South Florida's Top Female Sommeliers
By Jon Warech
In the male-dominated wine industry, these five female sommeliers are breaking down barriers and redefining the wine world in South Florida, a top sales market with a local consumer who is becoming more educated by the second.
Virginia Philip takes a cerebral approach to wine to please the palates of guests at The Breakers and locals at her West Palm shop.
As a wine scholar, Master Sommelier Virginia Philip loves the taste of wine, but she loves the history behind it just as much. She would have to, since as wine director of The Breakers in Palm Beach, she sometimes never even gets to see her bottles opened. “We’re buying for today, but we’re [also] buying for future generations,” she says of the aged wines in the extensive Breakers wine program. “In 20 years, the chances of any of us being here are slim, so we’re buying for what we think is the best possible situation for potential buyers in 20 years—the next generation.”
Philip graduated magna cum laude in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant management from Johnson & Wales University, but her first experience in the wine business came working as a wine clerk in Aspen before eventually landing at The Breakers in 2000, where she oversees 14 wine lists (including a “massive Bordeaux and Burgundy and California Cab list”) in nine bars and restaurants on the property. And to Philip, each list reads like a history book.
“Generally when you’re talking about some of the top-end wines, whether they’re super Tuscan or French, you invariably go back to what was happening during when the monks were involved,” says Philip, whose wine book recommendations start with Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course and move to the Culinary Institute of America’s Exploring Wine, then Wine Lover’s Companion and the works of Jancis Robinson.
On a quest to educate the rest of South Florida on wine as well, Philip opened the Virginia Philip Wine Shop & Academy in 2011, and has since run double duty overseeing The Breakers and creating programming at her own shop. “For me it was really the ability to have winemakers and wine educators come teach classes to consumers,” says Philip, who in 2002 was named Best Sommelier of the United States by the American Sommelier Association.
The one piece of advice she gives all her students? Speak up. “When you have a winemaker in front of you, do not hesitate to ask them everything you possibly can,” she says. “Because they’re living in that area, they know the area inside and out, and they know what’s happening in that area.” 1 S. County Road, Palm Beach, 561-655-6611
The Pairing Ace
With a new menu every day at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, sommelier Tahiirah Habibi Allen is a pairing machine.
The first thing that most people notice about Tahiirah Habibi Allen is her sense of style. Chef Michael Schwartz did. That’s why when he was dining at J&G Grill at The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort where Allen was his sommelier, he decided he had to have her.
“He was impressed by persona and my style,” says Allen, who grew up in Philadelphia, moved to Miami in 2011, and started at Michael’s Genuine in December. “I put time into what I wear and how I do my hair and makeup. My appearance is important to me. It’s the first thing people see.”
Once a rapport is established, Allen will tickle the taste buds with some of the best pairings in town. She often fields questions along the lines of, “I really like red wine but I’m going to eat fish, is this okay?” Her answer is always, “Of course, drink what you like.” (But don’t go crazy and order “an oily fish like cod with a super tannic wine, because the tannins will make the fish taste metallic.”)
“To me, the sauce is more important than the actual meat on the plate. You may get a chicken dish that is going to go well with a Burgundy as opposed to a Chardonnay, and it really does depend on the sauce,” she explains.
Once she started as a sommelier working under Wine Director Eric Larkee at Michael’s Genuine, Allen was faced with the ultimate pairing challenge. “The menu changes literally every day, so you have to always be on your toes and be able to pair on the spot,” says Allen, who has certificates from the Wine School of Philadelphia and the Court of Master Sommeliers. “You’re challenging yourself consistently, the guests are challenging you, and you really have to know your stuff.”
On a Champagne kick, Allen loves pairing Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs Champagne with black grouper ceviche at Michael’s. “It’s one of the best lunches I’ve had,” she says. That pair goes right into the memory bank with the rest of her mental catalog that she uses on a nightly basis. “If I taste a sauce or a dish, all the wines that I’ve had before start registering and I start to think what will go well with it.” 130 NE 40th St., Miami, 305-573-5550
The Rising Star
A new talent in town, Meat Market’s Orli Vadai is converting young South Beach into wine drinkers.
Having lived her whole life in New York, Orli Vadai moved to Miami in August not knowing how she would fit in. After all, she was a wine-loving sommelier about to start a job on South Beach, where Patrón shots often take precedence. But as it turned out, part of her success as sommelier at Meat Market on Lincoln Road has come from just being herself.
“I’m not the stuffy sommelier,” says Vadai, who fell in love with wine on a trip to Tuscany (and her husband on a trip to Miami). “Wine is meant to be enjoyed. People drink wine to enjoy their night, not to sit and dissect it. A good bottle of wine is an empty bottle of wine.”
And those young consumers who usually order vodka tonics but are looking for something different? “They’re usually my favorite customer because they’re open to trying new things,” says Vadai, who went to culinary school and worked at Daniel in New York.
