Somm kind of wonderful

Regional wine pros living life "on the grid"



Stephen Keller

Kate Melton

 

Last fall, I paid a visit to a local wine group composed of Rochester restaurant industry and wine professionals. After a location switch and a couple name changes over the course of the past year, said group is now held at Apogee and known as “Steve’s Monday Wine Group.’ While some attend to brush up on basic wine knowledge for their hospitality positions, others come with the goal of advancing in the Court of Master Sommeliers (CSM) or the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET). Those who have seen Jason Wise’s documentary Somm have borne witness to the trials and tribulations of four advanced sommeliers as they prepare to take what is arguably the hardest test in the world. There are presently 149 Master Sommeliers in the Americas chapter, and of this number, only twenty-four are women. 

Upstate New York’s hospitality and wine professionals are very fortunate to have a Master Sommelier right here in the region—Christopher Bates. Originally from Arkport and a graduate of Cornell University, Bates worked around the world as a chef before eventually returning to the Finger Lakes region with his wife, Isabel Bogadtke. Along with his father, the couple started Element Winery in 2005, with the goal of exploring the grape-growing possibilities that exist in this climate. While they work with several varieties, the one that interests Bates most is Syrah. “I think it has amazing potential here, despite the fact that I think it is often overlooked,” he says. “It can make some stunning wines when treated correctly. I’m always very excited to hear more and more interest in Syrah and other overlooked varieties in the Finger Lakes.”

Bates is perhaps more widely known for his culinary efforts in the region—USA Today readers named his FLX Table “Best New Restaurant” this past spring. With two dinner seatings limited to twelve, the challenge of keeping up with demand led the team to invest in a new reservation system. “We hate having to ever say no,” says Bates. “We just keep trying to work harder and constantly improve.” With Element, FLX Table, FLX Wienery, and the upcoming FLX Culture House, Bates and Bogadtke have a vision of making great food and wine as accessible, comfortable, and affordable as possible. “Great wine shouldn’t need to be reserved for a special occasion,” Bates continues. “There’s no reason not to have a fantastic bottle of wine with lunch or a hamburger because, frankly, you’re worth it. Treat yourself every day.” 

Visitors can do exactly that at FLX Wienery, where burgers, hot dogs, and other elevated “low brow” foods are juxtaposed with an abbreviated beer and wine list, and a “secret wine fridge” that houses an array of eclectic wines at an amazing value. Pun lovers will find it difficult to resist the branded t-shirts, which were developed by Bates, Bogadtke, and several friends. “With the name Christopher Bates, I’ve had my share of dick jokes my entire life,” Bates says. “Apparently, I thought it would be appropriate to go for the only degree where people would regularly call me Master Bates. And, at that point, there was certainly nothing more appropriate than opening a wienery.”

The wienery is also the location where Bates hosts two back-to-back blind tasting groups one Sunday a month. The first group is more advanced and less learning based—the sommeliers are studying at home and come prepared to evaluate and tweak their work. The second group is for learning—it’s typically broader and incorporates the assistance of two original group members: Brandon Ford and Joshua Carlsen. Both of the groups work through the CSM’s deductive tasting format known as “the grid,” which describes the wine’s appearance, scent, structure, and flavor. Ultimately, the somms determine the wine’s vintage, grape variety, country, region, and quality. For someone so knowledgeable, Bates’s mentoring style is extremely down-to-earth. He says, “I hope that if I am able to talk about wine in an approachable way, they will carry that back to their establishments and personal lives.” While the group tastes, he encourages the participants to simply observe the clues from the wine and follow where they lead. He also recommends consistency in style when tasting—jumping from wine to wine makes it harder for a proctor to evaluate and grade. 

The group started almost three years ago when Bates proctored Ford’s first two sommelier exams. “I urged him to continue on, and we started the group in order to prepare him for doing so,” Bates says. “I’ve been amazed how many students have been interested and willing enough to give up their Sunday mornings to come and learn more about wine. I find it really encouraging.” 

Ford explains, “When I originally reached out to Christopher about starting a tasting group, it was in the pursuit of my advanced certification and, ultimately, my master’s. Never did I imagine the community building and growth, and just incredible interest.” Ford lived in Buffalo for nine years, where he worked in hospitality and pursued a master’s degree in English literature at University at Buffalo. He recently relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, for a beverage director position at Hyde Park Restaurant Group. “I worked in restaurants throughout undergrad and grad school and just fell in love with the beverage industry in the process.” He comes back to Bates’s group to offer his knowledge and learn from others as often as possible. “It’s important to me to continue the upward trend of beverage in the region and continue to mentor those around me.” 

