What's in Your Back Pocket?

by Lisa Elbert, Tastemaker in Residence - article from STARCHEFS

Sommelier James Lechner of Stoneburner

Sommelier James Lechner of Stoneburner

Sommelier James Lechner has some wines for you ... in his back pocket. They’re jack-of-all-trades vinos he can turn to when the menu at Seattle’s Stoneburner shifts—on a change in the weather, the stock of a purveyor, or on a whim from his chef, Jason Stoneburner. Lechner believes in concise, easy-to-navigate wine lists. He believes in value and versatility. And he knows his chef’s style—elevated Mediterranean comfort food with a serious case of wanderlust. Dishes careen toward acid or earth, often with a kick of heat. Got that? “I have had the advantage of working with Jason for a long time, so I understand how he cooks and what a dish means to him.”

Whether they’re in his cellar aging (“we win a lot of credibility for having some cellar selections that aren’t on the list”) or featured prominently on the menu, Lechner employs fresh, affordable workhorse wines. “We’re looking for wines from all over the world. Although we’re anchored in Europe and the Pacific Northwest, we have wines from everywhere. I think of everything that we buy as needing to have a purpose, and funds aren’t unlimited so we have to use our dollars wisely,” he says.

With his list stacked and cellar stocked, Lechner can easily pivot when his chef or a guest presents a challenge. Here's his game plan. 

Upon his arrival to Seattle, Lechner noticed an abundance of wines from the Southern Rhône. After a while, he chalked it up to the cold and rainy nature of the Emerald City. “Southern Rhône wines are friendly, and not too angular. People in Seattle like that, so we buy a lot of those. And they tend to be a bit lower in alcohol, and have a gamey element, which goes nicely with chef’s proteins.”
On his list for $49 (and just west of the Rhône): Syrah/Mourvèdre, Cupa Numismae, Chateau La Roque, Pic Saint Loup, Languedoc, France, 2011

Lechner leans heavily on Sicily’s Mt. Etna and its Nerello Mascalese blends. “Nerello Mascalese covers a lot of things we’re looking for in a red. It depends on vintage and producer, but if the wines are made in a lighter, elegant style, they can remind me of Pinot. If they’re richer in style, they remind me of Grenache, and if you combine both of those elements, they remind me of Nebbiolo. Those three grapes are quintessential in terms of red wine and structure.” With Nerello, Lechner can use one varietal to appease multiple cravings and achieve a complementary pairing at a reasonable price.
On his list for $49: Nerello Cappuccio/Nerello Mascalese, ’a Rina, Girolamo Russo, Etna Rosso, Sicily, Italy, 2013

There is an intensity in the deeply-rooted, pre-phylloxera Carricante vines (also from Mt. Etna) that you can’t find in other places. For Lechner, this intensity brings out a crucial element in pairing: texture. “Chef Jason’s cooking has a big focus on texture. As somms, we often talk about tannin and acid and alcohol, which are important elements in wine, but we don’t often talk about texture.” Carricante achieves the textural balance that Lechner and Stoneburner strive for in pairings. “The grape is indigenous to Sicily. It’s often compared to a high-quality Chablis—the wine has a fantastic mineral snap, bright acidity, and a pleasant mild nuttiness on the fi nish, giving it enough richness and salinity to stand up to protein.”
On his list for $55: Carricante, Cuvee della Vigne Niche, Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Etna Bianco, Sicily, Italy, 2011 

Barolo ain’t cheap, and Lechner isn’t afraid to take risks and champion new varietals to off er his guests a sense of departure without jacking up their bill. “Greek wines are scary for a lot of people. But if guests want to spend less than $75, and they say they like Barolo, we don’t have to take them to Piedmont. I like to introduce them to varietals like Xinomavro from Greece and Macedonia. It reminds us a lot of Nebbiolo (and Aglianico, and Syrah, and Sangiovese), ages beautifully, and doesn’t break the bank.”
On his list for $55: Xinomavro, Kir-Yianni, Ramnista, Naoussa, Greece, 2010