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Better With Age

Master Sommelier George Miliotes has forgotten more about wine than we’ll ever know and the opening of his new restaurant at Disney Springs is the culmination of his career.

Before he rose to the height of hospitality, George Miliotes was just a 12-year-old kid working at his family’s restaurants right here in Orlando. One of only about 150 people in the Americas who can claim the title of master sommelier, he was a member of the team that first opened the California Grill, located at the top of Disney’s Contemporary Resort, in the 1990s. After leading the acclaimed restaurant through many years, he was hired away by Darden Restaurants to help create the award-winning Seasons 52. Now he’s back at Disney with a concept all his own: Wine Bar George.

Like Miliotes himself, the space is warm and inviting. We met there on a rainy Wednesday after- noon shortly after the grand opening. Over some glasses of wine, we talked about the rigor of the master sommelier exam, how to properly pair wine and found out why he can never impress his wife with a bottle of vino ever again.

What makes wine so alluring to you?
Well, I am an equal opportunity drinker; let’s put that out there. I like things that taste good, and I think wine is one of those things where there is such a wide range of flavors, qualities, styles and regions that one could spend their whole life fixated on it. … People think I’m a little weird that I enjoy my job a lot, but what is more fun than talking about wine and food with people? Not much in my book. Other people have things they love and this is what I was made to do.

The exam to earn the title master sommelier is notorious for being incredibly difficult. Can you tell me what the test entails?
The master exam is a three-part exam. There is a theory exam where you go into a room and spend about 45 minutes with master sommeliers. They can ask you any question about beverage, alcohol, law, and how it is made, service, anything. … It is a verbal exam and once you answer, you cannot go back. … The next part is the service exam where you walk into a room like this. There will be five tables. There will be a prospective master sommelier at each table and then there will be two or three master sommeliers at each table. And then you’ll move through those five tables doing a step of service or something. … You’ll definitely decant a bottle of wine and have to discuss the vintage and the specific wine that you recommend. … And all during this time, they’ll ask you questions and try to throw you off your game or be rude guests or be guests that can never be satisfied just to see if you can take care of it. Really to me the most important part of being a master sommelier is you have to be humble and you have to love people and you have to love wine. If you can’t work at a table and know how to make a guest happy, you really shouldn’t be a master sommelier. The last part is the tasting part that everybody kind of fixates on. Three red wines. Three white wines. Twenty-five minutes to verbally evaluate the six wines and tell them what they are. … And you’ve got to be right, I’ll leave it at that.

How did you feel when you found out you had passed?
I was relatively happy. …You know, I called my wife. I called my boss. Have you seen the movie Somm? So, I will tell you, the manic-ness they portray is true. … [My wife and I] would taste every weekend. We were the most popular couple in the neighborhood because I’d send [my wife] Leanne on Saturday to the ABC and I’d say, “Go buy a case of wine: six whites [and] six reds. Nothing under $18 a bottle, nothing over $50 a bottle.” And then I’d blind taste it. I’d have no clue what she bought. But you know, we couldn’t drink a whole case of wine by ourselves, so everyone would come over afterwards.

What is your ethos when it comes to pairing wine and food?
I can be all over the map sometimes, but I like good food and really good wine. Those two tend to go together no matter what. Sometimes we get a little overwrought, but in this restaurant I teach everyone the classic pairing of red meat and red wine. It’s about as simple a pairing, as classic a pairing and as timeless a pairing. Red meat has fat in it and that fat coats your palate. If you don’t believe me, when you go home today go get some butter, a steak or olive oil, and if you put it on your tongue and then put water on it, [the fat] repels [the water]. Red wine cuts through fat and allows your taste receptors to get the flavor every single time. It is such a simple premise: Red wine and red meat go together. … I’m anti-fuss and not that complicated. When in doubt, good wine goes with good food.

Do you have any pairings that you recommend that some people may find surprising?
Blue cheese and any dessert wine are about as seductive and special as anything there is. The perfect way to end an evening is a little piece of blue cheese and a little bit of sweet wine and life is good.

Are there any wine trends you are sick of now?
Do I have to say sick of? So there’s a term out there called natural winemaking, and I have no problem with non-interventionist winemaking, but when you say it is natural, you insinuate that everyone else is unnatural, and that’s not good to me. If you want to say you’re non-interventionist, that’s great. But this idea that natural winemaking is somehow better or has some moral high ground—you know, there is nothing natural about a vineyard. … I think it does a disservice to the wine business and the wine industry as a whole. I’m not sick of it in any way, shape or form because I think it is a good movement and there are some wineries and styles that go well with non-manipulation. And then there’s other times when you need to do things to your grapes to make good wine and I don’t look down on that either.

A bottle of wine is a great way to celebrate a special occasion and I often find that people connect a certain bottle to a certain story. Do you have a bottle that you associate with a particular memory?
So the first time I make dinner for Leanne, my wife, I decide I’m going to serve Calon Ségur 1976, which is a wine from Bordeaux. Seventy-six was a decent vintage. It’s a tasty wine. But I’m not sure what I was thinking because it’s an expensive wine and still to this day sometimes when I open up a wine she is like, “Yeah, that’s good, but it is not as good as that wine you served me the first time you made dinner for me.” That now would be a $200-$400 bottle of wine. The idiot I am, I decided to set the expectation as high as possible in the beginning.

What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
I’ll answer it from a wine point of view. So, we all drink our white wines right out of the refrigerator and unfortunately I think that a lot of the times you don’t get to enjoy your wine to its fullest because you’re drinking it right out of the refrigerator. And so your white wines, you need to let sit for 15-20 minutes out of the refrigerator before you drink them so they come up in temperature and you can get the full flavor of the wine. And your reds— unfortunately room temperature here in Florida tends to be in the 70s, sometimes 75 [degrees], which is warm for wine. Red wine should be at 68 [degrees]. Maybe even 65 [degrees]. And so I’ll put my red wine in the fridge if it’s not at the right temperature for 10-15 minutes before I drink it.

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s August 2018 issue.

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