An Evening at Jardinière
An Existential Awakening over Sheep's Milk Cheese and Felsina Vin Santo
by Nicky Tiso ‘10
After graduating from Evergreen, Jai Wilson '02 launched his wine career. He started as a delivery driver for a wine distributor in Seattle and is now the sommelier at one of San Francisco's glamorous restaurants, Jardinière. Just to mix it up a bit, he also works with thrash-funk music legend Les Claypool on his new winery, Claypool Cellars, in the Russian River Valley.
Wilson's passion for wine tasting bloomed when he paired a Felsina Vin Santo with an aged sheep's milk cheese from the Basque region of Spain. The experience was transcendental.
“Suddenly this new character, this new taste, emerged.
The sum became greater than the two parts.”
I visited Wilson at Jardinière to talk about his career. Located in the heart of San Francisco, the restaurant offers fine French cuisine with a California accent, in a space as lush and extravagant as its boutique wines. Marble inlay flooring leads to the central, oval-shaped mahogany bar. A twisting, knotted manzanita tree surrounded by wine bottles cooling in decanters extends over the balcony. I feel like I'm inside a giant, glowing cocktail. The sensation is no accident. Fixed to the ceiling, a translucent circle floats over the bar, like a cross-section of the moon—a gorgeous, sparkling installation the color of chardonnay, with tiny, lit bulbs behind its surface, intimating champagne effervescence.
Jardinière, Wilson's role is to "take somebody's expectations of their evening and translate that into a good bottle of wine." This process of translation often means deciphering ambiguous statements by diners asking for a "reddish white wine" or an "Italian Burgundy" (even though Burgundies only come from France). The ability to internally evaluate what someone really means without correcting them is a skill that rests as much in knowledge as it does in psychology. As Wilson says, “it's all about understanding who you're talking to.”
Though he focused on audio/visual and media studies as an undergrad, he credits Evergreen as the place where he learned the communication skills necessary to translate the subjective taste of wine into evocative descriptions that help people make good selections. Knowing how to cultivate trust with the patrons crafts fruitful relationships. Now, Wilson gets repeat customers who simply tell him, "pick out whatever you think I'd like," which can mean anything from a $75 bottle to a $1,000 one.
Jardinière's European and regional fare makes for exquisitely simple dishes, such as the Dungeness crab and jicama salad, grapefruit gelée and Tsar Nicoulai Caviar appetizer, served cold and elegantly arranged on a graceful white plate. Others include salad of roasted carrot, avocado and citrus, crème fraîche and toasted almonds, or my personal favorite: slow-poached eggs with smoked bacon and a fontina fondue.
How so few ingredients can consistently achieve such resonance is astounding. I'm reminded of Wilson's transcendental notion of taste, of two parts synthesizing into a greater whole, and I realize this is the basis of Jardinière's success: sublimity in combination, pairing each flavor to give me that "blissful moment" where time stops and I feel nothing but my taste buds. When I finally come to, there's nothing I can do but sip the glass of Baspianich Vespa Bianco—a 2006 Chardonnay-based blend from northern Italy that Jai brought me after I told him coolly, "bring me whatever you think I'd like."