Elizabeth (sistinas) wrote,

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old friend makes good :)

Amused to see a long article in today's WASHINGTON POST on my old buddy Andy who used to work at Zenith Comics in Olney - Judy & I used to go in there pretty much every Saturday afternoon & hang out & I certainly miss Andy's discounts where he'd make up whatever price he felt like charging (Andy I still really appreciate that $25 signed HR Giger print!!!) or even better, toss out the folks that annoyed him.

Andy is now a top sommelier at one of the fanciest restaurants in town :)

click here for article & video

Full-Bodied With Unexpected Hints of Metal
Andy Myers is a sommelier who knows as much about Iron Maiden as he does about merlot.

By Christina Ianzito
Sunday, July 20, 2008; W16

ANDY MYERS APPROACHES A TABLE OF FOUR on a busy Saturday night at CityZen, the four-star restaurant in Washington's stylish Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

"How may I be of service with your wine list?" the 36-year-old sommelier asks the two couples, who look to be about his age.

"We have a cheese course next," one of the men says, "and want a wine to go with it. Maybe something a little bit jammy."

This is an easy one for Myers. "The Primitivo is a great way to go," he says, pointing out a $12-by-the-glass Quota 29 Primitivo. "It's one of the parent grapes of zinfandel, with blueberries and blackberries -- like zin but with lower alcohol."

The man nods at Myers, who is a picture of professionalism in a classy navy pinstripe suit, glasses, a salt-and-pepper goatee. He's got a black cloth draped smoothly across his forearm. You'd have to look closely to notice the silver skull cufflinks -- an anniversary gift from his wife, Erin -- and the edges of the tattoos on his wrists. His body art extends from his knees to his elbows, depicting, among other things, a demon head, Captain America and, on his butt, a blowing wind. Myers is probably the only sommelier in Washington with such an ink spread, not to mention a lifelong passion for heavy-metal music. Under his suit, he's wearing a black T-shirt printed with the name of a band called Goat Whore, which he describes as an "extremely heavy death-metal band" with a penchant for satanic lyrics. "I love them," he says.

As unlikely as it may seem, Myers also boasts an encyclopedic knowledge about and utter reverence for wine. He oversees the vast wine list at CityZen, where the six-course tasting menu runs $110 per person. He acquired the restaurant's most expensive bottle of wine last month: a 2005 Domaine Romanee-Conti. Myers acknowledges such a wine should probably age 20 more years "if I had my druthers." But, he adds, "It's of incredible scarcity. People will get this just to have the experience of drinking it." The $6,400 bottle of wine sold within a week. The next most expensive wine, when it's available, is a $2,600 1994 Chateau Petrus that Myers says sells out fast because "it's freakishly good."

Myers is one of just a handful of wine experts in the Washington area who are even close to becoming certified as master sommeliers -- a rarified status bestowed by the London-based Court of Master Sommeliers after years of study and a series of grueling exams. He's living proof that someone who adores a band called Pig Destroyer and whose favorite adjective is "awesome" can reliably detect notes of sage and black pepper in a pinot noir.

TEN YEARS AGO, ANDY MYERS HAD TASTED, BY HIS COUNT, MAYBE 12 WINES IN HIS LIFE. He was raised in Olney by parents who had wine on the table -- always German Riesling -- only on Christmas and Thanksgiving. "My folks are from West Virginia, the first generation to go to college," Myers explains. "My mom was a great cook, but fancy for us was, like, Hawaiian chicken." He adds that his father "always drank nice beers: Lowenbrau, Genesee Cream Ale. As a kid, I would get the beer for him, and I was allowed to have the first sip. He still credits himself for making me a sommelier."

Doug Wandell, Myers's best friend since the age of 7, describes their youth as "utterly mundane." In reaction to their suburban ennui, they embraced hard rock around fifth grade, when Def Leppard's "Pyromania" was released. "That was the record that totally changed my life," Myers says. "It was our best chance for rebellion ever." Wandell calls the album "a gateway drug."

They listened to Ozzy Osbourne, AC/DC and Myers's most-beloved, Iron Maiden. He was 12 when he was allowed to see the band at Merriweather Post Pavilion with his older sister, Amy. It was his first show and "still one of the best concerts I've ever seen," he says. "It was just a perfect night."

