A few years ago, James Juedes decided he wanted to learn about wine. In 2012, after emailing every winery he could think of in Wisconsin, he showed up on the doorstep of Fisher King Winery in Mount Horeb.
“It was risky on his part, but I’m glad he wanted to take a chance on me,” said Juedes of his time at Alwyn Fitzgerald’s Wisconsin winery. “It was a great learning experience to start out, because it was just him and I.”
That “just go there” technique has been Juedes’ method for growing his wine knowledge ever since. In recent years, that meant working harvest in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Marlborough in New Zealand, as well as taking viticulture courses remotely while teaching (and drinking) in Spain.
“I got in the rhythm of emailing wineries I wanted to go work at,” Juedes said. “And I’ve done it every harvest since.
Juedes, a native of Wausau who recently turned 30, is now a cellar master and sommelier at L’Etoile, joining 25-year veteran sommelier Michael Kwas and wine director/ sommelier Stephen McGinnis.
For this week’s Salud!, The Capital Times talked with Juedes about how he encourages diners to try new things, the old versus the new ways of learning about wine, and some of his favorite bottles for early fall.
The Capital Times: How did you get into wine?
I went to school here (at the University of Wisconsin-Madison). My undergrad was in biochemistry. I worked in pharmaceutical research for about a year after that. It wasn’t for me — the people were great, but sitting alone pipetting in a lab for hours a day got a little mundane. I wanted more action.
I left that job and went back to school for econ and finance, kind of bartended around. Eventually I made my way to a winery in Mt. Horeb. I stayed there for about eight months.
Then my girlfriend was talking about going to Spain … so I packed up and went to Spain. I enrolled in a distance program at (the University of California)-Davis for viticulture enology.
I was studying winemaking while living in Spain.
What was the wine culture like there?
It was a lot of fun. It was great exposure. We were in Andalusia, Seville, a very rural, very traditional part of the country. I had the opportunity to float around Europe and see wineries, see vineyards, (try) some incredible wines. It’s just so much cheaper over there, especially in Spain.
After that I went to Oregon to work harvest in the Dundee Hills, at Alexana in the north of Willamette Valley. There’s so many wineries in such a close proximity. Their winemaking history is a fraction of that in Burgundy.
Where else have you worked?
I worked in New Zealand, at a winery called Wither Hills. I got connected there through someone in Oregon and lived with the winemaker there. She had this crazy dog named Rev, a little French bulldog. You can go from Waiheke Island in the north all the way to the south and find wineries all the way down.
It was a short vintage, two and a half months. But of course we had to stay until I spent all the money I had made … we didn’t want to leave. New Zealand is just gorgeous.
When you started at L’Etoile last summer, what was your title?
Pretty much just cellar manager, cellar rat. I’m very much an extension of Stephen (McGinnis) here, because he’s busy with Estrellón or needs to work service. We’ve created a relationship where he can trust me to do all the daily tasks here. I’m the sommelier when (Michael) Kwas is away or on weekdays.
We wish we could have a stand-alone somm position seven days a week, but it’s Madison and we just don’t have the market to sustain that. We have a somm two days a week, Friday and Saturday, but we’re always here serving anyway, so it’s a transient role.
When you put together a wine list, you want a chardonnay for my mother, Txaokolina for my friend Kate who likes the weird stuff, a cabernet, a pinot noir. What are some challenges people don’t know about the job?
We try to keep a pretty balanced group of more adventurous stuff. Right now we have a godello from Valdeorras in Galicia. Godello is not a grape a lot of people are familiar with, so it’s something we talk about tableside. Those are the kind of wines we love to incorporate in wine pairings.
We try to keep things that are accessible, that people are familiar with, as well as things that are a little off the beaten path to the average consumer.
If we’re having fun, that can rub off onto the guest’s experience as well. The first somm shift I did here, the only thing Michael said was “make sure to have fun.”
When it comes to service, how do you find out how much diners want to know?
We have guests that come in here who will know quite a bit, but it’s pretty infrequent. Overall, our guests have an above average wine knowledge because of the nature of the restaurant. But still when you go over with Txakoli from the Basque country, who’s heard of hondurrabi zuri?
I talk about, this is an indigenous grape, and it’s not well known. We’ll talk about why it goes well with the dish, why we like it.
How do you handle it when the guest asks for contradicting things, or if they send wine back when nothing is wrong?
It’s a delicate subject. You want to get them what they want.
With guests who do want to show off wine knowledge, I get it … I’m not saying I won’t learn anything from them. Many times we just talk about it. I’m not going to correct them. I don’t hide what I don’t know.
The guests who know a lot are more open to asking questions, are willing to put themselves out there. I love the tables where they’re like, “What do you think?” and I can say, let me tell you about the casavecchia from Massimo Alois in Campagna, just an earthy, rustic, wonderful, old, ancient grape variety. It’s like, try this, try something different.
The other day I came over to a table and they were talking pinot and cab. I was like, I’ve been loving northern Rhône syrah … this is a little different, leaner, there’s still the fruit there, a little peppery, gamey. And they got it from (Domaine) Clape Cornas, and they loved it.
When diners are hesitant to try something, a riesling for example that they worry will be too sweet, how do you approach that?
Americans, and even Germans I think, are so not into sweet wine and riesling got that perception of only being sweet so it’s not “serious.” Where in fact, with a lot of Mosel riesling, you need a little touch (of sweetness) to mitigate the acidity.
I’ll often say, just try it. If you don’t like it we’ll find something else. It’s about balance, and that’s true for any wine, whether it’s riesling or Napa cab, it’s about striking that balance.
More young people are getting into wine through courses like the one you took, with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). What are your thoughts about that kind of training?
I’ve seen discussion on sommelier blogs about … learning wine organically the way Michael Kwas has done it with travel, tasting and reading on your own, or kind of the “new age” way of the programs. I’m not saying there is a right or wrong, but they’re different.
I enjoyed the course I took with WSET — I still carry that book with me everywhere. (The class) was a very mixed demographic, men, women, people in the press, wine professionals from wine stores, restaurants, and people who just really enjoyed wine.
With the new age, it makes it more accessible. The amount I’ve learned from working here cemented what it glossed over and expanded it.