Interview with Atlanta Rising Star Sommelier Melissa Davis

February 2018

D. J. Costantino: Tell me about your first sip of wine.
Melissa Davis:
The very first I had wine I remember thinking “holy crap,” which fueled a long relationship with Burgundian wines. The first thing I tasted was an Aligoté. I remember it tasted like vanilla yogurt, and it was incredible. It sparked an interest in the other places with big name grapes.

When I began studying for my intro exam, I went to local shop. They were selling buy one get one free, and I found backstock 2009 Rouille, which is also a Burgundian wine. It was the first bottle I opened when I started studying, and when I put my nose in the glass it took me back to a camping trip I took when I was a kid. I was the first one up in the morning, and I remember the smell of the woods and wet earth. It was perfect, and I couldn’t believe a wine could taste or smell like that.

DjC: How did you get your start? 
My first job was in a tea shop, and I moved into coffee. Customer relations are important to me. I was working in an office, got a job as a food runner at Cakes and Ale. I worked my way up the ranks to server and ended up behind the bar. Soon after, I found myself managing and running the bar program at The General Muir. At the time I was extremely ambitious. I wanted all the certifications for beverage. I started with wine and never looked back. You can put together ingredients and make a cocktail, but there’s something so earnest and intentional with wine. 

DJC: How did you end up at Staplehouse?
I left The General Muir and got a job from my mentor, Nick Quinones, at Woodfire Grill. I made a choice to go there and learn from the best. In many dining experiences, Nick proved to be an incredible sommelier, and someone to learn from, and I soaked up everything I could. I was there for quite some time, and I got a phone call from the owners of Cakes and Ale  asking me to come back. Having been there a long time, I knew the customer base very well. It was very copasetic. I was studying for my certification. I was working a lot and hadn’t been home for a while, so I bounced around not doing much of anything. I passed my exam at that same time—I was 26. Matt Weinstein, who I met at Woodfire Grill, set a meeting up with Todd Rushing at Cocentrics. I followed him to One Midtown Kitchen. I worked exclusively with Todd a lot, helping build programs across the United States, and it was such an incredible experience to work on that level. Word came down the rabbit hole that Staplehouse was looking for someone. I cold called Kara Hidinger, who was GM at the time and she offered me the job. It’s been a fun little ride. 

DJC: How do you build the wine list?
What’s really cool about Staplehouse is that Ryan works with so many unique flavors. Think of old-school Southern food with a Japanese twist—it’s what we do. Everything is fermented and aged, and it gives me the opportunity to be playful and have fun with the list. You can still have all of the classics, but if you take the box and step just outside of it, you can blow someone’s mind with a grape they had never heard of or a new region.  People can still enjoy the big Cabs and Burgundies, but I want to highlight the small regions. They’re farmers and they’re small. A lot of them are making incredible wines that aren’t appreciated in a market like this. It’s a classic town. You can have a little fun with Pinot if you go a little farther south. 

DJC: What’s your pairing philosophy?
When I think about pairings I don’t limit myself just to wine, because I buy conceptually. I’ll take something off the bottles list and pair. I’ll throw in beers and wines and amari throughout that process. When I started at Woodfire Grill, we did huge cocktail dinners, a five-course tasting menu with cocktail pairings. Pairings aren’t limited with me. There’s a world of possibility, with everything Ryan [Smith] is doing, it brings together all kinds of things. 

DJC: What is your five-year plan?
I’m instinctual. I never would have expected to be at Staplehouse. I just come in and do my job, and I never forget that there was a time where I didn’t know anything. One day, I want to make my way down the Loire Valley, from Muscadet to Sancerre, during the fall harvest. There are 600 kilometers of wine regions, and I’m hopefully doing it on a bicycle. I surround myself with great human beings, who are doing excellent work, and I want to do excellent work myself.