A college gig cooking for other students in dorms and Greek houses may be an unlikely launchpad for a career in hospitality, but it led Barbara Werley to a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, and before long, she landed at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C. There, she started in the kitchen and wound up managing the wine list, as no one else was doing it at the time. From there, Werley went on to oversee wine programs at one A-list resort after another: the historic Homestead Resort in Virginia; the massive Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, which then comprised nine restaurants; the Four Seasons at Troon in Scottsdale, Ariz.; the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix; and the stately Greenbrier in the Alleghenies of West Virginia. She managed to earn the prestigious Master Sommelier certification along the way, in 1997.
Looking to get back to focusing on a single restaurant, Werley left the glitzy hotel and resort life to join Pappas Bros. Steakhouse Dallas in 2007. Her efforts in the cellar there earned the restaurant a Wine Spectator Grand Award in 2011. The world-class 3,700-selection list is heavy in steak-house favorites from California, Bordeaux and Australia. However, under-the-radar regions such as Portugal, Germany, Austria and Greece are also well-represented. (Pappas' sister location in Houston also holds a Grand Award.) Werley spoke with assistant editor Emma Balter about her humble beginnings in hospitality, why wine sometimes feels like work, and the life-changing white Bordeaux she drinks for special moments.
Wine Spectator: How did you get your start in restaurants and wine?
Barbara Werley: I majored in biology and French, and was not interested [in that]. I worked for a fraternity and sorority cooking, and worked at one of the dorms. It was a little like Animal House, but never a dull moment, and I was able to cook pretty tasty comfort food. I just thought, let's do this because I actually like it, versus selling medical supplies or whatever it was I was interviewing in, which was not interesting.
After cooking for a while, the chef [at the Ritz-Carlton] asked me if I'd like to be the director of purchasing, and I said, "Oh sure, that sounds like fun." I ordered everything for the hotel, including wine and spirits and food. Nobody was doing the wine list, so I asked the beverage director if I could do it. He said, “Sure.” So I just kind of fell into it.
WS: What were your priorities when you built up the program at Pappas, and how did it feel when you won the Grand Award?
BW: That was pretty amazing, because it's obviously a lot of work. I focused a lot on Burgundy, a lot on Bordeaux, a lot on verticals when I have the opportunity, with some of the cool, small wineries out of California. The hardest part was creating space and learning how to juggle how much to buy, what I could possibly replace, what you can't replace, how much you need. I also focus a lot on big bottles. Large-format is one of my favorite things to sell. We get a lot of big tables, banquets, and so on.
WS: Who is your typical guest at Pappas?
BW: Monday through Thursday we have a lot of businessmen that come into town, which is nice. Weekends are locals—a lot of families. We have a pretty good group of wine-knowledgeable people, but I also have been able to get a lot of people moving out of the category that they're used to drinking, to [try] some other things. When they say, "Pick something", one of my first questions is, "Can I go anywhere?" It's fun to go around the world and find them things.
WS: Have you had surprising pairing moments with steak?
BW: We do dry-aging in-house, so I've tried a dry-aged rib eye with a Chardonnay. It was California, but it was the balanced style versus the buttery, oaky [style], and [they were] surprisingly good together.
WS: What wines do you like to drink on your own time, and what do you like your guests to discover?
BW: I don't really drink a lot at home, because sometimes it seems too much like work. I know that sounds kind of weird. I may only have one glass and then, because I work five, sometimes six, nights a week, it's like, "Where am I going to have wine?"
I'm a big fan of older Australian reds. I think they age fabulously, and we have a fairly good collection. Different grape varieties from Chile; I have a Petit Verdot that's kind of fun. South Africa. I love some of the Italian whites—like from Umbria, and then from Gravner in the northeast—that are a little bit different, have some richness to them. And a couple [whites] out of Australia, like Henschke Sémillon. They're just things that I sort of collect that I try to put out there for people to try. Lately I like a lot of Washington state wines, Washington and Oregon Chardonnays. If I go to one of the local stores I might try something different from Texas I haven't had.
WS: Was there ever a wine that delivered an aha moment for you?
BW: There's one wine that I've actually had three times: The 1983 Haut-Brion Blanc. Wine, and in some cases music, are the only things for me that you remember where you were, who you were with, what you were doing. Once was with a really good friend of mine in Washington D.C., the next time when I passed the Masters—there were five of us that got together—and the next time I was doing some teaching at the Coyote Café at the MGM [Grand in Las Vegas]. It was just shockingly awesome. The first time I had it was 1990, so it was seven years old, then 1997, then 1999 or 2000, so I've seen the age. It was amazing. One of my all-time favorite whites.