He relates this story at Brasserie Beck, one of his favorite restaurants, while sipping Belgian beers. At this point, he's interrupted by the bartender.

"Excuse me, what show are you talking about, sir?"

"Iron Maiden," says Myers.

"I saw them in '91," says the bartender.

"That would be 'Fear of the Dark'? Cool!"

They grin at each other.

"Metal makes friends," Myers explains later.

Myers went to Georgetown Prep in Bethesda for most of high school, where he was one of the few kids into metal and punk rock. He wore Doc Martens and had a pierced ear he had to cover with a Band-Aid. Since hair wasn't allowed to grow past the collar, he kept it long in front, he says, "like Duckie from 'Pretty in Pink.'_" He adds, happily, "It's great to have rules, so you can break them."

Myers's parents bought him a drum set for his 15th birthday, just as Wandell got his first guitar, and the two took over the Myers basement with their equipment and version of decor: concert posters and barbed wire. He looks back at himself as "this disaffected pissed-off little suburban kid," disdainful of the conventional and picked on by the jocks "because we liked Motley Crue and drew pentagrams on our notebooks."

Back then, he says, "It was me and Doug against the world. Then we would see all these shows, and it was explosions and light and huge hair, and it was the complete opposite of [everything in our lives], and here we had this special music that was just ours, and I never let go."

He didn't discover his second passion -- wine -- until he was 25. It was 1997, and he was ready for some kind of epiphany.

As he tells it, he'd grown tired of dead-end jobs waiting tables, managing a comic book shop in Olney and working as a bouncer at the 9:30 club. He had no college degree and was also going nowhere musically, playing drums with My Life in Rain, a punk-rock band started by a friend from Georgetown Prep. They put out a few records that Myers says "nobody bought," and they toured, enduring one- or two-week adventures that he describes as "playing in basements and crappy bars, playing to 12 people who wish you'd shut up." They slept in their van or on friends' floors, sometimes getting paid in beer.

He spotted a help-wanted posting for servers at the top-rated Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., about 70 miles west of the District. He stayed overnight for an interview and a tryout, and got the job even though, in his mind, "it was so out of my league."

Then, about three months in, he took a sip of a 1993 Albert Morot Beaune 1er Cru Cent-Vignes. It blew his mind, he says, as he was struck by "something poignant and significant that was happening in this glass." The next day, he asked the inn's sommelier if he could apprentice in the cellar. He started showing up three hours early, unpaid, to help receive wine deliveries, and stock and clean the cellar. The more he learned about wine, the harder he fell. He often talks about wine as though the grapes are alive in the bottle, with mood and personality.

"To some degree, they almost talk to me," he explains. "I'll taste a wine sometimes and bring it to the guest and say, 'Oh, the wine's in a good mood today; it's showing really nicely.' And I mean that. They are living, breathing things to me."

Eventually, he gained enough knowledge at the inn to do wine service for the restaurant's high-rolling guests. He accumulated more expertise during a five-year stint at Restaurant Nora in Northwest Washington. But he didn't acquire the formal title of sommelier until he was hired by CityZen almost two years ago. Myers calls it "the coolest gig I've ever had in my life."

IT'S A TYPICAL SATURDAY AFTERNOON BEFORE THE EVENING RUSH, and, as usual, Myers has walked the 45 minutes from his house to CityZen because, he says, driving scares him. "I don't trust other people."

He and Erin live on Vermont Avenue NW, north of Logan Circle, in a small house that's essentially a first-floor living room topped by a purple-painted bedroom. One wall of the living room is stacked with crates of a few thousand records and CDs, organized alphabetically within their genres -- rock, jazz, country, hip-hop, classical.

"I think the records would be where we'd go to fisticuffs should our marriage ever split up," jokes Erin, 34, whose MySpace page lists her interests as "Andy, records, and Andy." She works in human resources for an interactive media company in Columbia Heights and also DJs under the name lil'e, presiding over a monthly '80s-alternative dance night at Black Cat. Myers says that when he met her through a friend nearly 20 years ago, "she was wearing knee-high blue Doc Martens, giant spiky black hair and a torn-up Sex Pistols shirt. She was the cutest girl I had ever seen in my life."

