Best New Sommeliers

Best New Sommeliers of 2012

There are plenty of contests and exams that highlight the greatest talents in the sommelier world. But are any contests as discerning as the judgment of one’s peers? These are the people who see their colleagues in their day-to-day tasks, unloading cases without a grumble, handling a minor service hiccup with grace, attentive to guests on the busiest of evenings while juggling wine keys, waiter duties and cellar inventory. We asked, and top sommeliers across the country reported back with the names of the most talented and enthusiastic newcomers to the restaurant scene. Meet the Best New Sommeliers of 2012.

Morgan Harris | Corkbuzz, NYC

After graduating from Emerson College in 2008, Seattle-born Morgan Harris shipped out to New York to be an actor. Between shows, he tended bar at The Tangled Vine on the Upper West Side, pouring from a list of 250 wines from around the world. “It was a good playground to hang out in. I didn’t know a thing about wine before that,” he recalls.

Drawn in by the sense of community he found in the New York wine world, Harris became increasingly involved with the Guild of Sommeliers over the next two years. That’s how he met Laura Maniec, MS, who was hosting one of their white Burgundy seminars. Maniec put him in touch with tasting groups around the city, and helped him land a harvest gig at Waters Winery in Walla Walla, Washington. Then, when she launched Corkbuzz, her restaurant-cum-wine school in NYC’s Union Square in December 2011, she hired him. “It was his thirst for knowledge and his humble approach that I loved,” says Maniec. “He’s always one to explore and pick up a book, ask a million questions to other sommeliers and winemakers and really go out there and get it.”

Harris aspires to sit the Master Sommelier exam. “But it’s not the title that makes you great at your job,” he says. “The definition of mastery is being able to walk into a ridiculous situation and come out gracefully.” —Carson Demmond

I was meeting all of these inspirational wine directors. I was a snot-nosed kid and tasting with people who worked at Jean-Georges and Daniel and Eleven Madison Park... They provided me with the impetus and resources I needed to see how good I could be at my job.

Sure, there are nerves and stakes, but it’s not really about winning. You’re there, hanging out with the other sommeliers, and at the end of the day, we realize it’s just wine.

TopSomm is a great opportunity to practice the hard stuff. They make it as difficult as they want to make it—like matching South African producers to their regions, blind tasting fiano di avellino, not stuff that would ever be on the actual exams.

ALTERNATIVE BEVERAGE Belgian lambic. I’m also a total sucker for Fentiman’s cherry soda.

FAVORITE WINE Champagne. Always. Eternally. For new favorites, Greece, Austria and Croatia. There’s crazy value coming out of those places right now.

IF YOU WEREN’T A SOMM… I would probably be getting a Masters in psychology.

IDEAL DAY OFF Friends. A bike ride. A dinner party.

CREDO It was Thomas Henry Huxley who said: “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.”

Chris McFall | Paggi House, Austin, Texas

ChrisMcFall’s drink of choice was keg beer in a red plastic cup until his roommate at Southwestern University poured him a glass of 1968 Bertani Amarone. “I couldn’t take my nose out of the glass,” he says.

After college, he worked in Austin restaurants as a sommelier but didn’t consider it as his calling until about three years ago. He’d taken a week off to check out the booming food scene around town. “Paggi House was my last stop,” McFall says, “I ate there three times in a row that week.” He soon settled in as the wine buyer at this 1840s plantation house, where his list is focused on Burgundy and Champagne while the chef highlights more local ingredients, including some from the restaurant’s gardens. “Austin’s a great place in wine right now,” says McFall. “People are really willing to experiment.” —Lara Douglass

FAVORITE REGION Burgundy. I’ve visited five times now, and I love the history. It actually reminds me of the shire from The Lord of the Rings—you can ride or bike or walk up the Côte, so green with little houses in and around the vineyards, everyone outside…The villagers stop and look, as if they can smell a foreigner like when Gandalf rides into town, and they give a nice nod. It’s a magical community.

DAILY DRINK Being in Austin, I can drink grüner veltliner all day. We’re also discovering how well it can age—we’re seeing some that can really hold up to older white Burgundies.

