Ask a Sommelier: How Did You Get Interested in Wine?

Ask a Sommelier

We ask top somms across the country for their wine-related advice.

Studying More Wine than Algebra

What inspired them to get into wine? Josiah Baldivino (shown) had a college internship in a wine shop.

A good sommelier exudes excitement for wine, and when we start talking to one, we always wonder how they first found that passion. Was there an aha! moment? A wine that really turned his head and convinced him to devote his life to studying vineyards and winemaking methods, regions, producers, and pairings? Was there a mentor who guided the way? We asked 14 somms about how they got interested in wine. Here's what they had to say.

A Tiny Village in Italy

Brianne Day of Riffle NW

  • "My parents moved to the Portland area when I was 16 and instead of making human friends I took drives into wine country and hung out on the side of Worden Hill Road looking at the vines. But it was in Italy, when I was 19, that I had an "aha" moment. I took a boat down the length of Lake Como and we stopped in a tiny village, and got out to look around. On a narrow cobblestoned back alleyway was a wine cellar. An older gentleman wearing a Bill Cosby sweater was standing beside the door—I don't remember his name but I remember the sweater. He invited me and my friend in and told us we could taste anything we liked, so we sampled around the open bottles on his stone shelves in this tiny, dusty, cold cellar. Each wine sent shivers down my spine—I remember Piemonte wines, and Oltrepò Pavese wines, and Lambrusco...I was hooked right there. Six weeks later at the end of my vacation I had 18 bottles of wine in my backpack and a flame in my heart." — Brianne Day (Riffle NW)
  • "I needed a business internship for my major so I got one at Silverlake Wine in Los Angeles. I knew nothing about wine so they let me stock and clean. I started studying wine instead of algebra and every day I worked, I would ask questions about wines in the store. By the time my internship was up, I had learned all the wines in the store and was offered a part-time job. The crew at Silverlake Wine got me excited. They were super passionate about wine and used curse words sometimes when talking about it. That made me realize that I could be into wine without being a square."— Josiah Baldivino (Michael Mina)

From Line Cook to Sommelier

Star Black of Olympic Provisions.

  • "I was a line cook who didn't like beer after my shift but preferred wine. I always liked the sommeliers I worked with, I thought they were smart and passionate about what they did and I liked talking to them about wine. As a young cook I would sit in on front-of-the-house wine tastings. Recently I found notes from one of those tastings (about 11 years ago) where I had my first taste of López de Heredia in a line-up of Spanish wines. I drew a lot of hearts and rainbows around it and wrote something to the affect of it being the most 'real' wine I had ever had." — Star Black (Olympic Provisions)
  • "I got into wine as a college student in the Hotel School at Cornell where you could consume wine for 'educational purposes' if you were 18. So I took the wine course my sophomore year and did A LOT of 'extracurricular studying.' I became a teaching assistant for the course and got paid $5 an hour and got to take 2 bottles of wine home after each class. So for a college kid to get paid in alcohol, that is a dream come true. That was when I first realized I could get paid to drink wine and I was hooked ever since. In that same class, Kevin Zraly was a guest lecturer and when I heard him speak about wine, I realized that wine could be fun and entertaining. The way he demystified a 'snooty' subject and made it digestible for the masses inspired me to want to learn more and eventually teach others." — Sabato Sagaria MS (The Little Nell Hotel)

Getting the Girl

Steven Rhea of Hospoda.

  • "It wasn't until I needed to impress a girl's father that I began showing a focused interest in wine. My "aha" moment came several years later and it's what led me to a career in the field. It was a non-vintage Champagne by Laherte Frères, Les Vignes D'Autrefois. It was like nothing I'd tasted before. 100% Pinot Meunier, extra dry, fantastic." — Steven Rhea (Hospoda)
  • "I was first introduced to 'wine' in high school when a few friends and I decided to get a couple bottles of Cold Duck instead of our normal case of beer and I was treated to the feeling of a 'sophisticated buzz' as I recall the effects were much more relaxing and calming than the traditional ones I had been used to. Romantic, I know."— Anthony Lerner (Comme Ça)
  • "I was just working my way through college at a restaurant and one of my tables had ordered a '94 Liparita Cab that was recently added to the list. The host of the party was generous and suggested I taste the wine. The flavors were incredible. Ripe blueberries and a really lasting finish that left you wanting more. The texture was velvety and luscious. I didn't quite get wine until that day." — Evelyn Ciszak (Chakra)

"An Accidental Discovery"

