Best New Sommeliers

Best New Sommeliers of 2016

Each year we put a call out to wine directors across the country, asking them to nominate the best new talent they’ve spotted working the floor in restaurants. They voted in eight up-and-coming sommeliers who all share a depth of wine knowledge, a warm presence with guests and the respect their colleagues. We’re pleased to introduce our Best New Sommeliers of 2016.

Erica O’Neal, Italienne, NYC

Working with Matthew [Mather, wine director at Frasca] taught me that wine is history, and history is wine. The way that the wine gets into your glass is important.
Erica O’Neal was working as a field engineer on a Gulf of Mexico oil rig when the Deepwater Horizon exploded 50 miles away. She spent six weeks at the disaster site, an experience that jarred her into contemplating a career change. She headed for California to attend an 11-week course taught by Master Sommeliers David Glancy and Catherine Fallis, and also took a position at Wine Affairs, a small wine bar in San Jose. It was her first experience selling wine, and O’Neal loved it.

When she moved to Colorado in 2011, she looked up Bobby Stuckey, MS, co-owner of Boulder’s Frasca Food & Wine, and got a foot in the door as a reservations host. Any free moments she invested in shadowing the sommeliers, earning some solo shifts on the floor. Her first, in fact, was the night the rest of the team was in New York, accepting the James Beard Award for best wine program. “I was overwhelmed,” she said. “That was the first time I’d owned the position.” Earlier this year, after a year and a half working for Jeff Kellogg at Maialino in New York, she signed on as wine director for Italienne, a new restaurant from fellow Frasca alum Jared Sippel, where she showcases the wine regions that run from northern Italy to southern France. —Stephanie Johnson

Erica is one of the most talented wine people that I have ever come across. She is a future star of the wine world and one of the great genuine people in it. —Cedric Nicaise, Eleven Madison Park, NYC

Justin Timsit, late of Lacroix Restaurant and The Rittenhouse Hotel, Philadelphia, soon to be at Gramercy Tavern, NYC

Just being on the floor is part of my study time. I walk away from every guest thinking, what did I learn from that table? What can I do differently next time? I’ve never felt such purpose in my life; the urge to wake up every morning and start reading, because I’m so curious to learn why these wines taste the way they do.
In the summer of 2013, Justin Timsit was a well-established sales representative in the fashion industry with a territory that covered much of his native California. Then, during a drive from San Francisco back home to
Los Angeles, Timsit stopped to attend a wine dinner hosted by Rajat Parr and winemaker Sashi Moorman. Soon he was in regular contact with other California wine luminaries like Eric Railsback and Brian McClintic, MS, who encouraged him to join the Court of Master Sommeliers.

When Timsit passed his certified exam with the top score, it dawned on him that wine might become more than just a hobby. He convinced the owner of a Beverly Hills restaurant to let him work the floor, and after just
one month, Timsit landed a job as wine director at The Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia.

“It was the biggest learning curve of my life,” he says of managing the beverage program for the hotel and curating Lacroix’s 1,200-selection wine list. He’s made an impact in just two years, finding ways to procure wines that weren’t previously available in Pennsylvania’s state-controlled system. He’s also passed all but one of the Master Sommelier exams, with two more chances to earn that distinction. —S.J.

Justin has vastly improved the wine experience at Lacroix by sourcing
things not previously available. He opened up relationships with new
distributors to the state, organized education opportunities for other
somms, and passed two sections of the Master Sommelier exam on the first try.
—Alexandra Cherniavsky, Amada, Philadelphia

Victoria James, Piora, NYC

I got into foraging at Marea and started making amaro, mostly using plants from the aster family—daisies, sunflowers, mugwort—and burdock root, wild sorrel… This year, I made a 225-liter barrel; I’ll water it down and sweeten it with local honey, so I’ll have about 800 bottles of Aster Amaro.
“We have some great summer pasta—sweet summer corn cappellacci with chanterelles and truffles from Abruzzo. That dish just screams with white Burgundy.

