A few months ago, I enjoyed a beautiful late-summer happy hour on the front porch of the Beach Store Café on Lummi Island, near Bellingham. I was so impressed by the wine list that I arranged to meet the cafe’s sommelier. Ryan Wildstar has been in the wine industry for decades. He worked in Beverly Hills, LA, and Seattle, moved to Paris, studied at the Sorbonne, worked for a wine importer back in LA and is now taking life at a slower pace on Lummi Island. He teaches wine classes, leads wine tours and manages the wine list at the Beach Store Café.
I’m always fascinated by people who turn their passions into their livelihood, and Ryan is no exception. His love of wine and his role in the industry was evident from the moment we sat down over a glass of bubbles (Crémant d’Alsace) and started talking about (what else?) wine.
How did you discover your love of wine?
I started in the food industry as a waiter at age 17 in Beverly Hills, and eventually became a bartender. I’ve always been a Francophile and took French all through junior high, high school and college. My interest in all things French led me to wine. As a bartender, I started tasting wine, experimenting and trying different varieties. I got the bug and have been involved in the wine industry ever since.
Where has your wine career taken you?
I moved from LA back to Seattle and was hired to revamp the wine list at Szmania’s, at the time the #2 restaurant in Seattle. From Seattle, I moved to Paris, which changed everything. I worked as a sommelier at a jazz café for five years. I attended the Sorbonne and earned a degree in French, but I became fluent in French at the café! I was also fully immersed in French wine. On my return to the US, I was the Southern California sales manager for a small wine import company in LA. We worked with small, independent family producers throughout France.
What brought you to Lummi Island and the Beach Store Café?
Working in the wine import business in LA meant I was in the car all day, dealing with traffic. Both my husband and I are originally from Washington State, and we knew there was more to life. We decided to reinvent our lives and chose Lummi Island to live, while we started a business doing European wine tours. I put a flyer up in Artisan Wine Gallery on the island and got a great response. We now do several art and wine tours every year.
I met Tess (Winds-Johnson), the Beach Store Café owner when we were out on a walk, and she asked for my help putting together the wine list. I now work one evening a week and create a new wine list several times a year.
How does this experience compare to your big-city gigs?
Part of my job is to encourage diners to try different wines. In the city, people are theoretically more open, but they can be pretentious. Here, everyone has been extremely receptive to my suggestions. I love supporting the staff and helping customers choose the best food and wine pairing.
I think people tend to be more pretentious about wine when they don’t grow up with it. Spending so much time in France, I came to realize it’s really just grape juice. I like to make it approachable, and encourage you to try something new.
What is your goal when creating the Beach Store wine list?
Tess and I decided to experiment with the wine list. We have four or five each of both white and red wines available by the glass, with nothing over $10 a glass or $30 a bottle. We don’t charge the traditional restaurant markup, because we want our customers to be able to enjoy a great wine with their meal.
My focus is providing a great quality wine at a reasonable price, educating our customers with good descriptions on the menu, and helping them make good choices.
What is the largest wine list you’ve managed?
At Szmania’s in Seattle, there were about 600 bottles in the cellar; 300 each on the regular and reserve lists. One of my favorites was for Café Stella, an authentic French bistro in LA. We had about 25 wines, very affordable. Here, we have about 14 – 16 wines available, with 8 – 10 by the glass. The focus is Old World because these wines fit the price point and quality standards we’re after. But we do feature Northwest wines, as well.
What does it take to be a successful sommelier?
Knowledge, of course. Encouraging people to expand their horizons and try new things. And choosing the right wine to go with the food they are ordering.
What is your favorite part of the wine business?
I really enjoy pairing food and wine. When you get it right, the right food with the right wine, it just does something.
What is your favorite food and wine combination?
In my class, I have a wine pairing that blows peoples’ minds! It’s Vin Jaune (yellow wine) from the Jura region of France, paired with either Gruyere or Comté cheese and almonds. It’s the best pairing ever! Sadly, Vin Jaune can be pricey. There are good alternatives from the region made with the same Savagnin grapes but without the long, 11-year process required to make Vin Jaune. Vic (Hubbard) at the downtown Food Co-op sometimes stocks these wines by Tissot, a Jura winery.
