Best New Sommeliers

Best New Sommeliers of 2011

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

A Napa Valley native, Sur Lucero worked in restaurants from the time he was 15. He landed at The French Laundry in 1998, shortly before his 21st birthday, starting out as a runner and advancing to expediter. Meanwhile, he grew obsessed with wine, to the point where he’d volunteer to count inventory just to get more exposure to it. The wine director at the time, Paul Roberts, took notice and brought him on as a junior sommelier. After a break for culinary school, he returned as a full-blown sommelier in 2005, then went on to work in Boulder and Las Vegas. Napa’s pull is strong however, so when Oenotri opened in Napa in 2010, he returned home to run the wine program. His only regret is that he’s not able to work with his personal heartthrob, Chablis—although he drinks plenty of it while studying for the Master Sommelier exam, which he’ll take next year.—Luke Sykora

Epiphany Wine
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.

New Obsession
Etna’s really cool. I think nerello mascalese is capable of great things.

Soil Studies
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.

Dress Code
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

June Rodil was about to head into law school when she did an abrupt about-face. “I opened my eyes and discovered I had already been working in the industry I belonged in,” she says. She’d started peddling cocktails at The Driskill between classes at UT Austin and transitioned into their fine dining restaurant, The Driskill Grill, where she found she liked the work more than her studies. “I enjoyed making people happy—creating that experience for them at the table,” she says. The hottest opening of that moment in Austin was Uchi. Rodil had waited on the chef, Tyson Cole, and decided to interview for a position. She wanted the beverage program. They took her on as a server but in a few short months made her responsible for beverage education for the staff. A year later, the company launched their second restaurant, Uchiko, and named Rodil wine director.

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

Making it
The epiphany moment was realizing that even the chef had started trusting me about what wine would go well with what dish.

Favorite Wine
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…

Shift Drink
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.

Pushing Mencía
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

Alexander LaPratt was bagging groceries just outside of Detroit when he noticed that a buddy was making a killing at the restaurant around the corner. “I went to a place called Papa Vino’s and picked up Wine for Dummies,” he says. “I wasn’t even that interested in it, I just needed the money.” That attitude changed shortly after he was hired at Morels in Bingham Farms where Madeline Triffon, MS, directs the beverage program. “Any time you’re around someone who’s very good at something you need to pay attention and learn from them,” says LaPratt. “I tried to soak up as much as I could.”

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

Eye Opener
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.

Full Speed
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.

Full Speed
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

While studying business management in Los Angeles, Josiah Baldivino ended up at Silverlake Wines, where he stocked shelves and occasionally worked the floor. Every day, as he made his way around the inventory, he’d ask Silverlake co-owner George Cossette about two or three wines that seemed interesting. Cossette’s answers sparked an interest that took him on another career path entirely. When he headed east to New York, he landed a job at the Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel before moving on to Bar Boulud, where he worked with Michael Madrigale and Daniel Johnnes. They, in turn, put him in touch with Rajat Parr of the Michael Mina Group when he decided to head back to California late in 2010. Parr hired him on at the new Michael Mina restaurant in San Francisco’s Financial District. Baldovino has since embraced and been embraced by San Francisco’s rich sommelier culture. “There’s a huge number of Master Sommeliers out here,” he says. “And they’re willing to help you. I’ve already met with seven or eight Master Sommeliers out here—people like Dustin Wilson at RN74 and Reggie Narito who works for Southern [Wine & Spirits].” Both have helped him settle in.—Luke Sykora

Epiphany Wine
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.

Michael Madrigale
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.

After Work
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.

Book Learning
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

Though Pascaline Lepeltier grew up around wine in Angers, France, she was a latecomer to the industry. She’d already completed a Masters in philosophy when she decided restaurants were more her thing. She went back to school for a Masters in hospitality management and ended up working an event at Château d’Yquem. When the 1937 was poured, she knew that she would make wine her career.

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

Day Off
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.

Shift Drink
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.

New Find
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

This feature appears in the print edition of October 2011.
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