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It was my pleasure to catch EJ Droessler out from behind the bar at L.May Eatery one afternoon to talk wine. To be fair, we also shared some very nice wine while we talked, but in this instance, the story was EJ’s journey to enjoying wine and wanting to share that with his customers.

Interestingly, he gives a lot of credit to his sister, and business partner, Lea. She would sit with him and pour a variety of wines for him to sample (which he claims he didn’t enjoy at first) and then share with him information about each varietal. That investment paid off and he has now developed an appreciation for all things wine.

But, let’s go back a few years and bring you up to date. Both EJ and Lea worked for Fred Bonnet at Fried Green Tomatoes where Lea was EJ’s boss. He worked the bar and it was there he developed his mixology skills. Fred was astute in his wine purchases, which also rubbed off on EJ and Lea, as they saw Fried Green Tomatoes earn a high ranking for their wine list. Fred had the wherewithal to purchase some Sanford Pinot Noir which was one of the wines featured in the movie Sideways. Once the film was a success, everyone was asking for that Pinot Noir, putting Fried Green Tomatoes on the must-visit list of local restaurants.

Both Lea and EJ also worked for Matt and Sara Kluesner at the Back Street Steak & Chop House as they wanted to gain restaurant experience, as well as earn funds for their own dreams. Those experiences laid a strong foundation for what was to come later. Lea and EJ had talked about doing something on their own, but nothing had yet materialized. Then one night, Matt and Sara asked them if they would be willing to manage Back Street. Simultaneously, without really looking at each other, they both said, no, but thank you. As they left, they looked at each other and asked, ok, now what? Well, that “what” turned out to be L.May Eatery.

Enhancing the customer’s wine experience at L.May is one of the key reasons EJ enrolled in and is studying hard to pass the Society of Wine Educators’ Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) Certification Exam. The CSW program is offered through the Napa Valley Wine Academy. EJ’s desire to take the program was two-fold. He wanted to increase his personal knowledge of wine so he might be able to gain a better appreciation of wines that he could order for pouring at L.May. He seeks to offer a greater variety of wines from different regions of the world, but he doesn’t want to leave it to a wine rep to make those decisions for him. Secondly, he wants to be able to offer his customers a better wine and culinary experience.

He suggested that a customer might ask him, or one of his staff, for a wine recommendation with a particular menu item. With the information he hopes to gain through the CSW program, either through actual tasting of the wines or learning about varying climates and terroirs where the world’s grapes are grown, he will be able to make an educated recommendation to that customer. Along with the recommendation, an explanation can be offered that will serve to educate the customer, thus raising the knowledge and appreciation of wine for all concerned. And, hopefully, the customer base for the restaurant will grow as the entire dining experience is enhanced.

EJ has already attended a four-day intensive preparation course (in Napa, no less) to expose him to information about grapes and wines that will be included on the test. Program information recommends strongly that proper test preparation is critical to passing the exam. Only 58% of first-time CSW examinees pass the test. During the four-day intensive class, he took detailed notes on the wines being tasted. He took pictures of many of them and sent them back to his wine reps and asked; “Hey, can you get me some of this?” His thought is that unless he asks and pushes a bit, he is at the mercy of the wholesalers and what they think is going to sell well. And by increasing his own knowledge, EJ can broaden the palate of L.May’s customers.

Here in the United States, we are often blind to the many wines of the world. Sure, we enjoy our California, Oregon, and Washington wines, and some may enjoy the wines from Virginia, New York, or even Iowa. Others have their favorite non-domestic wines from Australia and New Zealand, South Africa and, of course, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy. But, beyond those major wine exporting countries, most of us have a pretty narrow scope of wines of the world. However, if we had the opportunity to taste wines from Croatia, Turkey, Macedonia, Switzerland, or China (yes, it is coming), and other lesser known wine producing countries, wouldn’t that be interesting and make for a distinctive dining experience? It is that experience exactly that EJ hopes to achieve through the CSW certification. Not only to educate himself, but to share the knowledge and bring others along on the journey to new appreciation of a variety of wines.

This coming December, L.May Eatery will celebrate ten years of operation. This is a remarkable achievement as it has been documented that up to 90% of independent eating establishments close during the first year, and the remaining restaurants will have an average five-year life span. For those that do make it five years, about 90% of them will last ten or more years. I am looking forward to celebrating this anniversary with EJ, Lea, and the staff. Collectively, they have set a high bar for customer service and, by creating a more extensive wine list, will add yet another facet to the dining experience in Dubuque.

Wines I’ve recently tasted
EJ and I shared the first two wines listed during the interview.

2014 Damilano Marghe – Langhe Nebbiolo Piedmont, Italy
To me, this is what a Nebbiolo is supposed to taste like. The wine had a ruby color with cassis and dark chocolate on the nose. Flavors on the palate were anise and chocolate. I sensed dark plum on the finish. This was a pleasant and very balanced wine. 14% ABV

2016 Combe Trousseau (Bastardo grape) – Stolpman Vineyards, Ballard Canyon, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County, CA
This wine was bright pink in color and I had a burst of strawberry on the nose. The strawberry, however, was understated on the palate. It was chilled a bit too much when first poured so when it warmed and opened it was wonderful. This is indeed a summer patio glass of wine or it would be perfect as a wine to serve with a citrus salad… simple yet breathtaking! 13% ABV

2014 Evolucio Furmint – Tokaji, Hungary
This was a pleasant, dry white wine with meadow and light citrus on the nose. I found the wine to be crisp, like Sauvignon Blanc, but with a slightly denser texture on the palate. It is from 95% Furmint grapes (from 30-year-old Furmint vines growing on a mix of volcanic soils) and 5% Muscat grapes. The wine had features of fresh pear and tropical fruits on the palate. I enjoyed this with grilled Black Bass and Halibut which turned out to be a lovely pairing. I purchased this bottle at Gateway Market in Des Moines. 12.5% ABV

2012 Prokupac Dry Red Wine – Vinarija Ivanovic Winery, Aleksandrovac, Serbia
This wine is extracted in the traditional way from the Prokupac grape. It has a dark ruby color, dusty red fruit on the nose, and fresh, complex aromas of cranberry and unsweetened cherry pie on the palate. I found the finish to have a touch of cocoa and red licorice. The wine was well balanced with soft tannins. Though a red wine, I had it with white fish and it paired nicely. This wine I also purchased at Gateway Market in Des Moines. 14% ABV

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John B. Donovan

John, now retired, will continue to write about wine and craft beer. He now has more time to enjoy both beverages and plans to visit more places that grow grapes and produce wine with an occasional brewery along the way.

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