Kim Wood knows his wine. It’s why he confidently approaches tables at the venerable Jean-Georges Steakhouse in the ARIA Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, ready to offer bold pairings and new experiences, the first of which is, for most, a young, black man telling them all he can about the richness, intricacy and decadence of the wine and cuisine they’re about to experience.
While encompassing a working knowledge of the restaurant’s 700 wine offerings from all over the world, Wood carts an easy-going, professional air, whose explanations match Old World sensibilities with a modern, intellectual (but always accessible) touch. The Johns Hopkins educated native Texan knows what he wants out of his career, knows what you should be drinking at Thanksgiving dinner — and knows his restaurant. He shares it all here.
BlackEnterprise.com: When I met you I was surprised that there was a brother in such a high profile position, and I only kind of knew what a sommelier is: just an expert on wine. You’re that and more. What’s the common misperception about what you do and, well, what do you actually do?
Kim Wood: Historically, going way back sommeliers would travel around for the king to find out where the best places to eat and drink were. Now a sommelier is kind of like the bridge for service. Their focus is on wine and beverage generally, but a lot of times they’re more tableside than, like, a maitre’d. But more broadly focused on the restaurant service than a server. Most of the great sommeliers I know right now — and there’s a lot of them — their whole idea is to make sure that everyone is having the best time at the restaurant, whether they are drinking wine, beer, spirits or nothing at all. Just to make sure they’re enjoying themselves and everything what the restaurant has to offer.
It sounds like simple work, and I’m sure it’s not — I guess my question is what makes what you do enjoyable and fulfulling?
It’s really kind of optimizing people’s experiences and changing their perceptions. From when you’re born, you’re eating and drinking. And you think, ‘This is what I think is good, this is what I think is interesting, this is what I like or don’t like.’ The coolest part is something that’s part of your everyday regime, is to try to change it up or show someone something different they maybe hadn’t experienced before. It’s interesting that you can always have new experiences with food and drink, something that’s so personal to us and so necessary to life. That’s what’s the most fun.
Do you find because of your age — or other factors — that people try to challenge your knowledge?
Sometimes. I think that’s fine. It happens. Because everybody has a different level of expertise, and it’s really hard to find out if someone’s trying to figure out if I know what they know, or if they’re trying to learn something from me. During the course of a meal, you really don’t have a lot of time to qualify the person that’s giving you recommendations. So yeah, people do challenge me, but I study and I learn to the point where I’m never going to back away from the challenge.