Top sommeliers on why they take part in Sommeliers Choice Awards

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We talk to some of the leading sommeliers about why they think Sommeliers Choice Awards stands out from the competition. 

The Sommeliers Choice Awards lives up to its name by only having sommeliers and professionals with direct wine buying responsibility on its judging panel. With special pricing for this year’s competition ending on March 31 we talk to some of the leading sommeliers about why they think the event stands out from the competition. 

Rachael Lowe, beverage director, Levy Restaurants, Chicago

Rachael Lowe, Judge at 2021 Sommeliers Choice Awards

VIEW RACHAEL’S PROFILE

Tell us about yourself and how you got into the drinks and restaurant scene?

I grew up in a family that loved dining out, and fine dining in general so I became obsessed with restaurants at a very young age. I started waiting tables when I was attending undergraduate school in Chicago and fell in love with wine. When I moved to New York in 2004 to get my Masters in Food Studies at NYU I was lucky to be hired as the assistant sommelier at Café Gray. From there I worked my way up through various programs from the Mandarin Oriental as assistant beverage director and Gordon Ramsay at the London as a sommelier. 

I moved to Napa in 2008 to work for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group where I ended up at Bouchon as a sommelier. Then in 2009 I passed my advanced exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers with the highest score and was awarded the Rudd Scholarship. After moving back to Chicago in 2010 I have continued in beverage and became the beverage director for Spiaggia seven years ago. I was promoted to director of beverage for the Levy Restaurant Group two years ago.

What are your main responsibilities?

I oversee 13 restaurants nationally, lead education initiatives throughout the group, write the beverage programs for Ravinia, River Roast, and Spiaggia, and oversee the day-to-day operations at Spiaggia here in Chicago.

What do you think are the most important skills you need to be successful working in your role?

Flexibility, organization, good communication, experience, and general likeability helps. 

How have you found the last year in lockdown and what sort of things have you been doing to keep on top of your skills and knowledge?

The last year has been tough for everyone, people have been forced to change roles and even re-evaluate their careers. Those of our team that was not furloughed were asked to be cross-utilized throughout the company in order to justify keeping us on. I continue to read and drink plenty of wine.

What are you expecting when the on-premise sector does fully re-open in terms of how customers will respond?

I think those that are eager to get back out will be back in restaurants with bells on. When we re-opened after the first closure people were still spending plenty of money on wine, I imagine this will be the case in the coming months as well.

Why did you want to be involved in the Sommeliers Choice Awards?

It is a great opportunity to be exposed to new wines, re-connect with peers, and maybe get to know new ones. I also love the idea that small up-and-coming producers can get the recognition and exposure they deserve.

What is it about the awards that make it stand out from other competitions? 

It brings together some of the most knowledgeable people in the wine industry who are all in this together, not competing against one another, and again can be a great platform for wineries to gain exposure and notoriety.

Do you use the awards to pick new trends and see what new styles of wines are coming into the market?

Absolutely. It’s a great way to keep on top of the market.

What sort of demand do you think there will be when the on-trade does re-open and what sort of wines and styles/countries are going to be most in demand?

I think demand will be huge, people have been feeling pent up and want to get out there and indulge. I think a happy medium of classics vs wines that are considered ‘out of the box’ will be enjoyed – people will be drinking, generally.


Read Rachael’s interview on what sommeliers can expect in the coming months.


Brandon Wise, vice president of beverage operations at Sage Restaurant Group, Denver, Colorado

Brandon Wise, Judge at 2021 Sommeliers Choice Awards

VIEW BRANDON’S PROFILE

Tell us about yourself and how you got into the drinks and restaurant scene?

I started working in a restaurant at the age of 15 in my hometown and really caught the bug. It was a white tablecloth steakhouse where most of the staff had been there for over 10 years and they took wine service very seriously. I would blind taste different wines and practice my menu presentation with co-workers during my off time and learned to appreciate wine and service. It wasn’t until opening a wine bar as GM years later, where we focused on esoteric new world wines, when it truly became my life’s work.

What is your current role and your main responsibilities?

As VP of beverage, I oversee the corporate beverage program for Sage Hospitality, which was a finalist for VIBE’s Best Overall Beverage Program award last year. Beyond that I wear a variety of different hats from working with our teams on developing our brands, consulting on restaurant and bar design, writing menus, training our bar teams, as well as operational standards and financial performance of our businesses.

