A legend in the wine world, Boston’s Sandy Block has a unique and diverse background when it comes to wining and dining. Before joining Legal Sea Foods as Vice President of Beverage Operations in 2004, overseeing the wine program, Block honed his wine skills and wine education in a variety of ways. A former sommelier, Sandy was the first American on the East Coast of the United States to be certified as Master of Wine, and is one of only 279 individuals worldwide to earn this title. He also holds membership in the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs and the Confraria do Vinho do Porto, and received the Diplôme d’Honneur from the Corporation des Vignerons de Champagne. Sandy’s extensive credits include serving as Wine Editor for The Improper Bostonian. He serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Cheers Magazine, the Executive Symposium Committee of Sante Magazine and the Executive Board of Boston University’s Elizabeth Bishop Wine Resource Center (where he has taught advanced courses since 1999). He developed the curriculum for the accredited Wine Studies program at Boston University and for several years taught a wine tasting course to aspiring chefs at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. Sandy previously worked as Assistant VP of Wine for Horizon Beverage Company, and as General Manager of Whitehall Imports and VP of Product Strategies for the Whitehall Companies. An Honors graduate of Vassar College, he earned a Master’s Degree in American Intellectual and Cultural History from the State University of New York.
Related: Ask A Boston Sommelier Series
Below, Sandy Block answers our questions about wining and dining in Boston:
You’ve been involved in Boston’s wining and dining scene for more than 30 years, what has changed both for better and worse?
The level of culinary talent is like night and day, so I think it’s much more exciting now than ever, much more experimental and creative, and decentralized, but along with that we’ve lost a sense of the classics and I do have to admit I occasionally miss that.
Are diners more wine savvy today?
Not sure about savvy, they are more clear and vocal about what they want. Dining has evolved quite dramatically into more of a participatory and lively sport rather than simply the passive absorption of food, wine and service in hushed, reverential tones.
You were the 3rd Master Sommelier in the United States, the first on the East Coast. Fans of the documentary “Somm” have had a taste of what the title entails, what led you to go for it?
Actually I was the 3rd Master of Wine; the Master Sommelier certification is not the same thing. I can talk endlessly about that but the MW certification, administered by a London–based international institute (the Institute of Masters of Wine, founded in 1953) and the exam, what it tests and the whole study process are not related to the MS. There is some overlap and both are quite challenging to attain but they’re more different than alike. Administered once a year, the Master of Wine exam takes place over four days and involves composing thirteen essays and the identification of 36 wines that are tasted blind.
How do you craft a wine list like the ones at Legals that fit so many restaurants, markets, tastes?
It’s the most fun, and also most challenging, part of my job. The Master of Wine degree is, as mentioned, based on “blind tasting” (as well as essay writing and completing a research dissertation). In fact, there are 36 wines that you have to taste and describe accurately on paper without knowing anything about them, other than what’s in the glass is telling you, so it’s quite demanding. It’s a discipline that I’ve always incorporated into my professional life because I find it very impactful in helping me understand a wine’s character and quality level without being influenced by the label. So when I came to Legal in 2004 as Vice President of Beverage, I decided that I would use this technique and gather a panel of tasters (people who work for me in the Beverage department, waiters, bartenders, chefs, other Vice Presidents, whoever volunteers) to make the selections. My thought process was that these people are certainly closer to our guests on an everyday basis than I am. So I introduce the category before we taste, we usually evaluate about 8 or 10 wines in each “flight” and then tally up the score and reveal the winner. That’s the primary way we select wines for our list. Within those parameters we balance well known and more obscure wines, regions and grape varieties, we try to cover the gamut of wines that will marry well with our menu.
What do you open at home?
Everything. I have very eclectic tastes. Depends on what’s for dinner, and my wife Joanie’s an amazing cook so it’s always fun. I love bubbles, especially Champagne, especially vintage and Blanc de Blancs Champagne, love Chenin Blanc, especially from the Loire, love well aged Riesling and Chardonnay (I’m fortunate to have a cellar), love older Burgundy and Bordeaux, love Alsace and the Rhone, Piedmont. For a good summer drink: Basque country whites and Roses. Riesling, most emphatically! If it sounds like most of these selections are Old World, yes, they are.
Do you have your own cellar? Any bottles you just can’t bear to open?
Yes. First Growths of Bordeaux. They’re too momentous. They have faded price tags that are $39.99 and there never seems to be an appropriate occasion to open them now that most would cost several hundred dollars or even more to replace. I have to mellow out about that. It’s just a drink, right?
Let’s talk wine trends now – any up and coming wine regions that pique your interest?
Love Spain, especially newer regions in the south and center that never made good wine before but are killing it now, and at rock bottom prices. Same with southern Italy. Austria (especially Zweigelt!). Big fan of the cooler climate coastal regions of Chile (Leyda, Limari, San Antonio). Anderson Valley in Mendocino. Finger Lakes Riesling, New Zealand Pinot Noir, Oregon Chardonnay, Loire Cabernet Franc. There’s an endless list. And for grape varieties: Love Garnacha (Grenache), Chenin Blanc, Alsace Sylvaner, but the only reason I mention these is because they’re such underdogs. I am not one of those Chardonnay haters, but I do tend to gravitate towards those that are subtly scented and flavored, whether from the Cote de Beaune, the Russian River or the Willamette Valley.
How do you stay on trend in an ever-changing wine world?
Because when your job is your hobby is your social life is your passion is your job is your obsession, it’s easy.
Can you give our readers a recommendation for a wine under $20?
How about just around $10? Artazuri Garnacha Rose, Navarra, 2013
Any go-to wines you always like to recommend?
Hmmm…it all depends on the person’s taste, their palate preferences, the season, the occasion, what they’re eating. The great thing about this endeavor is that one size does not fit all. Having said that Sauvignon Blanc is on fire and there are few people today who can resist the charms of a good Sancerre.
Do you have a go-to wine you like to recommend when people ask?
I always ask them a few questions to help me understand their taste and then launch into my recommendations.
How important is it to pair your wine and food? Any Legal pairings that you love?
It’s important to enjoy your wine with food. There are no rules, no rights and wrongs, only guidelines and then it’s all about getting to know your own palate and which combinations you yourself truly prefer. I love a lot of the classic pairings, and when I recommend them to people I explain why, but if their palate is significantly different than mine, the pairings that thrill me won’t resonate. I absolutely adore raw briny shellfish with very bracing, sharply citric, bone dry minerally white wines, like the Domaine Vacheron Sancerre “Les Romains,” because to me it’s all about the balance that the two create in harmony with one another. With our Crabcake that’s served with a creamy tangy mustard sauce I love a rich toasty wine like the Chateau Fuisse Pouilly-Fuisse “Les Brulees” or the Patz & Hall “Dutton Ranch” Russian River Chardonnay, because the lush texture and layered richness of these wines echoes some of the wonderful buttery notes in the dish. I have a special place in my heart for our Grilled Atlantic Salmon with DeLoach “Block 1950” Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast, a wine I myself have been blending with the winery for the past five vintages specifically to complement this fish. And for a splurge there’s nothing better than a melt in your mouth Dover Sole with a Lemon Beurre Blanc and the sexy Corton Charlemagne from Louis Latour.
Katie Curley-Katzman loves learning, collecting and writing about wine. She holds a certificate in wine tasting and education from the Institut d’Oenologie in Aix-en-Provence, France and is a graduate of Salem State University with a degree in English and French. Her wine writing has appeared in the Quarterly Review of Wines Magazine. Have a wine question or suggestion? Tweet her @KatieKWBZ