Interview with James Curtis, Wine Bar General Manager

CFPrime Wine Bar

So many fine dining restaurants tout their various "diamonds" or "stars", with a dining room so stuffy that it makes you afraid to laugh too loud or order a Chardonnay (gasp!) with your filet mignon for fear of getting that look from your server that screams "amateur." This is not the case with C.F.Prime Chophouse and Wine Bar.

About C.F. Prime Chophouse and Wine Bar

While it is a fine dining restaurant and its chef, Charles Forrester, was trained at Johnson and Wales University, you will not be met with an intimidating menu or wine list and your server will welcome your choice of Chardonnay with Filet Mignon without batting an eyelash.

General Manager of C.F. Prime Chophouse and Wine Bar, James Curtis, sat down to speak with LoveToKnow Wine about great food, great wine and how he believes the walls wine snobs in the United States have been putting up around them for decades are finally coming down.

Getting Into Wine

How did you first get into wine?

I first got into wine, honestly, at about 21 or 22. I started drinking it and I liked Cabernets right off the bat, which I think is unusual. I was drinking Cabernets for a long time and became kind of stuck on them.

How do you keep up with the ever-changing wine trends?

Beginning in February, we are going to having "Wine Gatherings" here at the restaurant. I don't like to call it "wine school or tastings" because it isn't anything as formal as that. It's more of a gathering where everyone can sit around, try new wines and have a casual discussion about it. Having these events are a great way to stay on top of wine trends.

Also, I have six vendors that stop in two or three times a week that will have at least one bottle to sample, so I'm always getting to try new things. This helped me to kind of get away from the Cabernets…especially the California style. I think the prices are getting a little over the top. It's just a little ridiculous.

So now, I'm trying these Argentinean wines, like the Malbecs, all this different stuff is coming out. The price point for these wines is great because you can enjoy them, they are interesting and have nice bouquets on them. It's not like the California wine, where, just because it has a nice label you're paying $30 a bottle.

Do you think that some of the wine "snobbiness" and pretension is what sometimes turns people off about trying wine?

I think that is exactly what it is. It sometimes feels like the people on top of the wine industry want to keep it their secret…like a club, but I think we're headed in the right direction. You see wine sales doubling and tripling constantly, in America as a whole, so I think we're on the right path and I think it is going to catch some steam.

In Europe, it's so casual. When I was in Paris, it was a totally different culture. I'll never forget when I was walking down the street and there were furniture movers drinking red wine, out of little juice glasses almost. Nothing fancy, this is just what they drank their wine out of.

While visiting Spain, the drink of choice was wine out of a box and here, no one would ever think of drinking a good wine out of a box because people here think of good wine as coming in a nice bottle. The same goes for the wines coming out with screw caps instead of corks.

I once presented a nice bottle of Pinot Noir that had a screw cap. The guest's response seemed a little bit uncomfortable. But actually screw caps hold the wine better So, I think that stereotypes about screw caps and boxed wine need to kind of go.

Wine is a fun thing, something you can experiment with and try new varietals and to me, should be drunk every day.

Using Wine Ratings

C.F. Prime's wine list has wine ratings from Robert Parker and Wine Spectator on the menu, what do those wine ratings really mean to you?

To me, they are a good basis point, in all honesty, I'm not following Wine Spectator as closely as I used to. I'm a much firmer believer in Robert Parker; I think Wine Spectator is getting a little skewed.

Do the scores influence which wines you put on the menu?

It mostly depends if I can taste the wine or not. If Wine Spectator and Robert Parker give a wine pretty good score, I'm probably going to try it. So when it comes to wine choices, I will absolutely look it (the score) up with wines that I bring in. Aside from the scores, the tasting notes are important to me too. So, yeah, I look at them, I definitely look at the score for almost every case of wine that comes in.

Food and Wine Pairing

CFPrime

One of the foods that are infamously difficult to pair with wine is horseradish. What would you choose to pair with something that has as strong a flavor like horseradish or the wasabi in your Charlie's Tuna Two Times dish?

