Wine's New Wave: Check Out These 6 Sommeliers

By Belle Cushing

Photo: Alex Lau

There’s a new wave of men and women helming the beverage programs at restaurants across the U.S. It’s good-bye to the haughty bow-tied sommeliers of yore, and hello, yes, please, pour me some of whatever you have there to the sommeliers who are making wine just as exciting as beer, cocktails, and dinner itself. These so-not-snobby sommeliers are just as smart about wine as their suited-up forebears—and won’t make you feel clueless for not knowing a Verdicchio from a Vermentino. You may not recognize every wine on their lists, but you will want to hear what they have to say.

Here are a few commonalities to help you spot one of these actually fun and normal wine experts: They gravitate toward lesser-known bottles, like a pineau d’aunis from the Jura. They use descriptors such as “high-altitude,” “mineral,” or “like Miley Cyrus” instead of “brown leather and cigar smoke,” but they can still rattle off the Grand Crus of the Côte d’Or from north to south. They all seem to be fans of the still inexpensive, fresh wines from the Loire Valley in France (“I would literally pull a knife on someone to defend the honor of Loire wines,” says Justin Vann). They are also fans of each other. (When asked what lists they admire, someone else interviewed was inevitably named.) Not one wears a suit, and every single one is someone you’d want to swig back a glass with after hours—and likely would be willing to do so, if you’d only ask.

See more: How to Order Wine at a Restaurant

Lee Campbell (pictured above)

Beverage Director: Roman’sReynard, and all five Andrew Tarlow restaurants, Brooklyn, NY

(Read a full profile of Campbell here.)

On industry ego: “I’m in this for the people and for the relationships, not because I wanted to be ‘No. 1 sommelier’—because I don’t.”

Somm strategy: “I have a really fun tableside manner, always trying to create a party. We try to make the wine service as casual and fun and easy as can be, while looking at the customer and seeing how far can I push them and still keep their attention—realizing at the same time that it’s only about the wine as much as they want it to be. We never want to overstep our boundaries.”

Biggest issue facing the industry: “The misplaced fetishization of food and wine.”

What it’s all about: ”The idea that anything would be based on exclusivity, or anxiety, or bro-ing out, that would have never drawn me in. It was because i was meeting the right people who were saying, this wine business, it starts with farmers. You’ve got to be okay with getting dirt under your nails and you understand that there are people, families, and livelihoods at the beginning of this, and the wines that we’re promoting are not commodities, they’re extensions of a lifestyle. If i hadn’t found this angle I wouldn’t even be doing this.”

Best advice: Like buttery Chardonnay? Own it, says Campbell. She might not sell that exact wine, but it gives her a starting point to find something you’ll love.

Region to watch: Auvergne, a small region in Central France. “Although nobody seems to know about it except for a handful of people. Fresh wines, volcanic soils, fun and talented vignerons!”

She’s Drinking: “I don’t play favorites on my list, but an Auvergne wine worth seeking out is Marie & Vincent Tricot ‘Les Petites Fleurs’ 2013.”

Steven Grubbs

Photo: courtesy Steven Grubbs

Wine director, Empire State South, Atlanta; Five and Ten, Athens, GA

A good wine list… “is a curated thing that has a particular feel and demonstrates some manner of perspective from the person that wrote it. It is expressive in that sense, as opposed to just being passive, some inactive litany. Otherwise, what are we doing? Just buying stuff. And if we are only buying the impressive stuff, then that doesn’t count.”

If he weren’t a somm, he’d be: Touring the country with Little Francis, his punk-folk band.

What it’s all about: “Introducing people to something new and weird is the noblest and most satisfying part. Everything else is flash and ego. I’m just not into the impressive, super-expensive wine. I wish I had a bunch of easy wine that I could just slug away all the time. That to me is the greater pleasure.”

Somm strategy: “Knowing why and how a wine matters—and being able to heighten a diner’s experience with that without coming off like a total jackass—is a lot more important than knowing minimum yields and dry extract.”