“At Aureole, we poured Etienne Sauzet’s Villages Puligny. That was my first experience drinking youthful, lush Burgundy and thinking it was quite delicious. I’d been working as a bartender at an old-school Italian place—I was taking time off from school and walked in asking for a hostess job. They said, ‘What about bartender?’ I didn’t know the difference between beer, wine and liquor, but I found an old Cocktails for Dummies book under
the register and it opened Pandora’s box.”

Originally from Silver Spring, Maryland, James attended Fordham University for two years before getting that bartending job to help pay for school, and then never went back. She moved from being a cellar hand at Harry’s Café and Steak to a sommelier at Aureole when she turned 21. She spent two years there, then two years at Marea before moving to the West Village to direct the wine program at Piora. She’s spent the last year making the list her own, allowing it to expand and contract with the seasons between 300 and 500 selections. —Joshua Greene

Victoria’s the greatest. Writes a beautiful wine list, throws killer parties, and makes her own amaro. And she’s 25. —Jane Lopes, Eleven Madison Park, NYC

Caleb Ganzer, Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, NYC


I think of the list like making a playlist. You have to have a base line—things that people know and love—then pepper on the fun things; throw in those funky tracks that other people don’t know. If people feel comfortable, then they notice the inflection points more.
“I wanted to be a diplomat, change the world,” says Caleb Ganzer. But that was before the Illinois native found his way into a restaurant in Champaign, where he was going to school. “To succeed, I had to know at least about the wines by the glass,” he says and, before long, his wine studies began to encroach on his French studies. “If I wrote a paper, it was about wine,” he recalls.

The payoff came when a professor came in and asked for wine guidance. “All of a sudden I was the expert,” he says. “I knew then that I had something to offer.”

Today, after putting in time at several of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants and Eleven Madison Park, Ganzer offers one of New York’s most compelling wine lists, at Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels. Sommeliers flock there for his extensive selection of Champagnes, with rare bottles on offer at a fraction of the usual price. Wine geeks delight in the Jura selection, while collectors marvel at the Burgundy prices. And normal people are just happy to have decently priced, excellent wine in a beautiful setting in one of the hippest parts of town. —Tara Q. Thomas

Caleb’s list is not only compelling but fun, fairly priced and there is never not something I want to drink on it (usually too many that I would willingly). —Kimberly Prokoshyn, Rebelle, NYC

Rachel Van Til, Mabel Gray, Hazel Park, MI

I couldn’t have fallen in love with wine without growing up next to it. The differences in vintage and terroir, all from vineyards I’ve been driving past my whole life—one hundred yards can mean a world of difference.
Taking a year o from studying English literature at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, Rachel Van Til went home to Michigan, where she took a job at Bowers Harbor Vineyards, because, she says, ‘it was more interesting than working at the diner.”

It turned out to be more interesting than she’d expected. After she finished college, she returned to Michigan to work at Trattoria Stella, which has one of the most extensive wine lists in Traverse City. Last year, she moved to Detroit, where chef James Rigato was opening Mabel Gray, his ode to all things Michigan. She keeps the list tight and flexible to play with Rigato’s ever-changing menu, and always stocks bottles from the Great Lakes state. She’s currently preparing to take the Court of Master Sommeliers advanced exam. —Caitlin Griffith

Mabel Gray is a restaurant with (a) almost no storage space and (b) a tasting menu that changes at the chef’s whim, sometimes with no notice. Rachel manages to keep a clever, interesting, short list as well as a handful of surprises. Great person and a talented professional! —Evan Hansen, Selden Standard, Detroit

 

Spencer Chaffey, Mason Pacific, San Francisco, CA

After a shift, I love beer, especially kölsch—Reissdorf Kölsch! We have it in the restaurant. It’s my dad’s favorite beer, and it’s my chef’s favorite beer as well.
Spencer Chaffey’s dad grew up outside of London, and his mom’s family originated in Japan. His parents both took food quite seriously, and he grew up with a pretty unique set of flavors: miso soup for a snack, English
roasts for dinner.

Wine came later. While he was studying computer science at college in Los Angeles, a friend invited him to help open a wine bar. The CrepeVine, in Pasadena, opened with 87 wines by the glass, and Chaffey tasted all of them and much more, with an occasional break for wines like the 1996 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grands Echezeaux, which sealed his fate.

