Best New Sommeliers

Best New Sommeliers of 2014

There are sommeliers, and then there are well-educated wine geeks. There’s a big difference, and it’s clear at table: While both know wine inside and out, the sommelier is a hospitality professional, at the ready to guide you to your next great bottle. To find tomorrow’s stars—the sommeliers who excel at hospitality and in their wine knowledge—we asked the toughest critics, their peers. And then we interviewed the people who garnered the most votes, to find out how they’ve gotten where they are so quickly. Budding sommeliers, take notes. Diners, book your tables. Here are the six Best New Sommeliers of 2014.

Amy Racine | Sons & Daughters, San Francisco

Growing up in an Italian-American family that took wine and food seriously, Amy Racine always knew she wanted to work in the food world. “From the second grade I knew I wanted to be a chef,” she says. As soon as she graduated high school, Racine left Ohio for Hyde Park, New York, to attend the Culinary Institute of America.

She stayed on course to be a chef until she began the wine class portion of the cooking program, taught by longtime teachers Michael Weiss and Steven Kolpan. “It opened up a whole new realm of the culinary world for me,” she says. “Until then I used to think people just drank wine because it was fun; I didn’t understand how [wine] could be understood on a much deeper level, and how much it could bring to a dish.” For her, the realization was monumental. “It was scary; I’d put all my heart into becoming a chef, and then I took these awesome classes and saw that they were even more interesting to me than culinary class.”

After graduating in 2010, she decided to move across the country to enroll in the CIA’s Accelerated Wine and Beverage Program at Greystone in California’s Napa Valley. After that, there was no looking back to the kitchen, she says. She headed to southern Utah, to work as a sommelier at Amangiri, a luxury resort and spa in 2011, then moved back to California, wanting to be closer to the wine scene and a robust community of wine professionals. In 2012, San Francisco restaurateurs Teague Moriarty and Matt McNamara tapped her to manage the beverage programs for their restaurants Sons & Daughters and The Square. Now 25 years old, with a recently earned Advanced Certification from the Court, she’s widely recognized among her peers as one of San Francisco’s most promising young sommeliers.—Erik Tennyson

“I’d put all my heart into becoming a chef, and then I took these awesome wine classes and saw that they were even more interesting to me than culinary class.”

Early Influences
Sunday dinners were big: Everyone would sit down together in the early afternoon, sipping wine and eating, then moving to Sambuca hours later.

First Love
Trimbach gewürztraminer. It smelled pretty, maybe even a little over the top. I thought about it all night and all the next day.

A Cook’s Approach
I try to connect what the wine is trying to do with what the chef is trying to do. We had one dish—abalone with sea grapes in a briny sauce—I paired it with Bermejo from the Canary Islands because it had this intense mineral salinity to it. Both wine and dish were showcasing a terroir with a harsh climate and heavy ocean winds.

Wine of the Moment
Portuguese dry wines: arinto, bical—these are great varieties that you don’t come across very often.

Classic Choices
When I think of fine wines my mind goes to Bordeaux. Everything is related back to Bordeaux. You hear of this wine maker in Rioja and how he spent time in Bordeaux or how this person in California worked back in Bordeaux.

Please Drink More…
...2010 Palette Rosé by Château Simone. Its herbal tones go so well with the items from our garden. The higher price ($150) and its association with rosé as a patio pounder turn people away, but this rosé has some real beauty to it.

Table Manners
This one guy had me pull up six wines so he could scan them all with an app. He didn’t seem interested in what I had to say; he just wanted to scan the labels. He wound up choosing three of them so it could’ve been worse.

Study Tips
Studying for the [Court of Master Sommelier’s advanced] exam, I went to go see Bob Bath, and he started firing off questions like ‘Name five producers from this area; Where is this winemaker from?’ It made me realize that it’s easy to go over the same flashcards and study your maps. But there are always areas that you miss.

