Saturday, March 23, 2013

Shaken Not Spilled

As published in Ventana Monthly, February 2013

Sommelier Michael Denney uncorks a new use for the humble rubber band.
By Lisa Snider

Photography by Mariana Schulze
I’d watched him with an intense curiosity over the years as he sauntered in and out of the arched barrel door with trays of wine. A couple of years ago, I finally got up the nerve to ask if he ever allows guests into the cellar. With a smile, he proudly escorted me into a room roughly the size of a shoebox, where some 5,000 bottles are stacked floor to ceiling (many are, in fact, strapped to the ceiling) using a network of colorful rubber bands. It’s an impression that stays with me to this day.
Sommelier Michael Denney started pouring wine at the Ranch House in 1980, after pulling the late shift as a bartender for a few years at the Ojai Valley Inn. “I wouldn’t get off work until two in the morning,” he recalled.
A friend heard his laments and encouraged him to take a wine steward job at the historic restaurant, a destination for wine connoisseurs since 1953. But Denny was mainly drawn by the lure of work hours that got him home before midnight.
Without any specialized training, he acquired his wine knowledge on the job. “In those days, we’d have up to five wine stewards on the floor,” he explained, “and every Saturday night, we’d pull out six or seven wines and bag them up.” The stewards were expected to spend 15 or 20 minutes alone with the wines making their own personal notes. They couldn’t see the labels until they were done. “When you compare things side by side like that, you learn really quickly.”
Now, he says, they do it a little differently: “We taste every night instead of once a week. We play a game. What would you be willing to pay for this wine? What am I tasting? What does it remind me of?”
Wine, he says, mirrors scores of other flavors, and so he encourages his staff to seek out those comparisons. “A banana tastes like a banana. You’ll never get a little apple or a little blackberry out of a banana. And you’ll never get banana out of a blackberry. They taste like what they are. But wine imitates thousands of flavors, and that’s what’s so fascinating about it,” he said.
Denney feels that so much of enjoying wine is noticing its subtleties, which is something he not only shares with his staff, but his customers, too. “If you’re paying attention, it’s really fascinating.”
With arguably the best wine list in the Tri-Counties, featuring 700 selections on 53 pages, Denney has, over his 32 years at the Ranch House, successfully evolved his award-winning list to suit new trends as well as the recent economic downturn. “When I started buying the wines, we only had 250 on the list,” he explained. “At one time, we had as many as 900. With the recession, I scaled it down to 700, which is still a big list.”
As a result, Denney has become more discerning about what goes on that list, no longer buying a trusted purveyor’s entire line, but instead looking for the exceptional gems. “Sometimes I taste something that’s so good, it deserves to be on the list. And there are those wines out there that remind you how good wine can be. That’s what I’m looking for.”
He’s also keenly aware of how different the customers’ preferences are today. “People used to be more interested in vertical selections of Bordeauxs,” he said, “but those have priced themselves out of the market we have here in Ojai. This isn’t Las Vegas or Paris. People [today] don’t seem to require drinking older wines, as they might have at one time, because palates now are geared toward California and younger wines.”
Denney’s list seems daunting, perhaps intimidating, but he’ll be quick to tell you it offers something for everyone’s taste and budget, with prices starting at just 25 dollars. “We like to keep our wine mark-up low,” he said. “We want to see people enjoy the wine, and we want them to come back.”
It’s a handful of bottles hovering above the thousand-dollar mark that raises eyebrows, and although those bottles don’t sell very often, customers expect to see them on the list. And once in a while, one of those rare bottles gets dusted off and uncorked. “A year ago last summer a guy came in and bought several,” Denney recalled. “He drank one here and took some with him.”
Among the cellar’s high-end vintages are a 1953 Chateau Cheval Blanc for $1,950 and a 1986 Chateau Petrus Bordeaux for $2,200. Once in a blue moon, customers will let Denney sample their wine. He stills remembers one of his first nights on the floor; the diners offered him a taste of a 1966 Chateau d’Yquem, long considered the finest dessert wine in France. “It’s a transcendent experience, just because it just goes on and on and on on your palate, and the flavors are myriad and magnificent.”
Every bottle Denney delivers to the table comes with a story and his verbal tasting notes. At age 65, he says though his memory may fail him with other details, it’s reliably accurate when it comes to wine. “Wine, at this point, is probably the one thing I can still remember. I remember what things taste like.”

And he remembers the stories that came with the wine. Like the time he accidentally sprayed Pol Roger Champagne all over Herb Alpert and his wife. Or the time Alan Hooker, the restaurant’s original owner, fell into the creek. And he can tell you anything you want to know about every bottle on his list.

“I think the stories behind the wine are interesting,” said Denney. “Things that interest you are easy to remember. It’s worthwhile, and that’s how you make it more enjoyable for the customer, by telling them the story. They get into it more; they pay more attention.”

He also remembers the 1994 Northridge earthquake. “I went to my kids’ bedrooms and saw that they were OK, and the next thing I thought about was the wine room.”

Though only one bottle was lost, it spurred him to go to work on the web of rubber bands now crisscrossing the bins. “It was the cheapest, easiest thing to do,” he explained. “It works.”

For Denney, it’s the stories, memories, and wines all coming together that give him pause to share his epiphany:

“It’s a relationship. And [it becomes] a three-way relationship: the people, the server, and the wine itself. That’s the fun part of this job—getting someone excited about something I’m excited about.” 
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The Ranch House
102 Besant Rd., Ojai