He’s since worked on every side of the business, mostly in Napa: a harvest internship at Ladera on Howell Mountain, a stint in retail at Back Room Wines, a sommelier gig at Redd in Yountville. There, he worked under William Sherer, MS, and absorbed a meticulous, subtle approach to wine service. “Willie’s one of those sommeliers who believes your presence kind of should go unnoticed,” says Chaffey.

He’s now at Mason Pacific, where he works with RN74 alum Erik Railsback to curate a list that’s ambitious for what’s basically a small neighborhood restaurant. While the “Desert Island” list features back vintages from the likes of Armand Rousseau and D’Angerville, Chaffey makes sure there are some more wallet-friendly deals, too, especially from 5 to 6 p.m. and from 9 p.m. to midnight, when wines on the “Market List” are half off. —Luke Sykora

I’m all about neighborhood restaurants with smart, deep wine programs. This place has it all. Spencer is doing a great job with a small, thoughtful program. —Grant Reynolds, Charlie Bird, NYC

Nicole Hakli, Acme, NYC

John Ragan, MS, was my first mentor. He is the example of what it means to be a sommelier. Perfection every single day. But Chris Baggetta was the head sommelier at EMP when I was working there. She was the first female sommelier I encountered, and it made me think, ‘This is possible. I can identify with her.’
Nicole Hakli, a Michigan native, worked in restaurants throughout college, as an escape from the rigorous concentration demanded by her music studies. In the end, however, priorities changed, and hospitality became her focus. She ended up in New York City, at Eleven Madison Park, an experience Hakli describes as a boot camp for hospitality. “You get your butt kicked and learn everything to perfection,” she says.

After rising through the ranks at EMP, Hakli was recruited for a sommelier position at The NoMad, working for former W&S Best New Sommelier Thomas Pastuzak. She recently started as wine buyer for the revamped Acme in New York’s NoHo neighborhood, where she focuses on French and Italian wines; in her spare time, she’s preparing for the Court of Master Sommelier Advanced exam. —C.G.

Nicole is doing an amazing job training their new staff, and bringing
a level of excellence to a casual dining spot that is rare in today’s restaurant scene in NYC.
The NoMad, NYC

 

 

Mariel Wega, a.kitchen + bar, Philadelphia

Rochester, New York, is where I grew up—my aunt had a small café called The Dutch Market. It was really a one-woman show. As as a teenager I helped her and learned to cook, wait tables, a bit of everything. I really liked the fast-paced energy, and serving people.
Philadelphia isn’t an easy city for sommeliers, mostly because of Pennsylvania’s state-run wine distribution system; restaurants pay full retail price for the wines they stock. For a long time, that meant high markups, unadventurous wine lists and a lot of “BYOB” restaurants. But Mariel Wega says all of that was starting to change in 2014, when she took over as wine director at a.kitchen + bar on Rittenhouse Square. The current sommelier community, she says, has encouraged the state to open up to importers like Skurnik Wines and Polaner Selections, which have brought in more interesting small-production wines.

She’s doing her part to keep up the excitement by organizing a monthly gathering for the city’s restaurant and wine professionals—everyone brings a bottle. “There’s no pressure about ‘teaching’ anyone; it’s more about just sharing,” she says.

Wega earned her wine chops at the Moore Brothers retail shop, just across the Jersey border—a destination for Philly wine geeks seeking bottles that aren’t available in-state. “The staff lived and breathed wine and cooking and food—it was very contagious,” she recalls. She absorbed their focus on winemakers who work on a small scale: At a.kitchen, she’s stocked the list with farmer juice from all over the globe, from Jura and Beaujolais to Sonoma and McLaren Vale, all at prices that are surprisingly friendly —L.S.

Mariel is an absolute superstar. She manages one of the most impressive
wine programs in Philadelphia, with a special attention to a natural wine.
—Ross Maloof, Vedge, Philadelphia

photos by Mike Rush; photo of Rachel Van Til by Joe Vaughn; photo of Spencer Chaffey by Alison Christiana Photography

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