This is an unusual year to be a sommelier. Fine dining restaurants are feeling the economic pinch as much as anyone, as diners are trading down in their wine choices. But they haven’t abandoned wine, making the sommelier’s role as vital as ever. As the five people in the following pages demonstrate, the future looks bright for those who find their stride in this economy. Whether that means running an entire wine program solo, presenting craft cocktails as if they were fine Burgundies or traveling to competitions to bond with peers and meet the masters, these five young professionals bring dedication and passion to the sommelier’s craft. We’re pleased to present America’s Best New Sommeliers.
Michael Engelmann | Restaurant Gary Danko, San Francisco, CA
2009 is Michael Engelmann’s year. In April, he won the title of Best Sommelier in America at the American Sommelier Association’s annual competition. When we caught up with him in August, he was between the theory and service portions of this year’s Advanced Level, Court of Master Sommeliers exam in Chicago. “I don’t want to speak about the test, not yet,” he said, hoping not to jinx the results. He needn’t have worried, as he not only passed the exam but snagged the prestigious Rudd Scholarship as well, a distinction he shares with fellow 2009 Best New Sommelier Jason Heller. Engelmann picked up an interest in wine in his native Alsace, where he would often visit local vineyards with his family. After finishing culinary school in 2001, Engelmann moved to Lyon to work at Georges Blanc, where he worked with sommelier Jean Kientzler. From Lyon, Engelmann went to the United Kingdom with the goal of improving his English. He landed his first sommelier position at Chewton Glen in Hampshire. Living and tasting in the UK, he says, opened his mind to what was happening outside of France, and his wanderlust led him to send his résumé to San Francisco in hopes of landing a job. He started on the floor at Gary Danko in late 2006.
I went to San Francisco without knowing much about the city, except that it was close to Napa. I love it here. Probably the worst thing that happened for my family is that I moved to one of the best cities in the country, and I’ve stayed longer than I thought I would.
Sommelier Grad School
I spend an hour a day between books and the internet studying, up to four hours on my days off, and I was tasting three or four times per week to prepare for the Advanced exam.
Alan Holmes in England and Gérard Basset (MW, MS) really inspired me; he’s one of the most qualified persons I’ve met, but also the most humble. And then in San Francisco, chef Danko, Jason Alexander and Christie Dufault.
I like people to be more adventurous. That doesn’t mean a grape from the moon or Alaska, but something new. Grüner veltliner is a good example; it’s all over the country now because people have been encouraged to try it.
Most Recent Awesome Pairing
I was at wd-50 in New York and had a barrel-aged beer from Piedmont. It was dark, with fig, spice and lots of malty hops flavor, and it was paired with burned caramel ice cream with a hazelnut chocolate top. Incredible.
Desert Island Wine
Probably something white and unoaked. I can be happy with a $15 bottle or a $150 bottle. Basically I like purity and elegance, like Egon Müller’s ‘07 Scharzhofberger Riesling.
Advice to Aspiring Sommeliers
Taste, share and be humble. Don’t stop learning. And go to the vineyards. There’s no price on meeting the winemaker. Everything makes sense after that. We say dogs are like their owners – I think wines are like their winemakers.
Jason Heller | Redd, Yountville, CA
Jason Heller graduated college with a marketing degree and worked in finance for four years. Then he happened to join a table of friends drinking wine at a jazz club in Hawaii. Someone produced an older bottle of Domaine de la Romanée Conti that “blew my mind,” he recalls. He got to know Chuck Furuya (MS), who invited him to work the floor at Honolulu’s Vino for two nights a week in 2006. Heller says his day job became an “eight-hour countdown” and soon he switched the night job to full-time. In late 2007, Heller decided to move to the mainland and interviewed with Paul Roberts (MS), who hired him to work at Bouchon, in Yountville. He passed the Advanced exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers in April 2008, and won the Rudd Scholarship, awarded to the candidate with the highest aggregated score. Heller was then recommended for the job at Redd after Chris Blanchard (MS) left; he started in August 2008.
Hawaii vs. Napa
In Oahu, there was only one other person my age to study and taste with. Napa is completely different. The region is focused on wine, and there’s just a high level of interest in pursuing education. There’s a group of us studying for our Masters, and there’s another fifteen people preparing to take their Advanced.
Mentors in Hawaii
Chuck Furuya really stoked my interest. Here in California, Geoff Kruth (MS) and Fred Dame (MS) encouraged me when I was as green as could be. Now it’s my tasting group – Yoon Ha (of La Toque) and Fur Lucero (at Cyrus).
