Best New Sommeliers

Best New Sommeliers of 2017

We asked, and top sommeliers around the country answered with the names of the most talented newcomers to the restaurant scene. They singled out six sommeliers who are making a strong impression after fewer than four years as lead wine buyers. What does it take to get a vote from the toughest of critics? Enthusiasm, tenacity, grace and professionalism, to start. Couple that with juggling other projects, long hours on the floor, the inevitable grunt work and furthering their own knowledge and educating others. Let us introduce you to our Best New Sommeliers of 2017.

Douglas Kahn | The Charter Oak, Napa

“You can’t learn about wine by yourself,” says Doug Kahn, 28, newly appointed beverage director at Napa’s Charter Oak. He describes wine as “a communal language,” one he’s picked up through a diverse array of restaurant jobs.

Growing up just outside of Philadelphia, Kahn recalls that he never loved restaurants, but loved the people who worked in them. During his high school years, he bussed tables for an all-woman crew at Arpeggio, later working as a cook after college, before moving back to the front of the house as a server at Pumpkin, where Chris Kearse taught him how to run a restaurant.

He is like a ballet on the floor, and very polished. —D’Lynn Proctor, MS
On a visit to New York City, Kahn went to grab a cocktail at Eleven Madison Park with a friend, and knew instantly that he wanted to work there. Three cover letters later, he landed a job as a food runner, and one night, while polishing glasses, a sommelier passed him a glass of ’86 Mouton Rothschild, an experience both humbling and centering. Kahn decided to spend as much time as possible as a cellar rat at Eleven Madison, studying viticulture and vinification on the side. His first sommelier job came at Sixteen in Chicago, before moving to Napa to manage The Charter Oak’s all-Napa-Valley wine list. Now he’s serving a lot of the winemakers who make the very wines he sells.

For Kahn, being a beverage director is about building relationships and expectations, both among employees and winemakers in the community. The draw for him, in fact, was the idea of what chef Christopher Kostow and director Nathanial Dorn view as a “community-orchestrated restaurant,” a place where all the wine and food and most of the clientele are locally based, all brought together under one roof. While at Charter Oak, Doug is gearing up to study for his Master Sommelier exam. When asked what his favorite pairing is, he doesn’t skip a beat before replying “good company.” —Geoff Millar

His knowledge of wine is magnificent. You can see his passion for this industry. —Frances Leon, Sam’s Social Club, Calistoga

Katie Morton | Marta, NYC

Once a student of dance, Morton changed course at age sixteen after reading Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain, and decided to become a cook. She headed to the Culinary Institute of America, but during her externships she felt like something was missing. “The front of the house seemed to have a greater opportunity to connect with people. And I saw that, with wine, I could learn about cultures and history, be intellectually challenged, and be more engaged and have a deeper sense of community.”

After graduating, she took a job as a food runner at Eleven Madison Park, where she met John Ragan, MS, Union Square Hospitality Group’s wine director. Two years later, she took him by the arm and proclaimed that she, too, wanted to be a Master Sommelier. She eventually joined the wine team at EMP in 2012, then helped open The NoMad, followed by two and a half years at Maialino.

Following in the shoes of Jack Mason, MS, would be a challenge for any seasoned sommelier. Katie made it look easy. She has grown the idea of Marta as a destination restaurant for great wine and great service. —Jeff Porter, Del Posto, NYC
Four months after she started at Maialino she had her wine “ah-ha” moment over a feast of roast rabbit and offal accompanied by a 1964 Mirafiore Barolo. “Who knew nebbiolo would change my life?” Morton is now the wine director at Marta, an Italian restaurant north of Madison Square Park focusing on Roman-style crackly-crusted pizzas. “My job is to show guests things they’ve never tried before. If someone’s world gets bigger by me introducing them to something new—hopefully something they like—for me that’s one of life’s pleasures.” She has also doubled the selection of Champagnes because, she says, Marta is about Champagne. “It’s great with pizza, as it’s salty and textural; some are bread-y or nutty with age, and they pair great with leavened pizza dough.” —Sarah Sutel Looper

