Just because South Florida conjures up images of another afternoon with swaying palm trees in Margaritaville and overpriced Caipirinhas in clubs focused more on the scene (cue the thud-thud techno), Miami’s wine culture is now as happening as some of South Beach’s hottest nightlife dens thanks to an energetic young generation of forward-thinking sommeliers. They jam to the beat of Mourvèdre, not Mojitos.
At the same time now as wine’s emergence from just being trophy Old World and California labels for the pampered set of Miami Beach, Downtown Miami itself is inching closer and closer to being as chic as its beachfront neighbor three miles across Biscayne Bay. Hey, Miami Beach might have the striking art deco facades of Ocean Drive, but Downtown has a legitimate people mover (plus the back-to-back NBA Finals champion Heat and the breathtaking new Perez Art Museum)!
A key player in both Downtown Miami’s civic growth and Miami’s wine evolution was the 2010 opening of db Bistro Moderne inside the JW Marriott Marquis right by the Miami River (yes, there is such a thing). One of the 15 establishments from the New York-based maestro himself, Daniel Boulud, db is Boulud’s only foray into Miami (he does have a Café Boulud in Palm Beach). The restaurant certainly boasts several flashy traits typical of the city. A d.j. spins modern music amidst bright neon lights in the very fashionable lounge and bar during happy hour. The sleek contemporary design includes 16 foot high ceilings in the dining room and the palatial entrance doors connected to the lobby are fit for the city’s most exclusive club.
By no means is Jason Pringle’s menu at db restricted to just bistro standards viewed from traditional and modern perspectives. Yes, there is certainly a nouvelle French bent to the moderne salade Lyonnaise, or the centuries-beloved rustic classics of duck pâté en croûte, and coq au vin. However, you’ll also find Peruvian ceviche, grilled Galician octopus with a tomato fondue and tripe, and jumbo lump crab accompanied by yuzu and a shiso bavarois. Then again the latter types of global-driven dishes seem to be what’s also more in vogue these days in Paris.
The 452 selection, 5,025 bottle-strong wine list follows the menu with an approachable blend of the classic and the new, of the bargain and the premium varieties thanks to Christopher Birnie-Visscher. Over 65% of Christopher’s selections are under $100 a bottle, with a good number like the Eric Texier Côtes du Rhone and Mount Eden Chardonnay under $60. Don’t panic though if you’re a major Penfolds ‘Grange’ or Screaming Eagle fans, they’re here too.
But it’s not those stratospheric cellar collection wines that excite Christopher most or best represent db. The list is full of little gems from South America, a nod to Chile and Argentina’s rise on the global scene and also its influence on Miami. Not to be out-done, several new wave domestic favorites like Gavin Chanin’s Pinot Noir from the Santa Maria Valley of California and Gramercy Cellar’s Walla Walla Valley Syrah. Much of Christopher’s family hails from South Africa and talking about that country’s wine industry gets him even more excited. The “Chocolate Block” from Boekenhoutskloof (writer’s note: Of course I spell this winery correctly every time!) remains one of his favorite wines on the list and just in life period.
Christopher’s path to db is a fascinating one that didn’t just lead from wine school to restaurants.
Formally, Christopher holds an Advanced Sommelier Certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers, placed second in both the Antinori Sommelier Challenge and the Best Young Sommelier Challenge, and even was granted the title of “Advanced Ambassador” for the Academy of Wines of Portugal after attending an eight hour overview course of the country’s wines from the legendary Master Sommelier Doug Frost.
But enough with the formality. Pompous, academia, and rigid are all terms unfortunately associated with sommeliers of the past and will never cross your mind when Christopher approaches your table. He worked at restaurants in Tennessee and Canada before returning to his home state of Florida. His Daniel Boulud experience started at Café Boulud in Palm Beach as an assistant sommelier, then was promoted last year to the top post in Miami. It’s an extremely impressive and daunting responsibility for a 31 year old. Then again, the average age of sommeliers or beverage directors these days continues to grow younger and younger because of the excitement this new generation has for the subject.
When you discuss wine with Christopher, though, he speaks with the enthusiasm of youth and the experience of a sommelier who has poured wine for a half century. Discussing the wines of South Africa with Christopher reminded me of how I was such a passionate baseball fan as a young kid, I could essentially recite the batting statistics for every Major League player. Christopher seems to know many of these wineries as if he just tasted in the barrel room last week.
Before he’ll open Miami’s next great wine bar, he would first go back to school, perhaps to study nutrition. As much as wine is his life, he understands wine isn’t everything (writer’s note: wait, what, it isn’t?).
Now sit back, maybe grab a snack or if you’re hungry and nearby db, enjoy what is arguably America’s most influential high-end burger (the “db burger” a sirloin-based burger stuffed with braised short ribs, foie gras, and black truffle, served on a parmesan bun (writer’s note: yours’ truly devoted a whole chapter to this in his college thesis back in the day)), and meet one of the most dynamic sommeliers you’re likely to hear from.
Vino247: First off, there has to be a great story of how you became interested in the profession and became a sommelier. Let’s hear about how you became so excited about wine!
Christopher Birnie-Visscher: Wine has always been an interest of mine. I received one year as a birthday gift, Kevin Zraly’s Windows to World . Over a glass of wine, I would skim through his book. With each passing page, I started to comprehend, albeit small, what really went into my glass. The more I understood, the more I realized I didn’t know…and that’s a beautiful thing. The rest is history….
Previously being at another Florida restaurant from Chef Boulud, any significant differences in the wine programs between DB in Downtown and Café Boulud Palm Beach?
