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Posted at 10:55 AM ET, 11/16/2007

The Source for Great Wine

By Erin

Fantastic food, an airy, open space and A-list people watching opportunities are a few reasons to stop into the new Source restaurant, but one of my favorite aspects of the restaurant is its sommelier, Esther Milstead, who goes by Malia. Milstead is bubbly, fun and an oenological Einstein. She can talk vintages, varietals and labels with the best of them, but loves to espouse on the stories and history of wine. From the Vikings in America to the origins of minding your Ps and Qs, Milstead can relate it to wine's rich history. She also harbors plenty of wine theories. For example, she surmises that due to geography and growing conditions, Jesus likely drank syrah or shiraz at the Last Supper. I sat down with her to talk about pairings, wine collecting and what to pour for a bunch of NASCAR execs.

What do you think about when pairing for people? I think of it as a psychological game. I try to guess what they want and then judge by their reaction. I hate to use mosh pit terminology, but some people want slam, big wines. Others want elegance that opens over time. Wine is a nice indicator of how a person is. I once had a big group of NASCAR executives come in. Right away, I knew that they wanted big, extracted California wine. Wine is like a woman. There are some who prefer the fruit-forward extracted wines, like a big, voluptuous Pamela Anderson. Sophie Marceau would be the opposite: elegant, French wine that relaxes and needs time to open up to you.

Wine with a smile at the Source(Courtesy of Milstead)

Where would you point a first-time diner on the menu? That's a tough one. Everything's good. I love the duck [Lacquered Chinese Duckling]. The hamachi [Wild Japanese Hamachi & Tuna Sashimi] reminds me of Hawaii. The lobster [Pan-Roasted Maine Lobster] is so rich and textured.

Has it been hard pairing wine to the food? Not at all. One reason that I came here is because the kitchen uses extremely pure ingredients. The organic/sustainable movement is important to me.

The ingredients may be pure, but the flavors are complex. Yes, it's a complex flavor profile, but there is organization in chaos. These beautiful, pure elements become spectacular under chef [Scott] Drewno.

What are the best wines for this food? I really like the acid-driven wines. Gruner Veltliner, which is the next Reisling, is great for the food. Torrontes, which comes from South America, is another good one.

You arrived on the day of the restaurant's opening, so there was already a list in place. Are you redoing it? [Partner, Regional Operations] Tim Wilson, [Vice President, Restaurant Development and Operations and brother to Wolfgang] Claus Puck and [ Partner, Regional Operations] Alex Resnik put together a strong collective palate list. I'm putting the seasoning on it. I'm bringing a California influence to it with smaller wineries and labels like F.X. Pichler. It's like being an alchemist.

What is your favorite wine to unwind with at the end of the day? It's hard to pick a favorite wine, but I like Italian. Probably Amarone della Valpolicella. I was drinking a 1985 Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella in Spoleto with my best friend when I realized that wine was what I wanted to do.

So, once you had that epiphany, where did you go? I've had a wild ride. After studying wine in London, I worked at Tavern on the Green and then went to Windows on the World, where I worked until 9/11. After that, I lost my passion and had trouble finding meaning in what I was doing. I ended up in Burgundy for the 2003 harvest, which was like the wine equivalent of going to Mecca. I worked the harvest at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which was like working with demigods. After that, I opened L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon and Joel Robuchon at The Mansion, which was very exciting. I was the only female sommelier to work with a master French chef. Most recently, I was at Gary Danko's in San Francisco.

Wow, you've been all over the place. I've also lived in Japan and Rome, but Hawaii is my heart.

You seem to really love what you do. It sounds cheesy, but I like to make people forget their duties and cares. It's my responsibility. I love engaging, love people-watching. I may not love everyone, but I'm fascinated by everyone.

Where would you point a person who wants to start a collection? You have to start at the center of the universe: France. I love Burgundy. There are 669 different AOCs, each which expresses differently. Many are hand-harvested.

Is there a treasure in your collection? Actually, yes. A 1947 Cheval Blanc, which was given to me as a tip at Joel Robuchon.

And where should people who are interested in wine travel? Burgundy, obviously, but also Italy's Piemonte for Nebbiola. South America and Austria are also good places to visit for wine.

Where do you next want to visit? Alsace. Those are such extreme growing conditions that people have to belay to harvest grapes. I have to see that.

Where are your favorite hangouts around D.C.? Honestly, I haven't been out yet.

What do you think of the D.C. scene? It's interesting. Washingtonians love to have their cocktails. The bar is immediately busy, but the dining room doesn't fill up until later.

Are you glad to be here? Yes. It's such a strange dichotomy. I've gone from movie stars and rock stars to politicians and heads of state. It's like going from fantasyland to things that affect our lives.


By Erin  | November 16, 2007; 10:55 AM ET
Categories:  Restaurants  
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