AN INTERVIEW WITH JUSTIN TICHY, SOMMELIER AT THE GROTTO
Folio Weekly: Do you have a wine collection?
Justin Tichy: Yeah, I have a pretty big collection. I consume a lot of wine in my household; it's kind of a daily thing, it goes with all the food and relaxing. So I buy a lot of value wine on closeout and I buy collectables from time to time. I've got a 100-bottle cooler; half of it's filled with closeouts I bought for $5 a bottle; the other half is rare wines.
What does it take for you to open a bottle of rare wine?
Just somebody to enjoy it with. In the end, wine is art, but it's art you consume, so what you're left with is just the memory of it, and your memories include other people and the evening.
Why is wine interesting to you?
What got me into wine is, I started to understand that people were making it as an art, not just a consumer product to get people drunk and make money. They were doing it as an expression of their culture, their land, the weather pattern that year, the personalities and the people that work together in the wineries, all that came together and became the wine. It's like you can experience all these places all over the world just by popping a cork.
Is wine a subjective thing?
I really think so. People taste different, and I cannot tell you how many times I've tasted the same wine and had a completely different impression or opinion on it, and I've seen it happen to others, too, where I'll pull out the same wine more than once and they don't realize it and they have a different experience each time.
Are you ever disappointed in a rare wine?
Yeah, yeah. But I think it's important that you don't always expect to be blown away. Some wines are about subtly and finesse; some of the greatest wines in the world are great because of that. So if somebody drops $100 on a bottle of wine, they expect to be blown away with huge flavors on the palate, but that's not always what it's about.
If wine is cheap, does that mean it's bad?
No, not at all. I'm always in search of good inexpensive wine. You'll find a lot of great values in wines from the south of France, Spain or South America. I like California wines quite a bit, but any inexpensive California wine won't be quite as good as an inexpensive wine from South America.
How big exactly is the difference between a cheap wine and a rare one?
I compare it to women. You might like the girl who kinda gives it up easy for a little bit, but in the long term, you like the one who holds back and you have to spend some time with it to understand it, that's special. Wine is like that. Wines change throughout the evening; sometimes your first impression is nothing like what it ends up being at the end of the night.
Has the sommelier industry changed?
The program has changed since I first took it over 10 years ago at the [Culinary Institute of America]. The way they did it back then, there was a course, then the advanced, then the master's. Since then, they've added the certified level [between the master's and advanced levels].
How difficult is the sommelier test?
It matters what level you take. The first-level somm test in my opinion is not very hard. The certified test isn't extremely hard. If you know all your regions — and it literally takes a couple years of studying to learn them all — and you have a basic understanding of what it takes to pull everything apart and taste, it's doable. I've looked at some of the questions for the advanced — it's just too much information. "Name 10 diseases that attack the vine and how to remedy them." Some of the information isn't practical, but it's what separates the boys from the men.
What role does smell play in the appreciation of wine?
Smell is really everything. There are only a handful of things you can actually taste. Your mouth can feel acidity and sweetness, but your nose can smell 100,000 different aromas; it's really all about the nose of the wine.
Can you think of any foods that don't lend themselves very well to a wine pairing? Or does every food have some kind of wine to match?
Some foods are really difficult to pair a wine with. Hot soups. Those are hard. I really love ramen, but it's just not good with wine, it's good with beer.
What wine or wines would you pair with a burger?
What's fun to pair with a burger is something kind of rustic. Like a Spanish Monastrell — that would be great.
Shrimp and grits?
Something with a nice acidity. A lower-end white Burgundy.
Red zin and barbecue go great together. All day long.
Champagne. Fried chicken and champagne, that's what's up.