It took Bates twelve years of preparation and several tries at the master exam before passing in 2013. “Understanding that you get out what you put in is really paramount,” says Bates. “The amount of time, energy, and stress that it takes is unbelievable. It means making a lot of sacrifices, and very few people are really willing to put in that effort.” After a Texas-based sommelier encouraged him to go further, Bates made it a personal goal. “I couldn’t imagine not completing,” he says. “I absolutely loved doing it, and I’m so happy I did—it drove me to learn and understand wine in a way that I don’t believe I ever would have otherwise.” 

 

Partners in wine 

Tasting groups have offered these individuals camaraderie, support, professional development, and for some, new job opportunities. While this is by no means an exhaustive list of all the wine talent in our region, these passionate industry pros represent the myriad establishments and roles an individual could pursue as he or she levels up in the CSM and WSET.

Joshua Carlsen

Stonecat Café, Hector

“We are proud of what we do, but we don’t announce it to the world every chance we get,” says Carlsen. “The job of a somm is to provide excellent, knowledgeable service, not shine a spotlight on oneself.” Carlsen joined Bates’s tasting group after passing his introductory level and is one of the original members. Along with Ford, he has become a mentor to other somms. “The requirement of leading a group necessitates synthesis of tasting and theory, which transforms newly acquired information into knowledge,” Carlsen continues, “Beyond my own personal growth, the experiences gained through the group have made me better at communicating with the service staff on the wines and other beverages we offer at Stonecat Café.”

Founded by chef Scott Signori on the site of an old fruit and produce stand, Stonecat Café is currently in its nineteenth season and open mid-April until the end of November. “While we make sure to mention the farms, wineries, breweries, and distilleries that we source from, we rarely talk about ‘farm to table’—even though that is what we are. The phrase ‘farm to table’ didn’t exist when Scott opened,” says Carlsen, who oversees the beverage program. “The wine list is entirely Finger Lakes, the draft beer is all from New York State, the package beer comes from within 500 miles (with the exception of Pabst Blue Ribbon), and the spirits focus on local distilleries—though we do stock a full collection of spirits.” Carlsen doesn’t see his program changing anytime soon, “There is a tremendous wealth in the Finger Lakes, and it is our desire to showcase the offerings of the region. We are currently poised to triple our wine offerings—once we can work out storage and service temperatures.” 

With more media attention on the Finger Lakes wine region as a whole, being centrally located on the east side of Seneca Lake has its perks. “As far as the local wine scene is concerned, this rising interest is just tremendous,” Carlsen continues, “More people are vacationing in the region. As we become better ‘hospitalians’ and better at providing for our guests, the word spreads that there are serious things happening.” 

 

Simone Boone and Stephen Keller

Apogee Wine Bar, Rochester

“I’m learning all about the challenges of being a woman who’d like to continue her wine studies while currently eight months pregnant,” says Boone, who opened Apogee’s doors in 2014. She also has a toddler at home. She continues, elaborating on the two years she was studying for her certified exam, “I put in one to two hours a day of studying, plus serious deductive tastings once a week. I’d have to at least double that if I intended to sit for the advanced exam!”

Boone worked as a bartender prior to pursuing her wine studies. “Finding wine was my light bulb moment,” she says. “By taking these courses and exams, I knew I would be challenged and thereby rewarded greatly.” She has also found a reliable and knowledgeable staff member in Stephen Keller, who puts the “Steve” in Steve’s Monday Wine Group. Boone and Keller knew each other while working at Char, and she encouraged Keller to pursue his first exam. Last summer, Keller and another Char alumnus, Christopher Grocki, started a casual tasting group when both were studying for the certified exam. Keller took the lead after Grocki became general manager at Farmer’s Creekside Tavern & Inn. Grocki became certified last November, while Keller will be making his next attempt very shortly. 

“Teaching reinforces what I know,” says Keller, who was understandably disappointed when he didn’t pass last fall. “Brandon [Ford] approached me afterward and encouraged me to keep going—it’s a really hard exam. Not passing didn’t take away what I already know. I’m still a much better wine professional than I was a year ago.” Boone has also encouraged his studies and the use of the Apogee space on Mondays to ensure he continues on his path. “Sommeliers are not magicians—they are a master of their craft. It’s more like practicing an instrument. You are training and remembering,” says Keller, who also happens to play the trumpet. 

