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[Booze Issue 2013]

Interview with a Sommelier

It’s just like ‘Interview with the Vampire’ except with less Brad Pitt and more parrots

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John Burke, in his element.
Photo: Bill Hughes

Who: Sommelier John Burke

Where: Prime Steakhouse at Bellagio

What we’re drinking: Puligny-Montrachet Vincent Girardin white burgundy, Laurent-Perrier cuvée rosé, Patz & Hall Dutton Ranch chardonnay, Husic cabernet sauvignon

So we’re sitting on the patio at Prime. What makes this place so special? This was once Steve Wynn’s private patio. When Bellagio was built, he put some of the oldest trees from the Dunes golf course out on this patio. The giant cypresses are probably 80 years old. We’re in the middle of what’s really the renaissance of new Las Vegas, but you’ve got the remnants of old Las Vegas. And I like to think that Frank Sinatra once shanked a ball into that tree.

You’re beginning our tasting with a Laurent-Perrier cuvée rosé champagne. Why? It’s interesting because the style is making a resurgence due in part to the club action. I love the creamy richness of a nice rosé champagne. It’s creamier and softer on the acids than a typical champagne.

What is a great bottle of wine like to you? My wife for years wanted to take me to the Grand Canyon. I was like “Honey, it’s just a hole in desert,” which just displays how ignorant I am and guys in general can be at times. She finally got me to the Grand Canyon and I got to the rim and—this is a true story—I started crying. Many people had told me about the Grand Canyon and I’d seen all kinds of pictures of it but going there and being on the rim is one of those life experiences. To me, that’s what a great bottle of wine is.

We’re drinking a Husic cabernet sauvignon, which leads to the ultimate question—red or white? Real men drink red wine. We have a saying at Prime: “If it’s white, it ain’t right!”

How do people order red wines nowadays? Everybody talks about red wines having too much alcohol, but my experience in selling them is that people talk dry—like they want to have a dry wine and they talk about terroir and earth—but they drink sweet. They want those blockbusters.

And how do you feel about decanting? Everybody thinks you should beat the heck out of a red wine. What a lot of people don’t realize is just the simple act of decanting will accelerate the aeration on a wine by 15-20 minutes; it’s like that bottle’s been open for 20 minutes.

There are sometimes issues with tartrates or sediment that you would need to decant a wine, but generally I’m anti-decanting. My reason being that it’s a living thing. The wine actually evolves and you can watch it change from flavors of pomegranate and cardamom to blueberry and coffee notes. When you decant it, it’s like you hit the fast forward button on a movie and you’re starting in the middle.

You’re a man with hundreds of funny anecdotes. Got one that’s fit to print? I had this bird that spoke 200 words—a little parrot named Shaker. I taught him “Buy low. Sell high.” I’d like to think he knew more than most stockbrokers I knew. He’d say, “John. John, I love you,” and “Here kitty, kitty.” But when he’d say “John. John, I love you” and I’d go pet him, he’d bite the hell out of my hand! So my point is, he knew the words, but he didn’t understand the meaning behind them. That’s like when people insist, “I want that decanted!” they just don’t understand. It reminds me of Shaker.

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Jim Begley

Jim Begley is an avid food lover who began writing about his Las Vegas dining adventures to defray his obscene ...

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