Claudia Tyagi has set up wine programs at Detroit’s high-end restaurants for decades. She has poured wines and managed lists at posh spots spanning La Fontaine in the early days of the Renaissance Center to The Whitney and the London Chop House. She currently consults at the Rattlesnake in Detroit and Forest Grill in Birmingham, and wrote the first wine list for the new Joe Muer Seafood in the RenCen. She is the seventh American woman to pass the rigorous British wine exam to be certified a Master Sommelier, in 1997. But let me clarify that: Another American woman, Catherine Fallis, passed the test at that time too, and Tyagi gracefully submitted to alphabetical order.
How do you begin writing a wine list today compared to past years?
With every project, I change with the season and definitely change as the menu evolves. A wine list is not a static thing; it’s dynamic. The more I get an idea of what a chef is doing, what guests perceive, and what wines they enjoy that work with the food, the more the list changes. God bless owners that give sommeliers a free and collaboratiave hand; it’s so creative.
Wine lists were more formulaic in the past. When Madeline (Triffon) and I were at La Fontaine in 1977, we were two young women with passably believable French accents. They put us in pretty gowns and put a tastevin around our necks and told us to sell wine. And we did.
How diverse are wines on lists today? Still dominated by California, France and Italy?
If you find quality wine, it doesn’t matter where it’s from — South Africa, South America, Australia, New Zealand, even Asian countries. Lists were heavily French and German when I started out. California was an upstart — like Michigan is today.
Winemakers want to listen to their vineyard site now, and express the unique terroir. Sustainable, organic, and biodynamic wines are big.
California wines have evolved from fruitbombs to more graceful, slightly restrained styles. But not all of them, and that’s OK. The American palate likes bold, dominating flavors. Today, I think a nation raised to drink Coca-Cola is not into the subtleties as much.
A sommelier needs to be curious and not just follow the pack. I try to create the trend, not follow it.
How do patrons respond to Michigan wines?
These days, the local wines are cool. And with the crash in 2008 , people want to support local businesses. Michigan breweries are off the charts and the wineries are right in step. We have 93 bonded wineries — how great is that!