Drinker of the Month: Christian O’kuinghttons, sommelier at the Atlantis, tells us what it really takes to know everything about wine, then realize there’s still more to learn
Drinker of the Month is an ongoing series where we spotlight someone in the community who brings joy to our taste buds. Brewers, bartenders, distillers, sommeliers, restaurant owners, farmers and many others help us enjoy life just a bit more every day. This is an ode to them. If you want to nominate someone (or yourself) to be the next Drinker of the Month, visit the Contact page and send in your suggestion.
Occasionally a journalist gets lucky and an interview requires no questions because the interviewee speaks so well and knows the subject so intimately that any questions will only slow them down. Such is the case with Sommelier d’Hotel and Cellar Master Christian O’kuinghttons who has worked at the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa for 12 years. For this reason, I will pretend I made witty comments and asked great questions throughout this interview to help break up wine knowledge about to descend upon your brain.
Christian manages more than 4,000 bottles of wine, teaches the Atlantis’ bartenders about spirits, cocktail making, wine and beer among his many duties as one of few sommeliers in town (two of which work at the Atlantis). He was born in Chile, South America and later moved to Spain before immigrating to the United States, giving him a fascinating Spanish-American accent. It’s a pleasure to listen to his expansive English vocabulary punctuated by somewhat unusual grammatical word combinations. Next time you visit Bistro Napa on a quiet night (so never), find him and listen to his lyrical pros as he explains the flavors of a wine then suddenly, excitedly bursts with words like “Butter!?” (you’ll see).
* = Things I didn’t actually say.
Michael Higdon: So you really wake up every morning at 4:30?
Christian O’kuinghttons: I drink at least 1 liter of water and work out for a couple of hours and there’s at least a couple of glasses of wine that my wife leaves out for me when I return.
MH: Like hidden throughout the house?
CO: Pretty much. And I taste it. It’s about getting back to what sommeliers do, which is blind tasting. She gets rid of the label and it’s kind of a game. I try to guess the wine, the vintage, the varietal, the location and write it down. Then when I get home she’ll tell me “right varietal, wrong vintage” or “wrong vintage, wrong area.” We live right in front of the Whispering Vine and it could be cheap, could be expensive. I remember this time when she made me taste a wine that is called Butter. And she leaves the bottle and has a big smile on her face and says, “You’re going to hate me for this.”
So I try it and say, “What is this?”
“It should be easy to you.”
“You know what, it tastes like butter,” so I write that down. And she writes a note back “Right!” and I see it when I get home from work and I wake her up because I get home late at night. “What do you mean, what’s the name of the wine?”
“You said it.”
And now everyone in Reno has it except for us.
MH: Is it good?
CO: It’s a good wine but what you look for is a quality wine, whether you like it or not plays no importance on a good wine concept or program. The fact that I like a bottle of wine, it matters nothing. It matters that the wine has qualities.
MH: What are the qualities of wine other than being spreadable on toast?*
CO: Number one, does it taste like the varietal. Number two, your wine must be expressive and you better be able to have an intellectual conversation with that wine. I’m tasting cherries, I’m tasting sassafras, I’m tasting cherry wood, mulberries, this is a Pinot Noir. Number three, you must have connectedness to that plot of land that it was raised out of. I say raised because it was raised, not grown.
Christian explains why he uses “raised” to describe the way the vine was nurtured in the specific region of the world with its microclimate and mesoclimate and the vine matures with its environment rather than being grown to taste a certain way.
MH: Can you give me an example?*
CO: It’s so important because if you’re to put it this way: We all agree that if you go to Italy and you find a bunch of pizza parlors and suddenly you see a Dominoes pizza, you’re going to say “wait, this doesn’t belong here.” That’s connectedness. To be able to belong and represent that plot of land worldwide.
MH: So how can you tell where a wine comes from?*
CO: Typicity. A French wine is always typical French, a German wine is always typical German. An American wine, you can close your eyes and taste the American. There’s no way to have a mistake on that if you’re a pro.
