Through the Grapevine: A Sommelier Q&A

If wine is an art, sommeliers are the critics, collectors and aficionados all rolled into one. 

With years of research and intense testing, completing the certification is no easy task. Sommeliers have a wealth of knowledge and insight into the wine world, and they want to share it with as many people as possible, whether you’re an enthusiast already or have only had $3 bottles so far. 

That’s why we sat down with a local sommelier, Tristan Walczewski, one of only a few in West Michigan to reach the level three designation. He’s also the general manager of Bistro Bella Vita and beverage director for Essence Restaurant Group, which also handles the recently reopened Grove. In other words: He knows his libations.

We asked Walczewski some of our biggest wine questions, and talked about our fair state’s very own wine industry.

You love many beverages, but what makes wine special?

For me, it’s another form of art. It’s somebody telling a story, and melding together history and agriculture. There’s so much versatility within a glass of wine and the story that it’s telling. And sometimes it’s up to us whether or not we want to listen. Meaning, do you want to just tune out and need a nice cold glass of wine — a 90 degrees, summer day and I just want a glass of rose. That tells a story too, and but then there’s the magic moment of a special occasion and a special bottle you saved up, or being able to try something new.

Wine is a living thing. You can try the same bottle from the same producer over and over and over again, and the experience will be different. I just find wine to be enthralling and fascinating. It’s such a historic beverage that lends itself to so many situations.

As a sommelier for restaurants, how do you decide what ends up on the list?

What’s fortunate is, there’s some conceptual parameters to steer me in the right direction. Bistro is geared toward modern French and Italian, so I really use that as a major lens and focus for selecting wines. 

I firmly believe that any restaurant in the world, the best way to determine an exceptional wine list is, what’s at $75 or lower? That really separates who’s writing that program. Anyone with a huge budget can go and buy whatever wine you want, put it on the list, but when you’re given $25 wholesale to pick, it gets really competitive, and really indicative of whoever’s picking the wines out.

What’s your advice for shopping wine for home?

Trust your wine professional. There are really great wine shops in the area. Grand Vin, Leon & Son, Martha’s Vineyard, all really fantastic places and everyone that works there is a knowledgeable professional, fun, approachable guide. 

My favorite game in the world is to say, I’ve got 20 bucks and here’s what I’m having for dinner. There are a lot of regions of the world that excel making wines at that price point. Cote du Rhone, I think is fantastic. Spain and Portugal, their still and dry wines are exceptional for $20 or less. There’s fantastic wines to get from Columbia Valley and table wines in Italy. What’s fun about a cheap wine from a large region is that it’s going to taste exactly what you’d expect it to taste like.

How do you feel about West Michigan Wine?

I think that the best winemaker that we currently have in southwest Michigan is Jim Lester, the winemaker for Wyncroft Wines. He makes several different single vineyard Pinot Noirs. He makes a Bordeaux Rouge and a Bordeaux Blanc. I’ve known him for several years and I think that he is doing all the right things. 

If you jump up north in the Traverse City area, I think we’re finally seeing the necessary shifts. We can’t just be making fruit wines and spice wines if we’re going to be taken seriously. So there are some really great wineries and I think, ask yourself, what kind of climate do we have and where else in the world that makes great wine does that climate exist? 

The grapes that we grow in northern Michigan are often German, Riesling. And then Austrian, Blaufränkisch. And Alsatian grapes too, pinot blanc, pinot gris. Those are the wines that Michigan’s doing really well. I think if we firmly plant our flag in that camp and try to pursue that handful of grapes, in five or 10 years we’d be no longer an emerging wine region, we’ll be a premier region.

Bistro Bella Vita Wine Club

Curated by Walczewski, Bistro Bella Vita has a wine club for those interested in exploring their horizons. Here’s what he had to say about it:

Currently, we have two tiers ($50 and $100). It’s a great opportunity for us to introduce new wines, classic wines. I still try to lean heavy on the French and Italian side, but it gives me the freedom to introduce wines you’ve never tried before. 

This past month we featured island wines of the old world. Had a really fun producer from Corsica, really awesome wine from Santorini, so probably things that you would never as an entry level consumer go seeking out right away. We submit little placards with each of the wines. So those have information on the winery, the region tasting notes, food pairings. 

I really think that that three wines for $100 introduces you to a level of wine that is unmatched. In my opinion, they would be all wines that you would see on a restaurant list at a $75 price point. It’s a part of Essence still, where we can connect with our guests outside of the four walls of our restaurant.