What do you think are the most important skills you need to be successful working in your role?

One skill I have worked to develop over the years is empathy. I’ve always focused on this for our guests but have really focused on this in recent years in relation to our team members as well as business partners. It’s an underutilized skill in negotiation, and by recognizing the challenges and obligations our suppliers and distributors face we’ve been fortunate to build some incredible partnerships over the years.

How have you found the last year in lockdown and what sort of things have you been doing to keep on top of your skills and knowledge?

So many Zoom seminars and tastings. Can we please stop calling them ‘happy hours’ though? I think we can all agree there is nothing happy about staring at a computer screen all day.

What are you expecting when the on-premise does re-open in terms of how customers will respond?

For us, the on-premise never fully closed. Most of our properties stayed open in some capacity for all or most of the past year so we’ve been working tirelessly all along. What I’ve seen is that our guests are ready for a break from the stresses of pandemic life and they’re anxious to support the restaurants and bars they love. I think the storyline for the rest of 2021 will be diners going out in search of unique experiences, and reveling in the social activities we may have previously taken for granted.

Why did you want to be involved in the Sommeliers Choice Awards?

It was very flattering to be invited. Personally, the main reason I wanted to get involved was the winemakers and all of the people that are behind every wine. So much care is taken with every one of the products we’ll be evaluating. I appreciate their love for wine and believe everyone deserves an opportunity to showcase that dedication to the craft.

What is it about the awards that make it stand out from other competitions?

It’s my first time participating but it sounds like there is a good deal of focus around what’s in the bottle. Positioning sommeliers and wine professionals in this way allows us to have a voice that can reach beyond the marketing dollars of large brands and level the playing field for all producers.

Do you use awards to pick new trends and see what new styles of wines are coming into the market?

It’s a great place to look at emerging trends. The evaluators are tasting wine more frequently than anyone, so they get first looks at innovative products. Trends begin in the on-premise, and the panel of judges are in many cases the ones writing those menus. This award show could be looked at as an excellent barometer of where trends are heading.

What sort of demand do you think there will be when the on-premise does fully re-open and what sort of wines and styles and countries are going to be most in demand?

We expect demand to be through the roof and we’re already seeing guests in our restaurants trading up more often. We’re also seeing a lot of interest in exploring new varietals and regions. I’m anticipating a big year for high acid whites like Gruner Veltliner and Albarino with Sauvignon Blanc leading the way. Microtrends to watch will be related to innovative packaging. Canned wine is here to stay but you might see more boxed wines in the on-premise and wine-based RTDs targeted at the cocktail and seltzer consumer. 

David Keck MS, wine director at VT Wine Shepherd

David Keck, Judge at 2021 Sommeliers Choice Awards

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Tell us about yourself and how you got into the drinks and restaurant scene?

I grew up in rural Vermont, but started bartending and waiting tables at 18 and continued doing that throughout college and whenever I was between gigs in my first career as an opera singer. I got excited about wine early on and found lots of parallels between this multidisciplinary field and music and so when I eventually made the full transition into the restaurant world, it was a natural and exciting move.

What is your current role and your main responsibilities?

I currently have several. I am the wine director for VT Wine Shepherd, a small distributor here in the Green Mountain State – training the sales team and creating the wine portfolio. I also am founder and owner of Stella14 Wines, soon to be a producer of organically grown VT wine. 

What do you think are the most important skills you need to be successful working in your role?

I think the most important skills in distribution and production are actually patience, willingness to wait for the right thing, whether it be grape ripeness, the proper wine for the portfolio, or the right time to approach a customer – as well as the crucial elements of constant curiosity and hunger for progress. 

How have you found the last year in lockdown and what sort of things have you been doing to keep on top of your skills and knowledge?

The last year has had lots of challenges for all of us in the business, but I found that taking over management of a vineyard and producing wine have given me more insight and understanding of our craft than anything I’ve done in a long while. There is no substitute for hands-on experience. 

What are you expecting when the on-trade does re-open in terms of how customers will respond?

I think people are going to be absolutely crazy about going out to restaurants and bars – a year of cooking for themselves, making their own cocktails, selecting their own wine? People are READY. 

Why did you want to be involved in the Sommeliers Choice Awards?

