There are plenty of contests and exams these days that highlight the greatest talents in the sommelier world. Are any contests, however, as discerning as the judgment of one’s peers? These are the people who see their colleagues in action, conversing with guests, choosing bottles to complement an esoteric dish while juggling wine keys, waiter duties and cellar inventory. We’ve asked the top sommeliers across the US to name the most promising new talents in the business today—the people they want working for them or waiting on them. Meet the Best New Sommeliers of 2011.
Sur Lucero | Oenotri, Napa, CA
1989 La Mouline from Guigal. I know, it’s so obvious. But I couldn’t stop thinking about that wine the whole night I was working.
Etna’s really cool. I think nerello mascalese is capable of great things.
One of the most amazing places that I’ve seen, being a Napa boy, is Dalla Valle’s Maya Vineyard. The soils are so deep and iron-rich. There’s a beautiful elegance from that vineyard in the wine it produces year in and year out.
I’m in blue Dickies and tennis shoes selling wine on the floor. When you open a list that has 600 wines from all over Italy, diners need that kind of comfort factor. I’m not in a jacket; I’m not in a tie. Let’s talk wine. What do you like?
Most Excruciating Mistake
Dropping a bottle of 1989 Cristal that a guest brought in to French Laundry for lunch. There was a lot of condensation and my hand slipped. The nose hits carpet, bounces, and I catch it, but by then it’s all over the place. I’m just looking at him, holding the bottle as if I’m presenting it, but it’s all bubbles. There’s no wine left. We ended up replacing it with an older vintage from our list. —Luke Sykora
June Rodil | Congress Austin, Austin, TX
In her spare time, Rodil has been climbing the ranks of the Court of Master Sommeliers. She took first place at TexSomm, the Texas Best Sommelier competition, in 2009, and was awarded a scholarship to further her studies. “For the people who win the competition, there’s a lot of pressure to sit the Advanced level immediately,” she says. “I waited a year and a half—I like to over-prepare.” She also had three restaurants to open in December, as she’d taken a job as the company-wide beverage director for Congress Austin. In peak holiday season, they opened the doors to Congress, followed shortly thereafter by Bar Congress and Second Bar + Kitchen. With all that behind her, Rodil feels ready to tackle her Master Sommelier exam. —Carson Demmond
The epiphany moment was realizing that even the chef had started trusting me about what wine would go well with what dish.
Champagne, obviously! It’s ethereal—so unique and tied to so many emotions.
Scott Walker, the front of house person [at The Driskill]. He let me make mistakes and mill around in the cellar. He not only taught me to go after what I want but also taught me how to manage people.
I’m always excited about white wines that are fresh and clean and zippy, that dance on your palate. It’s so hot in Texas, so I want to drink grüner, riesling, rosés…
Fernet. If it was a really rough night, it will come with a shot of Jameson. We call it a “Happy Meal” because you know you really shouldn’t be doing it, but it does the trick.
Austin is willing to take a risk with its wine lists. Cabernet will always be king and chardonnay will always be queen, but people are willing to embrace Italian and Spanish wines. You can continue to push them and then maybe one day they’ll order Beaujolais… or mencía—who knows?
Alexander LaPratt | db Bistro, NYC
Later, managing the dining rooms at Michael Mina’s Detroit restaurants Saltwater and Bourbon Steak, he met Rajat Parr, MS. “Parr came out to train the staff and told me that I should work for him in San Francisco,” recalls LaPratt. Parr didn’t actually have any positions available at the time, but there was a possible opening at The French Laundry.
“I wrote a cover letter and left it open on my computer for three days—I wasn’t going to send it,” he says. “Then one night, I had had a couple of Manhattans. I sent it off, and a week later they called me back. I went nuts.” He started as a food runner and quickly worked his way up to being “cellar sommelier,” a cellar-only role they invented for him since he was already volunteering so much of his time there.
Close to two years later, in November of 2009, LaPratt stepped into the role of head sommelier at db Bistro in New York. Since then, he’s hit the competition circuit full-steam, taking first place at the Ruinart Chardonnay Challenge and second in the Sud de France last year. And this year, he won the American Sommelier Association’s contest, taking the title Best Sommelier in America 2011.—Carson Demmond
One of the servers at Morels let me taste a Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz. I remember thinking, “There might be something here.” It’s not an incredible wine, but it was so special because it opened my eyes to wine.