A lot of people like the Hogue Late Harvest Riesling because of its sweetness, it kind of balances the dish out. That's probably not my first choice. I would go with The Wishing Tree Unoaked Chardonnay, something that is a little crisp and will kind of cut into the flavors of the wasabi and maybe the Ben Marcos Malbec if someone was looking for a red. I wouldn't do something like a Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay because of its buttery flavors, a Pinot Grigio is a little too fruity and I wouldn't do a Sauvignon Blanc at all.

Another tough one is mushrooms because they throw off the flavor of the wine and cause it to taste bitter. Any suggestions?

Earthiness of mushrooms is so great, it kind of takes away from the flavors of everything else. I would recommend a Shiraz, Malbec or any Cabernet. I think that Cabernets and hearty dishes go great together.

How do you feel about the classic food and wine pairing rule of "Red wine with red meats and sauces and white wine with white meats and sauces?

There was a while where I was "this is the way it is," because I think it is easy that way and kind of a cop out. Anyone can go online and memorize exactly what goes with wine and be an expert on it. I think it is too easy and wine is too good to limit it like that.

I think it is important to match the food to the wine and to the person. It's kind of like a progression, you have to match it all up or it doesn't matter. You can have the best match, but if the person drinking the wine doesn't like it, ultimately it isn't going to matter.

What would your recommend to someone who is looking to have a glass of Chardonnay with your menu's Petite Filet and Cognac Infused Wild Mushroom Demi?

A Chardonnay? I would have to go with a MacRostie Carneros or Luca. I'm going to recommend a big full bodied Chardonnay so that at least, it can hold up to the strong flavors in the dish. I think a medium bodied Chardonnay, like Sonoma Cutrer wouldn't hold up that well with a dish like that. It's a little too buttery and would get lost with all those other flavors.

What about Chocolate?

A lot of people pair chocolate with a Shiraz or a Zinfandel due to their pepperiness, but I'm a sucker for Champagne and I think you should start and end your meal with a glass of Champagne. So I would recommend a glass of champagne with something like our Chocolate Torte or I would go with the Bartenura Moscato d'Asti. I think a Cabernet would also hold up to our chocolate torte without overpowering it.

Beginning Wine Drinker Recommendations

Which wines would your suggest to someone who is just beginning to enjoy wine?

Definitely the Wishing Tree Unoaked Chardonnay. I don't really like to push a sweet Riesling, maybe more a dry, true Riesling and Pinot Grigio is always great for someone new to wine.

For reds, I'd go with Pinot Noir because it is really fruity upfront and finishes nicely. I talk about balance all the time and I think it is nice when you find a Pinot Noir for someone who is new to wine because it doesn't have much of a back or aftertaste.

I think it's easier for beginners to understand a wine when it is easier on the palate and when you swallow it, the finish is clean and the flavors kind of just go away. I think that is what makes Pinot easier for beginners Pinot Noir from New Zealand is really impressing me right now. They're really "New World" but I think that this is where we're at with wine. It is a "New World" and I think they are doing a great job. Within the next five years there will be some awesome Pinots coming out of there. You can taste it now, they're great right now, but I don't think they have quite gotten their growing seasons and everything in check.

Do you see that battle between "New World" and "Old World" wines?

I don't see it a lot in the restaurant, but I do see it a lot when I am researching a wine. When you try to look something up it seems like the wine-critics-at-large struggle with New World versus Old World. So, I always like to read wine recommendations from critics that can take that into consideration that, though they may like Old World, they are able to say that New World wine is great. I'm going to listen more closely to those critics because it seems as though they are being more subjective.

But I think the argument between the new and old worlds is great too, because it is a good way to progress with wine. I mean, when you are new to wine, you don't start off with the French wines that, you know, smell like dirty socks…that can scare a lot of people away! But if they start with something that has a nice, fresh, floral bouquet on it, that is something they can try and as their tastes expand, and so does your wine.

Interview with James Curtis, Wine Bar General Manager