His take on tasting notes (according to the wine list at Five and Ten): 

“Arianna Occhipinti is a bronzed Sicilian badass.” = Nero d’Avola/Frappato, Occhipinti, ‘SP68’, Vittoria, Sicily, 2012

“Yes, the Swiss make wine, and it’s crazy good.” = Heida Paien, Cave Caloz, ‘Les Bernunes’, Valais, Switzerland, 2008

“Slippery dancing island mangos.” = Patrimonio, Clos Teddi, Corsica, France, 2011

Region to watch: Virginia. “I’m holding out for the tiny possibility that great, inexpensive table wines could be made from hybrid grapes on the east coast of the USA, particularly in Virginia. It would probably take longer than my lifetime to accomplish, and that is a downer, but I think it could be done. I’ve had a couple of rare examples that proved it to me, wines that tasted like the kinds of fresh Dolcetto you might drink from carafe in the Piedmont.”

He’s drinking: Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage 2012, $35. An impressive but approachable Syrah from the Northern Rhone. “Every vintage I get all that I can and stack it downstairs. It rules.”

See more: Why It’s Okay to Send Back that Bottle of Wine

Dana Frank

Photo: Scott Frank

Wine director, Ava Gene’s; co-owner, Bow and Arrow Wines, Portland, OR.

On the old guard: “Mad props to the somms before me, but my generation came up drinking very different styles of wine. I’ll never try to go toe-to-toe on back-vintage Barolo, but do I feel really confident in what I know about the Loire or Alto Piemonte? Totally. I’m just not gonna puff up my chest and show off what I know.”

Somm strategy: “My goal with every table, every single night, is for everyone to have a great time. There’s not a single wine on my list that’s not awesome, that I don’t stand behind. So I approach every table with a huge smile and warm greeting and go from there.”

Best advice: “Every wine on a list should be awesome whether it costs $30 or $300, says Frank. Set a viable price range you’re willing to spend from the start! It’s not a faux pas. Sommeliers will appreciate the honesty.”

Region to watch: Alto Piemonte.”The higher-elevation area of Piedmont in Italy, at the base of the Alps, is a really great region right now, especially for people who can’t afford to drink Barolo.”

She’s drinking: Le Piane Maggiorina 2012, $21. Pricey Barolo’s not the only great thing Piedmont’s got going, as this Nebbiolo blend proves.

Justin Vann

Photo: courtesy Justin Vann

Public Services Wine & Whiskey, Houston

On his bar’s name (and mission): “You see product placements for Corona in Fast & Furious 6, but no one’s saying, ‘Drink more Gamay.’ We’re that public service announcement.”

What it’s all about: “I’m trying to be a game preserve for alcohol: protecting endangered species.”

Best advice: Can’t describe what you want? Vann feels your anxiety. Just be honest about where you’re coming from. He’ll walk you through it nice and slow—with some movie analogies to help you along.

His take on tasting notes: “If New World wines are Michael Bay movies—pretty, explosive, viscerally satisfying—then Old World wines are like Christopher Nolan’s Inception: Not everyone gets it, but when you do…wow.”

Biggest problem facing the industry: “We don’t know how to sell wine to people. And I don’t mean how to sell a bottle of DRC [Domaine de la Romanée Conti, the wine world’s notorious VIP] to a collector, but how to sell wine to a person who is unsure of the direction they want to take with their drinking habits. Cocktails and beer really reach out and grab people, and even though there are certainly annoying beer nerds or annoying cocktail nerds, wine can feel extra exclusionary at times. I feel like we market wine to ourselves sometimes.”

Wine to watch: “I’m actually rededicating myself to Cabernet Sauvignon from all over. California, Bordeaux, Italy, Australia. I cut my teeth selling these wines when I was young. I was overexposed to them and got burnt out, but I think its time to get reacquainted. I just got a hold of some old Yarra Yering Dry Red No.1: stuff is made of hopes and dreams.

Most unexpectedly awesome food-wine pairing:Chilled carbonic Beaujolais-Villages with extremely spicy Sichuan food. **All red wines taste harsh and alcoholic with Sichuan cuisine, except this style. I tried it out of desperation, and I was shocked at how good it was. It was the first time a red truly worked with the nefarious Sichuan peppercorn, as opposed to just not sucking.”

He’s drinking: Luyt Clos Ouvert Carmenère “La Grande Vie Dure” 2013, $24. The least “Chilean” Chilean red (think wild berries, sweet herbs, rioting taste buds).