I landed in New York blind with no guarantees; had all my luggage with me. The next day I came in [to db Bistro], did inventory and cleaned up the cellar. I had caught the redeye, then the next day started at work.
Thinking Like a Winner
When I started studying for the Best Sommelier in America competition, I said, “I’m gonna win this, guys.” If I say it out loud, it makes it real for me, so I have to work really hard.
A passionfruit caipirinha is my summer drink of choice. It’s fruity, refreshing.
I want to pick up classical guitar and I’d like to dance more… maybe get out and take salsa lessons. A couple more years of sacrifice, then I’ll have free time. That’s my plan.
Playing in the Dirt
In Tuscany, it was nice to see the border between Chianti Classico and Colli Senesi. It’s a political boundary, but also the Classico side is really rocky and stony then on the other side it’s big hunks of clay: The perfect example of differences in terroir. —Carson Demmond
Josiah Baldivino | Michael Mina, San Francisco, CA
A bottle of 1991 Vega Sicilia Unico. My fiancée bought it as a celebration gift when I graduated from college. That’s when I realized that wine was a really, really cool thing.
It was so much fun working for him. We would open a large format bottle every night and pour it by the glass. That gave me a chance to taste a lot of Burgundy, off-vintage Bordeaux, things like imperials of 1975 Léoville-Las Cases and my favorite of all, magnums of 2001 Thierry Allemand Reynard Cornas.
What I’m drinking right now is my homebrew. I have an IPA in the fridge. When you make a batch, you end up with a lot of bottles, so when my friends come over, it’s like MTV’s “Cribs.” I got started with that a year and a half ago. I thought, if I couldn’t make wine, why not make beer?
First Somm Job
I grew up in a really small town called Running Springs in the San Bernadino Mountains. I basically just snowboarded and skateboarded all day. My grandma loved wine, and would actually have me open the bottles of Woodbridge for her. Instead of paying rent, I opened bottles for grandma.
For maps, the World Atlas of Wine is the greatest thing ever.
If You Weren’t a Somm…
I would be a professional fisherman. I think it would be the greatest job ever. You would be out on the water all day and just catch fish. —Luke Sykora
Pascaline Lepeltier | Rouge Tomate, NYC
Her apprenticeship at L’Auberge Bretonne in the Pays Nantais made her certain of it, working with a 30,000-bottle wine cellar and a chef whose friends and clientele included Leflaives and Roumiers. And there was her wine theory teacher, Patrick Rigourd. “I was in a class with all guys who were 18 and I was 24,” recalls Lepeltier, “and because I was the oldest in my class, [Rigourd] often took me on trips to visit producers. He really taught me that wine was made in the vineyard.”
So when Rouge Tomate was looking for someone with a background in organic wine to help out with their beverage program, Lepeltier was ready. She began working for the company in Brussels in 2007 and then moved to New York in April 2009 to work at the branch on East 60th Street. By November, she’d been named the wine director, in charge of all buying decisions, and had made a name for herself as a maven of natural and organic wines. “I’m lucky because I work in a place that’s very in line with my personal philosophy,” she says. “Less additives, freshest is best for you. Wine with personality that says something about the winemaker and terroir.” —Chris Hallowell
I’m super excited to be in New York so I try to go to a lot of exhibitions and see art. I’m also a very big wine geek so if I get a few days off I really try get to vineyards.
I really like vin jaune—dry, oxidized white wine. I’m rediscovering American beer, but I always go back to gueuze. If I can find Cantillon Gueuze, I buy it.
Advice for Future Somms
Be open-minded. Trust your palate. Travel as much as you can. Respect your classics. Do your inventory every month. Always take care of your guests first before satisfying your personal preference. And remember you are nothing without the vineyards and the winemakers or your chefs at the restaurant!
Philosophy and Wine
Do you find that conversations around a bottle often move to more philosophical subjects? One night a guest at the bar ordered a bottle of Dugat Py Coeur du Roy ‘06 and then started to speak to me about how he could perceive the philosophy of Heidegger and Deleuze in the wines—and he didn’t know I studied philosophy.
I recently put Els Jelipins, a small Penedès producer on the list. It was a revelation for me in terms of Spanish wine—one of the most amazing old school wines I’ve had. There are five cases in the US and I got six bottles, so I’m very happy. —Chris Hallowell