Thomas Combescot was named Best Young Sommelier in his hometown of Burgundy before stepping onto the floor of Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. After the restaurant closed in early 2007, Ducasse asked the 29-year-old to cultivate a selection of Northern Hemisphere wines at his new place Adour. We asked Combescot about customer tastes, Adour’s robo-sommeliers, and how he tolerates wine faux pas. Word to the wise: Don’t turn pour Coke into one of his $2,000 to $10,000 Domaine de la Romanée-Contis. —Alexandra Vallis
Do famous chefs know exactly what they want when they come in for dinner?
We’ve had Morimoto, Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert. They come to support the chef the same way he would if they opened a restaurant. They’re actually pretty open to our suggestions.
Do you adapt your approach for different customers?
If they’re not regulars I try to gauge whether they’re American or European. If they want to spend a lot. If they’re there for a special occasion.
How do American and European tastes differ?
Actually, they don’t really. In the past, probably more. But both are looking for balance, food-friendly wines. Although Americans do tend to order French wines since they are dining in a French restaurant while the French will ask for something from California.
Do diners try to impress their guests with wine knowledge?
Yes, of course. Especially when there’s testosterone and wine on the table.
Are they ever wrong about what they’re saying?
Ha, not our guests; they’re always correct.
Do you ever have requests from diners that frustrate you as a wine lover? Like ice in white wine?
How I feel doesn’t matter. The point is for people to be happy. That’s what I want. The ice in white wine doesn’t bother me. My mother likes her white wine very cold — like close to the freezing point. If she comes to my house, am I going to say no? I just get two bottles of the same wine, one for her, one for me.
So nothing bothers you?
In New York people are pretty good about educating themselves about wine. In another country [Paris], there’s only one thing that happened. Someone poured Coca-Cola in a very expensive bottle of Burgundy. The guest wasn’t even American.
How do you discourage poor pairings?
We take a European approach to pairing. It’s about enjoying the food and wine together. For two guests who order the seasonal tasting we usually suggest a demi decanter of white, a demi decanter of red, and a dessert wine. Pairing a different wine with each course used to be popular. At the end your palate may have an explosion of tastes, but it can be overwhelming. This way you can get the story of the wine. It changes the longer it’s opened.
Has anyone ever ordered an expensive bottle of wine that you’re not sure they want?
That is really sensitive. It mostly happens with older vintage Burgundies, which have flavors of mushroom and not much fruit. All I can do is explain very precisely the characteristics of the wine. If they still order it and don’t like it, we want them to be happy, so we change the bottle. The chef will enjoy that older wine later.
What’s with the computer on the bar?
The company Potion in New York owns the technology. We’re the first bar-restaurant environment to install it. It projects tasting notes, origin, producers, onto the bar. It features our 600-wine list, which we update seasonally from our 1,800-wine cellar book. Guests can ask to see that too. But we wanted to have less attitude and not hand people a 75-page wine list.
Whose tasting notes are in the computer?
Do you think technology could replace human sommeliers in the future?
The computer can’t do pairings. It can’t talk to you about your dishes. There still needs to be interaction with the sommelier. I don’t think at the end of the day that guests want to talk to a computer. And it’s good because you can store wine lists, less paper.