Sommelier Spotlight: Jeff Groh, The Heathman Restaurant and Bar, Portland, Oregon

Sommelier Journal, February 2009

For the past five years, sommelier Jeff Groh has spent one Sunday every summer sporting sunglasses, shorts, and a tuxedo top while filling flutes with sparkling wine for a cluster of Pinot Noir devotees.

It’s Risky Business meets Sideways. It’s also an annual tradition at the legendary International Pinot Noir Celebration, held every July in McMinnville, Ore.

The sparkling brunch follows a late-night salmon bake that is renowned for the cases of old wines brought by Burgundy lovers from across the globe. “Some of my greatest wine-tasting experiences ever have been in the Burgundy mosh pit,” says Groh. “The greatest wine I ever tasted was a 1949 Musigny, but I never found out who the producer was. I guess it doesn’t matter: I knew I’d never taste it again, and I just wanted to be alone with my glass, taking in the moment and thinking about the years of history that went into that glass.”

The Pinot Celebration is only one of many vinous encounters that stimulated Groh’s affection for wine and the Pacific Northwest. After graduating from Ohio State University in 2000 with a degree in literature, he ventured west, landing in the coastal town of Newport, Ore. Following a fascination for fermentation, he started working at the locally owned Rogue Brewery. This led to a stint as the food and beverage director for the Inn at Otter Crest, with commutes to Portland to study with the International Sommelier Guild.

Groh ended up relocating to Portland in 2004, joining The Benson Hotel as director of restaurants. This property was already known for its robust California and Bordeaux portfolios, but Groh focused on building up its Pinot Noir holdings. Now, as sommelier and manager for The Heathman Restaurant and Bar in Portland, he oversees one of the Northwest’s largest selections of Pinot Noir, with extensive listings from both Oregon and Burgundy.

“At the Heathman, we’re really Pinot-centric,” Groh says. “Many of the guests are traveling and eager to try local wines; one in every three bottles sold is an Oregon Pinot Noir.” His focus is on creating vintage depth, buying on the secondary market, and building backward so that his customers can taste well past 2004 and 2005.

But with more than 6,500 bottles and 800 different selections on the list, it’s certainly not all about Pinot Noir and Burgundy. “I try to create a program so that any kind of experience the guest wants to have, they can,” says Groh, “and then try to lead them in places they may not have realized they wanted to go. Sometimes what makes a great sale is when people tell you to pick the wine and you are able to give them something they wouldn’t normally try.” A few nights earlier, a couple had requested a red wine, something fruity and low in tannins. “We sold them a cru Beaujolais,” Groh reports, “and they loved it. They are very pretty wines, light with a little strawberry aromatics. Who wouldn’t love that wine?

“We’re also huge in dessert wines right now,” he adds; “I’ve got about 45 different dessert wines by the glass.” A featured flight of Madeira that includes a 1954 Barbeito Malvasia Reserva Velha intrigues patrons. The total for the flight is $19.50; a 1-ounce pour of the 1954 alone is $15. “There are places where we make our money,” says Groh. “Then there are places where we give it back for people who want to have a unique experience. It’s not so much about making money on that one-time shot—it’s about making a longtime guest.”

It’s all part of his overall approach to service. “My philosophy of service,” Groh says, “is when in doubt, to err on the side of formality, but to be as down-to-earth and approachable as possible. My third philosophy is to not say no to any request which is humanly possible.

When I was at the Benson, I had a couple having dinner that were craving Époisse. I knew the Heathman had some, so I jumped in my car, called the host on the way, and got a to-go order to bring back for the couple. This may be an extreme example,” he admits, “but if there is a part of the meal that you can make memorable and create a connection with that guest, you have a great chance of getting them to come back.”

Guests also return for Groh’s Dueling Sommelier Dinner Series, an idea that had been brewing since his days at the Benson. “There’s this long-standing reputation of sommeliers as elitist kind of people who stare down their nose, judging you by the wine that you choose,” says Groh. “I don’t have a French accent to pull that off. I could try to affect one, but my chef would call me out. I want to take what we do, pairing food and wine, and excite others about this.”

Guest chefs and the Heathman’s executive chef, Philippe Boulot, prepare five four-course dinners for the series, which was launched in 2007. The evening of each dinner, guests try four mystery wines chosen by sommeliers to match each course, and they vote for their favorite pairings. Scores are accumulated, and the two top-scoring sommeliers meet in the Grand Finale dinner, battling wine and wit.

“At each dinner, the sommeliers sit on a panel, up front with microphones, and the guests can ask questions about the pairings,” Groh reports. Sometimes the sommelier selections are similar; other times, completely divergent. “We’ve had a sparkling wine, a white wine, a red wine, and a rosé all in the same flight for the same dish,” he notes. It’s fun for the sommeliers, too, “because we are there to give each other a little bit of hell.”

The idea is to taste the wine with food, thinking about what works, what doesn’t, and why. “It provides an instant conversational piece for guests,” says Groh. “Before you know it, there’s engaging conversation, and the room is loud. That’s when you know an event is working. If you can provide a food-and-wine experience that’s just a kick-ass good time, well, that to me is really important. You can take people who have a modest interest in wine, and you can get them really excited about food-and-wine pairings, and for a sommelier, nothing can be more important than that.”

The sold-out series inspired Groh in 2008 to branch out with a Dueling Sommelier Series pitting Seattle sommeliers against their colleagues from Portland. “If the James Beard House wants to do a dueling-sommelier dinner,” he adds, “sign me up.” Don’t be surprised if it happens.

The Heathman Restaurant and Bar
1001 SW Broadway
Portland, OR 97205
(503) 790-7752