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Sommeliers of the Year 2013

These talented men and women are setting trends, whether they’re rejecting written wine lists, rallying around small California producers, pairing food with beer or otherwise redefining what it means to be a sommelier.

Peter Eastlake

Outside Lands, San Francisco; The Great Googamooga, Brooklyn

Why He Won Because at these over-the-top festivals that combine great music and great wine, he creates sensational lineups of star winemakers and sommeliers. “This past year, I was fortunate to have wine icons like Turley and Caymus alongside music icons like Stevie Wonder and Neil Young at Outside Lands.”

Wine Youthquake “It’s so cool to see thousands of young people clamoring to taste wine from the Rhône, say, or even Croatia. They want the weirdest, wackiest bottles we’ve got.” sfoutsidelands.com; googamooga.com.

Sommeliers Kelli White & Scott Brenner
Photo © Clay McLachlan

Kelli White & Scott Brenner

PRESS, St. Helena, California

“The full-throttle, monstrous alcohol arms race of California Cabernet is slowing. We’re getting back to something more sensible.”—Scott Brenner

Why They Won Because this husband-and-wife team have built an unparalleled collection of rare old Napa vintages, like the 1960 Inglenook Classic Claret and Mayacamas and Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignons from the ’60s.

Napa Wines to Cellar Now “Philip Togni, Randy Dunn and Cathy Corison are all making wines that we think can age well,” says Brenner, “because they have good structure, with lots of tannins and acidity. Can the wines go 40 years? We’ll see.” presssthelena.com.

Sommelier Yoon Ha
Photo © Kali Stamp Photography

Yoon Ha

Benu, San Francisco

“Tasting-menu pairings are really not for everybody. We are asking guests to drink a lot of strange things and sort of take away their liberties.”

Why He Won Because he combines a cerebral approach to wine with a willingness to break rules—just like the restaurant’s chef Corey Lee. For instance, he might pour beer with a dish if it works better than wine.

When Beer Is Better “I’m serving a red sour ale from Belgium’s Rodenbach with the restaurant’s salt-and-pepper squid, which Corey serves in chip form. There’s a playfulness in having beer with chips.”

Wine He Champions “I think that Austrian Riesling is highly under-appreciated. I love its ability to expand and contract with food. If the dish needs the wine to be drier, it can retreat a little bit, or if the dish needs some opulence, then the wine can show that. My favorite right now is Prager’s Smaragd Wachstum Bodenstein Riesling.” benusf.com.

Sommelier Matthew Kaner
Photo © Lauren Alexandra Wang

Matthew Kaner

Bar Covell, Los Angeles

Why He Won Because, instead of handing guests a wine list, he helps them find wines they’ll love by asking them a series of questions to ascertain their tastes.

Quizzing Customers “I’m sick of talking about grape varieties—they can be so different depending on where they’re grown—so we ask a lot of questions instead. If a guest prefers white wines, we ask if they prefer fruity or minerally, like sea salt. We ask if they like lighter or more full-bodied wines. Then I bring out a handful of glasses to taste.” barcovell.com.

Sommelier Bank Atcharawan
Photo © Jakrapan Atcharawan

Bank Atcharawan

Chada, Las Vegas

“Riesling is not the only wine that goes with spicy food. My other go-tos are fruit-forward wines like Chenin Blanc and Gewürztraminer.”

Why He Won Because, after running the best Riesling-based wine program in the country (at Vegas’s Lotus of Siam), he has created a sensational list at his new Thai restaurant, Chada, where he is both sommelier and chef. He has expanded his horizons beyond Riesling to include other varietals made by the best small American wineries.

California Rising “I want customers to try some of the incredible newer wines from producers like Jolie Laide in the Russian River Valley. The trend of supporting small, natural wineries hasn’t really hit Las Vegas, and I want to jump-start it.”

Favorite US Riesling “Oregon’s Trisaetum makes the best domestic Riesling I’ve ever tried.” chadavegas.com.

Sommelier David Speer
Photo © Ambonnay Champagne Bar

David Speer

Ambonnay, Portland, Oregon

“The nice part about having a Champagne bar is that the wine does the heavy lifting for me: Everyone likes Champagne. Nobody is going to say, ‘Man, this is terrible!’”

