Evan Hufford started working in fine dining at Kai Restaurant in Phoenix, bussing tables and tending bar before taking over as the sommelier. After a stint with Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas, he moved to San Francisco to work with Mark Bright at Saison. Last July, he took over the wine program at Michael Mina’s flagship restaurant in San Francisco’s Financial District.
Going to California
I’ve actually been bringing in more things that the guests are asking for—what I mean by that is that, as much as I, being a somm, love the more obscure regions out there, at the end of the day, Michael Mina is a restaurant located in the Financial District, so we have all kinds of tourists and business people, and they want to spend money on California wine. So while we have a lot of breadth and depth, I made sure I bulked up on things like older Napa cabernet—verticals of Diamond Creek and Dominus, those big names. I wanted to see if they would move—I had an inkling that they would—and they pretty much have. Things I thought might have been too expensive to turn over quickly have really moved off the shelves. I took a step back and have been focusing on the standards, the baselines, having an amazing selection of California wines (and some from Oregon): chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet. That’s pretty much what the clientele is asking for, without opening the list. They’ll say: can you flip me to the California cabernets? Or the California pinot noirs.
It’s a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy now, because it’s certainly become the strength of the wine list.
I’ve really enjoyed, from a less-heralded vintage, the 1998 Diamond Creek wines we bought. It’s amazing to see what a talented winemaker can turn out in what some called a disastrous year. They’re beautiful wines, sort of Bordeaux-like, plummy wines with a really classic graphite aspect. I’ve also enjoyed a lot of the 1999 Napa stuff I’ve brought in, like Chappellet Pritchard Hill. And Lail—their J. Daniel Cuvée. I got those at a steal and I’m already sold out.
Even though a lot of these are in $400-500 price range, they’ve been moving extremely quickly.
Guests are asking for big, bold, dark. At least at this restaurant. They want that classic Napa style: big, robust, full-bodied cabernet. Of the more elegant styles, I shy away from selling them unless I get somebody who seems really interested in trying something different. For someone like that I’ll recommend Arnot-Roberts, they have a very refined style and that wine does sell. But the bigger, more robust styles, like Pride, sell much better. It doesn’t take much to push it—it’s a name and also the wine is really high quality every year. When people are asking for a cabernet recommendation, I’ll say: tell me some brands, what have you enjoyed in the past? And generally it’s that bigger-bodied style.
The Kobalt (2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon) played exactly to what our guests are looking for. It’s really, really delicious, and it’s brooding, dark, smoky, inky-black in the glass. Pretty much everybody that was asking those questions: “I’m looking to drink cab, what should I drink?” We’d say, ‘Well, you should probably drink Kobalt.’ I had never heard of it; I actually picked it up shortly after I came on board. It was kind of a surprise. I enjoyed it when I tasted it, but I didn’t think it would move quickly. I thought: If I haven’t heard of it, our guests probably haven’t. But if you talk to people in the right way, they’ll trust you.
Kevin Carriker, the winemaker, has worked all over: France, did a crush at Grgich Hills in early 1990s. It’s a small project, and he doesn’t make a huge amount of wine. But I’ve been a big fan.
One thing I have trouble selling, even though I recommend it on a really frequent basis, is Rhône wines. I love the Rhône Valley. We don’t have an enormous selection but we have cool stuff, like Gangloff. Those are beautiful wines—the Condrieu, and we have a few vintages and selections of their Côte-Rôtie. I recommend them really frequently for people looking for something different. And they do move. Sometimes people do take me up on it. But it’s a bit more uncharted waters for people who aren’t familiar with those regions. Maybe it’s the descriptors: smoky, meaty, peppery. It might be scary when people are expecting fruit descriptors, like blackberry.
Longtime senior editor at Wine & Spirits magazine, Luke now works for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.