Kimpton's Emily Wines.
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Hewing to the Vine

Carolyn Jung / April 2013

Having started out as a sculptor, Emily Wines gradually carved out a career as a sommelier, patiently allowing the path to reveal itself to her.

It’s gotten to the point now that whenever she attends a gathering of any sort, a certain catchphrase is just automatically tacked on to her introduction. “People say, ‘Here’s Emily Wines and yes-that’s-her-real-last-name’ so often,” Wines says with a chuckle, “that it should be part of my actual full name.”

That’s the case when your surname is “Wines” and you happen to be not only a sommelier, but one of the best on the planet. Indeed, Wines, senior director of national beverage programs for San Francisco–based Kimpton Hotels, is one of only 197 Master Sommeliers in the world. The certification process by the Court of Master Sommeliers is so rigorous that the pass rate for the last of its four exams is less than 10 percent, exceedingly lower than even the brutal California Bar Exam. It’s not uncommon for candidates to make two, four, or even seven stabs at passing the final exam. Wines aced all three parts on her first attempt—a feat achieved by only 15 others (and only one other woman) in the 44 year history of the court. “It’s a pretty elite club,” says Tim Gaiser, a Master Sommelier who was the court’s education director for nine years. “I’ve seen hundreds of students take the exam.”

Wine wasn’t always her calling, though. In fact, early on, she might have longed for the last name of “Clay” instead, as she had her sights set on being a sculptor. Even after living in Europe for six months in her 20s when wine did become her beverage of choice, she moved to San Francisco with the plan of attaining a master’s of fine arts while waiting tables to put herself through school. But ambition—of a sartorial sort—intervened. “When I was 25, I wanted to work somewhere so fancy that I’d have to wear a tuxedo,” Wines recalls with a laugh. “I was thinking about the bigger tips. But of course, along with that comes the need for more knowledge.”

So, she bought herself a copy of Wine for Dummies, the first wine book she ever read and one she still recommends to people to this day. She started hanging out with wine geeks and even began filling in as a quasi-sommelier at other restaurants on weekends while working as a server on weeknights at Jardinière. It was at that restaurant in 1999 when she came in to dine with friends on her night off that she experienced her wine epiphany.

“I ordered a bottle of 1996 Domaine de l’Arlot Burgundy, which is a vintage I still love,” she says. “I took a sip and thought, ‘This is why people love wine.’ It was probably $80, the most I’d ever spent on wine. I thought it was magical.”

That was the moment that crystallized her future. Wines became so determined to land a job at the Fifth Floor restaurant when it opened in 1999 in the Kimpton-owned Hotel Palomar that she faxed her résumé over once a week for three months straight. Rajat Parr was not only the wine director at the time, overseeing a much-lauded wine program, but also the acting general manager. When he needed to hire another server, he leafed through the stack of résumés, only to find one name popping up again and again.

“I thought, ‘Wow, she’s persistent,’” says Parr, now wine director for the Mina Group. “Aside from her last name, I had no idea she had an interest in wine then. But she was eager to learn. She became my assistant. She learned very fast. Most people take two years to learn what she did in six months. She’s one of the best.”

Melissa Perello, who was the executive chef at the Fifth Floor when Wines was studying for the Master Sommelier exam, witnessed that diligence first-hand. She remembers Wines hosting morning study group sessions at the restaurant once a week for years with the likes of Tony Cha, former head sommelier at Michael Mina restaurant in San Francisco; Mark Bright, now sommelier co-owner of Saison in San Francisco; and John Regan, who was then at Campton Place in San Francisco, but eventually left for New York City’s Eleven Madison Park.

In 2008, a month before the final exam was to be held in Healdsburg, though, Wines nearly bowed out of taking it. She wasn’t confident about passing it. If she didn’t make it on this go-round, she would lose out on the opportunity to take home the Remi Krug Cup in recognition of passing all parts of the exam on her first attempt. And that was a decided goal of hers.

Compounding the stress was the fact that the Fifth Floor was in the process of remodeling and reopening with a new head chef. Wines, also the acting general manager then, finally managed to steel her nerves when the restaurant closed for two weeks for its final transformation. She headed to Hawaii, toting her flash cards to the beach and stocking her vacation condo with the wines that challenged her the most—very neutral young white varietals such as Pinot Grigio and Grüner Veltliner.

She had told Johnny Slamon, who became lead sommelier at the Fifth Floor under her tutelage, not to sell the restaurant’s pricey bottle of Krug Clos du Mesnil 1990 because “if I passed, we’re drinking it” in honor of her receiving the Krug Cup. Of course, that came to pass. And of course, they imbibed.

After earning her certification, Wines convinced the Kimpton Group to appoint her its first corporate wine director to provide more cohesive training for its various wine staffs, and to better take advantage of the buying power of its 56 restaurants and 61 hotels nationwide, which do approximately $30 million in wine sales annually. Last October, those duties expanded even more to include all beverage decisions for the company.

Wines makes it a point to visit all the Kimpton properties, which are spread throughout 15 states plus Washington, D.C., once a year. She helps choose the 100 core wines ($7 per glass to $100 a bottle) that are found at every Kimpton restaurant, which include everything from the affordable Joel Gott Sauvignon Blanc to the more expensive Faust Cabernet Sauvignon. She conducts regular wine boot camps for employees, including leading a small group of them on an annual wine trip.

Under Wines’ watch, Kimpton’s do-good philosophy has extended to the beverage program. Purification systems produce filtered, still, and sparkling water, eliminating the need for bottled. She also launched the “Wines on Tap” program, offering wines from refillable kegs to reduce the number of glass bottles that need to be recycled. Additionally, she spearheaded the launch of the national “Wines That Care” initiative, in which responsibly made wines are spotlighted at a hosted wine hour each evening in Kimpton hotel lobbies to salute the good they provide. “I felt that, with our wine hour before, we were missing an opportunity to put our heart where our wallet was, so to speak,” she says. “If we insisted that all wineries we used for this one program be good stewards of their community or the planet, we could all feel better about raising a glass from 5 to 6 p.m. in our hotels.”

These days, Wines concedes that she’s more of a “desk sommelier.” She misses the buzz of those busy nights of opening bottle after bottle—but not the late hours. Her natural warmth and playfulness can still be found on display, though, whenever she leads wine events, when she’ll even go so far as to mimic 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s signature bicep-kiss just before facing off in a tasting challenge against other sommeliers.

As beverage director now, Wines has started dabbling in mixology, as the art of combining spirits is a new one to her. In fact, these days, the more common sound at her Oakland home is not of a cork being pulled, but that of the clink-clink-clank of a shaker. She’s concentrating on learning the classics first before tackling more experimental ones that may find their way onto future Kimpton cocktail menus. There’s no doubt, though, as to where her allegiance will always lie. “Wines will always be special to me,” she says. “They’ll always be my first love.”

She’s not “Emily Martinis,” after all.