MH: Tasting an American sounds awful. I imagine it tastes sweet, but I guess a Frenchman probably tastes like cigarettes … What other things should one look for in a quality wine?*
CO: The phenomenon of complexity is not guaranteed but it is in there in some wines. It’s a layer upon layer upon layer of nuance and textures. Let me put it this way. What is the name of that lady … Kardashian! Kim Kardashian is not complex. Right? A complex woman … Hillary Clinton is complex. Regardless of if you agree with her political view or not she is layers upon layers upon layers.
CO: That’s what I look for when I put a wine list together.
MH: You look for Hillary Clinton in your wines?*
CO: Then you have to look at your surroundings. Reno is a wine town. And moreover it is a welcoming town. America has the most welcoming palette in the whole wide world.
MH: Why is that?
CO: Mostly because it’s made of immigrants. I don’t speak like this because I like it! I’m an immigrant! What I bring to the table is that I get to pick and choose from my culture what I get to bring to the table. The idea that alcohol has played such an important factor in American history, more so than any other country in the world, in the American Revolution! We were having rum punch and meanwhile someone is telling us the crown would put more taxes on rum and we get pissed off but instead of putting the rum in the bay we dumped tea, because it’s cheaper! The Rum Revolution, the Whiskey Rebellions. The fact that people came over and taught us how to make whiskey and we created the greatest whiskey of all time and the number one selling whiskey in the world: Jack Daniels! ‘Merica…
MH: Did you just say ‘Merica? I just want to make note of that…*
CO: The fact that we have a little area in the Pacific Northwest and Central California Coast: Napa. That little area produces about 5 – 10% of all wine in this country yet it is the most well-known area around the world. The fact that you have the ability to produce tremendous quality in all 50 states to making some kind of wine. Sparkling wine is made in New Mexico. HOW!?
MH: I would like to say that wine made in Kentucky is awful.*
CO: If it wasn’t for us, the new world wouldn’t have wine. The new world was so open to expressiveness, typicity and to having a conversation with your wine that doesn’t require you to be snobby. We invented tiers. We invented cult wines. We are the only country in the world that has a cult following of Zinfandel.
Christian talked about the tiers of wine and how in love Americans are with oak. In the 1980s we went from sweet, to crisp, to oaky, to balancing all the various wine flavors in one. Instead of being lopsided, it’s a sphere of flavor on your palette in a quality wine.
CO: That’s what successful wineries are doing. The Millennials demand that. The Millennials are so open. Flavors that have never been popular are coming up again.
We talk more about balancing a profound wine and its similarities to raising a profound human being with good parenting and learning. When that person takes on the good from their parents and ignores the bad, that’s the same as a well-blended wine. The passion required to create a well-balanced wine is “off the hook” because it’s an absolute disregard for anything else in your life other than translating a wine from the grape to the bottle.
CO: I believe sommeliers are absolutely and completely wackos, including myself. Forget about study. Anyone can open a book and memorize. The idea that we walk around with our encyclopedias in our heads and we’re absolutely frustrated that we cannot remember the specific details of where a wine came from. Forget that you have to study all the liquors, cordials, spirits, cigars and cigarettes, forget that. It is the wine that actually sets us apart. That we can shut out completely from the world and taste an ounce and a half of that specific wine and be able to tell you everything there is to know just by the smell and the taste. That mental challenge, that’s it, that’s all there is. Forget about the suits and the bow ties and fine dining. And forget that you can recommend and know everything about all the wine. Forget that. It’s the fact that you can smell and taste that glass of wine and your mind starts going through thousands of images and you get to pick and choose the right one.
MH: That’s the job?
CO: That’s the pleasure of it. And then one day you become so good at it that you can teach it.
MH: How hard is that?
CO: Really, really, really, really, really, really difficult. Nothing in life that’s worth having is easy. I don’t believe that you can get to the place you are today because you decided it yesterday. No one gets good at something by reading one book or trying something one time.
MH: Except The Pretender. #90sTVreference*
CO: You get up, you crumble. You get up, do it again, you crumble. Until one day, you finally get it. You have to go back to the time you failed in order to make you the man you are today. It’s not moments of success that you remember, it’s moments of failure that allows you to get to that success.