While his wine group is geared toward the restaurant industry, retail and wine distribution pros also make appearances. By design, the group is nonintimidating and provides basic overall wine knowledge. Keller typically tackles a region or a theme, curates the wine selection, provides the tasting, and ends each with discussion. “It’s not geared toward passing a test,” he says. “It does help people do their jobs better. More experienced folks still get something out of it—it’s an active tasting that’s affordable.” Keller also offers blind tastings from time to time and likes to infuse a hidden lesson or a theme. He explains, “I might do white wines that are similar but often confused like Meunier, an oaky Chardonnay, and a Chenin Blanc. Or, I might present wines that are all very similar in color so people are forced to focus on the nose and the notes. I also like to alternate between ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ wines.” Keller acknowledges that his studies have opened up a lot of opportunities and says, “I’m getting to enjoy some of the best food and wine. It’s a more luxurious lifestyle than I could afford on my own.” However, it’s the interactions with guests that really delight him. “Wine is a communal thing. People trust me to elevate their experience. I’m helping them create memories, and I get to share in that.”

“Wine has become very trendy in our culture in general, but wine study? Not nearly as much,” says Boone. “I still get blank stares when I say the word ‘sommelier.’ I would add that a perk of being a female business owner in Rochester is that people, especially other women, want to see you succeed. I meet a lot of women who are my mother’s age, and they often say things like, ‘We didn’t have these options when I was young.’ They’re proud of me—and that’s powerful and deeply moving to me.” Apogee remains a popular destination in the Park Avenue neighborhood, but Boone keeps a very realistic head on her shoulders. “Our success isn’t guaranteed tomorrow, but I will say that the Apogee family is humble, knowledgeable, experienced, and honestly cares about your enjoyment.” Boone continues, “I think our wine list is thoughtfully presented and fairly priced. I think people feel that when they come in as well.”

 

Christopher Grocki and Drew Tschäppät

Farmer’s Creekside Tavern & Inn, Le Roy

Located thirty minutes west of downtown Rochester, the historic Le Roy building underwent a well documented ten-year restoration after a devastating fire in 2004. In addition to three overnight suites, live music, outdoor dining, and event-hosting capacity, the venue offers a fresh take on destination wining and dining, all of which is being overseen by a familiar face in the restaurant industry, Christopher Grocki. While Grocki’s education is in information technology, he has worked in restaurants for years. “I’ve always said that you don’t choose the hospitality industry—it chooses you,” he laughs. In his previous roles, Grocki’s responsibilities and interests revolved around wine, which eventually led him to pursue his sommelier certification. Today, he’s a little more focused on day-to-day operations. “It’s Drew’s boat. I just ride in it,” he says, referring to Drew Tschäppät, the sommelier he hired to oversee Creekside’s wine and beverage offerings. Grocki gave Tschäppät the creative license to, as Tschäppät puts it, “Explore and get weird with it.”

“It was always going to be a challenging experience,” says Tschäppät, who holds a bachelor’s in anthropology from SUNY Geneseo. “Wine can be very alien to those who don’t live and breathe it. When you don’t see any grapes or regions you recognize, it can be overwhelming. I remember when I first got into wine, I didn’t go near anything French or German because of all those words!” One of Tschäppät’s most exciting challenges is to work with executive chef Sean Wolf on providing creative and sensory wine and food pairing experiences for guests. “I made myself blind to grapes and regions and instead focused on flavor and aroma combinations,” he continues, “Humans are explorers at heart. We’ve trekked to the Arctic; we’ve breached jungles, desserts, and escaped the atmosphere. In the current age of globalization and technology, our lives have become smaller and more isolated. In a way, we’ve run out of things to explore. For me, wine changes that dynamic. It can take you through culture like art or music. The best wines are an exploration, and that’s where Sean and I have room to play.”

Regarding his wine program, he notes that while he wants to provide a broad picture of the entire world of wine, he wants to highlight specific areas that provide a more meaningful experience. “Classicality is an inspiration but ultimately the enemy,” says Tschäppät. “We’re explorers by nature, and the need for new experiences is what drives us in the end.” An anthropologist at heart, Tschäppät has an affinity for natural wines. “It’s a term I hate,” he says, “but it implies a very hands-off approach—no chemicals, no manipulation, just honest wines. Philosophically, I agree with this approach, and also, wines that are made this way tend to have a lot more aromatic and flavor potential.”

