Sommelier Christopher Miller
Spago | Beverly Hills, CA
When you are raised in a Creole household in New Orleans, gastronomy is often an essential part of your daily life; attending college in New Orleans will ensure that libations are as well. Christopher Miller began his restaurant career while working his way through Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business. Finance degree in hand, he embarked on two years of equity research at an investment bank. The idea of a third year, however, led to migraines.
A weekend vacation to Seattle changed everything. While visiting wineries in Washington, for the first time in Miller’s life, he knew exactly what he wanted to do for a living. Miller figured if he was going to start a new life and career, he wanted to train with the best. In Seattle, that meant Canlis restaurant.
Miller signed up for a sommelier course taught by Shayn Bjornholm, MS, who also happened to be the Canlis wine director. Miller’s plan was perfect, with one snag: Canlis would not hire him. Three months, four applications and two interviews later, however, Miller was rewarded with the title of ‘busboy.’ Apparently, this was going to take a little longer than expected.
Four years and several promotions later, Miller left his position as cellar master at Canlis for the chance to run a dynamic wine program at Spago in Beverly Hills. In 2008, Miller was named one of Wine & Spirits Magazine’s “Best New Sommeliers in America,” and he became the second American to win the title of “Best Young Sommelier” at the International Chaîne des Rotisseurs Competition. Three weeks later, Chris passed two portions of his Master Sommelier in London.
Miller is currently studying for the final portion of his MS and releases his first wine later this year.
Antoinette Bruno: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Christopher Miller: My mother was a very proud Cajun cook so I grew up in the kitchen and always had a passion for food. I ended up going to Toulane to get my degree in finance and started working in an investment bank and hated it. I took a vacation for two months in my senior year. My dad lived in Seattle and I had been starting to read about wine and said “Let’s go to a wine tasting!” I fell in love, head over heels in love, with wine and I just knew I didn’t want to do anything else with my life. There was a program called International Sommelier Guild, it’s basically like a trade college, it’s the same as getting your auto-mechanic license. They had it in different places throughout the country, including one in Seattle. With my dad living there it was a second home, so I decided to move to Seattle.
AB: What restaurants have you worked at?
CM: My mother was a waitress and I started bussing tables for her when I was 14. Then I became a waiter at 17 and worked my way through college as a waiter and bartender. I grew up in New Orleans and had some fabulous food background. Most of my fine dining training came from Emeril’s. I also worked for the Brennan family in New Orleans for a few of the restaurants.
After graduating from college with student loans, not a dollar to my name, I got a job at a neighborhood café in Seattle. I would make enough per shift to cover my gas and lunch. It also gave me opportunity to apply to other restaurants when I was in town. I applied to Canlis [three times] and the only job they had open was for a busboy. Canlis is a very old-school institution and usual promotion time from bus boy to server was three or four years, but I didn’t know any better. I went through a few interviews, got the job, worked my butt off and about a month later they promoted me to waiter.
AB: That’s a long way from sommelier. When did you make the jump?
CM: I guess it was 2006 or 2007 and I moved up to full time sommelier. Nelson Daquip, one of my best friends, told me to try out for this young sommelier competition. [I attended] the national competition and won. I went from introductory level to national champion in 11 months. I was pretty shocked and so were some of the other people. I turned down a bunch of job offers because I loved where I was. Around that same time I started to go out to Walla Walla, Washington quite a bit. Greg Harrington, one of my mentors, had a winery out there. He said “Why don’t you make some wine with me?” I started doing blending and consulting for wineries out there.
AB: How did your career transition from there?
CM: I got the job offer from Spago and Greg Harrington told me to take it. So I took his advice on blind faith. I had no intention of ever living in Los Angeles. I’ve been running [the wine program] for almost a year now without a real assistant. So it’s been a lot of challenge and fun. I started making wine down here this year in Santa Rita Hills. [I’ll work with] Greg Brewer of Brewer Clifton Winery next year to make Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and I’m trying to get back to Washington to make wine too. I like to keep busy.
AB: What is your philosophy on wine and food?
CM: I think I take a different approach than most people. As far as wine and food pairings go there is an objective standard. Some wine goes better with some foods from a structural standpoint. But honestly the wine you enjoy the most is the best wine for you. If you really like nothing but Cabernet Sauvignon and you’re having fish, it doesn’t matter how good that Chenin Blanc is. There’s nothing I love more than when someone has a really diverse palate and says go wild. It’s not a philosophy, per se. With wine and food pairings my word is always context, trying to realize the best wine for the food for the person in the context of their preference. If they’re open, great, and if not, that’s a great challenge too.
AB: Do you prefer Old World or New World wines?
CM: I generally have a preference for Old World wines. In a way we ask more of New World wines then their Old World counterpoints. What I hate about the way restaurants work is that we’ll begrudge people for making super approachable wines, but let’s be realistic. Most wines sold to restaurants are consumed from one month to [within] a year or two. Most of the time they buy wine and in a couple weeks it’s gone again, and producers need that cash flow, too.
AB: Tell me about a perfect wine and food pairing that you’ve discovered.
CM: I do like some of the classics: oysters and champagne, venison with dark fruit compotes with Wallah Wallah syrah. For me that’s a little piece of heaven. Or pepper crusted lamb with Côte Rôtie.
AB: Who are your mentors? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from them?
CM: It’s a tie between two. Greg has been really important from the winemaking standpoint to a career standpoint. He’s amazing at the business of wine. He’s also a dear friend of mine. From a personal and career standpoint, Shayn Bjornholm, who was the wine director at Canlis and my previous instructor [at the wine trade school]. I don’t think he realizes how much of an influence he’s been on me.
AB: If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing?
CM: I love being a sommelier even with the hours and the work and the hauling of boxes—my cellar is upstairs. I absolutely adore my job at this point in my life. People ask me what I’m going to do next. I’ve only been a sommelier for a few years, I can give it time. I love winemaking and I love teaching. I’ve been teaching food and wine pairing seminars for the past year and they’re really fun. I’d most like to make wines and teach on a university level. That would be my ideal position in five, ten, or fifteen years.
AB: Will you stay in Los Angeles?
CM: Los Angeles has been great to me, and has come a long way in the past few years in the food and wine scene. But if [I move] it’ll probably be to New York or Seattle. I’ve been going to New York a lot the past year and I love that city, it is absolutely incredible—if anyone is willing to pay me enough to move there. I love Seattle too.
AB: What’s your favorite city to travel to?
CM: Vienna, Austria is my favorite city. You need to party in Vienna. Everyone is so incredibly nice, and it feels like a big town because everything is homey and the street food there is unrivaled. You can go out at 6 am on a Tuesday and people are still out partying and drinking on the streets. The best pizza I’ve ever had was on a corner in a subway made by a Hungarian guy, and it was the best pizza in my life.
AB: What regions are you interested in at the moment?
CM: The Russian River Valley. I don’t think we realize what a special place that is for the United States. I think it’s possibly the best all around region in the United States. There are so many great, interesting wines coming out of there—well balanced, amazing stuff. I think Washington is coming along at a good pace. Dollar for dollar it’s pretty amazing. I was not a believer in the central coast until I moved here. People are still trying to figure out the regional identity and realize what’s going on with how to work with fruit and the climate they’ve been given. I’ve already seen progress there and it’s very encouraging.
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