Mariya (Kovacheva), the Head Sommelier at Café Boulud in Palm Beach, has helped tremendously in guiding me to where I am now. Her style has definitely rubbed off onto me and I follow a similar path. We stay true to showcasing the classic regions of France at db Bistro & Café Boulud Palm Beach, while also emphasizing the global wine market. Being in Miami, I do emphasize a little more on South American & Spanish wines too.
How much of an impact does Chef Boulud and the management in New York have on your list in Miami?
They give me an abundant amount of freedom to work with. Every market is different than the next. As sommeliers, we are listeners and need to cater to our clientele.
What’s your Downtown Miami audience like? Experienced? Young? Tourists? Fans going to Heat games?
A collection of all.
Would you say the Miami audience prefers Old World or New World wines, or a mix? Coming from San Francisco, I’m obviously used to a major Napa/Sonoma/Santa Barbara bias…
It is a mix of both worlds. As stated previously, Spanish & South American wines do grab much attention. With that being said, Miami is a city full of international culture and this shows in the wine that is purchased.
Any preferences or pet-peeves when it comes to wine glassware and serving temperature?
I love bubbles in a wine glass.
What wines, both on and off db’s list, are you most excited about?
On the list: Jamsheed Syrah, Victoria—Syrah is my favorite grape varietal and I have become enamored with the cool climate wines coming out of Victoria, Australia.
Off the list: Montes ‘Outer Limit’s’ CGM (Carignan, Grenache, Mourvedre), Clos Apalta Vineyard, Chile—I recently returned from an educational trip to Chile and this was by far my favorite.
And what a list indeed…really spanning the globe and price points, from several under $50 choices to highly sought after labels like the Penfolds ‘Grange’ Shiraz ’06. Any strategies or goals for orchestrating such a diverse list?
The wine community is growing exponentially every day. People are stepping outside their boxes and are becoming fascinated with wines from all around the globe, both new and old. It is my duty to provide a list that is diverse and pleases all palates!
Can we pair with a few of db’s signature dishes? How about the burger, the bacon-wrapped monkfish, and the foie gras terrine?
db Burger: French all the way. Either a Bordeaux Blend, Cab or Merlot driven. Bordeaux can match up to the intensity of the burger and is sublime with the black truffles. I also find Syrah’s from the Northern Rhône work very well to. The juiciness of the Syrah pairs very well with the short ribs.
Bacon Wrapped Monkfish: I tend to reach out for a wine with some viscosity here. Chardonnay’s from either the Pacific Northwest or Oregon will work. The monkfish has richness to it and needs to be balanced with an equally rich wine. One of my favorite pairings is a Marsanne / Rousanne blend from the Rhône (Yes, I love Rhône wines!). These varietals really work well with the cabbage and beurre blanc sauce.
Foie Gras: For this particular dish, I like to pair a Chenin Blanc from Quarts de Chaume or Bonnezeaux in the Loire. Chenin Blanc showcases aromas of orchid fruits and has a slight nuttiness, bringing out the flavors of apples, quince and pistachio. The wines from Quarts de Chaume / Bonnezeaux (In the Coteaux du Layon) have enough richness to match the richness in this dish.
Any regions you’re really excited about right now?
Country: South Africa. My family is from originally from South Africa (no bias here, but they are making some exceptional white & red wines. I attended a large expo in London back in September 2013 showcasing South African wines. All the wines I tasted blew me away. From Chenin Blanc to cool climate Syrah, the sky is the limit.
Region: Casablanca Valley, Chile – Casablanca is bursting with potential. Cool Climate Syrah, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.
Are people more/less passionate about what’s in their glass now than this time a year ago?
More passionate for sure!
How do you think wine can have that “renaissance” of sorts like craft cocktails and craft beer (though Miami actually just opened their first commercial craft brewery, Wynwood Brewing Co.) have experienced nationwide recently? In other words, how do we defeat that “snobbish” image so much of the young drinking generations seems to think of with wine?
I find many of our younger guests enjoy wine. They are diving into wine lists and asking questions. The curiosity is there for wine, we as teachers need to listen.
What are your thoughts on tasting notes? Helpful and insightful? Or a nuisance and a hurdle for drinkers who want to give wine a chance but can’t understand why they don’t taste what the notes say?
Just like anything, they have to work for the personal drinker. My tasting notes may not work for you and vice versa. I feel they can build a solid foundation for someone who is just getting into wine. However, they need to be kept simple so they are not intimidated.
For our many readers who don’t know much about South Africa’s wine industry, can you talk about some favorite South Africa wines?
Paul Cluver Gewürztraminer, Elgin 2012—Elegant, dry with a touch a R/S and great acidity. This isn’t your typical Alsatian Gewürztraminer.
Kanonkop Pinotage 2011—The king of Pinotage. If you have never tried this grape varietal, Kanonkop is the producer to seek out.
Boekenhoutskloof, ‘The Chocolate Block,’ Franschhoek—This red blend is driven by Syrah. Full of juicy blue and black fruit, but not overdone. Reminds me of a Northern Rhône Syrah.
On your rare night off at home or visiting another restaurant, do you want a beer or are there particular wines you find yourself returning to again and again?
When I’m out at a restaurant, I always explore the cocktail list. Hand-crafted cocktails have made a big comeback and I really enjoy these, especially Bourbon based ones.
Last but certainly not least…when will I be seeing a Florida wine on your list?!
There is always the possibility…
Visit Christopher at:
db Bistro Moderne
255 Biscayne Boulevard Way, Miami, FL 33131
Located inside the JW Marriott Hotel
Open Lunch Mon-Fri, Happy Hour Mon-Fri 5 pm-8 pm, Dinner Mon-Sat