Anyone who follows Tschäppät on Instagram can see that he is very open about his German Riesling enthusiasm. “I chose to highlight it because it’s so misunderstood and Germany produces some of the most transcendent Rieslings in the world,” he says. He has also become quite fond of the Finger Lakes. “I get to talk and interact and taste with these winemakers very frequently. Not only do I gain a better understanding of the wine in the region, but also establishing these the relationships can lead to having access to some of the more rare and unique wines. When winemakers see that we are as passionate as they are, they get as excited to work with us. At the end of the day, we’re all better for it!”

Tschäppät adds, “We still run into people who tell us they don’t care for local wines. What they really mean is that they haven’t had the right local wine yet. Being in the region, we have a responsibility to represent what is going on, and we’re lucky enough to be able to do that with as much quality as we have here.” 

Grocki says, “It’s really about tearing down perceptions. Wine is a lot like fashion—we notice people getting excited about certain trends. For example, Moscato has become the new Pinot Grigio; rosé has exploded over the last few years, and we’re seeing people leaning toward things like pink Frizzante and Brachetto.” Alternatively, people get in a rut with a certain type of wine. Grocki particularly likes to educate guests on Champagne and explains, “Most people drink it the wrong way, often reserving it only for celebrations. You can, and should, drink it every day!” Tschäppät laughingly agrees as Grocki continues, “Drink it with food—it’s very food versatile—and have it with the main course for the most enjoyment. Champagne offers an aromatic complexity, and the acidity cuts through the fat.”

 

JJ Cutaia 

Branca Midtown

JJ Cutaia gets to pursue his passion at the newest, trendiest places in town, and that’s definitely not a bad gig! One can usually find him working the floor at the Branca Midtown location, but he also provides wine oversight to Branca Basin and, most recently, Bitter Honey. “I never thought I’d be a sommelier,” he says, recalling his earlier years. “I’m a server first and foremost, and I almost got fired for failing a menu test that involved wine.” However, Cutaia started reading Great Wine Made Simple and The Wine Bible while studying with his best friend, Jeffery Sharra (Hogan’s Hideaway), to get a knowledge base. In time, he took his introductory exam. Eventually, he and Sharra started attending Bates’s tasting group to prepare for certification after hearing about it from Ford. He eventually encouraged Grocki, Keller, and another friend, Jessica Breen, to get involved. 

“The first time I went, I couldn’t sleep before going. I know I belong there now. This group has helped me in so many ways. In addition to tasting, I learned about distributors, grapes, varietals, and different books. If I hadn’t been learning from this group, I probably wouldn’t have passed level two,” Cutaia admits. Now, his goal is to continue on in the court. In regard to learning from Bates, he says, “I’m just some guy from Rochester—how lucky am I to be influenced by one of the top sommeliers in the country? I really want to help grow the culture of wine in this city and help educate my peers.”

Cutaia acknowledges the wine list for Branca Midtown is smaller than most, but it’s done with the intention of seasonal rotation—adjusting about eighty percent of the list four times per year to offer guests the opportunity to try different wines. “We have all Italian wine with the exception of one bottle,” he says with a smile. Of course, that wine would be MILK Cabernet Sauvignon, created by Joshua and Jenna Miles and Tyler and Alicia Wolk. With more than 3,000 varietals in Italy alone, Cutaia has managed to drum up a few obscure options for the Midtown location. “I don’t do cookie cutters,” he says. “We have different food at each location, and one is downtown versus a suburban neighborhood. I want to give the customer what they want at each spot.” For Branca Basin, the list tends to err more on the classic side (Chianti, Barolo, and Barbaresco) with a few modern twists. He has also developed fun seasonal programming like this past summer’s “Rotating Rosé,” where guests could try a different rosé every week. Fall brings opportunities to try unique, upper echelon wines by the glass; and he’ll likely be partnering with Branca bar manager Abby Quatro on some wine and cocktail pairing dinners through the fall and winter.

For Bitter Honey, Cutaia has avoided focusing on one specific part of the world and has selected wines based on how they will pair with the Mexican cuisine. Guests can enjoy varieties from France, Germany, Italy, California, and Mexico. Full disclosure: I can attest that the Albariño is excellent.

 

Jessica Breen

M.S. Walker, Wholesale Distribution 

“Working at Flight West and closely with Elle Andrews is really what pushed me in the direction of becoming a somm,” Jessica Breen says of her previous position. She recently made the leap from service and now works for M.S. Walker, a well-established distributor based in Massachusetts. Her territory covers Greater Rochester and surrounding areas, including the Finger Lakes.