Katie is a hospitalitarian to the bone! Not only does she have great wine knowledge and taste, she has intense service skills executed with polish and grace. Nicole Hakli, Acme, NYC

Jason Huerta | Jeffrey’s, Austin

Jason Huerta was set on being a coffee ambassador. He hoped to use his degree from Texas Christian University to help coffee bean growers receive fair prices, and to build the culture of fine coffee in the United States. Then “Hawaii changed my way of thinking,” he says. He spent a summer there during college then returned after his senior year, bartending at Pizzetta in Kauai. “I realized I was born for hospitality,” he says. When he returned to Texas in 2006, he landed a job at Pappas Bros., where he joined the wine team in 2007, and it was a wine at a tasting a month later that set him on the path toward hardcore sommelier-dom.

Jason is a leader in the industry, working hard to run one of the best beverage programs in the State of Texas. He is also a big advocate of beverage education and a great ambassador of the sommelier community. —Christopher McFall, June’s All Day, Elizabeth Street Café and Perla’s, Austin

“I don’t remember the appellation, but I do remember it was 1969 Leroy. I was blown away by the story of the wine and its maturity,” he says. Huerta went on to open Counter 357, an ambitious, prix-fixe restaurant in Austin, and to win TEXSOM’s Best Sommelier competition in 2010. Just this past March, he signed on as beverage manager and wine director at Jeffrey’s and The Josephine House in Austin, working with June Rodil, MS, a 2016 W&S Best New Sommelier and now director of beverages for the entire McGuire Moorman Hospitality group. Huerta remains determined to turn people on to wines with maturity, adding older bottles to the list at Jeffrey’s, where steak is the focus. “It’s so special when you put a bottle with age in front of someone and see them have that same epiphany.” —S.S.L.

Jason is humble, brilliant, and does the name ‘sommelier’ proud. He is working in an iconic Austin restaurant and doing very cool things with the wine list. —David Keck, MS, Goodnight Charlie’s, Houston

Rory Pugh | Jean-Georges, NYC

Rory Pugh is a hospitalitarian at his core, having honed his craft at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar in San Diego.

He was there for nearly three years when he met Michael Scaffidi, the chef sommelier at Jean-Georges in NYC, at a wine tasting in southern California. The two hit it off, and a week after the tasting, Pugh was on a plane to NYC to interview. He started as a sommelier at Jean-Georges in August 2015. It took Pugh only a little over a year to move up, and in February of this year, he took over as chef sommelier—heading up a six-person team and a cellar full of treasure in Burgundy and Bordeaux; vintage Champagne going back to the ’80s; Château d’Yquem spanning 35 vintages; and an impressive selection of Madeira and Alsatian late-harvest wine. Yet Pugh quickly identified some areas to enrich, and has since amped up the selections from the Loire Valley, Austria, Germany and less-heralded appellations of Burgundy.

He’s incredibly knowledgeable and opinionated, but still puts the guests’ needs first. —Andrea Morris, Nix, NYC
Rather than pinpoint a moment, job or bottle that turned him on to wine, Pugh’s says his transition from earning a German Studies degree at San Diego State to diving into hospitality came through understanding the importance of the dining experience.

“We only have 168 hours in the week, and that’s not a lot of time,” says Pugh. “Restaurants are one of those places where you should be able to come in, lean back and feel absolutely taken care of, at any level.” Dining out, for Pugh, is a release from the workweek, a time to spend with his wife and friends. “When I understood the power of that is when I wanted to focus one hundred percent on hospitality.” —Deanna Gonnella

He’s a young guy who has a great team of sommeliers under him and is very kind and humble tableside. —Amy Racine, Dovetail, NYC

Justin King | Bridge Street Social, Dewitt

It was a visit to Ten Bells in NYC that sealed it. “Within twenty minutes, I knew I wanted to open Bridge Street,” Justin King recalls. “Not that I wanted to replicate Ten Bells, but the vibe—it was like an elixir. The place exudes joie de vivre. It’s lively, sexy; if you are taking a third date to Ten Bells, you’re probably in a good spot.”

