Master of the Sommelier Slam

California-based beverage director Emily Wines got her start in an award-winning cellar
Jul 10, 2013

Emily Wines' sommelier career might have seemed predestined on account of her last name, but the 39-year-old Washington native originally set out to be an artist. Moonlighting as a sommelier during graduate studies in San Francisco, however, altered her course. She trained as an assistant sommelier under Rajat Parr at the Fifth Floor, which holds a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence, and eventually took over the list. In 2008, she became a Master Sommelier, one of only 129 in the world, and was made wine director at the Fifth Floor's parent company, Kimpton Hotels, where she currently oversees the beverage selections at 50 locations. Wines spoke with contributing editor Jennifer Fiedler about developing food-friendly cocktail menus, why she loves keg wines and how "sommelier slams" helped her get familiar with other beverages.

Wine Spectator: How does your background in wine influence how you approach other beverages, such as cocktails, in your new position?
Emily Wines: I oversee the spirits program, though we have a corporate mixologist who does the cocktails. I felt like a lot of cocktail programs are stand-alone, as in the bartender doesn't talk to the chef the way that sommeliers do. It's just as critical that the cocktails reflect the sensibility of the cuisine and that they work with the food.

WS: What makes a cocktail food-friendly?
EW: One of the big things is alcohol levels—sometimes they're too alcoholic. Sometimes it's about temperature. Really hot food and cold cocktails aren't the best combination. Wine-based cocktails and more culinary cocktails tend to work better with food.

WS: You have an extensive keg wine program at your restaurants. How did that come about?
EW: It's something that we believe in on a couple of levels. One, for the environment: I can't count how many times I've watched a waiter open a case of wine for a banquet, empty the bottles, then throw the whole thing away—so wasteful—whereas kegs can be used over and over. The other side of it is the freshness factor. The glass of wine is as fresh from the bottom of the keg as it is from the top of the keg.

WS: What are a few keg wine producers you like?
EW: Lioco is fantastic. Au Bon Climat has been doing great stuff in keg. In Arizona we have a few small producers that are doing keg wine as well. There's a couple big people that do custom kegging that we like to work with: Gotham in New York and, in California, Free Flow Wines or Silvertap.

WS: You created a happy-hour program that features sustainable wines. Why?
EW: We wanted it to align with our values, so we insist that all of the wines have a story that they can tell about how they give back to the community or to the earth. For example, we work with a wine called Flipflop, and they donate shoes to kids in third-world countries. We have worked with another winery that does beach cleanups. We've worked with Wente that has their Farming for the Future program.

WS: What are the "sommelier slams" you have at Kimpton?
EW: Five years ago, I started doing these battles, sommelier dinners. I see a lot of variations all over the country now. The whole point for me was to learn more about other beverages, so for these dinners I would pull in a sake expert, a mixologist or another sommelier. We would do a three- to five-course dinner and pair each course with two beverages, and we would make it like a battle and argue about who had the better pairing without saying anything negative about the beverage or food. It made it fun for the guests, but it really allowed me to learn more about other beverages.

WS: What's next for you?
EW: That's a good question. I'm really enjoying dipping more into the spirits side. It's exciting to learn more about that.

Dining Out People

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