It helps that, when molding the palates of Lincoln Road locals, the sommelier has a thirst for the grape as well. Vadai can sell you on Bond Estate Melbury, Hundred Acre, or the plethora of high-end Bordeaux on Meat Market’s wine list, but she can do her share of imbibing, too. Ask her what wine she’s drinking these days and her answer, without missing a beat, is “Breakfast, lunch, or dinner?” It’s why she’s also the kind of sommelier you can ask for her hangover cure.
“There are these patches called No Hangover,” says Vadai. “I used them in Napa, and not once did I have a hangover. You wear them before you start drinking. I don’t know what it is, but it’s like magic.”
Armed with all the information about South Beach life to win over the party crowd and an expertise in wine to earn the respect of even regular wine connoisseurs, Vadai is reshaping the Beach drinker. And as it turns out, you can do Patrón and wine in the same night. “Of course,” she says, “just make sure you have your patch.” 915 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, 305-532-0088
Laura DePasquale continues to break down walls for female sommeliers while building a true romance with wine.
There is a ’96 Riesling from Alsace that Master Sommelier Laura DePasquale and her husband drank when they first started dating. She can recall that bottle and many others from important occasions in her life without missing a beat.
“I have these love affairs with certain regions,” says DePasquale, vice president and general manager of the Stacole Fine Wine Division of The Country Vintner, and who, with her husband, has 2,200 bottles in their personal wine cellar in their Miami Shores home. “Right now I’m having a complete and total love affair with really freaky white wines from the Jura. It’s a pretty obscure area in France, and I just love them because they’re white wines that act like reds.”
A trailblazer in every sense of the word, DePasquale is the first female GM at a major distributor in the US and the first woman elected to vice chair of the Court of Master Sommeliers. Not bad for someone whose career began at McDonald’s. She went from flipping fries to the graveyard shift at a New Jersey diner to a restaurant in New York City where during staff training she first fell in love with wine.
“We tasted Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay and Saintsbury Pinot Noir,” says DePasquale, whose Italian background had her sipping wine with dinner as a child. “I remember tasting those two wines going, Wait a minute, this is wine? Where did this come from? What’s the grape? Why did it taste so good?”
The newfound appreciation was the force driving DePasquale to greater success. After opening the Royalton hotel in New York City as the beverage director, she moved to Miami in 1992 and worked under chef Norman Van Aken at Mano and Norman’s. Her thirst for knowledge pushed her to become a master sommelier in 2004—the 13th woman to achieve that title.
“Wine tells a story,” says DePasquale, who has just one bottle left from the original case of ’96 Riesling. “More often than not, it’s a story of romance.”
The New Traditionalist
As managing partner of Market 17, Kirsta Grauberger is helping to make the Fort Lauderdale wine community a family.
In Fort Lauderdale, the wine enthusiast community is a bit like family, which works out well for Kirsta Grauberger, managing partner of Market 17, because her business is all about family.
She and her brother Aaron opened Market 17 together in 2010 with encouragement and financial help from an uncle who passed away a few years back. “He was just the person who believed you should always follow your passion and dreams,” says Grauberger, who learned the business working at Sundy House in Delray Beach and as wine director and general manager at Johnny V in Fort Lauderdale. “He inspired us to go for it.”
Her passion is wine and her dreams are coming true at Market 17, where the clients often feel like family. With a large collector base in the area, Market 17 has become the stomping ground for groups like the Hollywood Wine Society—a collection of professionals with decades of wine collecting under their belt—who always include Grauberger in the fun. “It’s just really fascinating to see the wines they bring out,” she says. “I’ve never tried more first-growth Bordeaux in my entire life. They have them from these really amazing vintages: 1961, 1982. Those are two of the top vintages of all time.”
Certified by the Court of Masters as a sommelier in 2007, Grauberger grew up in Breckenridge, Colorado, and her down-to-earth, customer-first attitude derives from her upbringing.
“It’s okay to speak up and say that you don’t like [the wine],” she says. “There used to be the old rule of that’s what you ordered [so] you have to drink it, but we don’t follow that. We want you to be happy, and we can get you another bottle.”
Her attention to customer service has won over a younger crowd of wine drinkers as well. She’ll recommend a fruit-forward wine for a first-timer, and follow the trends like ditching the Champagne flute for the tulip glass (everybody’s doing it).
“It’s easier to order a cocktail or beer. To me, there are a lot of elements in a glass of wine that can transport you to another place, but if you don’t drink wine, you just want it to taste good. So that would be my pitch: It can taste just as good.” 1850 SE 17th St., Fort Lauderdale, 954-835-5507
Photography by Lyall Aston; styling by Ana Brillembourg; hair and makeup by Taryll Atkins using MUFE and Kenra
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.