By Hannah Lee Leidy / Correspondent
January 1, 2021
Simon Kaufmann takes a whiff of the Champagne in his glass. “Whew!” He exclaims, his excitement palpable. “This one is smokin’ good!”
Titters of appreciation and amusement ripple across the porch at The Blue Point restaurant in Duck where a small group of tasters have gathered to tempt their palates with some premium, hand-selected wines.
“Really,” Kaufmann promises. “This winery was a favorite of Winston Churchill, so they started naming their best after him. It’s now one of the two wines considered the ‘house Champagnes’ for the royal family.”
Whether sold by his enthusiasm or the opportunity to sample the royal lifestyle, the tasters delicately swirl and sniff the $350 bubbles in their glasses. They barely get their noses past the rim before they exhale and nod approvingly. It’s quiet as they take their first sips and halt as the tingling texture and toasted brioche flavor explodes in their mouths.
“Wow,” one woman breathes, and everyone in the room shares her appreciation: This iconic wine is fit for a queen.
Kaufmann is the beverage director at The Blue Point. He started hosting the restaurant’s monthly wine tastings during the off season in 2018. The community welcomed the cosmopolitan experience amid winter’s doldrums; the events also brought business to the restaurant. “And,” Kaufmann adds, “it was definitely driven by a level of self-interest, too.”
He originally launched the events after earning his advanced sommelier certification – the second highest of four certification levels available to sommeliers. He’s currently a candidate for the master sommelier certification, the highest title available to beverage professionals and held by less than 300 people worldwide. Kaufmann says the tastings broaden and develop his knowledge of wine varieties, regions and styles. They also help him access hard-to-get products on the Outer Banks.
For non-somms, sampling wines alongside an expert presented a sophisticated activity still casual enough to do on a weeknight. Tickets regularly sold out online within days – sometimes hours.
Adapting to COVID-19 restrictions forced wine tastings – like so many things – to change. A couple dozen people could no longer cozy together to connect with new wines and make friends. The events needed to scale down in size, which meant increasing ticket prices. Kaufmann decided to experiment: Fewer people and higher prices called for better wines.
Drawing inspiration from his studies, he created a series of tastings featuring premier wineries. He selected five or so wines from each that best showcased the winery’s iconic qualities.
“I’m figuring out how to pass that masters exam, and the Icon tastings are a way for me to figure out the iconic producers of the world,” Kaufmann says.
The first Icon Wine Tasting debuted in November. Each one was dedicated to a producer that distinguished themselves as a classic example of a particular style or region.
“They have to have at least five wines that are the top in their class across that style,” Kaufmann says. “The entry level has to be as good, pound for pound, as their top wine.”
He initially worried about the setup. More money for fewer wines; would people bite? But the tastings all sold out within 48 hours of ticket sales going live.
Attendance has been scaled back to 10 people. Participants are encouraged to attend as a couple or with a close friend – each duo shares one of the five tables spaced throughout The Blue Point’s enclosed, private porch. Along the way, the kitchen sends out small bites specially designed to pair with each drink.
Kaufmann guides the tasters through each wine over the course of the 90-minute tasting, sharing the history, context and significance of each. While fine wine can come across as intimidating or highbrow, Kaufmann’s playful conversation and personable demeanor make these collectible wines casual and accessible. People ask questions, share opinions and “ooo’s” and “ahh’s” fill the room as everyone samples the lineup.
After savoring the last sips of delicious wine, tasters leave full of fresh knowledge and perhaps with one or two new favorite bottles they can buy at discounted prices through Kaufmann.
The Blue Point’s elevated atmosphere and Kaufmann’s expertise popularized the restaurant’s original wine tastings. However, the new direction of the Icon Wine Tastings excites Kaufmann – both for his sommelier pursuits and the quality he’s able to offer the public.
“Now, it’s a more curated experience. People are going out less, and they want to make it count when they do. I’m able to offer them an amazing lineup of Champagnes, Napa, Italian and others this way.”
What: Icon Wine Tastings
When: 6 p.m. Jan. 5, 12, 19, Feb. 2, 9, 16
Where: The Blue Point, 1240 Duck Road, Duck
Cost: $50 per person and available online at thebluepoint.com/reservations