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The Blind Side

A savvy sommelier reveals how he constructs the perfect wine list.

Chris McNeill, Jason Raymond and David Peek begin a blind tasting at Seed Kitchen & Bar.

The wines on the Stem Wine Bar lineup might easily be called the varietal valedictorians of 2014. To land a spot on this elite list, each wine endures a tasting gauntlet of more than 200 competitors.

“A guest who comes to my restaurant shouldn’t have to guess if the wine is going to be good—that’s my job,” says Jason Raymond, general manager and sommelier at both Stem Wine Bar and Seed Kitchen & Bar next door (and formerly the beverage manager at Bluepointe). It’s a job he takes seriously, as does the entire team. Actually, the tastings are quarterly, which adds up to roughly 800 wines a year; all of which are personally vetted before pouring them in your glass. That’s quality control on a manic level.

Tasting wine may not sound like hard work, but Raymond and his team spend roughly two hours per tasting over the course of several weeks. They take notes, with breaks to control palate fatigue. Raymond also makes a special point of inviting over wine distributors to participate, largely to illustrate how seriously they take the whole process. “It can be humbling for them because they might not even pick their own wine.” All tastings are blind, which means wines are covered in bags, and tasters have no idea what producer or region they are tasting. “We take a lot of pride in this list and don’t just add random wines based on distributor pressure,” he explains.

Everyone at both restaurants is involved in the process, which can lend itself to conflict over some wines. “We’ve had one or two disagreements,” Raymond adds, “but 95 percent of the time we agree on our two favorites for every category; we know what we are looking for.” And, what are they seeking? The best, of course. Plus wines that delight. This year’s discoveries include a unique super Tuscan blend of white varietals from Terruzi & Puthod and the trio of bottles in “Three to Try” (sidebar).

Raymond admits they are surprised by every tasting, but that’s what happens when love is blind. 1311 Johnson Ferry Road, Marietta, 678.214.6888 


2009 World’s End Good Times Bad Times Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, $150

“Structurally, this is near perfect,” says Raymond, “with sturdy yet supple tannins and bright acids that perk up the flavors of blackberry jam, milk chocolate, red currants and creme de cassis.”

2010 Quintessa Bordeaux Blend, Napa Valley, Rutherford, $160
“A deep ruby color reveals bright black cherry, cola, warm spice aromas mingled with white chocolate, delicate floral layers and a creme brulee vanilla note from the sweet oak,” explains Raymond. “The finish is rich, dense, refined and lifted by ample lingering fruit.”

2011 Francois Carillon 1er Cru Les Combettes, Puligny-Montrachet, $140
“Domaine Francois Carillon is the legacy of the Carillon family and has been in Puligny-Montrachet since the 16th century,” adds Raymond. “Their wines are the elite white wines of Burgundy. Carillon produces racy, elegant, fruity wines while embodying the terroir those chardonnays come from.”