Somms on the Rise

photo by Stephen Lang

Graciela Gonzalez of Restaurant Martin, Andrew Roy of Il Piatto and Mary Frances Cheeseman of La Casa Sena. Photo by Stephen Lang

Santa Fe may be small but our culinary scene is thriving. Behind this success is a dedicated group of beverage professionals committed to maintaining high standards for wine, cocktails and service throughout our city. These are the sommeliers and mixologists writing your favorite restaurant’s wine list or mixing your drink at the bar. While some have been at it for years, others are just beginning their careers and a few are on the path to become certified sommeliers. These young beverage professionals are excited about what’s new in the world of wine and cocktails, but they’re not just looking to other cities for trends—they’re setting trends themselves. In anticipation of the New Year, I spoke to a few of Santa Fe’s up-and-coming sommeliers about what they’re excited to drink in 2015.

Andrew Roy, the talented young bartender at Il Piatto, discovered the world of wine and cocktails when he worked as a bar back at Secreto Lounge at the Hotel St. Francis during college. “My parents are Southern Baptists and they don’t drink, so I knew nothing about alcohol,” he says. “But I really enjoyed working in the bar, so I started studying everything I could about cocktails, beer and wine.” His studying paid off last year when he passed the Court of Master Sommeliers’ first level exam, and he hopes to continue to the second level, or certified, exam. “From a service standpoint, the more I know, the more I can bring to the table and the better service I can provide,” he says, explaining why sommelier exams are important to him.

So what would he like to see people drinking in 2015? “ABC,” he responds. “Anything but Cabernet or Chardonnay.” While these two grapes produce some of the finest wines in the world, Andrew and other beverage professionals in Santa Fe want to turn people on to lesser known varietals and wine producing regions. Andrew is especially interested in southern Italian varietals like Catarratto, a white grape from Sicily. Lately, he’s been drinking a blend of Primitivo (aka Zinfandel) and Negroamaro, two grapes grown in Puglia in southern Italy. “I’m obsessed with it!” he says. “It’s delicious.” Another benefit to exploring new varietals and wine regions, besides their being delicious, is cost—there’s great value outside the realm of the widely known grapes.

Graciela Gonzalez, the manager and wine buyer at Restaurant Martín, agrees. “This year I’ve been focused on really great quality wines that are more accessible,” she says, also citing Italy as an area of interest. “We have a single varietal Corvina by the glass right now and personally I’ve been into Gattinara.” Gattinara is an appellation for the Nebbiolo grape in northern Italy near Barolo. While Barolo can be very expensive, Gattinara offers delicious versions of the same grape at much lower cost. Graciela is also enjoying Godello, a white grape grown in Galicia in northwestern Spain. The grape is well suited to barrel aging and produces intense, mineral-rich wines similar in taste to Chardonnay but at lower prices.

Traveling to Spain is what got Mary Frances Cheeseman, who works in the wine shop at La Casa Sena, hooked on wine. “In Spain, I found that young people my age were more into drinking wine” she says, “and that the food and wine there went hand in hand.” She decided to become a sommelier and is currently studying for her certified sommelier exam. “I love wine because to me, it’s the pinnacle of what good food is about,” she says. “I like food to be indicative of a place, a culture, a time and wine in particular represents an amalgamation of all the things that make a true artisanal product.” I ask Mary Frances why she feels sommelier exams are important for young people beginning their careers in the beverage industry. “Knowing how to serve wine is important,” she emphasizes. “I also like the idea that there are standards of excellence associated with studying wine. It’s such a deep subject that involves different languages, geography, history and sociology. The topic has such depth and breadth that there should be some sort of standard by which experts and novices alike are judged.”

Mary Frances hits on another trend in the beverage industry, which is that more people are becoming versed in wine and cocktails—knowledge isn’t limited to the sommelier. “A lot of the staff at Restaurant Martín are just as qualified in talking about wine as I am,” Graciela explains. “Every week we have staff tastings where distributors come in and talk to us about the wines,” she says. “I’m doing my very best to get everyone to be a part of the wine program.”