How to Taste
Taste everything—not to figure out if you like it, but to figure out what Rioja tastes like, what new oak tastes like. I keep a journal and record how they were similar or different from other ones from that region; there’s so much you learn from one wine.

Working Glass
After really hard service, I like a really cold pilsner.

Perfect Day Off
Going to the Bay and relaxing with some oysters and Chablis. And maybe some Champagne.

Jeff Kellogg | Maialino, NYC

A bit of non-direction landed Jeff Kellogg at the doors of a fledgling restaurant group in Charlotte, North Carolina, 131 Main. After helping the group open and expand four restaurants and a wine bar, he headed to the historic Greenbrier Resort in White Sulpher Springs, West Virginia. Kellogg was seduced by the history and pedigree of the property, but soon felt compelled to expand his scope, and took off for Napa, where he worked harvest and joined William Sherer, MS, at Redd in Yountville. That’s when Kellogg passed the Court of Master Sommelier’s Advanced Exam, earning the Rudd Scholarship for top score. He spent the next harvest with Greg Harrington, MS, at Harrington’s Walla Walla winery, Gramercy Cellars, then tackled France with Chad Zeigler and Raj Parr at RN74 in San Francisco. When John Ragan, MS, dangled Italy in front of Kellogg via a job offer at Maialino in NYC, there was no hesitation.

“Coming to work at Maialino was like coming to work at the mecca of all things Italian,” Kellogg says. When he started, the restaurant had 15 Barolos on the list; he’s since helped build the selection to include well over 100 labels. “We have so many from the ’40s and ’50s, tons from the ’70s and ’80s—the price is just so much better as compared to old Burgundy or old Bordeaux. I think that’s what really set our list apart: it is so much fun to see nebbiolos from ’71 or ’74 that are less than $200.” Two of the most memorable Barolos Kellogg has on his list right now? The 1954 Conterno, which he describes as light, almost rosé colored, elegant and aromatic. And a 1974 Giuseppe Rinaldi: “a more structured and memorable wine: You just keep thinking about it.” —Caitlin Griffith

The advice I give to folks who are looking to get into the business: Find the smartest professionals you can and be a good apprentice.”
The Lure
I always worked in restaurants but when I learned I could make more money by selling wine in restaurants, I was sold. Immediately I bought Kevin Zraly’s book [Windows on the World Complete Wine Course] and have been broke ever since.

Late Night
It’s great: Guests are always offering a glass of Barolo as I’m winding down my shift. But honestly? I’ve been running around in a suit for the past eight hours and the last thing I want is a glass of tannic nebbiolo. I’m looking for crisp, mineral Chablis or some Champagne. Since we don’t have Chablis on the menu, we stock some in house just for postwork drinks. Usually I’m drinking Dauvissat, since it is more affordable these days than
Raveneau.

Guardian Angel
We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it wasn’t for Sur Lucero, MS. If I didn’t live four blocks from him and he wasn’t so generous with his time, while studying for his Masters no less, I don’t think I would have received the score I did on my Advanced, let alone pass.

Drinking Well
We are focusing on wine from Friuli this summer: The cleaner and classic styles from that region are so popular right now. Orange wine has peaked finally. Then we spotlight Sicily, which is definitely an area that is trending, especially Etna Bianco. Marco De Bartoli’s Grillo is remarkable.

Nebbiolo Mecca
After our Sicilian highlight this fall, we’ll head back north for our nebbiolo focus. Last year, it was great: We poured 15 by the glass, vintages from 1971 to 2011. We named it ‘Forty Years of Nebbiolo!’

Smart Surroundings
The best thing I’ve done, and the advice I give to folks who are looking to get into the business, is find the smartest professionals you can and be a good apprentice—lug boxes, hang around and help out, be a busboy, act as the best apprentice possible. There is no master’s degree in sommeliering!

Follow Your Palate
Willie [Sherer] told me straight away: Don’t like a wine because that’s what you’re told. Trust your palate and know what you like. Stock the wines you believe in on your list and don’t let others tell you how to taste.

