Tell us how this all began- what made you want to pursue a career in wine? Was there an aha-moment?
Well, I guess there wasn’t really an aha moment for me. I was a freshman in high school, and when I would get out of track or football practice, I would go to the restaurant to bus tables. I was a kid who didn’t have a ton, and I thought we were normal kind of family, and my parents worked very hard. I never really went without; I just asked for a lot. One day my dad finally put his foot down and said, “you ask for too much, you can’t expect a handout, you can’t expect it to be given to you, you have to go to work for it,” and that was something I learned at an early age.
In the 9th grade, I had two options- I either bag groceries(which was what many other kids were doing),or I could work in restaurants, which required you to be 16 years old. I was 14, so my dad got an ID that said I was actually two years older than I really was. While I was bussing tables in the 9th grade, I remember overhearing wealthy families talk about trips to Tuscany or their recent trips to Bordeaux and Paris. I always wondered why that was available to them and not to me; my parents never talked about a summer home in Aspen or a trip to Paris. Listening in on these conversations really piqued my interest. It just made me realize, why can’t I have those conversations at a table over a bottle of wine?
As a busboy, your job is to move-in clear the clutter from the table and move out without being noticed or seen- you make the guest experience clean and comfortable, and you don’t engage. But of course, for some reason, me being me, the guests would always engage me, and I would always engage them back. I would always listen to them and ask questions; they grew to know me by name, and it got to the point that as a busser in the 11th grade, I was making recommendations on which bottle of wine to pair with each meal. I knew nothing about wine- I didn’t taste it, but I just paid attention to the tables(and other servers) around me over the years. It really piqued my interest, and I thought, there has to be something more to this. I can either get lost in the back of the house or stay in the front of the house and keep moving my way up.
2000-2001 roll around, and I was still with the same restaurant group, albeit a different city. I was now in Westwood. I was moving up in the restaurant world(busser, host, runner, expo, server) but it was really about trying to figure out a way to get to Europe. I didn’t have enough money at that time to just buy a plane ticket and take off, but I had determination. GMs and suppliers began to notice that, and they saw that I had the highest check averages, sold the most Italian wines, knew the menu, knew the customers, and was working hard to move up in the business. I just had a determination that many individuals did not have, and it showed. Because of my wine sales, a supplier from Winebow noticed that I sold the Italian wine and that I really knew what I was talking about. They noticed so much so, that they said as long as I can get myself to Italy, they would take care of everything else. In 2001, my world would greatly change. I knew because I didn’t grow up around wine and wasn’t some prodigy kid that I needed to put my head down and study to catch up with the rest of the world. Since that point in time, I have never looked back. Italy was my first love, Italy was my heart, and it shaped who I am as a wine professional today.
Are there any particular wines you are obsessed with right now, and why?
I am obsessed with my first love, Piedmont. I remember taking the train through Northern Italy from Verona to go Alba, of course just to get to Barolo/Barbaresco. My obsession has been, and always will be, Nebbiolo! I drink a lot of Barolo. I drink a lot of Barbaresco. I was around those wines in my early twenties because collectors would bring in Barolo, great Rhones, old Napa Cab from the 70s and 80s, and I would obviously open them at their table. But I always thought, old Barolo and Barbareso, now that hits different!
What is the most memorable wine experience you have had?
I’ve been fortunate to have many memorable wine experiences, but this one is the most recent. In fall 2019, we kicked off an event I created called “9-Stars” with Fantesca, where our first night of the 4 day event was at 3-Michelin SingleThread. Our second night was at 3-Michelin Meadowood, and then we took a private plane from the Napa Airport to New York for our last 3-Michelin experience at Le Bernardin- 9 Michelin Stars in four nights. It was my most memorable because we had five couples that we were with for five days, and it is a great atmosphere with great wine, great food, great meals and great friends. These 5 couples became close with the somms at these restaurants and their amazing chefs. It was pretty amazing.
What is your favorite food and wine pairing?
Well, I don’t really go for wine pairings anymore. I know that was basically what my first ten years in the wine business taught me, but I am more of an individual who prefers to pick wines based on how you feel at that moment. If you’re drinking Champagne and you want beef, who cares. If you’re drinking Chablis and you want buffalo wings, who cares. If you’re drinking Hermitage and you want oysters, who cares! I really don’t care. That particular food that you eat, you want it at that time for a reason, whether it be a craving, the venue, the city you’re in, or it caught your eye on a menu. The same thing goes for wine- maybe you’re in a Riesling mood, or a Napa Cab mood, a Nebbiolo mood, or a Russian River Pinot mood. We in the industry have obviously learned the significance and importance of wine and food pairings, but I also feel that we need to eat and drink what we feel. That’s my philosophy!
What was it like being a producer on the Netflix series ‘Uncorked’? How did you becoming a producer of that show come about?
That is actually a pretty funny story. A guy named Prentice Penny, a writer on Girlfriends, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Scrubs, and Insecure right now, literally watched Somm back in 2013 and thought, ‘oh a brotha, in wine. I didn’t know that existed.’ He immediately started working on a script about wine without knowing which direction it would take. He took some ideas from my story that he saw in the film, morphed it with his life and relationship with his dad, and started shopping the script around. Funny enough, one of the producers he ended up speaking with happened to be my brother, Datari, who has been a producer in Los Angeles for the past 15 years. My brother read it and thought, ‘this sounds like my brother.’ I was then sent the script and was able to rewrite the wine parts and make them even more about me and my experience and we began filming in 2018 in Memphis, Paris, and Chablis.
What made you want to join the Fantesca team?
Well in 2005, I met Duane Hoff. I also met his former winemaker Kirk Venge at a big magazine event in the Valley, and he invited me to check him out on Spring Mountain, and we hit it off. We kept in touch over the course of time from 05’ to 2016/2017, via email, texts, and me referring collectors to Fantesca. During this time, I worked in amazing restaurants and had an incredible career at Penfolds traveling globally. Duane and I would run into each other, and he would always ask ‘are you ready to get off the road yet?’. Eventually, I was like, ‘let’s see what this guy is talking about.’ I said yes; I believed in him and his family, in Heidi Barrett, and in the wines that they were bringing to market from my favourite AVA. I was ready to help elevate Fantesca to new heights.
If you weren’t in the wine industry, what other career do you think you would have?
Well, I’d like to think that I would have been an Olympic hurdler, but you can only run track for so long(and dream). I would’ve definitely needed a job after that potential career, so I have no idea! What else would I really be doing? When I tell you that I have NO clue, I have no clue! My dad wanted me to be a mortician, but I knew that was never an option. I have no idea what I would be doing if it were not in hospitality!
Want to learn more? DLynn Proctor will be featured throughout the month of October/November 2020. Check out this week’s recommendations here!
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