Hubert Keller, a native of France’s breathtaking, eastern-Alsace region, caught the attention of some of the country’s finest chefs at just sixteen. Towering, innovative culinary artisans like Paul Haeberlin, Gaston Lenôtre, Paul Bocuse and Roger Vergé recognized his promise early on, training him in their kitchens and nurturing his talent.
When chef Keller and wife Chantal moved to San Francisco in 1982 to open 500 Sutter restaurant at the behest of Roger Vergé, their love for the city was immediate! In 1986 with partner Maurice Rouas, they opened their flagship restaurant – Fleur de Lys – that quickly became recognized as one of the most exciting, fine-dining establishments in the United States.
For the past eleven years, chef Keller’s dynamic and artistically-uncompromising creations have been flawlessly accompanied by a broad, yet meticulously focused, beverage program developed and overseen by wine director, Marcus Garcia. Through their shared love of food, wine and music, Garcia and Keller have together managed to create near-perfect harmony for over a decade.
I recently sat down with Marcus Garcia to discuss his take on wine, his passion for music and his role as wine director at one of San Francisco’s most beloved dining destinations.
(This is the first of a two-part feature)
SlaveToTheGrape: Was there a clear, defining moment that led you into the wine industry?
Marcus Garcia: When my daughter was born, I was waiting tables, playing music and looking at what I wanted to get serious about. I watched a Wines of Bordeaux video that featured Christian Moueix, Jancis Robinson, Clive Coates and Michael Broadbent talking about wine as if it were life itself and it got me really excited. I had been a waiter for about five years and was really into wine and learning more about it. That video compelled me to look at wine more seriously and to go on this journey myself to learn more, ask more questions and to taste more.
STTG: Can you describe your first bona-fide, wine-related position and its significance to what you do now?
MG: I went out and got my Certified Sommelier credential in 2000 and was offered an opportuntiy to become the assistant sommelier at Prima restaurant which is in Walnut Creek (CA) and has been around since 1977. It was a wine-tasting and cheese bar when the Verlanders first opened. John Rittmaster, who is now the current owner along with Peter Chastain, who was working with Alice Waters at Café Fanny came over as chef. They gave me an opportunity to be J.D. Massler’s assistant on the floor which meant that I was both AGM (assistant general manager) and assistant sommelier. I built clientele and helped organize wine tastings and wine dinners. We typically had about forty wines by the glass with a comparative tasting flight and that allowed me to really delve into wine. It was there that I met Christian Moueix, Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson, Agustin Huneeus, Angelo Gaja among others who helped mold my interest and light the fire that got me to where I am now.
When you love people and you love food and wine and you get excited about the next big bottle you’re opening it keeps you going, keeps you motivated. It’s like gasoline in your engine!
STTG: Let’s talk about Fleur de Lys where you have been wine director for the past ten years. Can you share your philosophy as well as the essence of what you strive to express with your wine selections?
MG: I was really persistent about getting into Fleur de Lys. As great as the job opportunity was at Prima I felt like I was ready to make a change. I have a passion for music as you know and I was looking for the right opportunity – either a waiter or sommelier position in a top restaurant in the city that would allow me to pursue music as well.
I was working lunches at Paoli di Asti to keep my nighttime opportunities open. The general manager there was good friends with a San Francisco firefighter who at the time was a top waiter at Fleur de Lys. So, I had a reference that allowed me to get in the door that I had been knocking on repeatedly with no success. I was keen to be persistent because everyone else in town had given me an interview except Fleur de Lys. I interviewed and it went well.
At the time Mickey Clevenger was the manager and wine director. He had two Maitre d’s – Terry Judon and Lila Rinero worked with him. Shelley Lindgren had left to open up A16 and SPQR and do wonderful things with her husband Greg. At the time they had a really big staff of well-regarded Maitre d’s and wine professionals. Within a year Mickey Clevenger and Terry Judon decided to move on. Lila left to raise a family. Clay Reynolds and I were given the keys to the shop and they said, “okay guys, let’s see what you got!”
It was a grind during the holiday season and after a few months Clay decided that he wanted to move on so it was just me. I’ve been there ever since. I started off as a waiter/captain and after a year they asked me if I was interested in being a sommelier or Maitre d’ and with all the personnel changes I became “the guy”. A year later they formally announced that I was the General Manager/Wine Director and I just celebrated my eleventh anniversary – two of those working my way up the ranks and nine leading the charge.
STTG: How has the program evolved compared to when you first arrived at the restaurant?
MG: My philosophy is simple – I look at wine for what wine is to me which is an expression of place, something that is well-balanced and true to varietal and the winemaker’s trademark. I look at all those variables and try to find wines that make sense for our program. We’re a French restaurant and so we have a high number of French wine labels available be they from Burgundy, Bordeaux or the Rhone. We also have a large number of wines from Alsace. We of course also look at smaller, California wineries.
A couple things that have changed since I’ve taken the reins is the number of direct wines that we work with where the owner delivers the wines directly to us. There is also a greater diversity in the number of purveyors that we buy from. The number of wines by the glass and for food pairings has increased. I have also eclipsed our typical price ceiling by adding some higher-end wines to keep things exciting.
For the wine pairings, I have branched out to include South African, New Zealand, Spanish, Italian, Pacific Northwest wines. We have a global selection for wine pairings. That’s probably one of the biggest changes I’ve made.
STTG: You work alongside Hubert Keller, one of the nation’s most celebrated and innovative chefs. Can you describe your collaboration with respect to wine selections and to what degree they are impacted by chef Keller’s culinary creations?
MG: Hubert rolls out the menu and we talk about it. I look at the details of the dishes. He’s really creative when it comes to the combination of things he puts on a plate. His artistry is meticulous and he likes to have colors pop. So for instance, he might have a day boat scallop with pork belly and you’re like, “Oh, that’s phenomenal!” You could either do a big, rich white wine like a Chassagne-Montrachet or Meursault or a Russian River valley chardonnay. Or, you could match it with a lighter red like a Pinot Noir or Cru Beaujolais – something that’s both high acid and a little earthy. But then he might add a streak of harissa (Moroccan hot sauce) and you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, that’s going to kill that Burgundy. It kind of works with a California Pinot Noir but maybe not so much a Chardonnay.” You may then go to an Alsatian Pinot Gris that has the richness, weight and residual sugar to balance out the spice.
Hubert has a ton of tricks up his sleeve with a lot of colors that are accents on the plate but all of those elements are packed with a lot of assertive flavor and you have to be careful with the wine you choose. What was typically considered standard is not standard any more. You have to consider many different variables, broaden your horizons and think about it with an open mind so you can find the best wine possible for a given dish. But it makes it fun and that’s where the challenge is.
…to be continued
Slave to the grape – worse fates there have been!