Jane Lopes | Eleven Madison Park, NYC

Jane Lopes might have been a professor of Renaissance literature by now if she hadn’t been turned down for a job at her college admissions office. She’d just graduated from the University of Chicago and was busy applying to graduate schools. With no wine experience other than drinking it, she applied for an opening at LUSH, a wine bar and retail store with three Chicago locations. To her surprise, she got the job, and with it a new direction. “I realized that wine was academic and intellectual, but also experiential and social. I decided it was better than sitting in a library for the next seven years.”

After a year at LUSH, Lopes added a part time job mixing drinks behind the bar at The Violet Hour, where she connected with the owners of The Catbird Seat in Nashville. “They were looking for a beverage director who had experience in both wine and cocktails. I was ready for a change and thought, sure, I’ll move to Nashville, why not?”

Meanwhile, Lopes had begun studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers, and passed the Certified Exam in 2012. She felt the need for exposure to a more classic wine program: “None of my wine jobs had been very traditional. If you’re going to be a great anything—artist, author, sommelier—you need to understand the classics that you’re building on.” She moved to New York in 2012, where Hristo Zisovski and Richard Anderson hired her as a sommelier at Ristorante Morini. “Being immersed in an Italian list is incredibly helpful. Italy has so many different grapes and regions that are important to know.” Lopes passed the Advanced Exam in August 2013 with the second highest score and was runner-up for the Rudd Scholarship. Last May she became the first woman to win the Chaîne des Rotîsseurs Best Young Sommelier Competition, and she’ll represent the US in Copenhagen this September at the international finals.—Stephanie Johnson

“I realized that wine was academic and intellectual, but also experiential and social. I decided it was better than sitting in a library for the next seven years.”
The Cocktail Advantage
Mixing cocktails requires you to become familiar with lots of distinctive flavors. You have to think, ‘Does this taste right? If not, what can I add or subtract to correct it?’ To this day, I can be tasting a wine and get a flashback to a specific flavor or aroma from a cocktail. I rarely miss American oak in a blind tasting because of my experience with Bourbon.

Continuing Education
I’m an academically minded person who likes challenges, and the Court offers exactly that. The more I learn about wine, the more satisfying it is. It helps you make connections about what you’re tasting and how to spin it all together. It also gets you more involved in the industry and the community. Passing the MS exam is not the finish line—it’s more like graduate school.

Nashville vs New York
I didn’t have access to as many wines in Nashville and was almost forced to get creative. I developed drinks we called ‘modified wine,’ like Tokaji in a Bourbon-rinsed glass, or a blend of Italian red wine and sour Belgian ale inspired by the wines of [Sicily’s] Frank Cornelissen. New York is an amazing culinary scene, but they kind of know what they want. In Nashville, our guests were willing to go along for the ride and try something new.

I ♥ NY
When I moved to New York, I wasn’t even sure I would go on to take the Advanced Exam. But I fell in love with the NYC sommelier community entered into a tasting group right away, and made a lot of friends. There’s such a great sense of camaraderie here.

Favorite Wine
Dry riesling—more specifically, German dry riesling. It’s been my biggest fascination for several years.

Dream Trip
I was between jobs last summer and had won a trip to Alto Adige, so I extended my travels and drove around Germany and Alsace for eight days. I absolutely loved the food, wine, people and scenery.

Inspiration
Fernando Beteta, MS, is one of the first Masters I ever knew. His knowledge was so impressive, but I was most impressed by his generosity. He gave so much of his free time to do tastings for people who were studying. Fred Dame, MS, too: Both he and Fernando taught me to keep paying it forward.

Advice to Aspiring Somms
Get into a wine-focused situation and then work as hard as you can. I gained a lot from working retail, and it gave me time to study. It’s all about soaking up knowledge, learning as much as you can in every situation, and being willing to do whatever is necessary.

