Sylvain Mousset's affinity for wine isn't a romanticized, boy-meets-wine French love story, although he is very much French. As a young person, if asked the difference between a Rhone and a Bordeaux, he was as clueless as the next non-French guy. Mousset admits his wine knowledge wasn't innate but, instead, learned through years of exposure, tasting and studying. At 26 years old, he moved to the States and began his journey in the restaurant industry, working his way through restaurants across the country and excelling from service to management roles. Along the way, he picked up wine knowledge by necessity and eventually decided to become certified as a sommelier in 2007, then in 2008, a specialist of wine. Mousset's latest role is wine director of 5Church (127 N. Tryon St.), where he recently revamped the wine program by doubling its list while filling holes and adding exclusive bottles that can't be found in any other restaurant in North Carolina (e.g., Clouds Rest pinot noir).
Creative Loafing: How did you prepare yourself for the certified sommelier exam?
Sylvain Mousset: A lot of my knowledge came from exposure while working in restaurants. Of course, I did a lot of studying for the tests. Maybe even more studying than I did in college [laughs]. Book studying and also tasting. The thing is, I used to be like everybody else — when I read the taste profile and saw chocolate overtones, I was like, 'I don't taste all that. It tastes like crap.' I had to start by getting descriptions and training my senses to identify specific descriptors. So I started by smelling little bottles of vanilla, caramel and things of that nature.
What's the basic foundation for pairing food and wine?
It's actually not as complicated as it sounds. It doesn't have to be all the hoopla that goes along with the pompous side of wine. The secret of pairing is simple. It's balancing the feel of the body of the wine in your mouth versus the body of the food itself. And then you can pair spice with spice, spice against spice or spice with no spice. You can do aromatic wines with foods that are not aromatic or vice versa. The most important part is the body of the wine. A light pinot from Oregon or a light burgundy will probably be fantastic with a light dish but will be killed by a heavy ribeye. That doesn't take away from the quality of the wine, it just means it won't be balanced.
What is one misconception you consistently hear about wine?
One is in regard to sulfites. You can find wines that don't have them but naturally, there will be sulfites because of the wine-making process. The misconception is that in Europe, wine doesn't have sulfites. That's not true. In Europe, they just don't have the legal responsibility to write "contains sulfites" on the bottle, but we do in the States. In the past, they used to put a lot of sulfur in wines because it's a natural preservative and yes, if you're asthmatic, a certain amount of sulfites can be dangerous. But, I give the example that any wine can have anywhere from 100 to 150 sulfite parts per million but, if I remember correctly, dried fruit, which many people eat, contains an astronomical amount; something like 1,000 parts per million. People say, 'Well, when I drink wine with sulfites I get headaches.' But, I think it has to do with histamines. They come from the ground up to the grapes. Sometimes I get headaches from some Spanish wines, and I think it's related to the histamines of that region.