Tastings are requisite for servers and sommeliers alike, in an effort to make sure everyone on the floor during service can talk about wine and cocktails with guests. You could call it the democratization of the beverage industry. Graciela frames this trend as sharing an experience with a guest through wine, as opposed to “educating” guests, which can have the unappetizing affect of making guests feel intimidated or afraid to ask questions. Andrew and Mary Frances both emphasize that great service goes hand-in-hand with wine and Mary Frances points out that in a retail setting trust is a big part of the picture. “I enjoy the ability to connect with people on a deeper level at the shop,” she says, explaining that once you get to know a customer they may be more willing to try something new. “I feel like I’m in a unique position to change how people think,” she says.

Another trend all three of these up-and-coming sommeliers would like to set is turning people on to Riesling, a grape folks tend to avoid because they believe it’s overly sweet. But Riesling is widely considered to be one of the world’s greatest white wine grapes. It can be produced in a wide range of styles, from bone dry to sweet, late-harvest versions. It has a unique varietal footprint, full of captivating aromas and flavors. It is especially adept at expressing site and two vines grown in exactly the same way on different soils will taste completely different. It’s also capable of aging for decades in bottle, just like a fine Bordeaux or Burgundy. “I appreciate the drive towards drinking bone dry wine,” Andrew says, “but a lot of people have gone so far that they won’t accept any residual sugar.” Mary Frances agrees. “I’m really excited about Riesling right now and I wish I could get more people to drink it,” she says. “It’s very affordable and it’s such good quality wine.”

Riesling is a trend in sommelier circles everywhere, but how does Santa Fe compare when it comes to other trends in big cities like New York and San Francisco? “Santa Fe has its own unique set of cultural constraints that give it a very strong identity but that separate it from trends in larger cities,” Mary Frances explains. She points out that geographically, Santa Fe is harder to access and shipping wine here can be more expensive. She also feels that Santa Fe shouldn’t try to emulate bigger cities with its trends. “The food and wine scene here is strong enough on its own and I don’t think it should try to be anything else,” she says emphatically. Graciela points out that Santa Fe cares as much about its culinary scene as any big city. “I believe Santa Fe restaurants care to provide experiences that are on par with big cities,” she says, “and we have the same clientele. There’s a more relaxed atmosphere here, but we definitely care as much to give the same level of service.”

Just how much we care is evident in a trend towards purchasing wines from smaller producers and considering growing practices. Graciela tells me that she is becoming more concerned with purchasing wines she can get behind—she wants to know who’s growing the grapes and making the wines. “I want to know who they are. Are they stewards of the land? Do they take care of Mother Nature?” she asks. “I would like to see more estate bottling, terroir focused wines and small growers and producers,” Mary Frances says. “The food scene in general is trending towards farmers markets and farm-to-table programs and I would like to see that translating into the wine people drink as well.”

Andrew is a great example of a young beverage professional putting this trend into practice. His cocktail program at Il Piatto, although constricted to beer and wine, highlights drinks he’s created using homemade ingredients like his signature spiced shrub syrup, a sweetened vinegar-based syrup made from Balsamic, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and other (secret!) ingredients.

Santa Fe’s talented, young beverage professionals want to set the trends for what you drink in 2015. Lucky for us, their choices are delicious and affordable. They’re also setting the standard for great service because at the end of the day, great service is what being a sommelier is all about. Next time you’re out to dinner or need a bottle of wine to take home, look for one of these faces. They’re excited about beverages and excited to help you find something you’ll love. If you’re willing to branch out, you’re likely to fall in love with a new varietal or region. “Some amazing and beautiful wines of the world are going unnoticed,” Mary Frances laments, but I have a feeling these talented folks are going to change that.

Originally published in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of Local Flavor Magazine.