Meet Three Local Wine Experts
Howie Buttrick, Wine Steward, Vincent on Camelback
Howie Buttrick’s aha moment came while studying in France in 1974. He was at a winery in Alsace when he was handed a glass of Grand Cru Tokay Pinot Gris 1964 to pair with a ripe cheese.
“I was shocked at its strength and inspired by its flavor when paired with the wine,” he says. “There were tears of joy and revelation in my eyes, and I have striven to give that same experience to guests during my professional career.”
He started his wine career in Seattle as an assistant, when a sommelier took him on because “I spoke French and seemed to understand Burgundy better than anyone else on the waitstaff.”
His desire to become a sommelier was cemented after attending a wine dinner at Le Tastevin in Seattle, where he tasted a Second Growth Bordeaux from the 1982 and 1986 vintages. When he joined the team at Vincent’s, he worked under Christie Dufault, who taught him how to listen carefully to guests before presenting his ideas to them. That piece of advice, he says, has served him well over the years.
What is your favorite wine to bring to a party?
“My favorite warm weather wine is a Grenache blanc,” he says. “In cold weather, I like a Sonoma Zinfandel or a Northern Rhône Red. If it is a dinner, I bring blends unless I know the specific pairing courses.”
Ben Sinon, General Manager and Sommelier at Geordie’s Steak and General Manager at Christopher’s and Crush Lounge
Ben Sinon has been in some facet of the restaurant business since he was 16 years old, where his first job was at a Soup Plantation in California. But it was during his tenure at Donovan’s Steakhouse where he fell in love with wine. He started learning more about wine by stocking and doing inventory on the wines that came through. When Donovan’s expanded to Phoenix in 2005, Sinon came with and slowly made his mark on the Valley’s restaurant scene. He is now the general manager and sommelier at Geordie’s Steak at the Wrigley Mansion as well as the general manager at Christopher’s and Crush Lounge at the Biltmore Fashion Park. One of Sinon’s signature events is a wine pairing dinner lecture—he has hosted more than 100 of them.
“The dinners remind me of why I got started in the industry,” he says. “My goal is to turn guests onto wines they would normally not try and have them walk away feeling like they learned something and had a good time.”
Sinon credits Paola Embry, who is the sommelier at Christopher’s and Crush Lounge as well as the CEO of the Wrigley Mansion, as one of his mentors.
“Her passion and knowledge is so contagious. I wouldn’t be where I am without her,” he says.
What’s a common mistake that people make when pairing wines with food?
“Sauce is more important than protein. The natural tendency with fish is to go with a white wine, but if you have a robust sauce, like puttanesca or reduced brown butter, you can move into red wines,” he says. “Most people pair steak with a big, bold red wine, but if you order a steak with a light sauce, you’ll want a lighter red. Sauce is the vessel that makes everything happen.”
“Wine is not meant to be intimidating, it’s meant to be enjoyed.”
“My goal is to make wine fun and accessible. We are drinking so let’s have a good time while we do it.”
Brian Downey, Sommelier, LON’s at The Hermosa Inn
Brian Downey discovered his love for wine while working at Penelope, a French restaurant in Tucson in the late 1990s. After the sommelier was let go, the owner needed someone to step up and learn wine fast. Downey was game. As the owner pushed and quizzed him on the restaurant’s wines, Downey became increasingly more passionate about the subject. He eventually moved up to Phoenix and started working at Sportsman’s Fine Wines & Spirits, where he spent the next 15 years educating customers about wine before becoming the sommelier at LON’s at The Hermosa Inn. Downey is quick to say that he’s not what customers expect when they think of a sommelier.
“Some people think of them as snooty or intimidating, but that’s not who I am,” he says. “I don’t like to upsell people; I want to gain their trust. I’m not some guy who’s going to point out the expensive wines and try to guilt you into buying it.”
Downey is currently studying for the advanced sommelier test with The Wine & Spirit Education Trust.
Who is your biggest influence?
“André Tchelistcheff from Beaulieu Vineyards. He coined the term ‘Rutherford Dust.’ He came from Russia in the 1930s as an immigrant and taught himself about the wine industry,” he says. “He was a pioneer of wine in California and has influenced a lot of winemakers.”
“If you eat great food and enjoy great wines, people would be a lot happier in this world.”