Jeff Taylor | Betony, NYC

In 1997, Jeff Taylor found himself moonlighting at Gramercy Tavern while trying to make it as an actor. “Paul Grieco was a captain at the time, and he told me, ‘If you ever want to make a career in restaurants, Danny Meyer restaurants are a good way to go.’” At the time, Taylor was more interested in acting, and left after a couple of months, when he got a part in a play. He spent the next seven years resisting the idea of making restaurants his career, working only in what he calls “no-name” places between theater gigs. That changed in 2004, when he decided the acting wasn’t happening, and he took a job at Bistro du Vent, Mario Batali’s now-defunct French restaurant, where Jeremy Noye—recently named CEO of Morrell & Co.—was the general manager. “I learned everything I know about French wines there,” Taylor says.

After taking the American Sommelier Society “Viti-Vini” wine course, he aimed his sights on Eleven Madison Park. “I just knew they were going to do really exciting things,” he says. Starting in 2007 as a server, he worked up to a sommelier position by 2009. This past March, he moved uptown to join former EMP employees Bryce Shuman and Eamon Rockey at Betony, one of our New & Notable NYC Restaurants of 2014. —Tara Q. Thomas

“It’s like being in the theater every night. I love being on the floor, talking to people, figuring out who I can joke around with.”
The Spark
My family was living in London, next door to a family with an amazing cook and a great cellar. They were so generous: One night it would be risotto with truffles shaved over top and Barolo; Burgundies the next week. I went to the pub and drank plenty of beer, but those dinners were the spark that ignited my interest in wine.

Stage vs Dining Room
It’s like being in the theater every night. I love being on the floor, talking to people, figuring out who I can joke around with.

Size Matters
The thing I miss most at Betony is physical space: The list is the size it is because that’s all I can fit [in the cellar].

Making Choices
I try to put on wines that mean a lot to me. For instance, I went to Australia two years ago and I visited the Yarra Valley. It completely changed my perception of Australian wine. They were making really cool, cool-climate pinot noir and chardonnay; I wanted to bring that back.

Current Interests
Santa Barbara, especially with all these young guns working there, like Sashi Moorman, Gavin Chanin—they are making New World wines with Old World style.

Modesty Pays
I don’t know why, but for some reason I’ve been able to get some nice allocations of wines like Ganevat, Comtes Lafon, Allemand—wines every sommelier wants, of course.

Unexpected Pairing
Retsina and mackerel. Last year, I went to Santorini, and I was fascinated by the Gai’a Ritinitis. Traveling around, I found that most people would taste us on all their wines, then reluctantly pull out the retsina. Paraskevopoulos [owner/winemaker at Gai’a] was proud of it; he described it as a retsina for people who like wine. I tasted it and thought, if I ever find a place for this I’m going to pour it. And then Bryce [Shuman, Betony’s chef] came out with this cured mackerel dish with chamomile and tamarack, this sappy, piney herb, and I thought, ‘This is it!’

Dream Trip
If I wasn’t already going to Burgundy at the end of October with Daniel Johnnes [Taylor won a La Paulée scholarship this year], I’d say Burgundy. But now I’d have to say Piedmont—during truffle season. Barolo, Barbaresco, nebbiolo in general I find fascinating.

Advice to Aspiring Sommeliers
Listen to the guest, and make sure they get the wine they want, not what you want. I might want to taste grand cru Burgundy all night, but if they want Russian River pinot noir, they should have Russian River pinot noir.

Perfect Day Off
Sleeping in! Then going out with friends, maybe to a museum; the Neue Gallerie is one of my favorites.

Downside of Working in NYC
New York has a lot to offer, and you can forget that when you’re working eighty hours a week in a restaurant.

Tami Wong | Juniper & Ivy, San Diego

Tami Wong was born into restaurants, but it took her a while to call them her home. When she was growing up in Colorado, her father had two restaurants where she worked the hot line after school and on weekends. “He passed on that Midwestern-Chinese work ethic: You work, that’s what you do,” she says. “It was fun.”

