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Sommelier Talk: Fernando Beteta

The Guatemala-born wine director at Chicago's NoMI, a winner of the Best of Award of Excellence, shares which wine changed his life and what he'd want to drink if stuck on a desert island

Tina Benitez
Posted: July 16, 2009

Fernando Beteta, 32, was born and raised in Guatemala. The wine business runs in his family, all the way back to his great-grandfather, a winemaker who opened a wine shop in the colonial city of La Antigua over 100 years ago. At the age of 18, Beteta himself enrolled at L'Ecole Hotelier de Lausanne in Switzerland, where he cultivated a deep love of wine by working in Florence, Sardinia and Rome. Now as wine director at the Chicago Hyatt's NoMI restaurant, a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner since 2003, Beteta manages the restaurant's 10,000-bottle wine cellar—and still found time to earn a Master Sommelier diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers this year. Prior to joining NoMI in 2005, he was manager and sommelier of the Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton Chicago. Beteta recently discussed the duties of a sommelier, which Italian wine changed his life and what wine he'd want if stranded on a desert island.

Wine Spectator: How did you first get into wine?
Fernando Beteta: I inherited it. My father is a chef [and owner of La Fonda de la Calle Real in Antigua], and when I was 18, I moved to Europe to study. In hotel school, they give you wine courses and culinary courses besides accounting, marketing and research. I connected more with everything that was culinary and food and beverage. I had a big wine moment in Italy when I was 19. It was an Antinori Toscana Tignanello from the 1990s. My best friend's dad shared it with us at lunch and blew me away. From then on, I just fell in love with quality wine.

WS: I understand your family has roots in Italian wine.
FB: My great-grandfather came from Italy, and grew grapes in Guatemala on a farm. My grandfather and grandmother were always attached to having wine at the table. Even though it isn't really a wine country, from the age of 14, I was drinking wine with my parents and grandparents in Guatemala.

WS: Is it ever challenging to meet customers' needs at NoMI?
FB: They're more and more wine-savvy, and looking to sommeliers to show them things that they may like. Younger customers want to learn, they want to improve their wine knowledge and like to show off their wine knowledge whenever they get a chance. That's great! We're there to answer questions and to recommend things. We have a weekly tasting called Cellar Notes where guests sit in the cellar and get to taste with me. We have different themes like Burgundy versus Oregon Pinot Noir or the Desperate House Wines, the wines that you need to have at home for entertaining or just for drinking. I get challenged all the time to find exactly what someone wants in an exact price range, exact age and color. It's supposed to be a wine pairing, but it may be more like a wine divorce if it's the wrong wine.

WS: You're also a very young Master Sommelier. Has this ever been a challenge?
FB: You know it's a [face] cream that makes me look young. People always say, "You look so young. How do you know anything about wine?" I've just been doing it for so long. When I misbehaved, my parents took away my skateboard and put me in the kitchen, so I learned from a very young age about hospitality and just had a passion for it.

WS: You often visit different wine regions. Have you found any wine from your recent travels that you want to add to the NoMI cellar or to your own collection?
FB: I come back energized and passionate about any place that I visit. When I went to Germany, the Rheingau region, the Pinots were amazing. Obviously the Riesling is the main grape, but I just kind of experimented a bit with Silvaners. There are several that I'm still hunting down to see if I can get. I went to Chile last year and was really big on Carmenère, and I was offering two big Carmenères by the glass [Falernia Carmenère and Viña Montes Purple Angel]. I like featuring everything but the usual grapes. That's the whole point of traveling. You come back, and right away you're just engulfed with all this knowledge. It starts conversation. I think the customer likes when you can say, "I just got back from Morocco, and I'm pouring a wine from Coteaux de l'Atlas," instead of, "I saw it on the Internet and thought it was cool." You have to keep your job fresh.

WS: Do you have a favorite wine region?
FB: Definitely France. I pay more attention to the French government now than local politics, because I spend more on French wines. I always like to explore. I love Alsace. I'm much more of a white wine drinker than red. Anything crisp and cool that calms your palate with nice aromatic notes to it … I'm a happy man!

WS: What wines could you not live without?
FB: My desert island wine would be Champagne if I had to drink it everyday. On my deathbed, it would be a red Burgundy.

Dennis D Bishop
Shelby Twp., MI, USA —  January 17, 2010 8:31am ET
It is great to see the passion in Fernando's comments!

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