RICH PAIRINGS At family meal, we did an aged riesling and Sauternes with a prime rib roast. Unconventional as it may be, it was really awesome. The acid and the sugars really stood up to the marbling in the meat.

UNCONVENTIONAL STUDY HALL I love to draw maps, and have been known to laminate maps and hang them in the shower. Sometimes I laminate notecards and study them in the shower, too.

CHIQUET TICKET One of my favorite regulars gives pronunciations a hell of a try but with a deep Texan accent. At first when I started out I didn’t feel comfortable correcting anyone, and would even repeat the mispronunciations back. I remember one time handing him a bottle of “Gaston Chick-it.” A bit awkward, but what was most important to me was that he enjoyed the wine.

WALKEN IMPRESSION Once a woman requested I do the entire service as Christopher Walken for her husband’s birthday…This year is the first time in a while I’m going to miss the TexSom conference, and I expect to get at least one phone call asking for Walken.

Chris Gaither | Spruce, San Francisco

While attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, Chris Gaither worked in restaurants as he studied toward a career in education. But shortly after he graduated, he realized that he felt more at home in the restaurant business—and took a position with Atlanta’s One Midtown Kitchen. Over three years there, he gradually turned his focus toward wine, until he was putting together wine events for other restaurants and a retail shop. Later, at Atlanta’s Restaurant Eugene, he worked with chef Linton Hopkins on pairings for the tasting menu. Still, when a sommelier internship came up at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Napa Valley, he knew he had to take it. Now he’s at Spruce in San Francisco, where he’s recently been promoted to head sommelier, in charge of the restaurant’s Burgundy-heavy list. —Luke Sykora

DESERT ISLAND WINE I do love Champagne, and I really do enjoy drinking the wines from Billecart-Salmon. I could drink Champagne every day of the week.

STUDY TIME When I’m gearing up for a test, I’m in three different tasting groups: one focused on the test itself, one a blind tasting group with less of a format, and then a more relaxed tasting with friends just comparing wines from the same or similar regions.

TOP WINE OF 2012…SO FAR 2004 2004 René Engel Grands Eché­zeaux. His domaine has since been absorbed because he had no heirs. It was an amazing bottle—it really speaks to the quality of fruit from that vineyard, and how it was transformed into wine by that producer.

LIKE BURGUNDY, SANS BUZZ At The French Laundry they did a lot of nonalcoholic beverage pairings. It’s very thoughtful for people who don’t drink. So at Spruce, I got a few different dry sodas and juices and made some really fun pairings for a friend’s family. We were doing a truffle risotto, so I was thinking about older white Burgundy. I took a little coconut water, a bit of lemon juice, some GuS (Grown-up Soda), a touch of cinnamon-cardamom tincture that our bar manager makes for us and one or two other things and had them taste that with the truffle risotto. They loved it.

AT HOME I’m very seasonal. In the summer I’m drinking a lot of whites from Germany and Austria, or reds from Burgundy and Beaujolais. In the winter I’ll drink more Bordeaux or nebbiolo-based wines.

MARATHON MAN I’ve only done two marathons in the past year and a half, but I love going on long runs, especially given the beautiful landscape in San Francisco.

CLOSE TO HOME I’m really excited about the Radio-Coteau wines made by Eric Sussman on the Sonoma Coast. I think his style shows a good amount of restraint, but it’s not trying to mimic what’s French.

MENTORS Rob Van Leer, in Atlanta—we had a tasting group for a couple years. To this day we’ll have an hour-long conversation on the phone. He’s a lifelong friend. He changed how I talk about and think about wine.

SERVING A MASTER Roland Micu came in with a friend of mine to celebrate passing the Master Sommelier exam. I worked with the chef on a seven-course menu for them and wrote wine parings. How do you serve wine to someone who knows twenty times more than you do about wine?