I’m a really shy person, so approaching a table is still a challenge for me. But when guests comment on the list, say how interesting it is or whatever, and then seeing them light up when they get something in their glass…
Napa’s Uncrowned King
King Being in Napa I thought all I’d be selling is Napa cabernet, but everyone is still ordering pinot, even in Napa.
A Sommelier’s Evolving Role
Role The sommelier is no longer someone who just shows up to do the list, or just work the floor. There’s more of a compression of roles, to do everything. If that table needs to be bussed, you bus it. You’re part of a team. If you’re just a wine guy, you’re kind of worthless to the restaurant overall. It’s about taking more responsibility.
Perfect Day Off
My soon-to-be-wife is also in the restaurant business, so the perfect day off starts with both of us having the same day off. I like to enjoy wine in a relaxed context with food as opposed to just tasting it. Often, on a day off, that’s with a meal I’ve cooked with my fiancée.
Favorite Wine Region
I hate to give the sommelier canned answer, but it’s always Burgundy.
I love beer. If you find me drinking a beer, it’s generally an IPA, like Lagunitas or Stone. Or a Belgian beer.
Advice to Aspiring Sommeliers
If you’re already in the business, then you understand that it’s hard work and not as glamorous as it looks. And it’s about keeping an open mind. Find a great peer group to study with.
Jonathan Honefenger | Tony’s, Houston, TX
Jonathan Honefenger traces his wine interest to a study abroad program in college. Traveling in Eastern Europe, he researched a study on the wines before, during and after communist rule. Armed with a working knowledge of Tokaji, he returned to the US to complete a history degree and to start a career in politics. But Honefenger soon realized that he wasn’t cut out for that world and returned to his hometown of Houston. He got a job as a server at El Meson, and started to take courses through the International Sommelier Guild. He also completed both the Certified levels through the Court of Master Sommeliers. Honefenger then moved on to Brennan’s of Houston as a sommelier, where he worked until Hurricane Ike destroyed the restaurant in 2008. In the aftermath, he helped open a wine bar called Vinoteka Poscol. Three months later, the sommelier at Tony’s called to say that he was leaving and needed a replacement. Honefenger was hired and started work this past spring.
Peter Garacia at El Meson We took courses together, and he was the type of person who would stop me during service when I had five tables going and ask me to name the grapes in Cava. And Guy Stout (MS); my tasting group meets with him every Monday.
Houston, Emerging Wine Town
There are a lot of dynamic restaurants here, and while it’s not nationally recognized as a wine city yet, there’s a great community. All the somms know each other and we help each other out. I’d like to see more masters come out of Texas. We’re working towards that with the Texas Sommelier Conference, kind of a gathering place for masters with lectures and tests.
I’m seeing the all-inclusive wine list fading away towards more of a regional focus – in Italian wines, for instance. I love wines from Oltrepò Pavese in Lombardy, or the Marché. Or gaglioppo from Calabria – it’s dark, funky, rustic and affordable.
Most Successful Pairing
Recently, that would be Texas goat cheese on toast with arugula in a bacon and fig vinaigrette. It had a little of everything, fat, salt, sweet, creamy. I paired it with a 1997 Vouvray Moelleux from Foreau and it was just beautiful.
Travel the World, Drink Wine
I made a promise about two years ago to visit at least one major region or vineyard a year. I’ve already been to Germany, Burgundy, California. I really want to get to Italy, back to Burgundy and I’d love to go to South Africa. I believe there’s great wine there we just never see.
What Keeps You Motivated?
For me, it’s the love of wine, the level of work. And the chance of enhancing that special moment for someone, which you can do with the pull of a cork. I guess I’m a pseudo-workaholic, but you kind of have to be when you clock in midday and punch out at 1 a.m. It’s a cool job. Travel the world and drink wine, I mean, really?
Perfect Day Off
To go to the Ice House, have a Lone Star beer and watch the Astros play.
Dustin Wilson | Montagna at The Little Nell, Aspen, CO
Turning a hobby into an occupation takes dedication and hard work. It also takes a supportive peer community ready to help out. Dustin Wilson, who got interested in wine while working at a steakhouse in his home state of Maryland, found that community in Colorado, where he moved in 2005 and began working at Frasca in Boulder. Wilson started as a server at the restaurant but he was eager to join the renowned wine team Bobby Stuckey (MS) put together. In 2006 Nate Ready (A W&S Best New Sommelier) moved to Italy and Wilson took some of his shifts. Two years later Richard Betts (MS) of Montagna at The Little Nell went full time on his wine venture, Betts & Scholl. Encouraged by Stuckey, Wilson moved to Aspen in 2008 to join the team at The Little Nell. He passed his advanced level in April and plans to sit for his MS next year.