Breen became interested in distribution by chatting with other professionals at the wine groups. After learning about the various perks (sales competitions, company trips, dinners, and wine) she decided it was a good fit and interviewed for a couple positions before landing at M.S. Walker. While she misses the one-on-one relationship with her customers, she now manages an expansive portfolio and is working with a few familiar restaurants. For Breen, distribution has already been very rewarding, “It doesn’t really feel like a job,” she laughs, “Well, except maybe when you’re trying to schlep cases of wine in the pouring rain!”

“Rochester’s beverage scene is growing,” she says, “We’ve seen it happen with craft beer and cocktails, and wine will follow.” Breen comes from an Italian family and shares a love of Italian wines. “I think there’s an assumption people get started by trying sweet wine first, but that’s not necessarily the case,” she says, specifically referencing Maculan Torcolato Breganze as a perfect example of a wine that breaks down preconceived notions of sweet wine being bad wine. “There are sweet wines that don’t suck. It’s really about getting people out of their bubble—taking down barriers and trying new things. Let the sommelier guide you.”

She credits Bates’s group as a resource for helping her identify specific vintages. You may not have the opportunity to taste every vintage, but knowing why they are great, and when certain warm years have taken place is very helpful.” She became certified last fall. Coincidentally, the exam fell on her birthday, and Bates was her proctor. Although she has shifted gears professionally, Breen plans on pursuing the advanced level in the court. “You don’t want to lose it,” she says, regarding not working in a restaurant while preparing for the exam. “However, it’s not like you’re going to forget it!”

 

John McMahon

Century Wine & Liquor, Pittsford, NY

When John McMahon came to Apogee to discuss Burgundy with Keller’s tasting group, he left with a new moniker. He’s now affectionately known as “John Burgundy” and, actually, he is kind of a big deal. McMahon obtained CSM certification and is halfway through level four in WSET. “While I have a huge relationship with wine and food, I have never worked in a restaurant,” says McMahon. “The WSET is less service focused, and the emphasis is on writing and academia. Blind testing is not stressed to the same degree as the court.” McMahon applies his vast wine knowledge within his retail role and has been working at Century for twelve years—he started at the Ridge Road West location. Sherwood Deutsch, who now serves as vice president of fine wines for Wegmans, opened the store in 1967. Now owned by Danny Wegman, the store is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year.

“Wine is profound in its ability to bring people together who might not otherwise have anything to do with you,” McMahon says. He describes himself as an old soul in a young man’s body, and oenophilia runs in his family. His father was an avid wine collector and encouraged him to try it. “I grew up with really good wine,” he says. “I realize I’m very lucky and spoiled, but it taught me to love the classics—which are really the benchmarks and foundation for everything else.” While McMahon admits wine can be a pricey hobby and training is also expensive, he also thinks it is a lot of fun. He’s grateful he gets to do what he loves and says, “I get paid to pontificate over the wines I’ve had. It’s great to talk about your passion. First and foremost, I’m a hobbyist. This is an act of love for me.” When not working the floor, McMahon also teaches some of the events held in Century’s tasting room. 

When asked why the elusive and expensive Burgundy became such a passion for him, he explains, “I don’t like big wines. I like drinkable, fresh, and cleansing wines.” While McMahon is knowledgeable about both, he has a personal preference for red Burgundy (Pinot Noir) versus white (Chardonnay). He’s also traveled to the region twice and experienced the effect the terroir has on the wines firsthand, “The best part is that the people are incredibly humble—everyone is a farmer. They are very hands-on and down-to-earth.” He particularly likes when the wine has a little age to it. “Aged red Burgundy becomes more of an extension of the food that grows in the area. So you might get notes of truffle, mushroom, thyme, or even beef broth. With proper aging, the wines almost become a food in and of themselves.” 

McMahon acknowledges the price point of Burgundy doesn’t necessarily make it accessible to everyone. “In the American market, people have a tendency to buy what they understand,” he says, noting that bold California wines are still popular purchases. “However, we do have people who are open to trying new things, and trends come and go. I think Portuguese wines offer an overall great value.” Whether people have a casual or more serious interest in Burgundy or just want to know more about wine in general, McMahon invites people to come in and learn more. “We have a huge representation of French wine,” he says.“This is the store that truly embraces the classics.”  

 

Stacey Rowe is a freelance writer based in Rochester. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram as @thestaceyrowe and at staceyrowe.com.

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