Bobby Conroy | Benu, San Francisco

A Baltimore native, Bobby Conroy got his start in the restaurant business working as a server at a seafood restaurant on the Baltimore harbor. He didn’t think about wine much, though, until he was a captain at Smith & Wollensky in Washington, DC, and a wine-savvy coworker encouraged him to take the Court of Masters Sommeliers’ introductory course. A few years later he was working toward his Advanced certification and taking advantage of the wine cellar at Plume in Washington, DC’s Jefferson Hotel, where the wine list, inspired by the vinous preferences of Thomas Jefferson, has Madeira going back to the 1780s. Now, he’s studying for the Master Sommelier exam and working at Benu in San Francisco under Yoon Ha, who recently attained Master status. —L.S.

GETTING IN I did [the intro course] more as a “this-will-help-me-sell-more-wine-as-a-waiter” thing. But I realized: I can actually make a career out of being a sommelier.

A MEMORABLE NIGHT AT PLUME To celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, we did half off on all French wines. We were opening ’66 La Mission Haut-Brion, ’95 and ’96 Krug. We opened the best wine I’ve ever had in my life that night: a bottle of 1985 Armand Rousseau Clos St. Jacques.

WINE OF THE MOMENT A blend of riesling and sylvaner out of the Franken region of Germany—from Rudolf Fürst. It’s a 2005 vintage and the savory notes are starting to show well; it has the wonderful aromatics of riesling and all these herbaceous things going on.

EPIC VINEYARD MOMENT Standing right underneath the entryway for Montrachet, underneath Domaine Le­flaive’s sign. They own maybe two rows in the vineyard of Montrachet, and they have a little archway that has their name chiseled into limestone. It was the dead of January; you’d be lucky to hear a smudge pot going off a mile in any direction. There was no one out, no one driving, and it was just a wonderful moment to be with these sleeping vines of Montrachet.

FORGOTTEN FAVORITES I think something that’s often forgotten about is the Loire Valley. The legendary sweet wines of Vouvray, or Savennières, or even lesser appellations like Montlouis. François Chidaine is somebody who’s just magnificent in Montlouis.

THE EXTRA MAN If you ever get texture with a wine that matches the texture of the food, that’s just the bonus, that’s the extra man in the video game. The main thing is flavor—you have to match the flavors of the dish.

LOBSTER SOUP DUMPLINGS WITH… Yoon [Ha] and I came up with a Flemish sour ale for the pairing—Rodenbach Grand Cru. Most people don’t pay for an expensive wine paring and expect to get beer—but that pairing and one or two others elicit the most response. It’s a beer that can really change people’s frame of reference.

OFF THE FLOOR, ONTO THE TABLES I love Hold ’Em, and some of the other funky games like Razz and Stud. I love learning Omaha, but it’s such a reckless game—it’s challenging to play with a big stack of money. I don’t know if I want to get too deeply-stacked with experienced Omaha players.

Thomas Pastuszak | NoMad, NYC

“I had always thought I’d go into medicine,” says Thomas Pastuszak. A neurobiology major at Cornell and a classical pianist, he was taking his MCATs and working in restaurants to pay off his student loans when he decided to change course. “It was wine that drew me in,” he says, “the combination of art and science that goes into a wine program. I never looked back.”

Pastuszak worked his way up to the position of general manager for Stella’s and Olivia in Ithaca, NY, all the while growing increasingly fascinated by Finger Lakes riesling. Then in fall of 2010, he met Robert Bohr of the NYC-based importing company Grand Cru Selections, who encouraged him to bring a sampling of Finger Lakes wines to one of his portfolio tastings. Bohr tipped him off to an assistant wine director position opening up at Colicchio & Sons, so he packed up his things and moved downstate. By February 2011, he took over the program.

In February of this year, Pastuszak left to open The NoMad Hotel. “I had a meeting with Will Guidara and Chef [Daniel] Humm, and we got along really well,” he says. “We share the youthful drive and wanted to create a new and exciting concept—the perfect intersection of ‘uptown’ and ‘downtown.’” The restaurant has since reeled in accolades from every corner, but Pastuszak is proudest of their soft opening: “We built all of the racks and filled the entire cellar within two days,” he recalls. “Then to walk out on to the floor with a new wine list and all of our gems on it and present it to our families…that was the most incredible moment.” —C.D.

