Featured Wine Professional: Winn Roberton
Location: Washington, DC
Current Job: Sommelier, Bourbon Steak
Everyone has a story. Tell us how you knew you wanted to become a sommelier…what was your “light bulb” moment?
It stems from a childhood fascination with restaurants. The magic that was ordering off a menu and having it appear in front of me as a kid, to learning all the techniques, knowledge and aplomb that went into making it happen was, and still is captivating. I used to run home from school to turn on Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse on the food network. As far as wine, a few bottles along the way that drove me into fine wine were a 1997 Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay (tasted at 11 years old), and a 1994 Chateau Latour. Oh, and Amaro, lots of Amaro.
What does a typical day of work look like for you?
The mornings and early afternoon are usually occupied by blind tasting groups, tastings with reps at the restaurant and studying. Work starts with putting away any incoming wine, stocking the restaurant from the basement cellar, then it’s into a rockin’ service of consultations, decanting and shmoozing. All the while running food and bussing tables.
What is the most rewarding thing about your profession?
Honestly it’s the wine. I get to taste the best wines of the world on a regular basis, and many vintages thereof. A close second is the fun I have talking to guests, making them happy with a bottle that is dear to them, or something they’d never think to open on their own.
What is the most difficult part of your job as a sommelier?
Bringing your A-game to every table, every night is the hardest thing about working at a high level. It’s very easy to float through a night recommending the same Cabernet, Pinot or Malbec (especially at a steakhouse), but at the end of the night an evening can feel lost without at least one memorable table.
What’s the wine culture like in DC? Any regional trends you’ve observed?
DC has come a long way in the 7 years I’ve been here. Even at a steakhouse with typical, leather-bound, 35-page list, there’s always someone out there looking to explore. And other restaurants are doing amazing this on the esoteric side, see Iron Gate with it’s tome to Greek wines, or Red Hen with the coolest, geeky Italian-driven selections.
What was the last wine that really made an impression on you?
If you go to Napa and do not go to Press, you’re trip was a failure. With a hugely extensive list of old Napa Valley wines, it’s an “Ah-Ha” moment waiting to happen. The 1980 Ridge Spring Mountain Cabernet that was selected for my party really showed what California was all about.
Which wine region is top on your list of places to visit?
Oh man…. all of them, but a month or so in Italy would be tops.
If you could change one thing about the wine industry, what would it be?
It won’t happen at Bourbon Steak, but I’d love to eliminate wine lists. Put the spotlight on the sommelier, force a conversation, and find that great bottle for someone that way. Any good sommelier already has that kind of command of their list, and probably prefers not to peruse paperwork at the table.
What was the biggest “break” that helped launch your career?
Bourbon Steak DC really changed it for me. Starting as a server, I finally found a place I could work, learn and feel rewarded at each turn.
What advice do you have for someone considering a similar career path?
Two things: A successful sommelier is a total restaurant professional. You have to understand everything that’s going on in house from the prep work happening at 7am in pastry, to the teas coming from the barista at 11pm. Secondly, you must have a “will work for wine” attitude. We all have bills to pay, but if you aren’t loving the many times tedious processes of ordering, stocking, inventory, pre-shift meetings, etc… that taste of Latour when it finally gets opened won’t seem worth it.
What’s next for you?
Great question. I’d love to get into managing multiple outlets, have a steady stream of teaching both young sommeliers, and the casual consumer. There is a word that needs to be spread, and that word is wine.