Turning 21 - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Turning 21

I was born in Japan, a few hours outside of Tokyo, in the Kanagawa prefecture. My parents moved there so my grandparents could help raise me until we moved back to the US. My grandpa was an engineer, but he loved fishing and would regularly bring home his day’s catch and serve the fish as sashimi, always saving the best piece for me. He would say, “Yoi mono o tabenakereba, yoi mono gawakaru yo ni naranai.” (If you don’t experience the best quality, you won’t be able to tell what is good).

My family didn’t drink wine, so I wasn’t exposed to it growing up—but I was obsessed with tea. So, at 15, I got a waitressing job at a local tea house in Valencia, California. We had over 120 teas, and my job (in addition to serving food) was to recommend teas based on variety, country, levels of caffeine, price and aromas. There is a ritual of serving tea, just as there is with wine, and my mom always jokes I was destined to be a sommelier.

Courtesy of Cristie Norman

After waiting tables at the tea house, then at a BBQ restaurant, there was one fancy restaurant in town I had in my sights. I heard the GM loved wine, so I started reading every beginner wine book I could find—and it worked! They hired me as a barback, and within a year I was promoted to server, scheduling my first-level sommelier exam just days after my 21st birthday. At this point, I had been studying wine for almost two years, so I scheduled my second-level exam a few months later.

After passing my exams, I wanted to work in the biggest wine program possible. I’d heard of Spago Beverly Hills and applied for every open position they posted for several months. At 21 years old, even though I had practically no professional experience as a sommelier, they decided to give me a chance.

Suddenly, I was exposed to top wines from every region of the world. At one point we had over 3,000 selections, and collectors would bring us wines I would never be able to afford. They were so generous with me, providing an education I could never learn from studying books—letting me experience the best, so that I could tell what is good.

My first taste of Salon Champagne was the 1996 vintage. I thought the foil was too thick. Collectors would come into Spago almost every Friday with a different vertical of Coche-Dury. Thanks to Allen Meadows, I got to taste DRC from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. With no frame of reference for how famous wineries or vineyards were—if I liked it, it was good, the prestige wasn’t important to me.

Now, I think of my palate as a spiderweb of all the experiences I’ve had tasting—my grandfather’s catch, the teahouse, the ’59 Bordeaux.

I’d never liked old Bordeaux before, but I cried when I tasted a flight of ’61 and ’59 first-growth Bordeaux because it was the first time I understood what everyone was talking about; it was perfectly balanced and the finish lasted for what seemed like forever. At the time, I had no idea how lucky I was, or how those experiences would set the bar for every wine for the rest of my life.

Cristie Norman (Photo: Dominick Aznavour)

Although I was tasting excellent wine regularly and studying every day, it took some time for my knowledge to catch up to my experience. I wanted to be perfect and was very hard on myself. Sometimes, I would cry in the wine cellar because I didn’t know which wine to recommend. I’m Asian and looked younger than I was, and guests would often try to discredit or verbally abuse me when I recommended expensive wines for them to purchase; I didn’t understand then that people were just insecure and that it was never about me. After a few years, I began to step into my own confidence, to meet my guests where they are at in their wine knowledge. I realized the things I had studied on flashcards would inform my own decisions in selecting wine; I didn’t need to recite them to my guests.

Now, I think of my palate as a spiderweb of all the experiences I’ve had tasting—my grandfather’s catch, the teahouse, the ’59 Bordeaux. Those strong early memories shaped the way I taste wine today and continue to build on one another as I get older. I’ll revisit wines I had in the past and see them in a new light, their style becoming more defined in their place on the web. But I never look at scores and couldn’t care less about vintage guides or ratings from people I don’t know.

Currently, I run the wine program at Delilah as a Lead Sommelier at the Wynn Las Vegas. Whenever I have the opportunity to open something really incredible, I always make an effort to give it to someone who is learning or just starting, the way my mentors did for me. Because if you don’t experience the best quality, you won’t be able to tell what is good.

This story appears in the print issue of Winter 2022.
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