Wine Bar

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To Be Or Not To Be … A Wine Sommelier

I read somewhere recently that one should be proud of one’s choices…and not necessarily one’s talents.

Hmmm…?

Because choices involve working hard, and the achievements that follow are worth every drop of blood, sweat and tears you put into it.

Let’s just say for a moment you are lucky enough to have a gift, if you work hard, that gift will pay off. Left to its own devices, the gift will wither.

Passion is a gift. To have passion for something is exhilarating, exciting, and so fulfilling.

I didn’t find my passion until I was in my late 30s. Actually, I have two: writing and wine.

Now…the writing is a solitary existence…but wine…that’s a different story…

At Somm Time, I am so often reminded how much I love working with people who are as passionate about wine as I am…but honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with more passion for or knowledge of wine that my colleague Ciprian Toma. His knowledge is encyclopedic: every time I suggest a little-known wine from a tiny winery tucked away behind the fields somewhere in deepest, darkest Andalucia, he’ll say, “Oh I know that wine…”

What?

Or some obscure Cabernet from Georgia that he had me taste, matured in clay kvevris…or…well the list goes on and on.

I feel so privileged to work with someone like Cip because I learn something every single time. His way of talking about wine opens my mind and my palate beyond my personal likes and he does that with all the guests who come through the door. “Spend a little time with the wine,” he’ll say to someone who may be on the fence about a brand new orange wine…or an all-natural trousseau from the Jura in Eastern France. “You will love it, I promise.”

And when Cip likes a wine…it is a rather grand performance, worthy of a Shakespearian play. He walks around, gesturing, gesticulating, shaking his head, pacing the room, looking up at the sky, throwing his arms in the air…and no words…at least not until the second sip.

Clearly, he is not the stiff, pompous sommelier who takes himself overly seriously, of which there are so many running around New York City. One I recently met reminded me of Lurch Addams. It is wine after all…not brain surgery. And wine is meant to be a celebration, so go ahead…enjoy it…the Cip way!

Originally from Transylvania in central Romania, he started life as a political journalist, followed by public relations, finally finding his way to New York City, where he started tasting wines, mostly Italian and discovered he had a “thing” for wine…certainly a nose, a palate and a passion that led to a sommellerie diploma.

I feel a certain camaraderie with Cip, and even though I don’t know him very well, I know enough to realize that he is a serious fellow with a keen sense of humor and we have alot in common respective to the roads we have traveled, switching around before we got to where we were meant to be.

Nonetheless, I have huge respect and admiration for someone who has realized what he loves and goes for it, full throttle.

Once you figure out what you love, it really lights up your life and it will make it easier to succeed.

And one last thing…Cip really loves the desert!

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Wine & Warmth

These days, when you tell someone that you’re a wine sommelier, they inevitably register a look of awe: eyebrows raised, eyes wide, mouth gaping…

“You must be really smart,” is the opening line that invariably follows.

Thank you “Somm,” the 2013 documentary that follows four wine captains in their quest for the Master Sommelier certification.

And whilst a good sommelier indeed should know his/her wines, varietals, flavour profiles, terroirs, geology and geography, I believe the job of a good sommelier requires a few other qualifications: namely a hospitable nature, of which warmth is the most important ingredient; good instincts and some psychological insight that gives him/her the ability to read the table.

I am one who admittedly goes out to eat at restaurants a lot, and have worked in my fair share of them and therefore have come across many a sommelier…and the ones who remain indelibly etched in my mind are the ones who smiled when they greeted me, the ones that made me feel good about the wine I had chosen and gently waltzed around a few suggestions of their own, explaining in simple words why their choices might be more appealing. Sometimes I agreed and sometimes I didn’t, but either way, we both ended up extremely pleased with the choice.

Years later, I may not remember much else, but I shall not easily forget Luis Garcia de la Navarra, the owner and Master Sommelier at his restaurant that carries his name on the Calle Montalban in Madrid.

Luis is tall for a Spaniard and handsome to boot. The first time I ate there, I had picked a simple Verdejo for lunch. It was a hot summer day and he applauded my choice and came back with:

“Perhaps the Senora would like to try a wine that just arrived in my cellar?”

Of course, I agreed.

