On a steamy July afternoon, Erica Landon sips a 2007 Telmo Rodriguez “Basa.”
She’ll consider the Spanish blend as a glass pour, she tells the salesman.
“It’s little New Worldly,” she adds, detecting sauvignon blanc amid verdejo and viura grapes.
After dipping her nose into her goblet and inhaling the wine’s floral notes, she spits the white into another glass.
“I have a long day. If I swallow it, I have a really long day.”
Most days, she’ll taste 10 or 12 new wines. She swirls, sips, smells and sorts wines as part of her job, filling in the blanks with new bottles, changing her by-the-glass selection whenever she has to –- or wants to.
She performs these duties with her earrings in and heels on, prepared not only to advise diners on the best wine choice for a lamb chop or salmon fillet, but also to run the floor at the busy bi-level Ten 01 (1001 N.W. Couch St).
In pearls and a black dress, Landon appears as sophisticated as her wine list at the 160-seat sleek Pearl District restaurant. But she also looks young, with shoulder-length hair and a longtime snowboarding addiction.
And young she is – especially for a sommelier shaping the wine program of one of Portland’s best new urban restaurants.
At 31, she is among Oregon’s hottest new wine pros. And at the 2-year-old Ten 01 in the hopping restaurant-saturated Pearl, Landon has put together an 800-selection 35-page wine list in which worldwide producers and nearby wine-makers are dying to be included.
“She has the best wine list in town,” said Columbia Distributing’s Paul Markgraf, who tries to grab a moment of Landon’s time when he has a new or intriguing wine.
One of Oregon’s 59 wine distributors’ salespeople, Markgraf praises Landon’s wine choices for its Northwest focus, especially on the Willamette Valley. He likes her strategy for breaking down an otherwise overwhelming selection into AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), where wines are produced from specific climatic and soil conditions.
“She’s worked hard to get each of Oregon’s AVAs distinguished,” Markgraf says.
As well as AVAs and wines from all over the globe, Landon covers a range of price points from “reasonable fun wines to those of top-notch producers,” Landon says.
Many choices are sustainably made and come from small wineries and winemakers. Others are trophy vintages from artisinal producers.
So it’s no surprise that you’ll find a 2005 Leonetti Cellars reserve Walla Walla cabernet for $350, a 1995 Chateau Margaux Premier Grand Cru bordeaux at $1,294, and a $20 New Zealand sauv blanc sharing space on Ten 01’s list.
Not to mention a large rose selection — about a dozen, both French and Northwest — and a formidable pinot noir collection from Landon’s beloved Willamette and Yamhill valleys.
“That’s my favorite grape. It’s a finicky little thing,” said Landon. “It can come in rose, red wine and bubbly.”
As can riesling, Markgrak jokes, acknowledging Landon’s friendly approach to wines, diners and wine sellers.
Landon also harbors an affection for bubblies and offers three on her robust 25-glass selection.
Her rise in the food and beverage industry began with
a southeast Portland childhood that included analyzing wines with her father. “Wine was always part of my family’s world.”
As she joined the job market, with brief stint at Mount Hood Community College, she was hired at the onetime anchor Sellwood restaurant, Gino’s. There, her interest in wine took off as she learned about vintages and terroir during weekly employee tastings.
Intrigued with the mysteries of vinifera grapes, she took a server’s job at the historic Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, bringing along a snowboard, in case there was a little extra time.
Working with wine steward David Villali and noted chef Leif Benson, she got her feet on the cellar ground and wanted more. Benson called her an “energetic server who loved to taste wine,” getting more and more interested in details as time went on.
“She has a great palette and the training that enables her to articulate the subtle nuances of the great vintages of the Pacific Northwest,” Benson says.
Her mountain experience took her to the Willamette Valley’s wine country where she paired up with chef colleague Jason Smith at the Dundee Bistro, a piece of the distinguished Ponzi family’s wine domain.
“When you’re serving viticulturists and wine people, you can’t fake your way,” she said.
That realization led her to study wine intensively and earn diplomas from the International Sommelier Guild and the Court of Master Sommeliers. This summer in Las Vegas, the International Sommelier Guild certified her to teach fundamental wine courses.
Amid classes and work, she was recruited for the International Pinot Noir Celebration board after coordinating wines for the 22-year high-profile celebration in Oregon wine country.
At one IPNC event she had an ah-ha moment, the kind of experience that shapes a person’s palate like a definitive solo or melody does a musician’s style.
Hanging out at the salmon bake table with oenophiles who pass around out-of-the ordinary wines, she was offered a taste of a 1988 Jean-Louis Chave hermitage produced in France’s northern Rhone Valley.
“I happened to get an ounce,” she said, recalling the moment that Archery Summit’s former winemaker Gary Andrus filled her glass. “It took my breath away. There was a lot going on in that glass.”
Landon tries to do the same when she helps diners choose wines for their glasses.
Though she knows an untested bottle can translate into a new experience for enthusiastic drinkers, she is careful to consider her customers’ tastes, not just hers.
“I have to listen to my guests. If they prefer a big California cab, I don’t want to force an Italian chianti on them.”
Then again, if a table of foodies is trying to nail down a bottle to complement such diverse entrees as scallops, lamb and steak, “no wine is going to go with all of that. So I’ll suggest meeting in the middle with a pinot noir, or finding something they all like.”
It’s her job to interpret customers’ tastes and pair them up with food, taking a wine’s style into account — not mention knowing grapes (and their many names and synonyms), wine regions and vintages. “You have to be good at details,” she acknowledges.
She has been so successful with her pairings that she leads the pack of Dueling Sommeliers, a good-natured but serious competition among Portland wine experts. Each matches food with wine and serves it to a discriminating public, who decides which pairing is the most palate-pleasing. For two years, the several-dinners-per-year event has been conducted at the Heathman Hotel, where sommelier Jeff Groh came up with idea.
Her successful pairing record and breezy nature give her courage when she senses an adventurous diner or wine-lover.
“I can stick my neck out with some bottle they’ve never tried. If they don’t like it, I yank it. It doesn’t behoove anyone to not have a positive experience with wine.”