If the word sommelier makes you think of an ascot-sporting, tuxedo-clad man looking down his nose at anyone daring to mispronounce Viognier, that image is about to change.
A new generation of American wine experts is coming to the fore, making the world of wine a more inviting space for drinkers of all races, genders and ages (older than 21, of course). They may hail from all corners of the country, their hands in all sectors of the industry, but they all have one thing in common: a dedication to putting the fun back into vino. Meet the new wave of experts shaking up American wine.
James Beard Award-Winning Sommelier at Large
Photo: Jason Little
In the late 1990s, Belinda Chang made a name for herself at Charlie Trotter's as one of the era's few female wine directors. Over the years—working at Chicago's Lettuce Entertain You, The Modern and Monkey Bar in NYC, Moёt Hennessy and, most recently, as director of wine and spirits at Chicago's Maple & Ash—she went from curious biochemistry student to James Beard Award-winning "wine girl at large" (her words). Today, she aims to keep the somm world focused on the things that really matter. "More than taste of wine, I love the culture—the art, the science, the work, the authenticity, the history and politics, and especially the joy." And when asked about her hope for the future, she says, “I’m dreaming of a return to the classics. I’m tired of weird wine that doesn’t taste great—delicious is delicious.”
Winemaker, Abbey Creek Vineyard
North Plains, OR
Photo: Carly Diaz
One of just a handful of black winemakers in the industry, Abbey Creek Vineyard's Bertony Faustin draws inspiration from his personal experience growing up as a Haitian immigrant in a world that didn't always accept him. But making fantastic wine isn't all Faustin's does. He just wrapped the first season of a reality show about wine competitions called Best Bottle and is releasing a documentary in June called Red, White & Black, which shines a light on the disparity between the industry's publicly white face and a history built primarily on the backs of minority agricultural workers. "Being able to use my position and influence to bridge the gaps of exclusion in the industry is why I do what I do," he says. "I'm able to change the perception of what wine drinking is or can be by giving all minorities a chance to see themselves where they once may not have felt welcomed."
Photo: Christopher Shane
This 29-year-old Advanced Sommelier, who was on Zagat's 2016 30 Under 30, began his career nine years ago as a server at the prestigious Charleston Grill, while moonlighting as a DJ. "I didn't know much about wine at the time, so I picked up some books just for casual reading. I was kind of harassing Charleston Place's wine director, Rick Rubel, with incessant questions, but he was stoked that I was into it and just started scheduling time for us to taste together." These days, Oyediran is gearing up to open Graft, a Charleston wineshop and bar that represents his first independent venture with partner Miles White. "Sharing wine with people is really just like being a DJ," he muses. "You hear sommeliers talk about the successive lineup of bottles they opened recently, and it pretty much sounds like Questlove talking about the last set list he geeked out on."
Master Sommelier & Cofounder, Corkbuzz
New York, NY/Charlotte, NC
Photo: Katrín Björk
Laura Maniec opened Corkbuzz's first location in 2011, two years after becoming one of just 18 female Master Sommeliers in the world at that time. Since then, the game-changing wine and small-plates studio has grown to a mini empire that includes outlets in New York's Chelsea Market and Charlotte, North Carolina. And that's not all. "I'm working on a new project called The Weekly Tasting, where a series of four-bottle packs of wine gets delivered to your door," she says. "It's a really exciting way to try new wines, geared toward people who want to break out of their comfort zone and learn about wines they would otherwise have not tried on their own.”
Winemaker, Field Recordings Wine
Paso Robles, CA
Photo: Jennifer Olson
Wine? In a can? If you ask Field Recordings' Andrew Jones, pushing the boundaries of what wine can look like and how it can be enjoyed is just an extension of his lifelong love of the grape. Jones's forward-thinking approach to winemaking goes hand in hand with his commitment to small farming, a refreshing departure from where he's worried his industry is heading. "The family winery seems to be slowly fading away as the big players keep acquiring and consolidating things," he says. "I'm hoping wine goes in a good direction as it becomes more a part of our culture, but in general, we have a lot of work ahead." Good thing he's up for it.
Wine Director, République
Los Angeles, CA
Photo: DYLAN + JENI
Though she hasn't been in the industry as long as some, the 33-year-old high school history teacher-turned-République wine director dubbed "one of the most influential Latina sommeliers in the country" by the L.A. Times, has already made quite a splash within L.A.'s booming dining scene. "The face of Los Angeles wine has completely changed, but it’s also changed because the face of the restaurant industry has changed," she notes. "There’s been more of a drive for more sommeliers, and it’s a pretty diverse group. The move toward casual high end seems to be continuing, with really great beverage programs and food, but without fussy service. The people here have a lot of passion and are really taking the next step seriously."
CEO, Love Cork Screw
Photo: Jason Little
In today's world, the number of Caucasian wine professionals still far outweighs African Americans, and rectifying that statistic has been one of the central forces driving Chrishon Lampley's 20+-year career as an entrepreneur. She started Love Cork Screw after a devastating structural accident destroyed her award-winning South Loop bar, Three Peas Art Lounge. First came a blog, and as her readership exploded, LCS became a radio show and, finally, a full-blown wine business. Lampley's company, now a licensed wholesaler and importer with a seven-state reach, also produces several different varietals under the Love Cork Screw name. As if that weren't enough, she also sells handmade scented candles. "I'm an extrovert, so I enjoy being around people—and drinking wine, of course. So I just combined the two!" she explains. "It's created an unexpected platform for me to inspire other entrepreneurs and learn from them. The connections are priceless."