Myers's office is a windowless little box, arrived at by winding through the hotel's banquet kitchens, down a locker-lined hall. A desk and computer are surrounded by boxes of wines perched on shelves and in piles on the floor. Behind his chair are a series of suits, shirts and ties hung on a metal rack. (He usually walks to work in casual clothes and changes as soon as he gets there.) Next to the suits is a black Slayer poster, a gift from the restaurant's assistant sommelier, Carlton McCoy.

Today Myers e-mails one of the two weekly quizzes he devises for a group of sommeliers and "wine geeks" around town. This one's questions are about champagne, and include, "What is a coquard, how many kilograms does it hold, and how many liters of juice can be removed from said kilograms?" (Answer: It's a traditional wood champagne press that holds 4,000 kilograms, producing 2,550 liters of juice. Obviously.)

Next, he calls a woman who's coming in with a party of eight. She wants to arrange the wines beforehand, to complement a dinner of soft-shell crab tempura, steamed sablefish with artichoke tea, and herbed roasted spring lamb, followed by a cheese course. She tells him she'd like bottles for the table instead of pairings with each course, and she says the group wants "something a little obviously different but, um, with fruit but dry."

One more thing, she adds, "No more than 50" dollars a bottle.

"I got you covered," Myers says, with a laugh.

The customer settles on a 2005 Sella & Mosca Cannonau from Sardinia and a 2005 Rayon Cave du Vin Blanc from Italy with a juicy flavor that Myers says is evocative of cherry Pixy Stix. Both are $40, a price that prompts her to say appreciatively, "You're my kind of guy, Andy."

Plenty of CityZen's customers make a point of consulting Myers every time they come into the restaurant.

"We love him," says Suzette Lietz, 38. She and her husband, David, 41, both lawyers from Northwest Washington, dine at CityZen every three or four months and are nuts about wine. One night, they finished off a $725 bottle of 1989 Chateau Angelus, which Myers had suggested by describing its taste as having hints of bologna and papadum.

"I love that he said that!" grins Suzette, who doesn't encounter many sommeliers who compare wine to lunch meat.

David nods, adding that, to a wine aficionado, an expert such as Myers "is like a rock star."

There are lots of expensive bottles on CityZen's ever-evolving 550-wine list, but Myers prides himself on keeping 20 percent of the list under $100. He maintains that he doesn't push the pricier bottles, though he earns a 4 percent commission on all wine sales, which helps boost his annual pay to about $75,000 a year. Sometimes, he says, it's the customers who seek out high-cost bottles. Recently, Myers had a man tell him: "I lost a bet to my friend here. I have to buy the wine, and it has to hurt; you decide." The table of four ended up with a '98 Chateau Rayas for $600.

After working for so many years in high-end restaurants, Myers isn't fazed by the rich or the famous. He's served, among others, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Matt Damon, Robert Redford and Robert De_Niro. He says he's only been flustered once, when he was doing a wine pairing for Kiss guitarist Paul Stanley. Mid-meal, Myers found himself blurting, "Dude, 'Destroyer' was the first album I ever bought. You are so cool," he recalls. "I stopped, straightened my tie and said, 'I'm sorry; I just had to do that.'_"

"That's okay," he says Stanley replied. "It was a pretty great album."

Myers's family and friends deny that he has acquired any snobbishness as a result of his job. When someone claims to be baffled by wine lists, Myers says cheerfully, "Don't worry. What's the point of me, if everyone knew about wine?"

Nonetheless, he says he did find it "sort of terrifying" when a guest professed a fondness for Turning Leaf, an inexpensive, California-produced wine that would never make the list at CityZen. And don't even get him started on the folks who call him a "somalia."

He'll show respect even to the "somalia" types, but wants it in return. "I'm here to serve, but I'm not a servant," he says, revealing a prickly side. "That's where I get real bitchy."

Oh, and yes, he does sometimes get buzzed on the job. He needs to taste every bottle he opens to make sure the wine isn't corked or tainted in any way, and it's often 40 bottles a night. But he seems to handle this occupational hazard with poise.

