Like many of his peers, Clint Sloan got a job waiting tables after becoming a student at the College of Charleston. He worked first at Portside Cafe, then at Sticky Fingers, finally graduating into the world of fine dining at McCrady's in 1999.
The Northeast native -- born in New York City and raised in Westport, Conn. -- assumed white-tablecloth restaurants were pretentious, not his thing. But he says he was amazed by the food coming out of the kitchen.
He began as a server assistant. When he became a full-fledged server, he had to learn about wines.
"I couldn't put the book down. ... For the first time in my life, I really enjoyed studying."
Today, Sloan is an advanced sommelier. It's the third level of four stages to earn the prestigious title of Master Sommelier. Only 112 people have that status in North America. The 34-year-old plans to take the exam sometime next year.
"This is the kind of thing you can't really stop," he says.
Food & Wine recently named Sloan as one of its "Top Sommeliers 2011." The magazine recognized Sloan for his innovative wine list at the new Husk restaurant, which is owned by the same group as McCrady's. Sloan grouped the wines according to their terroir, or growing conditions, and soil type, such as limestone, slate, gravel, clay and volcanic.
Teresa Taylor is the food editor. Reach her at 937-4886.
Q: What is the role of a sommelier in finding a good wine fit for a customer?
A: If you want to try something new, my question is, what have you had and liked? It's like the hot dog. Is it ketchup or mustard? Because the American palate is built around sugar and ketchup is sweet. The European palate is raised on spices and mustard. Another question I'll ask is, do you like fruit or do you like spice? Do you like ripe or herbal stuff?
I think the biggest fear when you're asking a sommelier a question is that you're instantly going to be recommended a $100 bottle or over and you're going to be embarrassed. It's embarrassing to me to embarrass a guest. I don't think there's anything wrong with going to a sommelier and saying, "I would like to be in this range. Normally, I like to spend $50 for a bottle of wine, what do you recommend?"
Q: What are you trying to accomplish with a wine list based on soil type, like at Husk restaurant?
A: When I see a wine list that just says Chardonnay, that doesn't tell me the profile of the wine. I think by the soil type it tells a little bit more about what you're going to get out of the wine. If it's limestone, it's probably going to be a cooler climate, it's going to add a higher level of acidity to the wine because it's decomposed seashells or sea animals. If you have a clay, uber-ripe Chardonnay, that's going to tell me a little bit more fertile soil, so the grapes are going to be probably a little bit more plump, more sugar, more alcohol, less acidity. So for me it paints a picture of what you're going to be experiencing with the wine.
Q: What are your favorite wine regions in the world?
A: If I was allowed to only drink white wines from a region and red wines from a region, it would be German Riesling and Rhone reds. That pains me, because I'm leaving Burgundy out, because Burgundy is pretty close in there.
German Riesling is hands-down the best expression of terroir out of any region in the world. The grape is like a blank canvas when it comes to expression of terroir.
With Rhone, it's all the different varietals that are allowed. In the Chateauneuf-du-Pape, up to 13 different grape varietals are allowed in the red blend, so there's a lot of variation, spices, overall flavor.
Q: What do you need to keep in mind when trying to pair wine with food?
A: There's not a blueprint. But No. 1, higher alcohol wines are going to overpower certain dishes. I'm not saying you can't have a 17 percent Zinfandel and enjoy it with a steak, but for me, alcohol is body.
Oak should be used for accenting, not dominating flavors. When I pair wine with food, I look at it as an extension of the dish. You have to be careful about overpowering that dish.
The second thing is, get out of the idea that all red wine must go with red meat, and all white wine must go with fish. That's totally false. We have triggerfish on the menu that has a smoked chicken jus. That's the most powerful flavor on the dish. That's like Pinot Noir. You have to look at each individual dish or what you're cooking, and what is the predominant flavor of that dish.
In general when pairing wine with food I tend to try to echo the flavors of the dish with wine in an attempt to heighten and isolate the key components of the dish.
Q: Are there any great values in wine for under $10?
A: There are wines that surprise me. It's hard (to answer the question). When I taste wine, when people bring me wine, it's not always those wines.
I saw Broadbent Vinho Verde for $10.99, I thought that was a steal. That would be great with shellfish or oysters, ceviche.
Chile is doing a great job with their wine and how affordable they are. Austria ... South Africa has some pretty good things going on. Rhone wines are very affordable.
Q: Can you judge a wine by its label?
A: Alcohol is definitely going to relate to body. The higher the alcohol, the higher the body. Talking about Riesling, if you're below 11 percent alcohol, you know it's going to start getting fruity and then getting into sweet the lower it goes.
Q: People need to educate themselves to get a better understanding of wine and what they like. What's the best way?
A: Start in France, and start with the main regions. Areas of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Loire Valley, Alsace. Start from there and you can learn.
Don't start learning about wine by finding out the most eclectic wine. You've got to know the basics first. It's like in order to drive a Ferrari, you've got to be able to go through driver's ed first. France has the best history.