Northside SF  

Oenophilic Tendencies
Sommelier profile: Dennis Kelly of the French Laundry
By Jeannine Sano

Dennis KellyLike a perfectly choreographed stage production, everything at the French Laundry appears effortless, with gleaming silverware, sparkling stemware, and elegantly composed plates coordinated, presented, and whisked away with each successive course, ascending to a crescendo of high-impact flavors, then floating back down toward the presentation of the check, along with French Laundry chocolates and shortbread cookies wrapped in navy and silver ribbons. I half expected to see a symphony conductor standing in the breezeway timing the movements of every staff person with a baton and metronome, and yet nothing in the duration of the three-plus hours of dining felt forced or overly formal.

As the flagship of the only American chef to garner the coveted three-star rating from Le Guide Michelin, the food is without reproach. Yet the food is only one component of the French Laundry experience. Dennis Kelly, head sommelier, glides from table to table, answering questions, helping patrons select bottles from the 105-page wine list, occasionally stopping to quietly confer with the captains and the other sommeliers on the floor, while polishing wine glasses, gracefully extracting corks, and pouring gold, pink, caramel, garnet, or sparkling liquid into various glasses to match the ever-changing taste combinations coming out of the kitchen.

So what is it like to be in charge of wine service at one of the most renowned restaurants in the country? Kelly jokes that most people have the impression that sommeliers just sweep into the dining room, sell some wine, and then disappear to sit somewhere and ruminate about wine. In all seriousness, however, he explained that the level of expectations for every single person working at the French Laundry is extremely high. People come to the restaurant expecting the dream, and his job is to help deliver the experience they fantasized about: “You have to bring your A-game, because everyone else does. They expect you to continue to push and drive yourself to be better every day.”
Because the menu is constantly changing, even from lunch to dinner, there are no preset wine pairings, so Kelly and the other sommeliers have to rely on their expertise to create matches essentially on the fly. Still, Kelly loves when people put themselves in his hands to create a custom wine experience for them. He enjoys introducing people to new regions or unusual varietals, while tailoring wine selections to match a particular patron’s wine preferences and the flavor profiles of the dishes created by the kitchen. The extensive half bottles and offerings by the glass allow him flexibility to play with different wines, regardless of whether someone wants all local wines, all Old World wines, or even all white or all red.

Kelly describes his job to be a combination of psychologist, moving man, accountant, and these days, even an IT technician. He is currently working on a new state-of-the-art software system, along with the other French Laundry sommeliers and associate beverage director Jimmy Hayes, to streamline wine ordering and inventorying, which will also make updating the wine list and keeping track of sales information more efficient and accurate.

The French Laundry has two floor sommeliers at each service and also employs a cellar sommelier as well as an intern sommelier (referred to as a “vintern”) who helps out with all of these jobs approximately 50 hours per week. Kelly himself works seven services per week, with each service taking approximately six hours, in addition to all of the time necessary to unload, move, unpack, and catalogue crates of wine. I would imagine that maintaining a wine list that contains over 200 half-bottle selections, 50 different sparkling wines, 600 whites, and 1,000 reds (not to mention sake, port, Madeira, and sherry offerings by the glass) would involve a lot of lugging, and I can’t help but wonder whether Kelly has perfectly pressed jeans, T-shirts and white sneakers, without a speck of dirt or smudge of course, or some other pristine outfit designated for such laboring tasks, to match his perfectly pressed suit, tie, shirt, and shined shoes for service.

In addition to his day-to-day wine tasks, Kelly devotes as much time as he can toward studying for the Master Sommelier examination by the Court of Master Sommeliers. Kelly is part of a tasting group composed of local sommeliers in the area who test and push one another as they prepare for the next level of examinations. Chris Blanchard (previously profiled in Northside San Francisco’s “Best of Northside Food & Wine 2006”), who recently joined the elite ranks of the master sommeliers, is a friend and mentor to Kelly. Kelly also travels, when time permits, to augment his wine knowledge with personal experience. He has a stone that he picked up from his visit to the vineyard site of La Mouline of Guigal. The 1985 vintage of Guigal’s La Mouline is Kelly’s “epiphany wine,” that taste that hooks you into wine and haunts your taste memories forever.

When I asked Kelly what he finds most challenging and what he enjoys most about working at the French Laundry, he had the same answer to both: “I learn something new everyday. Nothing is ever the same, and life [at the French Laundry] is definitely not boring.” I thanked him for making time in his busy schedule to talk to me for this article, and he replied with the same disarming charm that he displays in service: “I had fun. There is nothing I like talking about more than wine and myself!”


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