By Hannah Sellinger
Sommelier. The word doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. More elegant than the clumsy translation from French (“wine waiter”), the term denotes a certain gravity and formality in dining. But in 2017, the age of information access, diners can be serious about wine without erudition.
My journey as a sommelier began over a decade ago when I waited tables at Bobby Flay’s then-nascent Bar Americain, a glittering, spacious bistro occupying the old Judson Grill space on West 52nd Street. My credentials were faked; I had only ever worked in two restaurants before, both in my Massachusetts hometown, where my wine knowledge was encapsulated by the uncorking of magnums of Yellowtail favored by the blue-collar clientele.
One evening, a patron called me over to his table. He had a question about a white Burgundy on the list. My pallor betrayed me. “Burgundy is a region,” the man said, “not just a color.” I knew only Carlo Rossi Burgundy, a jug wine that was, yes, burgundy in color. I did not know that there was a region in France by the same name, which is dedicated to producing spectacular Pinot Noir, majestic Chardonnay.
I was born anew.
On a windy, rainy, not-quite-fall afternoon, I met with Patrick Cullen at East Hampton’s Nick & Toni’s, now a 29-year-old East End restaurant legend. Cullen has spent the past two summers as the restaurant’s floor sommelier, an enviable position, and also a rare one — few restaurants out east have a dedicated position available for those specifically interested in wine. Nick & Toni’s current program, the brainchild of general manager and wine director Julie Berger, is a comprehensive one, featuring wines from Long Island and also from around the world.
Cullen’s wine career began in the city, where he worked under Andrew Carmellini’s beverage director, Josh Nadel. “I’d never really worked in Manhattan restaurants,” Cullen said. “It was like: Wow, I made it.”
To Cullen, the experience of working with wine was a foundational one. “It raises the level of service when you have a sommelier on site. You bring a certain amount of authority to the table that I think enhances the dining experience. It’s a hybrid role. Part of my job is driving the wine sales and talking to guests, but there’s a lot of wine education that’s needed for the staff. It builds confidence for the staff when you have someone behind them.”
The role of sommelier in today’s restaurants is expansive — and expanding. If the standard definition of great dining resides in the parallel dedications to excellent food and excellent service, wine service sits squarely in the middle, a bridge between the delicious and the hospitable. It is now fair to say that we have entered the age of the democratization of wine. Perhaps sommeliers once spoke to a restaurant’s stodginess, but they now speak to the opposite, to a dining experience that is inclusive rather than exclusive. And it is this inclusive view of hospitality that fuels sommeliers like Cullen. “Ultimately, it’s about people having a great experience at a restaurant, and wine is part of that. It’s about the hospitality, and not about what I know,” he said.
In fact, the democratization of wine is pervasive. “I came from a beer and shot joint,” North Fork Table and Inn owner and beverage director Mike Mraz recently told me. His story is not unlike my own: restaurant worker seeks enlightenment after knocking on the doors of New York’s top boîtes. Mentored under star sommelier Paul Grieco, Mraz cut his teeth first at Judson Grill and, later, at Grieco’s Hearth.
The James Beard award-winning North Fork Table and Inn exemplifies hospitality enhanced through a fine wine program. “If someone comes in and they feel uncomfortable or intimidated by what’s on the list, I hope that they leave with a sense of comfort,” Mraz said. Comfort, indeed, is one takeaway from an experience made possible by a confident, knowledgeable sommelier, but the role, too, is one of collaboration. In Mraz’s case, this means working in tandem with North Fork Table and Inn chef Stephan Bogardus in order to create a symbiotic relationship between food and drink. A sommelier must first read his guest to determine the palate of the thirsty in the few minutes spent tableside. Armed with a guest’s request, he must then match the wine to the food, no small feat.
“The first thing I think about is this: What are all the components on the plate? I’ll try and elevate something that’s a component but maybe not the main component,” Mraz said. “It’s fun to create using the wine as the paint and the food as the palette. The medium is the food and wine.”
