Raised in New Jersey in a traditional Colombian family, Betancourt began her career by studying the culinary arts at The Art Institute in Ft. Lauderdale. She began working at a wine store while attending culinary school and when the owner told her she had a good palate, she took the complement and ran with it. Betancourt spent several years growing in her field by taking classes, studying, and traveling through various wine regions in Europe and the United States.
Twelve years later, this young, talented sommelier has confidence, drive and guts, and is overflowing with excitement about the vintners she features on her list. She’s a new world wine enthusiast, and each wine comes with an anecdote about the small, innovative producers whose wines she pairs with Chef Clay Conley’s challenging dishes at Azul at the Mandarin Oriental Miami, where she has held the Sommelier position since January 2007.
Betancourt has attained the second level in the Guild of Master Sommeliers, and is continuing her education to achieve Master Sommelier. She is also certified as a Certified Specialist of Wine by the Society of Wine Educators.
Interview with Chef Cynthia Betancourt of Azul– Miami, FLAntoinette Bruno:
How did you develop an interest in wine?
I started cooking in New York restaurants at 14 years old. I went to culinary school in 1997 at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. I got into wine when I was working at a restaurant and they had a wine dinner – the chef had no clue about wine, was completely dependent upon sales reps. I decided I would never want to be that way, so I started to learn about wine. I took a job in a wine retail shop in the mornings, and attended tastings and dinner. The owner told me I had a nice palate, and I decided to pursue stick with it.
AB: Describe your fondest wine memory.
CB: There are so many of them! One was with Chuck Wagner at Caymus Vineyards – he invited me to work with him during crush. He opens his doors to his home and invited me – made dinner and treated me like a queen. We had dinner as a family in the backyard. He is such an amazing man. It was an incredible experience.
AB: How did you meet him?
CB: He came here for dinner and we talked for 3 hours. He is such a captivating person.
AB: Where have you worked previously?
CB: I worked at The Biltmore in Coral Gables and at Johnny V’s in Ft. Lauderdale. From there I came back to Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group as the sommelier and now wine director.
AB: What courses have you taken? Certifications?
CB: I did my certifications for Quarter Master Sommelier in 2001, and the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) in 2005. My first sommelier job was at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group in 2003 as an assistant. I’m going to do the master sommelier this year.
AB: What is your philosophy on wine and food?
CB: I think it has a lot to do with traveling and culture. Wine and food have a beautiful relationship that I love. I’m non-traditional – I do both comparative and contrasting pairings. I look for some eclectic wines that are hard to obtain, that you may not have had yet. I’m looking for balance in my pairings…but I also want something that is going to knock my socks off.
AB: List your favorite wine:
CB: This week it’s Dolcetto – an Italian red from Piedmont.
AB: What do you like about it?
CB: It’s a red wine with nice acidity that is low in tannins, refreshing, and goes great with fish and meat. I can keep drinking it and drinking it and still want more.
AB: What is your favorite wine resource book?
CB: The Wine Bible by Karen McNeil. It is such a great resource – it’s not geeky at all – just straight information that you can use while talking at the table. It has great wine pairings and great notes on the side that are very helpful. It’s older now – she needs to come out with a new edition.
AB: Tell me about a perfect wine and food match that you discovered.
CB: We did an amazing pairing with a Catena Alta Malbec and a foie gras and chestnut soup with a cranberry gastrique and pecans.
AB: What wines do you favor for your cellar at home?
CB: I have a tiny cellar. I collect mostly French Bordeaux.
AB: Who are your mentors? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from them?
CB: I would say Richard Hales – he taught me the business side of being a wine director.
Laura De Pasquale – has taught me to use my womanly finesse to hone my skills as a sommelier.
AB: What organizations do you belong to?
CB: International Sommelier Guild and the International Wine Fair judges in Miami.
AB: If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing?
CB: Forensics – I’m a CSI Miami fan. I love it. As a kid it always amazed me how they’d complete a puzzle.
AB: Which person in history would you most like to share a bottle of wine?
CB: Hillary Clinton. She is a badass! She is great – a go-getter who is ambitious and witty. We’d drink Champagne, of course.
AB: What are your ultimate career goals? Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years?
CB: I want to be a certified Master Sommelier. I want to get all my credentials. Then when I retire I’ll become a wine teacher.
AB: To what extent do you control the wine list? How much existed before you arrived?
CB: I was the assistant and then I came back. I would say that 45-50% of the wine list was already there. Now that I’m back it has changed a lot. I’ve added a lot of items in the $50-80 range, and more Burgundies.
AB: How do you compile the wine list?
CB: Just the way I like my glass of wine – with balance. Plenty of verticals and horizontals. Within each category I try to strike a balance between price, name recognition, and new finds.
AB: What regions are you interested in at the moment?
CB: Italy. There are over 2000 grape varietals in Italy. It has a wide range to choose from, and every region has a lot to offer.
AB: What wine trends are you seeing in your city?
CB: I see people buying more half bottles. I haven’t see quartos here in Miami yet. But I have seen a lot of people drinking Rieslings and sweeter wines