Sommelier Roundtable: How Did You Get into Wine?

A miserable desk job, a 1945 Cheval-Blanc, the Lebanese Civil War—here's how these 8 wine pros started their unexpected journeys

Sommelier Roundtable: How Did You Get into Wine?
For some, a single, magical glass put them on course to become a somm. Others were just trying to escape a dead-end job. (iStockPhoto)
Sep 6, 2019

The wine directors behind the grand cellars and must-try lists throughout the restaurant world all have one thing in common: At one point, they'd never tried wine before.

Their paths began in wildly different places: They were servers, hobbyists looking to change careers, hapless recession-era grads and, in one case, a kid whose mom gave him some wine to help him sleep while he heard missiles explode near his house during the Lebanese Civil War. How did today's tastemakers get their starts in wine? We asked eight wine pros at Wine Spectator Restaurant Award–winning spots.

Wine Spectator: How did you get into wine?

Rafael Sanchez, beverage director at Grand Award winner Addison in San Diego

I got into wine with a sip of 1945 Cheval-Blanc while I was bartending at the Raymond restaurant in Los Angeles. At the time I was adamantly not into wine, but the sommelier where I was bartending handed me a glass with a few ounces of a wine and asked me to put it behind the bar for after service. He told me to smell it, so I did. I was captivated by the intense chocolate and berry quality it had. I tucked it away and forgot about it. After service, he asked me for it and told me to smell it again. This time it was minty and herbaceous, and it made my mouth water. He let me have a sip and I couldn’t believe that an “old” wine like that could completely captivate me like it did. The next morning, I bought as many books on wine as I could get and even ended up applying at a retail wine shop in Santa Monica. The rest is history.

Elizabeth Kelso, beverage director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Craft Los Angeles

Graduating college during the recession of 2008 made it difficult to find work as a feminist writer, which is what I hoped to build a career doing. I was working in restaurants and I eventually worked in a program with more diverse world-class wines than I had previously experienced, and my boss motivated us by explaining that the more wine we sold, the more tips we would make. That was all it took, and 10 years and five different professional certifications later, here I am!

Cedric Nicaise, wine director at Grand Award winner Eleven Madison Park in New York

I sat at my desk one day and I was like, OK, what do I need to do to basically never be in this position again? I didn’t really have a marketable skill set, I didn’t have a career path, I didn’t have any direction. I was like, I know I can bartend, so I should just get a job bartending. And I was naive; I was like, "Bartenders in New York City make like hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it’ll be amazing.”

[After getting a job as bar manager at Aureole] my résumé—I wish I still had it—said "expert-level wine knowledge," which in hindsight is so embarrassing because I wouldn’t write that on my résumé now. [After taking wine classes] I thought I knew a lot, but I was willing to do whatever it took to learn more, and I spent hours and hours studying; it was all I did. I would wake up, read, go to work, come home, read for an hour, and that was my life for four years. When I started [at Eleven Madison Park] someone asked me what the last book I read was, and I was like, “Other than wine? Couldn’t tell you.”

Joo Lee, wine director at Grand Award winner Saison in San Francisco

By total accident. I waited tables throughout college and graduate school to make some extra money in the evening so I could still attend classes during the day. As I began to work in nicer restaurants, I started to taste better wines. The first time I had a red Burgundy I was blown away. At that time, I knew absolutely nothing about what I was drinking except that it was from some region in France named after a color and a village I couldn’t even attempt to pronounce. That night I looked up everything I could about what I tasted. I became totally infatuated with wine and, before I knew it, I decided to pursue wine as a full-time passion and never looked back.

Brian Phillips, national wine director for Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, which holds Restaurant Awards for 57 locations of the Capital Grille, 20 of Eddie V's and 44 of Seasons 52

I started drinking wine [working as a busboy in Scottsdale, Ariz.], because the guest would leave a little bit of wine behind in the decanter and I was like, "That’s fair game." It was one of those restaurants in Scottsdale where the people bought a lot of classic, old wines, so we’d take it in the back and we’d swirl it around and drink it. It was 15-year-olds like, "Don’t tell anyone we’re doing this.”

I was pouring [a 1982 Margaux], and they were like, "Here try a little bit of this," and I couldn’t talk for a minute. I just wanted to stare off in the distance. That changed my life.

Rebecca Kirhoffer, co-owner and wine director of Award of Excellence winner Rebeccas, in Greenwich, Conn.

Growing up with parents that were really interested in fine food and wine, it is no surprise that I fell in love with wine. My parents were foodies and we ate almost all of our meals at home. Dinner was never served before 7 p.m. "when civilized people ate," as my father touted. Once in a rare while, my parents would go out to dinner. They always brought my older sister Betsy and me with them, and I remember fondly Papa asking the waiter if both of us could have a thimbleful of Champagne. "It is a parent's responsibility to teach his children to appreciate the finer things in life," he said! So it is no surprise I got my first job in the hospitality industry at the age of 13.

Amy Mundwiler, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Maple & Ash in Chicago

I love the history and rituals around food and drink. I love the symbiotic relationship between culture, terroir, food and drink. Why were they drinking or eating that? Was it all they had? Was it the hottest food trend of the 1300s? It's fascinating. I don't tend to nerd out over the science of wine, or the soil types. I'd rather geek out over the history of preservation methods, [or] what people were eating, by class.

I didn't get serious about all of that until I left the retail/cosmetics industry. It started out with food. I listened to a podcast on the origins of cheese, and that set me off on my path. What were they drinking with the cheese that accidentally curdled in their leather pouches? Mead maybe? It all comes full circle.

Robby Younes, wine director and chief operating officer at Crystal Springs Resort, including Grand Award winner Restaurant Latour, in Hamburg, N.J.

A small incident when I was 8 years old stuck with me. In 1988, while the war was taking place between Lebanon and Syria and the bombs were whistling all night, I couldn’t sleep and walked around my grandma’s house looking for my mom. I found her with her sister, sitting and drinking wine, playing chess and having lamb-sausage fondue and roasted chestnuts. I kept begging to sit with them, and after 30 minutes a glass of wine was served “so I could sleep.”

Well I was smart enough to know if I drank this glass fast my time would be expired, and instead I sat down and sipped the wine so slowly and enjoyed the sausage while watching the game. Two glasses passed and I loved every moment of it. This memory stuck in my mind, but I didn’t know where it would take me.

Additionally, my father made grappa and arak, traveling across the border to Syria looking for the best wild anise and searching for the best native Muscat grapes.

Both [experiences] made me appreciate the following: Life; wine, because for years I always thought wine saved us from the war; arak and spirits; my grandma, who was the best forager; and my house, which was always filled with great guests every Sunday sharing amazing food and wine.

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