John Toigo of Fiola

  • "Wine was an accidental discovery, as all good passions tend to be. My family always allowed the kids a single sip of wine to toast the holidays with the adults. That moment where everyone was included, everyone was family, taught me the power of good food, good wine, and good company that forms the backbone of any happy occasion. The first truly great wine I ever had was poured by my postman. He delivered many wine books to my door, and finally one day invited me to his tasting group. There I had a 1995 Chateau Musar from Lebanon, a great wine from an unlikely place that I'll never forget." — John Toigo (Fiola)
  • "I started getting into wine at a very young age when my older brother started slipping me tastes of wine behind my parents' back. I was very lucky that my brother had good taste! The first wine that I really remember liking was a Grüner Veltliner that I tasted at a wine bar in Portland. It wasn't a big name or cru wine, but I remember thinking, 'Wow, this is killer.' From that experience I moved on to drinking lots of Chablis, which led me to my first truly great eye opening experience: 1997 Raveneau Chablis 'Valmur' Grand Cru. It was so complex and interesting it had me thinking for days on end. From there on out, I knew wine was what I wanted to do." — Eric Railsback (Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchant)

A Slow Rise in Experience

Julia Travis of Cull & Pistol

  • "I remember one 'aha' moment when I was about 19 and traveling abroad with my first boyfriend. We were in Bordeaux (which at the time meant nothing to me) and we sat outside and had a bottle of wine (I have no idea what) and an amazing bistro steak. I remember thinking 'Oh, I get this,' but I don't know what I knew what I was getting—just that there was something very good in that combination. My development of wine knowledge began at Bar Q (Anita Lo's former spot on Bleecker Street). Roger Dagorn had done the list there and we frequently tasted wine. I was terrified and insecure, but paid a lot of attention. I would never speak up and say what I was tasting or smelling, but more and more I discovered that I was often detecting was what you were 'supposed' to get from the wine. That experience gave me the boldness to start to speak up. When I moved onto working at Perilla, Alicia Nosenzo was great about staff education. I think that the style of wine she leans towards, in particular the lovely aromatic whites, really started to get me excited about wine. While working at these places I'd often go to Blue Ribbon Downing Street when I finished my shift—those guys were pouring some amazing stuff and were so generous with their knowledge; that is definitely where I've 'geeked out' on wine the most." —Julia Travis (Cull & Pistol)
  • "During college, while on an archaeological dig in Italy, I was able to enjoy a glass of Brunello di Montalcino paired with roasted local wild boar. This moment transformed my love of wine at the time into a passion to learn and submerse myself further into this fascinating world. This time in Italy helped to illuminate the idea of drinking and eating from the bounty in the region around you. I have found this always to be a solid starting point in pairing wine with food." — Sarah Knoefler (Gitane, Café Claude, Café Claude Marina, Gaspar Brasserie)

A Transition from Sake

Cara Patricia of Hakkasan San Francisco

  • "I actually became interested in wine after first learning about sake. I worked for a time in a Japanese yakiniku restaurant in New York City and we had a solid wine list but an extensive sake and shochu list. I am still amazed at how versatile sake's flavor profiles are with a range of cuisine, and you can really geek out on rice varieties, yeasts, water sources, and brewing methods—the terroir of sake is complex. But I transitioned from sake to wine when I moved back home to Chicago and began working at restaurants that were more wine focused. The light went on in my head when I began studying and tasting wines like Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and saw how sake's transparency was to be found in wine. There were a few wine bars in Chicago that really helped me turn my interest into a career. I would go to Bin 36 on my nights off and the bartender Jimmy would pour me flights and tell me all about them. I always went home with lots of notes." — Cara Patricia (Hakkasan San Francisco)
  • "I have been interested in wine since I was a kid growing up with my grandmother and attending her Sunday suppers. One of my first memorable experiences with wine was when I tried Montevertine Le Pergole Torte for the first time. I really understood how exceptional wine could be with that first sip of Sangiovese. To this day, when I see that bottle I feel happy and nostalgic." — Laura Maniec MS (Corkbuzz Wine Studio)
  • "In college, a buddy and I decided we were going to learn about wine, so all year we tried lots of different bottles, took notes, and had a lot of fun. At the end of the year, we splurged; as I recall, we spent the unheard-of amount of I think $40 (this was over 30 years ago, remember!) for a bottle of California Cabernet. I can still taste it today; it was mind-blowing. It was the bottle that made this college boy realize that wine was more than just what you drank when you ran out of beer! Of course, it helped that the bottle was the 1974 Heitz Cellar Martha's Vineyard." — Chris Bradford (Culina)

Got more questions for our sommelier crew? Fire away in the comments section!

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