If you are a server at Meritage in St Paul, then you should anticipate being prepared for a written exam every six months. Academia in the service industry? Not entirely. This exam tests employees on their knowledge of wine. If they don’t pass, they’re not on the floor.
Questions range from knowing the main grape varietal for the wines of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume to the Rioja region of Spain. The restaurant provided a Wine School for employees in order to give them the education needed to answer them. Then the program evolved. Customers can take it, too. The next round begins July 24. It meets every Wednesday for eight weeks.
There’s room for growth, too. Wine School for graduates delves deeper into French varietals. “It’s a deeper take on Bordeaux and Burgundy. They are the most complex in France, so they really give us something to talk about,” says Nicolas Giraud (above left), a transplant from France and the Wine Director at Meritage. He adds that they could easily host one class on Burgundy alone. “It’s a beast.”
Giraud, along with other staff members like Peter Eckholdt (above right), teach Wine School to eager enthusiasts. “It’s in a beautiful conference room with a huge dry erase board, and we can draw maps and make it interesting and interactive. When Peter and I host it, we laugh and joke around together,” says Giraud. “Yeah, there’s a pretty good dichotomy going on,” says Eckholdt.
Giraud and Eckholdt discussed their bond over wine, as well as their travels together, over a bottle of 2007 Russian River Valley Gary Farrell Chardonnay (from Giraud’s personal collection) and steak tartare at Vincent.
“It’s a funny story, how I found Gary Farrell. When I travel to the wine country, a lot of the wineries have a guest house where the trade people can stay. It’s very convenient. You really get to stay in the vineyard. You can run naked through the vines in the middle of the night if you want — not that we’ve done it,” says Giraud. “Not yet,” adds Eckholdt. Since meeting years ago, the two have learned, traveled, and toasted together over a shared fondness for wine. “Wine is about geography. There’s science involved. How climate affects the grapes. So wine becomes a bigger thing than just a beverage you like. Then there are the people involved, and their stories. Pairing food with wine,” says Eckholdt.
So where did the two of you meet?
GIRAUD: I was the Chef de Cuisine at a restaurant in the south of France. Vincent got my resume, and we met in New York. He invited me to come, and I secured a visa.
ECKHOLDT: I was somewhat submersed in wine from working at Vincent and going to tastings. At some point, before I had traveled to any winery, I had a point where I tasted some wine (not knowing what it was) and guessed what I was drinking. So I told myself that I knew a little more about wine than I thought I did. And then I met Nico.
GIRAUD: That was February 2006. Within two days of being here I met Peter.
ECKHOLDT: The first trip we took together was down Hennepin Avenue to Surdyk’s to show Nico where he could get cheese.
GIRAUD: That was my third day in the country.
Tell us about your wine travels together.
GIRAUD: I think France was our first trip. It was 2009. I can’t believe it took that long. Three years since we met.
ECKHOLDT: Yeah. I don’t think we had been to Duluth, yet. Occasionally we’ll go up there just to get out of town and drink a bunch of wine.
GIRAUD: The last time we went up there, we brought 40 bottles of wine for a three day trip with eight people. We took three home.
ECKHOLDT: Some of the best meals I’ve had have been up there at the New Scenic Cafe.
GIRAUD: So, we had this amazing trip in 2009. We started in Paris, went to Burgundy, Provence, and then to Barcelona. There were five of us. We are going to do that trip again in 2019.
ECKHOLDT: Then we went to Oregon and Washington in 2010. Then California in 2012.
GIRAUD: “One time in California we got to stay at this beautiful chateau on a vineyard.”
ECKHOLDT: We were on a mountain looking down on the town of St. Helena. Once we got to the guest house, we couldn’t believe where we were staying. What is so significant about the Napa Valley is the cold air that comes in from the bay at night. We could see it visually. As night settles in, you could see the fog over the valley. All the city lights went away and it almost looks like a lake. There’s just murky white air covering it. But by noon the next day it goes away, and you see the valley again.
GIRAUD: Honestly, you could cut off my pinky if you told me I could stay there anytime I wanted.
ECKHOLDT: I don’t know if I would go quite that far, but I would consider it.
GIRAUD: Or a toe for sure.
Where will your next trip take you?
GIRAUD: This year I will take my wife on vacation to the Pacific Northwest. Hopefully in August I’ll take some customers on a trip to Oregon. Of course we’ll have a home for the guests. But if that means I have to build a tent in the backyard, I’m fine with that. It’s no problem.
ECKHOLDT: If budget was no issue, the next trip I’d like to take is a tour of Alsace [France], Germany, Austria, northern Italy.
GIRAUD: I’d also go to Croatia. Their climate is perfect for grapes. You don’t see a lot of them, yet. But one of the top producers there is owned by a family from Minnesota.
What advice do you have for someone trying to learn about wine?
GIRAUD: Taste. There’s no other way. Wine is linked to your memory. Like for me, I’ll try something and it will remind me of a time in a restaurant three years ago.
ECKHOLDT: Well you’re a little extreme.
GIRAUD: I am.
ECKHOLDT: Nico’s right. Just drink wine. Drink responsibly, of course. Pay attention to what you’re drinking. Know if you’re drinking wine from Napa Valley, or a Cotes du Rhone. That will help your memory catalog. Your mind will take mental notes even if you don’t realize you’re doing it. The “World Atlas of Wine” is a good reference book. Also, to actually visit wineries makes wine more accessible. We’ve always told people to go to Willamette Valley in Oregon. It’s a little cheaper than California. The vineyards are a closer drive from the airport, and there are less people.
GIRAUD: Customers who come to Meritage ask for education. It’s easy to sell wine to someone who is open minded. I can pick out a bottle and tell them why I chose that wine. I can tell them about where it came from. For example, we have wine from Israel and Lebanon. When I get people to try it, they love it. But otherwise they would have never tried it. But now, they’ll order it again.