Andy Zalman walked into Higgins’ kitchen with bottle of Warre’s Quinta do Cavadinha Vintage Port 1989.
As wine-savvy as Higgins’ staff is, several peppered Zalman with questions about the single-vineyard port. Port is not your everyday wine: Vintages occur every three years.
Zalman, the wine steward at Higgins on Broadway and Southwest Jefferson Street, reeled off vintages from 1960 to 2003, like a precocious kindergartner does state capitals.
He wasn’t showing off, he was decanting.
“But it helps to have a good memory,” said Zalman, 53, whose nose and palate are as acute as his recall. Thanks to such abilities, he handles a $20,000 monthly wine budget for one of Portland’s temples of local cuisine.
As a “somme,” Zalman juggles duties besides buying and selling wine. “I bring people salads and pour coffee. I’m a waiter.”
“Sommelier” is an enviable term, but a little high-falutin’ for Portland.
Few Portland restaurants can afford full-time sommeliers that glide from table to table in dark suits and guide diners to a compatible wine for dishes as wildly different as a “whole pig plate” and a mushroom risotto.
About three times a night, however, Zalman morphs from waiter to tableside wine expert – but only when he’s asked.
A dish’s preparation is key to finding an agreeable wine. Is the salmon poached with a citrus vin blanc, or is the fish grilled on a bed of roasted red peppers? The “weight” of the dish (light or heavy) dictates wines as well. A rich, tannic cabernet and panko-breaded panfried razor clams won’t make a happy match.
Like most hip wine stewards, he avoids stodgy rules like white with fish, red with meat.
More diners are drinking wines by the course rather than by the meal. That’s why he insists on featuring 15 to 20 pours by the glass, other than dessert wines.
In pairing, Zalman focuses on more than the main course. If diners are sharing raw oysters, a sauvignon blanc proves ideal, and everyone can drink from the same bottle. For later courses, each might order a different wine by the glass. If no one can agree, Zalman’s formidable eyebrows wouldn’t knit in frustration. He’d suggest an Argyle sparkler, a supremely versatile wine.
Not that Zalman knew all this when he moved to Portland 30 years ago.
In 1977, he remembers Portland as “a mellow city” that had just clinched the NBA championship. It was not yet a wine and food mecca.
“I was planning to put together a jazz band and conquer the world,” said Zalman, who played piccolo, saxophone (and third base) growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Chances to play jazz in Portland in the late ‘70s – and get paid for it — were as slim as carpaccio. Instead of remaining an impoverished musician he became a popular bartender, pouring Irish coffees, glass after glass of Budweiser, and wine by the jug at the Veritable Quandary.
Then Zalman’s life changed in 1984.
He tasted a very good wine. He drank it by himself in his Northwest Portland Victorian apartment, an experience that he describes as “beautiful” and “profound.”
The bottle was a 1964 Chateau Cheval Blanc, a Bordeaux with a $120 pricetag in the mid-‘80s and worth $1,400 now.
“I had never tasted a wine with that depth of flavor, focus, intensity, length of finish. Monumental.”
After that, “I thought there were other things that I needed to pay attention to besides running a saloon.”
Zalman attended open tastings where he sampled indefatigably. He listened to wine geeks describe aromas and finishes, discuss why a vintage tastes “blousey” or is rank with vineyard sins like vegetable characteristics.
He was quickly hooked on the vinifera grape, calling himself a “wine slut in education.”
“The bottom line was I really liked wine. It was not a career move.”
He worked the bar and waited tables in Portland restaurants including Jake’s, L’Auberge, Cassidy’s and the Heathman, where attention to food and wine compatibility was taking root.
At the Heathman in the early ‘90s, he met Greg Higgins, a pioneering maestro of cuisine built from local, sustainable products. Higgins is a fan of wines that balance ingredients.
“It is a rarity to meet a chef who knows wine so well,” Zalman said.
Zalman and Higgins hit it off like fresh kumamoto oysters and a dry Riesling. When Higgins opened his restaurant in 1994, Zalman walked a few blocks south on Broadway to run its wine program.
Every Wednesday, from 2 to 4 p.m., he sits in Higgins’ bar at table 49, a two-top or “deuce,” and meets with wine distributors keen on selling bottles that sync with the restaurant’s imaginative, seasonable food. When it comes to buying, Zalman calls himself “fair and reasonable … anyone’ gets a chance to talk to me if their wine fits with the restaurant. If they want me to speak frankly about their wine, I will.”
One week in January, before 2 p.m., 11 distributors were lined up for a chance. Zalman kept one eye on his oversized Veuve Cliquot orange-faced watch. Regulars learn not to waste his time.
He liked Adelsheim’s Elizabeth’s Reserve 2006 that Young’s Columbia salesman Doug Fairman said “was drinking wonderfully.”
Zalman declined it. He had enough pinot noir in the cellar. His eyebrows rose over the 3-liter Alexander Valley Silver Oak cab. What a nice wine to display, Zalman mused. A fat cat might see it and lay out $525.
“That’s half the battle in the business –choosing the right stuff to sell,” said Scott Callahan, a California wine supplier from Trinchero Family Estates. “It’s 50 percent buying and 50 percent selling.”
Zalman, who likes precision as much as a well-balanced pinot, revised the percentages: 70 percent buying, 30 percent selling.
“It’s no mystery that the restaurants doing well,” said Callahan, “have the good buyers.”
As Zalman tastes and spits, he doesn’t mention that he is profitably selling his 800-bottle collection of French wines to finance his sons’ college educations.
He knows how to sniff out a good investment.