The restaurant's utilitarian-looking cellar holds a few thousand bottles in a 60-degree outer room and the 42-degree champagne room. Myers points to different shelves, stocked with row upon row of bottles that he's lovingly organized. "These are white burgundies, red burgundies . . . mmm, red burgundies," he adds, like Homer Simpson dreaming of doughnuts.

At 5 p.m., he needs to go upstairs for the daily staff meeting. He closes the door to his office, first turning off the MP3 player on his desk that's currently set to "Orange and Black Attack" by a band called Rumpelstiltskin Grinder.

ON A RAINY THURSDAY NIGHT, Myers ducks into his office to change out of his suit and into a pair of baggy camouflage shorts and a black zippered hoodie. His boss has given him permission to leave work early to catch a performance by the Sword, an Austin-based metal band Myers praises as "super old school."

He and David Lestock, CityZen's 25-year-old maitre d', take a cab over to the Rock and Roll Hotel in Northeast Washington, where they are joined by Erin and Andy's old friend Doug Wandell. The club is packed with a crowd of mostly male headbangers in their 20s and 30s.

Myers spots another friend -- Norm Veenstra, founder of Tone, an instrumental rock ensemble Myers and Wandell have played with for years. The band practices every Monday night, and has done shows at the Black Cat and 9:30 club. But it doesn't perform much anymore, as life has gotten in the way: Many of the seven guys have kids and day jobs, and Myers is at CityZen nearly every night. (Myers says that for him to get a weekend night off is "unheard of," but his manager did let him off to see Van Halen on a Friday night last fall "with the entire staff's backing. It's Van Halen!")

The opening act, Torche, has finished up, and the singer from the Sword starts in at a floor-shaking decibel level, with the band members swinging their long hair as they rock. Myers, whose customers might not recognize him at this moment, nods his head to the music like the rest of the guys in the crowd, keeping his eardrums intact thanks to a pricey pair of custom earplugs. "The foam ones cut out frequency," he explains, "but mine just lower volume, so I can hear everything correctly."

Occasionally, Myers makes a heavy-metal devil-horns gesture with his hand, revealing a swirl of tattooed color covering his upper arm. He got his first tattoo, a small yin-yang symbol, at age 18, though now it's been absorbed into an elaborate garden sprouting on the left side of his chest, with apples, radishes, turnips and carrots, accented by a foot-long praying mantis and a little tree frog. The right side has a new piece centered on a bottle of wine on a bistro table in the French countryside. Because he's tried to mark the multiple definitive moments in his life with tattoos, there are many others, on his arms, thighs and ankles. It's expensive. He figures the artistry has probably cost him about $10,000 in nearly 20 years. And, yes, everyone wonders what he'll do if he comes to regret them.

"I'll be old and bitter," he always responds. He sort of likes that pain is involved, that he's "earned his ink."

Tonight, Erin is wearing a tiny nose stud, jeans and a black tank top that exposes fully tattooed arms. She's got clusters of grapes and a glamorous Medusa on the left arm, and an ampersand on her left wrist (she calls her husband "And"), while the right arm has stars with faces and paper airplanes. Erin often comes to metal shows with Andy and says it's no longer just to be a good sport. Over the years, she has come to appreciate the musical talent of some of these groups.

Myers is in a different league, fanwise. He looks ecstatic when the band shifts into Led Zeppelin's "Bring It on Home" in the middle of another song. "Awesome!" he shouts.

The day after the show, he sends an e-mail in which he's clearly still pumped from the night before. He mentions one of the songs from the Sword's repertoire, called "How Heavy This Axe." Of that, he writes, "How can you not love a genre that would allow (nay, encourage) a song title that hilarious/serious/ridiculous?"

AT 10 A.M. ON A MONDAY, several members of Washington's wine elite are at John Wabeck's cluttered little apartment on 16th Street NW. Wabeck, 40, the chef at New Heights in Northwest Washington, is in shorts and plaid slippers. He is hosting Kathryn Morgan, 39, a former sommelier at 2941 in Falls Church, who now sells wine wholesale for an import company; Chantal Tseng, 29, the Tabard Inn's cocktail guru; and Myers.

