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Patrick Cappiello, acclaimed New York City sommelier, sampling a Syrah he made at Pax Mahle Winery.

Sommeliers finding room to mature

12/10/2018 - 05:50

Sebastopol, California

OVER the past 15 years, Patrick Cappiello has been one of New York's most accomplished sommeliers. Now, like so many of the country's top wine servers, he has largely put that job behind him.

Instead, on a bright September morning here in this fast-growing city in western Sonoma County, he was immersed in plans for the 2018 vintage of Monte Rio Cellars, his new wine label, for which he expects to produce about 2,700 cases this year.

Making wine is the fulfillment of a long-held ambition, but it's very much a side project for Mr Cappiello, 46. His main job now, he says, is managing Renégat Wines, a portfolio of small-production wines that he is importing and distributing.

One of Renégat's major assets is his own Forty Ounce Wines, a collection of good, inexpensive French wines packaged in unpretentious screw-cap bottles.

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Mr Cappiello's journey from leading sommelier to wine entrepreneur is not unusual.

In the past 20 years, working as a sommelier or wine director has come to be seen as a glamorous job, with access to great wines and fascinating travel opportunities.

Yet the actual hard work - schlepping boxes, stocking shelves, doing inventory and working nights on the restaurant floor - makes a career as a sommelier seem temporary at best, a means to another, longer-term job in wine or beyond.

A story like Mr Cappiello's typifies the career trajectory of the modern sommelier, who, after a decade or so of the intense, adrenaline-fuelled restaurant life, capitalises on reputation and a network of connections to find a possibly less demanding, more fulfilling niche in the wine business.

These men and women are following paths carved out by a pioneering generation of sommeliers who established the job as a necessity in modern American restaurants, while also demonstrating its potential as the beginning of a different career.

Through the 1980s, few restaurants in the United States had sommeliers. The popular notion of the job was of the formal French wine server, who condescended to insecure consumers while trying to upsell them.

This began to change in the late 1980s as personable American sommeliers - like Daniel Johnnes at Montrachet in New York and Larry Stone at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, then at Rubicon in San Francisco - helped make wine seem more friendly, even fascinating.

Pretty soon, no corner bistro worth its steak frites could be without a wine guru, and the status of sommeliers rose as they become crucial educators and influencers in the chain from vineyard to dining table.

These wine elders showed a way into the restaurant business for a generation of younger sommeliers, and they also demonstrated a way out.

Mr Johnnes established an importing business, then began organising wine events, beginning with La Paulée de New York. He still keeps a hand in restaurants as corporate wine director for the Dinex Group, Daniel Boulud's restaurant empire, but his days pouring wine at tables are largely behind him.

Mr Stone left restaurants to work as a winery executive. More recently, he started his own winery, Lingua Franca, which produces pinot noirs and chardonnays from the Eola-Amity Hills of the Willamette Valley in Oregon.

Their examples galvanised the ambitions of several generations of leading sommeliers.

For Mr Cappiello, the moment came unexpectedly, with the closing of two restaurants, Pearl & Ash in 2016 and Rebelle in 2017, that he had nurtured as a partner and beverage director. Though both were successful, Manhattan real estate issues doomed them.

Joyous but stressful

"The diversity of the job can be joyous but also stressful," he said. "Particularly as a manager, you're driving customer service, doing Excel spreadsheets, inventory, accounting, it's a lot of things, which is invigorating but difficult for young people who think it's just talking about wine."

In 2014, he began Renégat. Chris Desor of Verity Wine Partners, an importer and distributor in the New York area, had invited him to put together a small portfolio under its aegis.

Through the connections he had developed as a sommelier, Mr Cappiello looked for small family producers in Europe and the United States who were environmentally conscious and - despite his experience with the most coveted wines of the world - reflected his own unpretentious, wine-for-the-people spirit.

He branched out, starting Forty Ounce Wines and making a series of wine education videos for Playboy. But the focus had always been restaurants, until Rebelle closed.

"I had this ragtag company that I hadn't done anything with," he said of Renégat. Fortuitously, he met Sara Morgenstern, who was based in Sonoma County and worked in wine sales. Soon they were a team personally and professionally. She is now director of operations for Renégat, and he splits his time between New York and Healdsburg, California.

Together, they sought to carve out a specific role for the company by asking the question, "What needs do our producers have that aren't being met?" Their answer: logistics.

For small producers in particular, whether in Europe or California, selling wine in the United States is daunting. Each state has its own rules, its own bureaucracy.

He says his philosophy is both California's past and his own. His goal is simple: refreshing wines that can sell from US$15-20 a bottle, a much-neglected price range in California.

While he is no longer working in restaurants, he does retain ties as a consultant, with Walnut Street Café in Philadelphia and Scampi in Manhattan. Both have excellent wine programmes run day-to-day by up-and-coming sommeliers, Kaitlyn Caruke at Walnut Street and Kimberly Prokoshyn at Scampi. He counsels them both by word and example.

"When they feel the stresses," he said, "they do see the future of working in a different way in the wine world." NYTIMES