But if she started early, success took time. It wasn’t until she was 26 that she got her first front-of-house job, working at a San Diego–area cigar lounge in 1997. She quickly rose to cigar buyer. “That’s where I learned to isolate flavors,” she says.

That experience helped her when she started at San Diego’s 3rd Corner Wine Shop & Bistro in 2005. “Not long after I started, my boss said, ‘Hey Tami, there’s a crate of white Burgundies the distributor left us. Why don’t you check them out?’” she recalls. She opened a wine atlas to a map of the Côte d’Or and started tasting. “I thought, ‘Wow, this area isn’t very big. Yet these all taste totally different. I have to get into this.’ I haven’t been interested in much else since.”

“I thought, ‘Wow, this area isn’t very big. Yet these all taste totally different. I have to get into this.’ I haven’t been interested in much else since.”
She stayed seven years, working her way up to wine buyer. In January 2013 she became wine buyer at La Valencia Hotel, a 1926 La Jolla landmark where she learned about legendary bottlings under beverage director Andrew Moblech. “I would spend hours in that cellar. There’s one bottle of ’87 Vega Sicilia that I would go down to fondle every once in a while.”

Then in late 2013 she got a phone call: Top Chef winner Richard Blais needed a sommelier for his new San Diego restaurant, Juniper & Ivy. “I had no idea who he was,” she admits. “I don’t watch TV.” So she looked up the list at Spence, Blais’ Atlanta restaurant, created by sommelier Justin Amick. Split into two categories (Tried & True and Leap of Faith) it included her favorite icons and obscurities. “I thought, Oh my gosh, I want to write a list like that!” In January 2014 she landed the job.

What was the spark? “I think they liked the way I talk about wine. I was a communications major, so when I talk to a guest or a server, I figure out where they are with their knowledge and meet them there. I try hard not to nerd out in front of people who don’t want to nerd out. I’m just excited about everything.”—Emily Kaiser Thelin

Cigars vs. Wine
There are so many parallels: From the way [cigars’] wrappings are roasted to impart different flavors, to how their flavors change depending on where they’re from. Honduran cigars are more fullbodied, where Dominicans are milder. The big brands like Arturo Fuentes are mellower but not as interesting, just like wine brands. But a quality Honduran El Rey del Mundo has a roasted wrapper that gives it this distinct chocolatey deliciousness.

San Diego’s Stepsister Problem
San Diego has a bit of an inferiority complex. SF and LA are like the good big sisters that get all the attention, and we’re the redheaded stepchild. But there are a lot of us down here committed to making it a true fine-dining destination. The fact that Blais came here is awesome.

Competitive Stocking
I get off on getting things no one else can. I just got a six-pack of the 2012 Elk Cove Reserve Pinot Noir—they allocated one six pack to all of San Diego, and I got it!

Favorite Region
Right now I’m really excited about Corsica. I love how weird all the grapes are: sciaccarellu, niellucciu, and the wines’ balance of fruit and earth.

Post-Shift
I drink mostly whites, because they’re refreshing. I definitely have a type—when I’m talking to servers about my list, I find myself giving the same descriptions, whether I’m describing a grüner from Santa Barbara or a pinot gris from Alsace: Medium body, medium-plus acidity, pronounced minerality.

Margin for Error
The biggest difference between buying for restaurants and retail, beside the price point, is the volume. At 3rd Corner I had 900 labels, and moved stacks of wine, so I had more margin for error. Here the list is printed on the backside of the menu, so we physically only have room for 105 bottles. It can be hard. A lot of wine salespeople are my friends, and I hate having to say no to them.

Smellaround
Teaching the staff is my favorite part of my job, after the wine. That’s a big part of Blais’ vision: In addition to building the best restaurant in San Diego, we’re helping people fulfill their career goals. We do wine classes every week. Yesterday I did what I called Smellaround. I set out cups with a lemon, a lime, an orange, a yellow apple, a ripe pear, an unripe pear, a white flower, a rose, pineapple, honey, crushed nuts, orange blossom water, cinnamon, cloves, plus green things—jalapeño, bell pepper, parsley—and poured three wines, including a New Zealand sauvignon blanc and an Alsace gewurztraminer. I tweeted a picture of the table, it looked so neat.