I couldn’t imagine a better place to learn about wine. There are a lot of Masters here, people like Bobby Stuckey, Richard Betts, Jay Fletcher (MS) and Jonathan Pullis (MS). And then Matthew Mather back at Frasca also influenced me a lot.
Challenges and Rewards
Translating the different things guests say is the most challenging part of the job. Of course, it can also be the most rewarding, seeing them get excited about something new.
What Keeps You Going?
The constantly changing culture of wine: There’s always something new to try and discover, or someplace to travel. It’s inspiring. Besides being on your feet, there’s not much else I would change about the job.
Sommeliers in Training
With the new wave of people working as sommeliers, in the past ten to fifteen years, our role is more about education. We take people who might feel intimidated and make them feel comfortable. I also love educating the staff, the waiters up front and people in the back of the house. It’s really cool to spread the knowledge. The reward for staff was a seat at the Introductory Course (of the Court of Master Sommeliers), and twenty-one people from The Nell passed.
Last summer it was Barolo. At Frasca, everybody was into nebbiolo. This summer it’s red Burgundy. The Nell has a huge Burgundy list, so that’s where I’ve been recently. As much as I’d like to give a geeky answer, what can I say, I like the classic stuff.
Right now I like the German hefeweizens – they’re great summer beers. Also, Colorado’s got some fantastic microbrews.
Perfect Day Off
Living in Aspen, the opportunities are pretty incredible. In the winter my priority is skiing, in the summer, road biking. My wife and I will climb a big hill and then race down. Later, we’d check out the Aspen farmers market, relax, get some Thai food and watch movies on the couch.
My focus is to pass the MS and grow the wine program at The Little Nell. At some point down the road, my wife and I would like to open a restaurant.
Lindsey Whipple | Cut, Las Vegas, NV
Lindsey Whipple’s career path has gone from water to wine. A dedicated swimmer, Whipple competed at the collegiate and Olympic levels of the sport. Since nutrition featured prominently in her athletic life, she took an early interest in food and cooking; the combination of a Division I swim team and a renowned hospitality school led her to UNLV in her native Las Vegas. That’s where Whipple realized swimming was not going to pay the bills. She transferred from culinary school to the beverage program at UNLV, and despite the objections of her swim coach, began to take an interest in wine. A study abroad program in Switzerland afforded the opportunity to travel to a few European wine regions – “And that’s when I was sold,” she says. After college, Whipple started working at Mark’s in Summerlin, Nevada. She then moved to Los Angeles, where she got a job as a bartender at Campanile and worked retail at The Wine House. She returned to Las Vegas in 2006 and started working in wholesale with the boutique division of Southern Wine & Spirits. After two years, Whipple wanted to get back into the restaurant business. She started at Cut in 2008. It’s her first sommelier position on the Strip.
I’m the only sommelier here, so I need my staff to be well educated about wine. We just finished Italy. I used the Italian Trade Commission’s format to teach the class, and they sent me materials like maps and handouts for seminars. It’s great knowing that when my staff leaves this restaurant that they can take this knowledge with them.
Learning from the Masters
The community here is awesome, with people like Kim Wilson, Ira Harmon (MS), William Sherer (MS) and Steve Morey (MS). I was designated the secretary of Willie Sherer’s weekly blind tasting group, scheduling people, tastings. That’s been great. I passed the Advanced Court of Master Sommeliers exam in April.
Somms at the Bar
Mixology is more of a scene in New York, LA or San Francisco, but I do my best to bring that spirit here. We’ll do five classic cocktails and we come up with five of our own. The sous chef and I went to the farmers market today; we got local micro-basil and cantaloupe to make a drink I’m calling the Can’t We Aloupe to Vegas – with gin, housemade basil simple syrup and squeezed cantaloupe juice. A sommelier has to know spirits. It’s just another creative outlet that’s as complex as wine.
I definitely have more beer drinkers now. We have an eclectic beer list, but I think it’s the cost that’s taking people there. There’s an increase in value wines too, and it’s my job to point people to those. Luckily, I have a lot of open-minded guests. They know that there’s not much value in California cabernet, so they often just ask for a big red and trust me.
Perfect Night Off
I would go to Lotus of Siam and then head over to the Ellis Island Brewery behind the Strip. They have the best pizza, barbeque, beer and karaoke.
Advice for Aspiring Sommeliers
Be loving, engaging and humble. If you’re not that, you’re not going to get your guest. And for women in restaurants, you need a tough skin, like cabernet, or you’re not going to last in this job. Be confident and trust yourself.
This story was featured in W&S October 2009.
This story appears in the print issue of October 2009.
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