In 2010 I had my first world-class wine- Penfold’s Grange Shiraz from South Australia. I appreciated how elaborately complex wine can be, how a wine can tell a story rich with cultural and gastronomic detail. At the time I was a recent college graduate serving at a fancy steak house in Chicago called Benny’s that specialized in Napa Cabernets. As my knowledge grew, I fell in love with that big, juicy style seen with Shiraz and California cabs. They were unshy and unashamed (maybe like my 22-year-old self?). It was at this restaurant where I decided to become a sommelier, naively underestimating the amount of work and sacrifice that it would take for years to come. I took it upon myself to learn more. Through some wine classes I began to understand a global perspective of wine. My community of wine people grew, which influenced me to turn my nose at my once-loved Cabernet like an ex- boyfriend in undergrad. I obsessed over Champagne at my first Sommelier job -RM Champagne Salon in Chicago. Anything basic or ordinary was below my standards. I was good at my job and quick to pick up new information, so I carried a sense of stereotypical entitlement that has long intimidated restaurant guests from conversing with sommeliers.
Of course, my cockiness quickly subsided to humility when Raj Paar hired me as a junior Sommelier at RN74 in San Francisco. Grossly under-qualified for the elaborate wet dream of a Burgundy Selection, it was here that I picked up what every successful Sommelier needs: Grit. I put my nose down into some very heavy books about Grand Crus and soil types. I tasted relentlessly. My grit and curiousity developed into a full-blown Burgundy passion. However, I was still young and perhaps insecure, so I hid my own “greenness” behind perfectly ripe and massively expensive wines. I poked fun at the underdogs like Paso Robles and Stellenbosch, mostly as a defense mechanism. I saw the impressive labels and esoteric grape varieties my peers posted on social media; I wanted to fit in. In 2014, I left RN74 to join the team at Jardiniere as a sommelier. My tenacity was unstoppable. To prepare for the Advanced Sommelier exam, I studied for hours on end, drew maps, tasted wines from around the world. My palate became sharper, especially working under Master Sommelier Alan Murray. Intrigued by the strange things happening in Campana and Greece, I traveled to wine regions around the world. As I became more confident in my knowledge, I felt comfortable again expressing my love for a well-made glass of Napa Cabernet.
As Wine Director at Sons & Daughters, I played with new wines, lesser discovered regions and styles, all in the name of finding the perfect wine for every dish, every time. I saw that sometimes a humble Albariño was the exact calling for a crab and citrus dish, or a Central California Grenache for Duck with yams. I saw the regions that I had turned my nose to in the past were making thoughtful and delicious wines. I let go of whatever cool somm thing I was supposed to be posting on Instagram and I started appreciating good wine, from everywhere. I saw that there is a wine for every person and every moment. I still love Burgundy & Champagne, of course, but I’ve learned to be open minded. If I met that glass of Penfolds today, I think that I would still be awe-struck, no matter the trend among my peers that month.
The most important lesson I’ve taken away from my experience since I had that glass of wine over seven years ago is the confidence to trust my own palate when I find good wine. Acknowledging quality winemaking in all styles has given me the opportunity to connect with wine drinkers of all backgrounds. My job as a sommelier is not to push my own preferences, but to deliver the perfect wine for every palate, with humility and hospitality.
…Which brings me to Palate Club. I love that this experience is completely about the wine drinker. You don’t need to know names on a wine list, grapes, regions, etc…all you have to do is try the wine and rate it based on your preference. It’s my job with Jennifer to find wines that are well made in many styles, not just what we like to drink. There is no bias here. So if we do our jobs well, the entire experience of drinking wine can change. While it took me years to put aside any prejudice of certain wines, here is an opportunity to take away all the smoke and mirrors to find an honest description of your palate. Along with that, the familiar grape names are less important, as we make way to discover new wines from around the world based on your preferred descriptors. I’m curious to see what the consumer truly wants when labels and names are taken away from the experience (or at least before you unwrap the bottle:)).