant of Beverly Hills off Rodeo Drive. A few weeks after I started my boss asked me to go open up a bottle of Domaine G. Roumier Musigny Grand Cru 1990 for him and a special client nand pour it into these special Riedel stems. I polished the glasses and opened up the wine and poured myself a taste, and my life was forever changed.

I had no idea a wine could be so perfumed and thought-provoking! It smelled like strawberries and cream in a cold forest. . . underbrush, roses, mushrooms, and black truffles. I was literally getting emotional from smelling it. From that moment on, I put all of my focus into learning as much as I could about wine because I wanted to drink wines like that forever and understand what made them so good.

JB: What has been the strangest moment/incident involving wine that you have experienced in your career?

IC: Probably the time when the table I was serving asked the proper way to open a bottle of Champagne. At that time I opened up dozens of bottles a day, but had no idea that this particular bottle had just been delivered a few hours before and had been shaken up all day on the delivery truck. I showed them how to leave the cage on and remove the cork and cage together at the same time for safety while holding the bottle at a slight angle.

I then slowly removed the cork from the bottle as usual, and the moment the cork released the wine sprayed all over me and the roof like an explosion, giving a nice gift of Rosé Champagne spray to the ladies in front of me. Ironically, the next week I flew to Athens to compete for the Best Young Sommelier in the world and won gold for the U.S. I always laugh about that story.

JB: Your favorite wine reference in a work of literature?

IC: The Jerk (1979). Steve Martin, when asked if he’d like another bottle of Château Latour: “Yes, but no more 1966. Let’s splurge! Bring us some fresh wine, the freshest you’ve got. This year’s! No more of this old stuff. He doesn’t realize he’s dealing with sophisticated people here.”

For more wine, travel and other stories from James Brock, check out Mise en Place.

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