Pascaline Lepeltier

Photo: courtesy Pascaline Lepeltier

*Beverage director, Rouge Tomate, NYC*

If she weren’t a somm, she’d be: teaching Ancient Greek philosophy in her native France.

On hospitality: “I saw so many super arrogant and disgusting sommeliers who make you feel like a piece of crap if you don’t walk in with a black AmEx. So for me, wherever you are, whatever you know, you deserve to be taken care of.”

Most memorable wine experience: The rest of a bottle of 1937 Chateau d’Yquem left over from a tasting withBernard Arnault—“After that, I just knew. I was going to go into wine.”

Biggest problem facing the industry: “Women vs. men sommeliers? Over it. The problem for me is that the industry is mostly white.”

Somm strategy: “Just smile. To work in restaurants, you need to be genuinely interested in taking care of people. I pay exactly the same attention to everyone, whatever the price. If the bottle costs $30 or $3,000, it’s the same deal. Your job doesn’t finish when you put the bottle down. For that two minutes where you deliver the wine and there’s a smile and it tastes good, there are hours before and hours after.”

Best advice: “If there’s a big scary wine list, someone should be able to take you through. Ask for a recommendation!”

A good wine list… “offers perspective and opportunity to taste wines that are not as highly considered or trendy. But doing a good wine list is not difficult anymore. We have access to so much knowledge, there are so many distributors bringing in great wines. Honestly, if you don’t have a good wine list today—well, let’s just say that as buyers, we are extraordinarily lucky. The focus now is on service. I don’t care if my servers know all the Grosses Gewächs in the Rheingau. What’s more important is that they take care of the guest.”

Region to watch: and Slovenia.”These are places in the world with indigenous vines, a long history of winemaking. There is something very interesting to find here. In America you have this problem: You need a star. Good wines are sometimes just simple.”

What’s next: Rouge Tomate 2.0 moves from its original Upper East Side Location to Flatiron. Projected opening summer 2015.

Ashley Ragovin

Photo: Jesse Carmody

Wine pro at large, Los Angeles.  Has brought her romantic view of wine into just about all of our fave restaurants in LA (Trois MecSuperba Food + BreadMozzaAnimalScopa Italian Roots, and Marvin)

On LA dining culture: “LA has an openness to it, a youth or whimsy, that allows a bit more creative freedom to do things that aren’t as conventional as in a more historic, established city like New York or San Francisco. We can take risks. People were coming into Animal with such open minds as diners; they’re so willing to try anything. As someone responsible for a beverage program, especially with something as foreign as wine, there’s a responsibility to introduce people to good, affordable stuff.

Her version of tasting notes: “Do you want a Miley Cyrus (fun, not complicated or serious, you can drink a lot of it) or do you want Adele (more nuanced, will evolve over the course of the bottle, you’ll think about it a little bit more)?”

Most memorable wine experience: Vivant Cave, Paris. “It’s a tiny wine bar with one guy cooking behind the counter. The list isn’t written down: they just ask what you want and bring you something amazing, in these tiny little glasses. It’s the epitome of unpretentious wine service. Like when you’re walking in Paris and you get a ham sandwich off the street, and it’s just the best ham sandwich you’ve ever had—it was kind of like that.”

Best advice: “For great value, look to the Languedoc or the Loire. You can almost always be assured that the ratio of quality to price is in favor of the consumer.”

Region to watch: Macon, Burgundy. “This is a GREAT region for value wines! Especially when people are already comfortable with a grape they are familiar with like Chardonnay—you don’t have to convince them to try some obscure Hungarian varietal they can’t pronounce. A fresh Macon is delicious, can be consumed young, and so much more affordable than the Grand Cru appellations.”

She’s drinking: Domain Cheveau Macon-Fuisse “Les Grandes Bruyères” 2011. “Beautiful, rich, clean and pure, this speaks to exactly what Chardonnay is as its best. Hands down a must-get bottle: Gift it, drink it, share it—no explanation or wine nerdiness needed to enjoy fully!”

What’s next: her own wine endeavor (shrouded in mystery, but she hints that it will have both retail and educational components). Stay tuned, sometime in 2015.

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