Photo: Amy Pezzicara/Bern's Steak House
Popping the cork: Sommeliers are in demand around Florida
Sommeliers have their own movies on YouTube and Netflix, and a new restaurant under the Orlando Eye now calls itself simply Somm.
The new generation of in-the-spotlight sommeliers dress informally and may sport tats, but still have a deep knowledge of the ever-more complicated world of wine, its many tastes and smells and endless geography and history.
Today’s somms often double as front-of the- house managers at restaurants ranging from high-end resorts to easygoing establishments like Jacksonville’s Grotto Wine Bar. Their main duties, of course, involve selecting the wine menu. Slow weekday afternoons typically find them, and sometimes chefs, facing sales teams pitching multiple brands of pinot grigio or California cab and more new offerings from Spain or Corsica and an odd barbera or viognier.
If you think all the young restaurant talent want to be brewmasters and boutique bar-tenders, check out the long waiting lists for the Court of Master Sommeliers’ grueling exams.
Formally certified by the Court and other groups, or just naturally gifted and charming, somms are in demand to build new wine lists of all stripes and sizes.
At Grotto Wine Bar in Jacksonville, where the food ranges from lamb empanadas to mushroom duxelles, and wine runs from Washington State aligote to a Piedmont dolcetto, any diner would welcome the advice of Justin Tichy.
Both somm and manager, Tichy shares his love of the wine world’s diversity in weekly classes. Students pay as little as $4 for 3 ounces of viognier, furmint or Cotes du Rhone from his short (50-label) but wildly eclectic list.
At Vue on 30-A in Santa Rosa Beach, Jake Purvis manages the restaurant and wine list for diners who might have Thai shrimp or foie gras French toast. The list touts stars of Destin’s wine festival like Australia’s Torbreck and California’s Justin, while Purvis also recommends the stony French chards of classic Chablis and surprise pairings of pistachios and Sancerre.
With almost 6,000 labels, in vintages from 1969 and beyond, Bern’s Steak House in Tampa has all the old-school trimmings of candlelit decanting, rare-bottle, musty cellars and the 2016 James Beard Award for the best wine service in the country.
Its three somms are smart, not stuffy, exemplified by its newest, Rachel Healy, 26, who’s the restaurant’s first female somm. She began tasting as a child, started restaurant jobs at 15, became a certified somm, worked in Champagne and now happily tastes her way through decades past.
Her big thrill is serving “true unicorns, wines that people only dream of and never get the chance to see or enjoy” — aged Bordeaux and old Rhones. She also gets a kick of showing off “really neat,” inexpensive finds like a ’74 Inglenook charbono, and older cru Beaujolais. No pretense, no fluffy vocabulary words.
Like most young somms, she drinks widely, from Finger Lakes rieslings to hoppy craft IPA, and this summer, lots of rosé.
At the flashy Faena hotel in Miami, somm Chris Zarcadoolas has two deep wine lists for the hotel’s very different restaurants. Francis Mallmann’s Los Fuegos serves prime rib and sweetbreads a la parilla and octopus from the plancha, while modern Asian Pao features dramatic Filipino cuisine with Japanese and Spanish accents.
To pair, Zarcadoolas looks for wines that are “in the guests’ comfort zone or a little beyond,” including older malbecs, Austrian rieslings and richer sakes.
After years of matching wines to the lusty eclecticism of Michael “Genuine” Schwartz, somm Brian Grandison now hunts pairings for Cantonese abalone and turnip cake dim sum at the Fontainebleau’s exquisite Hakkasan. He’s found them from old Riojas to rare Croatian whites.
There are more wines than ever — and more somms to guide you through them.
Florida’s Fertile Soil
The top region besides California and New York for growing fresh sommeliers?
Yes, thanks to Virginia Philip, head sommelier of The Breakers and proprietor of a West Palm wine shop and academy.
She is the godmother of hot somms, having taught more than 1,000 wine experts from Europe, South America and China as well as the U.S. in her intensive courses at the resort.
A lucky few have stayed on to work for her at the Breakers or in her business.
It’s a diverse and successful group, many now working as full-time somms and five master sommeliers, a title held by only 150 worldwide.
She trains business minds as well as palates. "You may have the best palate in the world, or have the most trivia on memory, but at the end of the day, if you cannot make your budget and keep your costs in line, you will not go far."