There is always something very exciting about judging wines and talking wine with our colleagues, but this wine competition particularly being geared to an on-premise perspective is very different and interesting. 

What is it about the awards that makes it stand out from other competitions?

It really is the focus on sommeliers and restaurant viability – that is a very different criterion set than judging wines for its merit in a category without that context. Many competitions operate in a vacuum to some extent. This is a bit different. 

Do you use the awards to pick new trends and see what new styles of wines are coming into the market?

Looking at results from an awards show is always interesting to see what is new, what is showing well, and what our colleagues are tasting.

What sort of demand do you think there will be when the on-premise does re-open and what sort of wines and styles and countries are going to be most in demand?

I think that the trend that existed before the pandemic was one of increasing trust in wine professionals and adventurous wine selections in restaurants. I think that the move is definitely toward more sustainable, organic, biodynamic producers, producers with a story, and something new from a cool place. The current generation of wine drinkers is looking for ways to expand their minds and palate and that’s a great place to be. 


Read David’s interview on his experience as a winemaker and winery owner.


Marc R. Kauffman, certified sommelier, wine consultant 

Marc R. Kauffman, Judge at 2021 Sommeliers Choice Awards

VIEW MARC’S PROFILE

Tell us about yourself and how you got into the drinks and restaurant scene? 

I began my wine experience when I attended University in Bordeaux France during my college years. Upon my return to the US I began a career in the restaurant business. I was beverage director for a large national restaurant chain and trained over 4,000 servers in wine and spirit sales and service. I then became general manager at two prominent restaurants in Colorado and finally went on to become director of catering for Hilton Hotels. 

After 20 years in the hospitality industry, I made a move to the wine industry working with two wine distributors before moving to California to start Stone Creek Wines. During this time I earned certifications from The Court of Master Sommeliers, The Society of Wine Educators, The Culinary Institute of America, University of California, Davis and then was qualified as an international wine judge for Le Trophe International wine judging in Lyon France, I am the only American ever to be asked to judge wines at this event. I also worked on two TV series about wine. My experience is all-encompassing and I have worked in wineries in almost every major wine-producing region of the world.

What is your current role and your main responsibilities? 

I am currently the lead sommelier for The Sommelier Company and give live, virtual wine and spirit tastings to Fortune 500 corporate groups on a regular basis. I also serve as a sales and marketing consultant for a large Italian winery and a French wine closure company.

What do you think are the most important skills you need to be successful working in your role? 

The sommelier of today has to be creative, flexible and entertaining. 

How have you found the last year in lockdown and what sort of things have you been doing to keep on top of your skills and knowledge? 

During the past year my online wine tasting business has exploded. So I have been able to study and learn more about the many different wines we taste during the sessions and sharpen my tasting ability. Being able to give multiple online virtual tasting events each month has also given me the opportunity to perform in front of an audience – more than anything a sommelier needs to be an entertainer.

What are you expecting when the on-trade does re-open in terms of how customers will respond? 

Current indications are that customers will flood the remaining restaurants in celebration of the end of lockdown. So sommeliers better be ready to get back to work.

Why did you want to be involved in the Sommeliers Choice Awards? 

The wine world needs a different type of wine evaluation and judging system based on real-life experience. That’s what these awards offer.

Do you use the awards to pick new trends and see what new styles of wines are coming into the market? 

The awards are a good guide to what many sommeliers think will sell. That’s the main point, the saleability of the wine.

What sort of demand do you think there will be when the on-premise does fully re-open and what sort of wines, styles, and countries are going to be most in demand?

The brands with the best distribution systems in place will benefit initially as low stocks are refilled. There is a current trend to lower alcohol wines which would be important to learn more about.

Anything else you would like to say? 

It takes more than wine knowledge to make a great sommelier. This is a hospitality industry-based career. In addition to wine knowledge, the sommelier is part actor, part teacher, part accountant, part psychologist and part waiter/waitress. If you don’t like people this is not the job for you.


Read Marc’s interview on being a wine industry consultant, certified sommelier, and cellar master.


*If you would like to enter your products into the Sommeliers Choice Awards 2021 then click here. 

Key Dates:

* Regular Registration Ends: April 20, 2021

* Warehouse Closes: April 23, 2021

* Judging: May 16, 2021

* Winners Announced: May 31, 2021 

Pricing:

* Regular Pricing – $120 per wine (April 01, 2021, to April 20, 2021)

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