For the last six years, John Clift has worked as beverage director and sommelier at Atria Restaurant in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, where he manages a wine list that includes up to 300 selections. He’s also the wine buyer for Great Harbor Gourmet & Spirits in Edgartown. Clift earned a sommelier certificate from the International Wine Academy of Roma eight years ago and studied wines from around the world as well as wine production. Each October, when Atria closes for the season, Clift spends four months traveling to wine-producing regions around the world to fuel his passion and seek out unique wines from small producers. He has an abundance of knowledge to share and inspires diners who ask him for wine advice.
How did you develop an interest in wine?
After I graduated from college in Charleston, South Carolina, I worked in restaurants. I had no experience with wine and never really drank wine. I was working in a French restaurant and the first glass of wine I had at work was a Champalou Vouvray from the Loire Valley in France. It was different than anything I’d ever had and I just loved it. I loved the way people could sit down and drink wine and talk about food, politics, and life. Within six months of working in the restaurant, I was writing the wine list.
Tell us how you persuade a diner to try a wine.
We have a lot of return customers who trust me and know that I’ve tasted all the wines and stand behind any wine from $30 to $300. For customers I don’t know, I find out what they like and try to feel them out financially. I don’t want to offer someone a $150 wine when they want to spend $50.
Give us a few tips on how to pick a wine if you’re presented with an encyclopedia-sized wine list.
People should ask to talk to the wine director, sommelier, or someone else who is informed. The person involved with the list takes a lot of pride and is passionate about it. It’s amazing how you’ll get steered to a wine you would have never tasted because a sommelier or wine director explained something about the wine, their relationship with the wine maker, when they first tasted it, or why they put it on the list. Even if you want a $30 wine, it’s okay to ask for the sommelier’s advice.
Do you think the perception about sommeliers being arrogant has changed?
I hope so. It’s something I’ve always strived to change because there’s a stigma and snootiness about sommeliers in the industry. It’s really important to make yourself accessible to a person dining in the restaurant. There are a lot of younger people who are now passionate about wine and who may be intimidated by a list of 200 wines. I want people to ask for me to come over to the table, and I want to make them feel comfortable talking to me.
Tell us about a few new wine trends.
Italian wines have come back—especially wines from Southern Italy, like Sicily and Sardinia. They’re well priced, mostly $10 to $15 a bottle. We’ve see more and more wines from Eastern Europe, like Bulgaria and Moldova. They have really old vines and they make big, deep cabernets and syrahs that you can buy for $10 a bottle. There are also Napa cabernet producers who have a lot of wines in reserve. They are placing other labels on the bottles—so not to compromise their brand—and selling these for less. One is Provenance Vineyards. They have a ton of 2007 fruit and are selling their cabernet as Uppercut for half the price. These are wines to look for.