MH: But surely you’ve never failed?*
CO: I remember my moment of failure. I get teary eyed it was so frustrating. I failed my second test for the sommelier title. I studied so hard. Fifty encyclopedias. Every year you don’t take the test, there’s a new revision so you have to read it. The technical, theoretical, the service part, fine dining. Done. Carrying a tray of sparkling wine glasses. Done. Being able to pour sparkling wine in a flute while having a constant stream without going too fast that you over pour. Done. It was the tasting, what makes us who we are, that I failed. That was it for me. After that, I dedicated myself to only tasting. Taste. Taste. Taste. Taste. Taste. Taste.
MH: Is that why you play the game in the morning?
CO: Yeah! It’s been with me since those days. I was the assistant beverage manager of the property and I’d have every bartender flag me down when they see me and make me taste something. The fine dining bartender would have a flight of glasses waiting for me. Our servers in the middle of serving our guests, without me knowing, would leave a taste on the side for me. The blind taste is extremely difficult. It helped tremendously. In the test you taste five to six wines, in my day it was five.
MH: Do you get taste fatigue?
CO: If you miss one, you’re done. First, you’re done. Fifth, you’re done. But you have to have a good interpretation of what you’re talking about. In the final assessment if you say it’s a Merlot but it’s a Merlot blend, they may let you go. It matters on your approach. If you say this is a Bordeaux, Merlot, right bank, these are my reasons, they might let you go. That’s what happened to me, I almost failed on the first one. The third one was something I had never tasted in my life. It was a Malbec. So here I am, I was tasting a Zinfandel but so green and so high acid and so less of oak yet everything was screaming Zinfandel. So I gave all these reasons it was a specific Zinfandel, a valley floor Zinfandel and why it was the year 1998. Before I gave my final answer I changed it to a European Malbec. I don’t know the year. It can’t be American Zinfandel because it lacks expressiveness. It’d be like an immigrant that just came to the country, the accent is too thick. And I got lucky.
MH: You didn’t actually tell me which one you missed…*
We talked at length about why women have the best noses and are therefore the best sommeliers, the creation and evolution of mixology and bartending in the United States, the idea of balanced cocktails and other demands of the Millennials.
MH: How did you become a sommelier?*
CO: My grandmother was a professional wine taster. She was a pro. And she taught me a few things that just sparkled my imagination. And I loved it. I would skip school just to stay home with her and get absolutely wasted.
MH: Grade school or college?
CO: In Chile and in Spain, what you would call middle school. But even before that I would get a very sweet wine. It was traditional, family gets together for dinner and children get to drink a little bit of wine. But that little bit. Wow!
I would see my grandmother tasting wine and refusing wine.
MH: At home or out?
CO: At home. “We’re going to use this one for cooking because it’s not good enough for us. We’re going to make a coq a vin.” I’d ask, “Why are you doing that I thought the wine was good?”
“But why would I have a good wine when I can have a great wine?” she’d say. “Why are you asking me that? That’s a really stupid question. Why would you like to look good when you can look great? Why would you like to run OK when you can run really fast? Why would you like to be short when you can be really tall?”
“But grandma I’m short.”
“You’re not short, you’re just vertically challenged. Why would you like to do all that just good when you can do great?”
And that whole idea made sense to me. so I started paying attention to what she was doing. She’d cook everything and pair the wines to it, always Spanish wines. Never any other kind of wine. She’d go to the store and say “I’d like to open it and try it.”
“But you’d have keep it if you open it,” they’d tell her.
“That’s fine, I’ll cook with it.” She’d spend a lot of money just looking for the right wine.”
And she always told me this If you want to learn nothing about wine, keep getting what you like. If you want to learn about wine, keep venturing out. But just spend $40 on a wine you’ve never heard of just to taste it. You’re either going to like it and learn or you going to hate it and cook with it.
MH: What if you learn to like when you finish the bottle?
CO: Yeah, that too. Haha, it happens.
MH: What’s the best wine you’ve ever had*
CO: The greatest bottle of wine I ever had, 1968 Chateau Petrus.
MH: Nothing better?
CO: No, that was really great. A profound wine.