Not surprisingly, there's a bit of drink-focused banter around the small kitchen table. Myers tells the group about a new cocktail discovery, a mix of Chartreuse, tonic and lime -- "you've got to trust me on this" -- and Wabeck adds that he's found a great English vintage gin (he's a major gin freak). Then he says, "Okay, it's 10:15," and the mood suddenly turns serious.

They'll now begin a blind wine tasting, which is designed to help Wabeck, Myers and Morgan prepare for their master sommelier exams (Tseng is working toward the lower advanced level). Held annually in London and California by the Court of Master Sommeliers, the exams are an Olympic test of a wine geek's mettle with a notoriously brutal 10 percent pass rate. Those who do pass receive a master sommelier diploma and the title master sommelier (M.S.). Right now, there are 158 professionals in the world who can claim an M.S. status; 87 of those are in North America.

Myers admits that "outside of a very small clique of people, no one will really care" whether he makes master or not. "The motivation is entirely internal; I want to earn something that is so hard to obtain that fewer than 200 people have ever accomplished it."

He'll take his first shot in February 2010 and fully expects it to be painful, based on his experience passing the first three levels of tests that preceded it. He took the last one, which made him an advanced sommelier, in April in Anaheim, Calif. The culmination of the almost weeklong exam involved a blind tasting like the one he's about to do at Wabeck's table. He had 25 minutes to structurally analyze six wines, then declare the vintage, varietal, region and quality level of each. "I went four for six on that, which was good," says Myers, who calls it "the scariest thing I've ever done in my life."

According to Erin: "He studied so much that we had to go to the hospital. He pulled muscles in his neck. He'd sit up and study all day on our couch, then would carry this bag to the restaurant with huge wine encyclopedias, looking at flashcards while he walked." The hospital gave him painkillers and told him to chill out.

To get ready for the master exam, Myers has made out a schedule for himself, estimating that he has 70 weeks' worth of material to study and "only 80 weeks left to prepare." He has stacks of flashcards and sometimes asks Erin to use them to quiz him. (Example: "Where exactly is the Yarra Valley?" answer, "28 miles east of Melbourne, in the Port Phillip zone of Victoria.")

Myers, Wabeck, Morgan and sometimes a few others get together every Monday morning to sharpen their wine identification skills. As this morning's tasting begins, all four have six glasses in semicircles in front of them, three whites and three reds. Wabeck has selected them from the 35 or so classic wines, and the others must now attempt to identify them, first analyzing each by sight, nose and palate. Today, Morgan and Tseng write their answers, because it's Myers's turn to evaluate the wines aloud, as he'll be required to do during the master exam. Wabeck tastes, too, with an elaborate grid in front of him to take notes on Myers's responses, which they'll all discuss afterward.

Almost 20 minutes into it, Myers is still working on the fifth wine, a red that he swirls vigorously, holding it above a white paper bag to better see the viscosity and color. He sniffs repeatedly to detect a whole grocery list of smells, including, "cherry compote, cherry pie, red plums, a little prune, fresh roses, a little lavender, a little iron-rich soil, cinnamon . . . " Then he tastes "a little meatiness, it's a little bloody {lcub}hellip{rcub}" After more swirls, sniffs, sips and spits into a plastic cup, he declares, slowly, "This is a 2001 Cabernet_/Merlot, France, Margaux."

When they finish, Wabeck goes through Myers's responses to see how many of the six wines, if any, he's named correctly. Even getting a few right is a challenge. Of the whites, he only gets the third correct, a sauvignon blanc, though that one was a gimme.

"If you sit at this table and smell this wine, and don't call it, you'll get punched," Myers says.

"You will get beaten," Wabeck agrees, as he strokes a big gray cat sitting next to him.

Turns out, Myers also called the fifth wine close enough to be correct: It's a '98 Margaux. Myers shoots his arms into the air and triumphantly yells, "Sweet!"

Christina Ianzito is a contributing writer to the Magazine. She can be reached at cianzito@gmail.com.Do you know a Washington Original? We are looking for the quirky, accomplished but largely unknown characters who enrich the world around us. E-mail intriguing candidates to: washingtonoriginals@washpost.com.
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