NECESSITIES Grower Champagne: I always keep a bottle in my fridge. It’s Pierre Peters right now.

FINGER LAKES WINE I’ve made it a mission to show people the potential of the region. With the trend towards fresher, lower alcohol wines, the region as a whole has the potential to be world class.

NOMADIC WINES There are interesting wines from around the word that don’t fit into their own category—reds from the Canary Islands or Lebanon, whites from the Jura—so right at the beginning of each section, I have “Nomadic wines.” You’ll have a Georgian variety planted in the Finger Lakes or Château Musar from Lebanon. Regions that people wouldn’t go to right away otherwise.

NEW OBSESSION Château d’Epiré in Savennières: They make a unique chenin. I took everything that I could get.

MENTORS I always looked up to Drew Nieporent and Danny Meyer as restaurateurs…and Master Sommelier Richard Betts with his Betts & Scholl label. I was really inspired by what Betts and Dennis Scholl were doing.

NEW GENERATION There are a lot of knowledgeable sommeliers out there, but I want to establish a new generation of sommeliers—one that is focused not just on the details of service but on connecting with people.

IF YOU WEREN’T A SOMM… I would probably pursue a career as a performer or as a teacher of piano.

DOWNTIME I’ve always been curious about looking up art and architecture and furniture design from the 1950s. I love the idea of modern furniture…magazines like Dwell and Architectural Digest. Reading up on those things is very fun.

Jacob Gragg | Aria, Atlanta

“I woke up every morning to the smell of biscuits, on a cot in a small restaurant in North Carolina,” says Jacob Gragg. With a single mother who owned the place, he was working the cash register by the age of four.

When he was older, Gragg picked up shifts as a cook and eventually decided the kitchen was not his future. “To be a great chef requires a level of dedication and sacrifice that I wasn’t up for,” Jacob says. But the front of the house felt different. “With wine, I didn’t look at it as a sacrifice. After taking the Advanced [Court of Master Sommeliers exam], I was on the plane, studying.” In fact, when asked what he does to rest his brain from wine, he shrugs off the idea. “Wine pretty much takes over my life.”

Now Gragg is at Aria in Atlanta, and still studying hard. “I’m going to take the Master’s exam as soon as they will let me,” he says. On his arm, he has a tattoo of the Master Sommelier pin. (Check it out on page 15.) “I got it a few months after passing my Advanced. I left the top blank because I don’t plan on not passing the Master’s. I know I am going to be doing this for the rest of my life.” —L.D.

STUDY TECHNIQUES An entire wall of my apartment is painted with IdeaPaint, turning it into a dry-erase board. I can project maps on the wall, which is really helpful…I also study standing up, because when you are telling people about wine, whether at work or in the Master’s exam, you usually aren’t sitting down.

I like reading old wine books. I really like the history. It’s curious how different the advertising was even 40 years ago. Older wine books from Europe targeted at wine professionals had advertisements for Scotch, Cognac, Cream Sherry and German sweet wines.

PREFERRED REGIONS Pfalz is my favorite region in Germany—I love the diversity of soil and the styles. It’s like the Alsace of Germany. I’m really into rieslaner lately. Müller-Catoir Auslese Rieslaner is the best ever.

GUILD BENEFITS The best part is the camaraderie. I’ve had some amazing mentors in Atlanta—Michael McNeil has been unbelievably kind during my studies. I also competed with Bobby Conroy, one of the other W&S nominees, in the Best Young Sommelier Finals…When Morgan Harris found out about his nomination, he got in touch with me to see whether I got the call, too. It’s a great community.

LEARNING FRENCH I really love to compete, and have missed out on competing internationally because I don’t speak a second language strongly enough, so I’m beginning to practice French. My goal in three years is to be able to serve someone confidently in French.

SHIFT DRINK Flanders Red Ale, Rodenbach Grand Cru and Duchesse de Bourgogne—I like sour styles of beer.

This feature appears in the print edition of October 2012.
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