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Tasting tips from Commander's 'wine guy'

To hear Sharon Litwin interview Dan Davis on WWNO public radio, click here.

Ella Brennan, doyenne of the New Orleans restaurant community and owner of Commander’s Palace restaurant, had long wanted to win the Grand Award from the Wine Spectator magazine, something that is cherished by only 75 restaurants worldwide. When that happened in 2012, she gave full credit to the restaurant’s wine director, Dan Davis.

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

Considering that Commander’s has a wine cellar of about 18,000 bottles comprising 2,608 selections, one has to wonder if its affectionately-named “wine guy” might turn up his nose at anything us mere mortals might consider purchasing in a store. To the contrary: seems he’s right there with the rest of us, looking for a decent vino in the range of $10 to $15. While Davis believes we should all trust our own judgments about what we like, he also says it doesn’t hurt to get a little advice.

“I find that most people underestimate their ability to detect quality,” he says. “And basic quality is this: Do you like it? I would encourage you, when you go to buy a bottle of wine at retail, to go to a good grocery store where they have someone working in the wine department, and tell that person the style you like and how much money you want to spend.

“There’s no shame in saying, 'I’ve got ten bucks, what’s the best ten buck bottle of wine I can get?' And they will very happily show you the best ten-dollar bottle of wine they can give you that will meet the style that you need.”

Davis started on his wine-learning track when he was in college, working as a server for the Brennan family’s Palace Café. After graduation, there was a stint as manager of a small café down the street from the at-that-time-new Emeril’s restaurant. Daily, he would look out as throngs lined up to get into that hot new venue.

“The buzz around Emeril’s in the early ‘90s was just amazing,” he recalls. “I wanted to be a part of that and learn more about fine dining.”

So he quit the café and went to work at Emeril’s, starting out, as everyone had to in those days, as a busser. He worked his way up to server, all the time learning everything he could about wines. He rose in the ranks at Emeril’s New Orleans property, later becoming general manager of Emeril’s place in Miami. But New Orleans kept beckoning and he returned home to become the “wine guy” at Commander’s.

One of the critical aspects of maintaining the standards expected of a Grand Award Winner by the Wine Spectator is the ability to know what is going on throughout the world of wines. Turns out, says Davis, Germany is where it’s happening these days. So for those whose basic knowledge of that country’s production is of sweet, sweet and sweeter white wines, heads' up. It’s a whole new and very exciting world, Davis says.

“When you’re in a fine wine shop, look for a white capsule on the top of the bottle and an eagle, and it will say VDP at the top,” Davis says, explaining that those letters stand for Verband Deutscher Pradikats, the association of Germany’s top wine producers.

“If you see that you can rely 99.9 percent of the time that it will be a dry Riesling. It’s going to be extremely food friendly and of the very finest quality. You can count on this being great wine, even if you don’t know the producer, even if you don’t know how to pronounce it. If it’s at the price point you’re willing to spend, buy it; you’re gonna love it.”

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]