Why He Won Because at his 20-seat Champagne bar, he’s compiled a list of 50 excellent grower and Grandes Marques bottlings. With some choices costing only $12 a glass, he’s making Champagne an everyday drink.

On Naming His Bar “I picked the name Ambonnay, which is a subregion of Champagne, mainly because it’s easy for Portlandians to pronounce. Also, my palate has always tended toward elegant wines, like those from Ambonnay, rather than robust ones.”

$100 Buy “If someone gave me $100, I’d probably spend it on Ulysse Collin’s Les Pierrières Champagne. He manages to coax so much tropical aroma and flavor out of his wines while keeping them precise and focused on the palate.” ambonnaybar.com.

Sommelier Alpana Signh
Photo © Anthony Tahlier

Alpana Singh

The Boarding House, Chicago

“My restaurant is like a wine Epcot center. People will stay here for three or four hours!”

Why She Won Because there is arguably no other place in the country as wine-obsessed as her new Boarding House, with a menu of dishes tailored to the wine and a chandelier made from 9,000 glasses.

Wine Pricing “A good percentage of the 500 wines on our list are $50 or under. Even with the blue-chip wines, I only do a two-time mark-up. I’d rather have people enjoy them than run a wine museum.”

SOMM-Chef Collaboration “Chef Christian Gosselin came up with a mussel dish, and I’d just tasted a Muscadet I wanted to pair with it. But the sauce was too rich for the wine. So Christian lightened it and made it more acidity-driven.” boardinghousechicago.com.

Sommelier Joe Campanale
Photo © Selena Salfen

Joe Campanale

L’Apicio, L’Artusi, Dell’Anima, Anfora, New York City

Why He Won Because he’s so committed to bringing excellent small-production Italian wines to L’Artusi, Dell’Anima and Anfora. And now, at his new L’Apicio, he’s pouring them alongside small-production American wines made in a similarly balanced style.

Wine-List Staple “In Umbria, Paolo Bea makes wines, like his orange Santa Chiara, with so much care. He’s able to innovate without getting rid of tradition. His wines are so elegant and soulful.”

Saying No to the Expected “Part of what I love about wine is the sense of discovery, so I didn’t want Pinot Grigio on our lists. When someone asks for it, we suggest other wines with similar flavors. Someone once told me, ‘I remember the first time I had Pigato [a white wine from Liguria], because I asked for Pinot Grigio, but you didn’t have it. Now I ask for Pigato all around town.’” lapicio.com.

Sommelier Justin Vann
Photo © Bethany Quillin

Justin Vann

Oxheart, Houston

Why He Won Because he takes a micro-seasonal approach to wine; his list changes almost every week.

Of-the-Moment Wines “The dishes that chef Justin Yu makes drive the wine list 100 percent. He doesn’t serve crawfish when it’s not available locally, and when the local eggplant is gone from the market, it’s gone from our menu. Same with the wines that go with the dishes.”

Taking Risks “I think there’s always more than one right wine pairing, so I try to pick the most daring choice. If a dish could go with a Chardonnay or a fino sherry, I’ll always pick the fino.” oxhearthouston.com.

Sommelier Laura Maniec
Photo courtesy of Corkbuzz

Laura Maniec

Corkbuzz, New York City

Why She Won Because not only does she serve beautiful wines at her wine bar, but she puts an emphasis on wine education, offering classes every week.

New Discoveries “I was just in Turkey, and I was surprised by how much I loved the wines there, especially from Barbare. Many winemakers are using good indigenous grapes and you can see how excited they are about their wines.”

Downsized Lists “I’m digging the smaller wine lists I’m seeing in a lot of restaurants. You don’t have to have a big list full of trophy wines to be able to engage your guests.”

Go-To Champagne “I’ll always have Laherte Frères Champagne on my list, because I worked harvest there a couple years ago. But I wouldn’t have it on my list if it wasn’t also fantastic.” corkbuzz.com.

Sommelier Fun Facts

Three of these 10 sommeliers think the cheapest bottle is rarely the best value on a wine list.

Seven of these 10 sommeliers prefer to serve Champagne in white-wine glasses.

Five of these 10 sommeliers think it’s silly to sniff a cork in a restaurant.

Published April 2013
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