Perfect Day Off
Hanging out with my son. He’s six.

Best Advice
My Grandpa Wong, who also owned a restaurant, used to say, “Work? No problem. No work? Problem.”

Scott Ota | Arro, Austin

After growing up in Houston and attending Texas State, Scott Ota headed to Austin, where he could indulge in two of his favorite things: music and food. It was there that a career in restaurants began to look appealing; he’d earned money for college by working in restaurants, but his Austin stints were at a different level: He built his hospitality skills at Restaurant Jezebel, one of the town’s highest-end restaurants, before following in the footsteps of Austin-based sommeliers Brian Phillip and June Rodil at The Driskill Grill, as wine buyer and sommelier. The 400 labels on The Driskill Grill’s list were a challenge at first, says Ota. “No pressure at all with that many labels!” he jokes, but he stayed for two and a half years. Fully committed to making wine his focus, he took a job at Arro, a casual French place from the ELM Restaurant Group, one year ago. Now “beverage leader,” he manages an 80-to-90-label all-French wine list that changes daily, working with Craig Collins, MS, beverage director for ELM.

Meanwhile, Ota has spent the last three years being active in TEXSOM, the Texas sommelier conference and competition. In 2013, Ota won Best New Sommelier in Texas; he was also the champion of Somms Under Fire, a food and wine pairing competition in which he won a trip to Burgundy.

Earlier this year, Ota passed the Advanced level of the Court of Master Sommeliers’ exam, earning the Rudd Scholarship for having achieved the highest marks. He is now keen on mentoring others through the process, to keep Texas a hotbed of support for Certified and Advanced students. —C.G.

“I’m a total map freak! It’s gotten to the point where I’ve laminated maps to plaster on the shower walls.”
Rosé Domination
We are going through five to six cases a week in our 118-seat restaurant. I couldn’t be happier about that.

Essential Reading
Definitely Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine. I’m a total map freak! It’s gotten to the point where I’ve laminated maps to plaster on the shower walls. Geography is really where one should start, since history and culture and food and climate all flow from there. Once I know the geography of an area, I can tackle the history and background of a place, consider the classic producers and what the new players are bringing to the table.

Study Strategy
I take a three-prong approach: First I focus on the “what”—what is the region and its defining characteristics? The next is “why?” Why does x happen this way in this region? Then, “how,” both in terms of how everything works together in the vineyards and cellars to create what we drink, and with an eye towards how can I teach this in a clear and effective way to my staff and others.

No More Vampire Teeth
At least twice a week guests ask if I’ve seen the documentary Somm. It used to be that guests were fearful of the sommelier—almost as if wine professionals grew vampire teeth—but now, most guests look to us for help.

Post-Shift Drink
A gin Martini. Death’s Door, two dashes of orange bitters and some vermouth. I love vermouth, and I’m a sucker for Dolin, sometimes substituting Noilly Prat. A little wet, stirred, frosted, with a lemon twist.

Geek Box
We have a box on our wine list, officially called “Wine of the Moment” but I call it the Geek Box—odd bottles that pair well with our cuisine that folks don’t normally order on their own, like the Clos Sainte Magdeleine Cassis Blanc.

Dream Trip
I’ve totally fallen for Burgundy: I mean, when you hang with Jasper Morris, MW, and taste at Christopher Roumier, then eat cheese and drink Dauvissat? The whole experience was fabulous. And being exposed to stuff you cannot find in the US, let alone Texas, was really great.

In my Fridge
For passing my Advanced, I was gifted a Patrick Piuze 2010 Grand Cru Chablis Les Preuses, and I’m definitely looking forward to drinking that. I’m also crushing on some bottles from Alsace these days: Marcel Deiss, Barmes-Buecher…


This feature appears in the print edition of the October 2014.
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