That lunch, my friend Maria Jose and I ended up drinking the most delicious Godello…it was ‘As Sortes’ from Rafael Palacios, a honey-coloured liquid made from grapes that came from Palacios’ seven oldest plots. It wasn’t even that much more expensive than what we had originally picked, but it was so much more interesting than the Verdejo, and way more complex and layered.

And Luis suggested a simple plate of Pata Negra Jamon to start out with and rounds of juicy tomatoes drenched in a spicy green olive oil and warm bread to go with.

I must say it was probably one of the best lunches I’ve ever had.

And Luis…well, he won my confidence with his smile and twinkling eyes.

Then of course, there are the sommeliers who take themselves far too seriously and when they approach a table, they live up to their reputation of being unapproachable and borderline arrogant. Why? I’ve often wondered. Why be in the hospitality world if you’re not hospitable? Why can’t they smile. Why so stiff? In fact, I recently bumped into one who came off as quite rude. After all, it’s about the wine, not about them; and isn’t it all about the guest and helping their experience to be an unforgettable one?

Somm Time in New York City is a wine bar where a warm smile and hospitality go hand in hand with a spectacular wine list…the kind of list that wine aficionados might put up with a dour, dull sommelier, just for the pleasure of drinking the bottles curated so thoughtfully by Maria Rust. But in fact, you get it all at Somm Time: the warmth and the wine.

And with that combination, you just can’t lose.

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A Time To Wine

Back in the day, there was a bar on Greenwich Avenue called “The Bar.” It was truly a neighbourhood dive, with a great jukebox and a man called Johnny with a long ZZ Top-style beard behind the bar. Open until 4am, it attracted all kinds: nurses getting off their shifts, servers, other bartenders, writers, artists and the occasional lost soul.

I used to go in there for the odd dirty martini and put coin after coin in the jukebox, listening to The Cure and The Rolling Stones over and over.

I remember once asking Johnny for a glass of wine and he looked at me and raised a sardonic eyebrow.

“Lady, this is a bar,” he said.

That was in 1995.

A few years later, just as I had begun to gravitate towards the wine world, I happened to be at “The Bar” late one night and asked Johnny the same question.

“What color?” was the reply this time.

“White…” I said, shrugging slightly.

He bent down and pulled out a box, put some ice in a rocks glass and poured some of the golden liquid over the ice. “Here you go,” he pushed the glass towards me. “Wine.”

15 years later, after a particularly superb dinner of paella with Maria and Angie, two of my closest gal pals that included five bottles of vintage Burgundy and Bordeaux, I decided they needed to know about “The Bar.”

We piled into a cab and off we went downtown.

It was just as I remembered it. A real dive. Except that the jukebox now took debit cards and Johnny proudly served Pinot Grigio, Sancerre, Pinot Noir and Cabernet.

All this to say that wine is now a beverage of choice, and not just among aficionados and connoisseurs, but it is now accessible and available to all. And wine bars have cropped up all over the city. But they’re not all alike.

These days, I hang my hat at Somm Time, a wine bar par excellence, that is the brainchild of Maria Rust. A sommelier and wine maverick, she had always wanted a wine bar where wine was celebrated and enjoyed…and not for any particular reason, but just because.

When we worked together several years ago, we always said, we would have such a bar and lo and behold, now there is Somm Time.

Somm Time is a wine bar with a list that is extraordinary, filled with wines that appeal to everyone: from the sommelier and master of wine to the young law student who lives next door. But it’s not just about the wine: it’s also about the atmosphere, the ambiance and the sheer warmth that emanates when you walk in. People say it feels like their living room…and there may be some truth to that. But that is what we want. We want people to feel comfortable and happy…whilst they try new wines and teach their palate about something new.

None of us who work at Somm Time (and there are only three) preach about wine…it’s a conversation; we put people at ease with a smile and let them tell us what they want before we make gentle suggestions.

And for us, the greatest reward is when someone’s eyes genuinely light up when they take that first sip. That is what makes the very hard work we put into Some Time worthwhile.

Somm Time isn’t just any wine bar. It is a quintessential wine bar run by people who care not only about the wine but about the experience…because while the average person may or may not remember the wine, he or she will most certainly remember how we made them feel and hopefully come back again and again.