He’s dedicated to the education of his staff, making Bridge Street Social one of the most well-trained restaurants in the state. His extensive glass-pour program is in a league of its own. No guest leaves unsatisfied. —Gerry Baker, Wolfgang Puck Steak, MGM Grand, Detroit

When he returned to Lansing, his Michigan hometown, he and a friend immediately began scoping out locations, deciding to focus on DeWitt, an up-and-coming suburb where the community board welcomed the idea of a wine-focused spot. “Michigan has a big beer scene,” King says. “What we do is very different from that.” The idea wasn’t just a wine bar, but a place that would attract locals as well as hospitality professionals interested in upping their wine game. King had worked for a local wine distributor, and he leveraged those contacts to quickly build a list of 150 wines by the glass, including many of the producers he’d discovered while working in stores and restaurants back in college. “It’s designed to keep the lights on,” he jokes, pointing out familiar favorites like Rombauer chardonnay. Yet it’s also crafted to lead people to unexpected places, whether Italy’s Valle d’Aosta, lesser-known corners of France’s Loire Valley or the vineyards of Greece.

Justin is driven, warm and committed to pushing himself, fellow sommeliers and his restaurant team beyond the demands of the market. —Rachel van Til, Pappas Bros., Dallas
When it comes to training, everyone on staff gets the chance to taste all the wines he pours by the glass; they also gain access to frequent blind tastings and seminars. If someone decides to go for their Master Sommelier credentials, when they pass an exam along the way, he’ll cover the fee. “I wanted to do something that was part of me, and something for Michigan,” he explains. “I want people to do things here. I live here. I want to die here. I want to raise my kids here.” —Tara Q. Thomas

Theo Lieberman | La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, NYC

Troll Theo Lieberman’s Instagram and you may notice the same three emojis in his captions: man with crossed arms, eggplant and spider. The string of characters starts to make sense when you see the back of his Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels t-shirt, which reads, “We are not here to fuck spiders.”

"Theo is, hands down, the most enthusiastic wine professional I know. He lives and breathes wine, but not for his own gain—rather for the benefit of his guests, friends and colleagues." —Todd Chatterton, Vaucluse, NYC

“It’s this phrase we have at work which means we are never there to just do a good job,” says Lieberman. “We are there to do the best job and not mess around.” Not surprising, coming from someone who has put in time as the head bartender at NYC’s Milk & Honey, Lantern’s Keep and Eleven Madison Park.

For Lieberman, the switch flipped from cocktails to wine while opening high-end airport wine bars for OTG Management. He was putting together lists of spirits, cocktails, beer and wine, and missed interacting with customers, so a friend at Flatiron Wines & Spirits suggested he work there. “I would do one retail shift every Saturday. I was lucky when I started to cut my teeth in the wine world: ’60s Barolo—Borgogno and Rinaldi—and old Produttori Barbaresco were things we would drink on Saturday nights.”

Now Lieberman is full time at Compagnie, where you might find him sabering three-liter bottles of Champagne, wielding his Port tongs on back vintage California cabernet and pioneering white Bordeaux sales. The vibe is relaxed but the list is serious, around 1,000 selections, full of rare finds from the Loire, Burgundy and Jura along with some of the best Champagne prices in NYC.

"Theo won the Rudd Scholarship for his performance in the Certified Sommelier exam and has continued to learn about the wines of the world with a voracious appetite." —Bryn Birkhahn, Rebelle, NYC

photo of Douglas Kahn by Kelly Puleio; Justin King by Jena McShane; Jason Huerta by Jessica Attie; Kate Morton, Rory Pugh, Theo Lieberman by Mike Rush.

This feature appears in the print edition of October 2017.
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