Meet the sommelier at Faire in Raleigh, North Carolina.
By Hope S. Philbrick
Born and raised in Colts Neck, N.J., Michael moved South in 1998 to attend the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. Shortly after graduating with a degree in psychology in 2002, he discovered the food service industry and has never looked back. He has worked in virtually every facet of the restaurant in both casual and fine dining settings.
While working at Bella Monica Restaurant in Raleigh, N.C. he realized his passion for wine. Shortly after a trip to Tuscany, Italy, he decided to forge his career as a sommelier. He passed the Court of Master Sommelier’s introductory exam in November of 2013 and then the Court’s level II exam in 2015. Looking to further expand his experience, Michael joined the team of Faire as sommelier in September, 2014.
When his nose is not buried in a wine book and he is not working Faire’s dining room floor, Michael enjoys running, watching sports and spending time with friends and family. He recently took some time to answer a few questions for Getaways for Grownups.
What led you to choose a career in wine?
It was my experience working at Bella Monica, an Italian restaurant in west Raleigh, North Carolina. Bella Monica exclusively serves Italian wines, which is not only a bold decision for a restaurant in Raleigh, but also a tremendous challenge to those trying to relate Italian wines to the average American wine drinker. It was through their expansive training program that I came to appreciate wine as a whole, and eventually it had a tremendous influence on my decision to choose this career path. I will forever be grateful to owners Corbett and Julie Monica and to all that contributed to my education while working there.
Who most helped shape the way you approach wine?
It’s not so much of a who as it is a what. I would say that my approach to wine is mostly defined by my interest to demystify wine and make it approachable to the layman. The world of wine has a stigma of being exclusionary and “holier than thou.” I think the main reason this is the case is because there are so many minute details that are truly very important at the highest level, but are unnecessary for the average wine enthusiast. That said, my goal when talking about and selling wine is to explain wine on whatever level is helpful to my audience. Considering how prevalent the craft beer and cocktail movement are currently in the U.S., I don’t think wine experts are doing themselves any favors by not making their presentation relateable.
What motivated you to work towards Level II Certification?
It is a bit of a foregone conclusion that in order to be able to find success selling wine in a restaurant setting, you need to achieve this level of certification. That said, I have a group of peers who work very hard to motivate each other to achieve greatness. Most specifically, I believe that I may not have passed if it weren’t for a few very intense study sessions during the weeks leading up to the exam with my dear friend Gregory Martinez. There were many days that we plugged away, sipping coffee at Joule in downtown Raleigh, oblivious to the fact that the restaurant was transitioning from breakfast to lunch to dinner.
Now that you’ve met the goal, how does it feel? What’s next?
There certainly is a feeling of relief. I really appreciated all of the cheer from my Faire team and the Eschelon family as a whole. They were all very supportive and enthusiastic when I achieved my goal. As far as next steps, I have considered the possibility of taking the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced Exam. It is an even greater challenge and it would be an honor to have that opportunity. My immediate goal though is to continue to shape and improve the wine program at Faire and contribute to the continued success of Eschelon Experiences.
Marilisa Allegrini is the director of marketing for her family’s wine business based in Valpolicella in northern Italy. She stands out in my mind not for her wine savvy, but rather her business acumen. In what is mostly a male-dominated industry, she emerged as a marketing pioneer as early as the 1980s, increasing the visibility of Allegrini’s brand well beyond Italy. I am partially biased in that I was fortunate enough to be invited to stay at the family’s property in Tuscany when I visited in 2012. For all of these reasons, I will proudly sell Allegrini wines as long as they are available to me. I would love the opportunity to split a bottle of her Amarone and pick her brain.
What’s your most indispensable tool, book, or piece of equipment?
The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson is indispensable to me. It is a classic resource not only because it is well written and packed with information, but because it maps out all of the most important (and even many not so important) wine regions of the world. Even while sitting at my desk in North Carolina, just looking at a map of the Rheingau in Germany, for instance, provides an incredible sense of place. While it will never replace the experience of visiting a vineyard site first-hand, it is a proportionally inexpensive alternative. It also has seemingly defied reality by turning me into a fan of geography.
What are you most proud of having in your wine cellar right now?
I have a 2000 Oddero Barolo that was given to me as a gift by a good friend. At the end of the day, Barolo is my favorite wine type, especially because they age very gracefully. I’ll likely give it a few more years and pop it when the next occasion worth celebrating arises.
What’s your favorite wine memory?
As I mentioned earlier, I was fortunate enough to visit Tuscany a few years ago with my family. For me it was a transformational experience, one that helped nudge me in the direction of my current profession. I currently study in a room with a large panorama of the skyline of Florence at daybreak. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of that experience.
What wine do you most crave in fall?
That’s a topic that is top of mind at the moment for obvious reasons. Lighter reds are the first thing that I look for during the fall. I generally make personal wine buying decisions based on the season. I love crisp whites during the hot summer months, but come September I am absolutely ready to transition to reds. Pinot Noir is one of very few obvious choices and while I love the grape and the wine it produces, I like to hone in on lesser-known wines from around the world that fit the bill. I have been conducting tastings with Cab Franc from the Loire Valley in France, Mencia from Northwestern Spain and Beaujolais from Burgundy, France among a few others.
What wine will you serve this Thanksgiving?
Pinot Noir… all day. It is a perfect pairing with roasted turkey. I will likely choose one from Willamette Valley, Oregon. Oregon Pinots strike a nice balance between more fruit forward Californian Pinots and earthy and sometimes tannic Burgundian Pinots. Most Thanksgiving tables offer a variety of both sweet and savory options and most Willlamette Valley Pinots are nicely balanced and offer flavor components that will work with both. Also, and probably the most important, the 2012 vintage that many stores currently have on their shelves is STUNNING!
– Photos courtesy Howard/Merrell