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
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
Justin Timsit, late of Lacroix Restaurant and The Rittenhouse Hotel, Philadelphia, soon to be at Gramercy Tavern, NYC
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.
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
“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
Caleb Ganzer, Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, NYC
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
Rachel Van Til, Mabel Gray, Hazel Park, MI
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
Spencer Chaffey, Mason Pacific, San Francisco, CA
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
Nicole Hakli, Acme, NYC
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.
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
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.
wine programs in Philadelphia, with a special attention to a natural wine. —Ross Maloof, Vedge, Philadelphia
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