In Conversation with Garrett Smith
Beverage Director, Sushi Nakazawa
#3 in Wine & Sake
Talking about wine can leave you with a bad taste in your mouth—every comment on subtle notes, undertones, and tannins seems to be overreaching, pretentious, self-aggrandizing—which interferes with the pleasure of drinking it.
Wine and sake are mysterious to most of us. We know there are beauties to behold, but we aren’t sure how to discover them. We blindly pick through extensive wine or sake lists or, when asked, mimic the tone and vocabulary and hope that covers our bluff.
Garrett Smith, the beverage director at Sushi Nakazawa, is sympathetic to those of us staring blankly at the list of reds and whites: “I remember what it was like to know a little bit—even nothing—about wine or sake. Heck, my first couple of years in this industry, I did the whole fake-it-till-you-make-it routine.”
If a half decade in Connecticut's finest restaurants left him proud of his wine knowledge, the move to Napa Valley for a “vinternship” at The French Laundry would quickly vaporize that feeling, tilting the learning curve sky-high. Later, he moved on to another Napa restaurant, Redd, where he managed the wine program. And after that, Smith worked with Raj Vaidya, the head sommelier at Daniel, before settling into his current role.
Moving from wine to sake was, for Smith, like starting from scratch. “My head really hurt for the first few months of learning sake and Japanese words for everything, but I feel pretty strong in my understanding of it now.”
It might be a headache, but there’s no getting around it—learning is an integral part of Smith’s job as beverage director: “I realized how much it helped me to learn, since it helped the guests even more,” he said.
Smith’s philosophy is refreshingly down to earth, neither stuffy nor pretentious, but instead dedicated to each guest’s unique taste.
“To me, this should be fun; I mean, why else did you come out tonight?” he mused. “Not that I'm going to be a suited-up stand-up comedian throughout the night, but I've seen a lot of customers come in intimidated, even scared. Part of my job is to disarm them, to make this fun, make it feel like they're in a space as comfortable as their house.”
Making wine and sake approachable, especially in a formal setting, can be daunting. “With each item on the list, I really do want there to be a story behind it, something I can relate to the customers, humanizing it,” he explained. “I want each guest to have something picked for them, something that fits them perfectly.”
Guests can often stand in their own way by insisting on choosing their own bottle (out of some kind of pride), or by simply being unwilling to articulate what they like.
”I try to have a conversation with every guest, but sometimes they feel like they must hold back.” Smith explained. “I'd much rather introduce you to a really cool bottle in a price range you think is reasonable, or a couple glasses of something uniquely chosen for you, than authoritatively tell you what is best.”
Smith’s reluctance to crown himself as an authority pervades his every approach to wine and sake. When deciding what to purchase, he asks himself: “Do I like it? Does it have what it takes to complement, even elevate Chef Nakazawa's cuisine? Is it unique but not too obscure or esoteric?”
Most important to Smith, though, is staying true to the restaurant: “I always think of Nakazawa-san and how, without him, none of this would be possible. His subtle touches of flair with flavor, spice, texture, and temperature have brought his cuisine into the realm of the spectacular, and I must always be careful to not take the focus too far from that.”
Which isn’t to say that Smith can’t push the envelope. “Red wine and fish is a scary notion to many,” he pointed out, “but there is just naturally more flavor in reds, and it brings a whole different complexion to the fish with those flavors and textures as well.”
“Just the other night I spun a 2006 Chateauneuf-du-Pape that tasted like a rusty nail on its own, on top of the very first piece of the omakase, a Chum Salmon with citrus and sea salt. Could have been scary, but it just made both the fish and the wine taste sweet.”
“Sometimes you're lucky,” Smith said. “And it's better to be lucky than good.”
Was it luck that landed Smith and Sushi Nakazawa at number three in the city for wine and sake? Probably not—Smith’s approach practically guarantees satisfaction. He’s dedicated to making guests comfortable in unfamiliar territory and to making the experience personal.
And if you’re one of those who are uncertain in the world of wine and sake, Smith has some advice for you.
“Talk to me!”