I also love whites from the Loire Valley (Chenin Blanc, Sancerre, Vouvray) with cheese. White wines go better with cheese than red. At our recent New Year’s Eve wine dinner, I paired a dry German Riesling with pancetta-wrapped scallops in a rosemary-brown butter sauce, which was great. We also did duck with a southern Languedoc blend. Food pairing is definitely a passion for me.
What wines are you enjoying most these days?
My everyday drinkers are generally in the $12 – $14 range. The best values right now are coming out of European table wines, from the Rhone Valley, Tuscany, and Spain. Spain is doing a great job, you can get really nice Riojas and Tempranillos for around $15.
How has the wine industry changed over the past decade or so?
Winemakers are “weathervanes” for climate change. They’re seeing its effects and realizing they need to return to growing the grapes best suited to their region. Indigenous grapes are coming back, as well as traditional growing methods. The trend is away from intervention and pesticides, and toward biodynamic and organic. Then there’s Lutte raisonnée, literally “reasoned fight,” the producers use chemicals only when absolutely necessary. With this hands-off approach, the winemaker is the shepherd and the vines, soil and nature do their thing.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to expand their knowledge or enjoyment of wine?
Come on one of my tours! Or take a class. Taste, taste, taste. And take notes. These days, it’s so easy to shoot a picture of a label and jot down a few notes. Remember what you liked about it. And drink what you like for a while.
If you like Pinot Noir, explore different Pinot Noirs. Take it around the world. Try one from California, Washington, Oregon, then Burgundy. Learn your own palate, then branch out. And don’t pay attention to wine descriptors. They’re subjective.
Where is your favorite place to sip wine?
Languedoc, France. I’m very passionate about that region. It’s the largest wine producing region in the WORLD. They produce more than the entire USA. The Romans and Greeks made wine there. Great food, people, wines. It all goes together. If I could retire somewhere other than Lummi, it would be Languedoc. I just love it there.
Take a Class with Ryan
The Art of Wine
A series of four classes starting this Thursday, January 21, 2016, followed by January 28, February 4 and February 11.
Join Ryan Wildstar for his class “The Art of Wine: France.” This class will feature an in-depth exploration of four phenomenal, previously unexplored wine regions in France: Alsace, Northern Rhone, Cotes du Jura, and Provence. Each class will focus on an entire region and examine the connections linking the terroir (the unique combination of soil, climate and environment) with the fine wines and seminal works of art, literature, music and film from the same region. Each session features four wines along with food matched to the wine and art. Class fee includes wine, food and presentation for all four classes. You must be 21 or older to attend this class.
Four class sessions, $120. To register or for more details, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Wine Event at Beach Store Cafe
Valentine’s Day 2016 Four-Course Wine Dinner
Four-course dinner and wine pairings by Ryan Wildstar on Sunday, February 14, 2016, at 6:00 p.m.
$85 per person, not including tax and gratuity. Please email email@example.com to reserve your seat.
Please note the Beach Store Café is closed from January 19 – February 18, 2016, for seasonal deep cleaning and rejuvenation, but will be open for these special events.
Beach Store Café, 2200 N. Nugent Road, Lummi Island, WA 98262
Take a Tour with Ryan
Summer Tours for 2016 are $1500 per person, six people maximum on each tour:
July 2nd – July 9th: 3 Days in Paris and 4 Days in Languedoc
July 23rd – July 30th: 3 Days in Paris and 4 Days in Rhone and Provence
August 13th – August 20th: 3 Days in Paris and 4 Days in Normandy
September 3rd – September 10th: 3 Days in Paris and 4 Days in Loire
Fall Tour: Join Ryan and Ryan for a tour of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. October 11 – 19, 2016. Tour capacity is six guests.
Get the details on all Wildstar Wine Tours here.