How to Figure Out a City’s Wine Identity

Aly Berman
How Somm Liz Martinez gets intel on any city’s wine culture (BTW, you’re probably already doing it).

Liz Martinez is used to complicated wine pairings. In Chicago, she worked on the wine list at Topolobampo, Rick Bayless’s fine-dining Mexican spot, and wove Greek wines with Mediterranean food at Jimmy Bannos Jr.’s The Purple Pig.

“I’ve been working with a lot of esoteric wines,” says the James Beard Award-nominated sommelier.

However, now Martinez is 287 miles east in Detroit—and making a 180-degree turn in terms of cuisine category, treading on restaurant territory familiar to most and slightly foreign for her.

She’s taking over the wine list at Prime + Proper, a luxe steakhouse from avid wine collector and restaurateur Jeremy Sasson of Heirloom Hospitality in Detroit. It’s set to open next month, and Martinez has been taking careful note of her new home’s wine inclinations for her growing wine list.

Her secret to figuring it out? By drinking all around town.

“When I moved here, I wanted to see what people were drinking,” says Martinez. “I can see that people are definitely trying to do something different. I’ve gone to a bunch of places and noticed they’re not serving Chardonnay but a Savoie white.”

She’s also taken in the demographic—“There’s a Middle Eastern culture, so I’m bringing in Château Musar,” she says of the Lebanese wine label—as well as the nature of steakhouse wines, ranging from blockbuster unicorns to more affordable pours. (“You need old-world and new-world, as well domestic Cabernet,” Martinez says.) And she’s also tapped Sasson’s huge personal collection.

“It’s a passion for me, and this is the first project where I get to introduce the wines I’ve collected over the decades,” says Sasson. “I’ve been collecting first-growth French wines, from smaller vineyards in California, Champagnes from the 50s, 60s and 70s.”

Now, he can unveil his prized possessions.

“This is the right audience for someone to finally enjoy,” he adds. “And more importantly than that, we have the right somm to not just sell it but share it.”

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