Pairing food with wine is often one of the more elusive elements of wine service. There are rules that sommeliers are taught to respect: pair spicy foods with spicy wines; mimic flavor profiles in food with their wine counterparts; enhance rich dishes with high-acid wines that will cleanse the palate; and, of course, recognize that what grows together goes together. That final suggestion is one that’s easier to adhere to here on Long Island, the bastion of great produce, fowl, and wine. “Only recently in human history,” Mraz said, “can you get whatever you want whenever you want it. There are reasons why there are classic pairings — they’ve been working for hundreds of years.”
This ultimate respect for the farm-to-table ethos is shared by 1770 House restaurant manager and wine director Michael Cohen. “We live in an extremely seasonal place — not in terms of business,” he said, “but in terms of produce. We print the menu daily. Something is always changing on it. And the wine list reflects that.” Indeed, this may be the most fundamental work of a sommelier: to share with the community the relationship between what grows on the community’s land.
Cohen began his career in Philadelphia. A recent Penn State graduate, he knew little about wine. “I could shotgun a Natty Light, but learning the aromatic profiles of Alsatian Pinot Gris…” Well, that was another story entirely. Under the tutelage of Marnie Old at Philadelphia’s renowned (though now defunct) Striped Bass, Cohen became fascinated with wine, a fascination that has parlayed itself into a 12-year career at 1770 House.
Like his wine industry counterparts, Cohen views hospitality as the most important building block in a good wine program. “Our version of hospitality is welcoming people into your home. It feels like a home. It is a home,” he said. “Once you’re on the floor, I think there’s a common thread that we all share. When people ask me what my favorite wine on the list is, I say, ‘I love all my children.’ Keep it jovial. People think you are there to sell them something like a used car salesman,” he said.
It is not necessarily the role of the sommelier to sell — or not as much, say, as to guide. “I paint the picture of these wines for them,” Cohen said. He described the process of collaborating with chef Michael Rozzi in the quest for great pairings. Cohen’s job — in fact the job of all sommeliers — is to concierge the guest’s adventure. How can an experience be amplified? That is the question that punctuates each evening’s service.
East Moriches native and Love Lane Kitchen owner Carolyn Iannone has adopted her own version of amplification: Give them a taste! Her wine list — slim, completely local, and well curated — offers glass pour options of every available wine. In Iannone’s estimation, this unfettered access furthers the pursuit of a democratic wine world. “I take [wine] seriously because I believe in it, but I am not going to tell you you’re wrong if you don’t like something,” she said.
Mattituck’s Love Lane Kitchen is casual dining personified. Tucked into an intimate side street off the North Fork’s main drag of Route 25, the restaurant screams comfort, so its excellence in wine might come as a bit of a surprise. Iannone herself is cheerful and chatty, explaining that her passion drives her work. It is not hard to see how her infectious spirit can influence one’s dining experience. “When you truly love what you do, it’s not that hard to smile at someone when they walk through your door,” she said.
Iannone and chef Cory Guastella work together to create a menu that is rife with comfort foods and comfort wines, to, as Iannone suggests, offer diners a way to put their guards down. Indeed, her restaurant, once known for breakfast and lunch, has now become a sought out destination for dinner, too, with locavores clamoring to drink wines that hail from Long Island. Iannone takes little credit for curating a local-only wine list (it only made sense, as she tells it), but in truth, she’s an innovator. The reward for this innovation is a client base that comes back, again and again.
Our common ethos — our aim, as sommeliers and wine professionals — is to make the world larger, not smaller, to obliterate stereotypes of wine and snobbery that once dominated culinary culture. “Wine is an agricultural product,” my own mentor used to tell me, a reminder that what we drink was once as true to the earth as an August tomato.
We are more than mere wine waiters; we translate peoples’ desires. We take them on journeys. We make them feel at home in restaurants, tantalizing them, entertaining them, and willing them, ultimately, to return.