There are bright sommeliers, and then there's Andrey Tolmachyov. Already a level-two certified sommelier at age 26, he heads one of the city's most impressive wine programs—at Curtis Stone's Maude—and helped steer the restaurant's recent transformation from a monthly, ingredient-focused tasting menu to a quarterly jaunt through the food and drink of the world's wine regions. With prior roles at Osteria Mozza and New York’s lauded Eleven Madison Park under his belt, Tolmachyov is a wunderkind of the wine world. We caught up with the somm for tips on up-and-coming wines, and his own coming up.
What inspired you to get into wine at such a young age?
In the Culinary Institute of America, when you’re there for a culinary arts degree, you take mandatory wine classes. Doing those, I still wasn’t technically old enough to drink, but coming from Kazakhstan and Eastern Europe, I’m not going to say I was unfamiliar with alcohol. In one of the last classes you go to a restaurant and learn to pair wine with food, and that was eye-opening.
Then I went to my bachelor's program, which is more of a general education, but that’s when wine got more interesting: I studied the history, and when you study the history of wine, you study religion and why grapes grew in certain places, and how they came to be there, and you learn about languages and geography and you never stop learning. Then you attach this physical thing that you can try, and make a connection to everything you just learned; it’s not just raw knowledge.
You’re leading the beverage switch from Maude’s item-driven menu format to a quarterly and region-specific menu. How has that changed how you search for wine?
It changed quite a bit, and in a positive way. Now I have a lot more time to plan my pairings, and the kitchen has more time to prep the courses. I found Maude’s [monthly menus] crazy when I wasn’t working there, and then when working there, it [was] just constant, constant, constant: While you’re working out the kinks of one, you’re already tasting for the next menu. A lot of wines you would think, “Oh, this is a perfect pairing,” but the wine is in New York and it’s going to take three weeks to ship—and then you want to rest the wine after such a big trip, because wine can get stressed, so you’d really just need to go by what’s available here in L.A., immediately.
What can you tell us about your R&D trips and how you get to know a given region?
We pick the region, then we start planning. On the wine side, I put together a list of wineries I want to visit—things I’m personally excited about, the new kids on the block, what’s trendy, who’s doing their own thing and driving change—and also the benchmark producers: the people who really shaped the region and define the area and have been doing it for decades.
And then we all look at the region and ask, “What do people eat here? What do people grow here? What is this region about?” With [our current menu], California’s Central Coast, we know it’s not really the bread basket—it’s really more like the vegetable garden of the United States. We know there’s amazing produce, so we wanted to visit the farms and see what they do, and also explore other ingredients, like all of the amazing seafood that’s coming out of the area: Santa Barbara spot prawns and sea urchin and abalone and oysters. But I do the more wine-oriented things, where I tour the vineyards and really get my hands and feet dirty in the soil to really understand the geography and everything about the wine region we selected.
How do you approach menus like Burgundy, France, where people have such preconceived notions about the wine there?
This is my philosophy: I am balanced. I tend to add more exciting or unusual varietals based off of what I’m personally excited about or what is trending in a region. But because of where my palate was trained—in really traditional settings—I love wines that are as traditional as it gets, that have been [made] for a very long time, the tastes and the smells of those wines that are synonymous with a region.
You can never forget that or disregard those wines. For Burgundy, it was my goal to make sure I show an example of the wine that speaks to people’s expectations—like pinot noir—but at the same time, I wanted to be sure to include wines that are fun and exciting and [those] you wouldn’t think of being from Burgundy, because the winemakers kind of ruffle the feathers of traditionalists.
Your current menu, California’s Central Coast, runs through the end of September. Who are a few quasi-local vintners or labels we should be aware of?
Scar of the Sea: Mikey Giugni and Michael Brughelli are finding their groove; every vintage I try I get more excited about them. And I love wines that are low-interference, wines that kind of speak to the region and the terroir; Lo-Fi Wines are really exciting, really delicious natural wines that go with everything and are affordable.
Catch a glimpse of Maude's next menu, Piedmont, Italy, with these dishes:
Braised-veal ravioli with shaved truffle
Vitello tonnato, a dish of veal with tuna and capers