definition of Sommelier

Alicia TownsAlexis Beltrami: You've talked about how you had an eye-opening wine epiphany years ago when you tasted a bottle of '85 Penfolds Grange. What was it about that wine that really knocked you out?

Alicia Towns: It's kind of hard to put into words. Working in the restaurant business, I never drank a lot, but I enjoyed wine occasionally, and it was either good or not good. That particular night, I took a sip and continued talking, and it was not until I actually went to reach for the glass again that I stopped and felt chills, and thought "wow!" There was something more - the way it sat on my palate, the finish, the sense of layers upon layers, the fact that I was really looking forward to the next sip. I remember turning the bottle around, not that there was anything to see, but I wanted to know more about it. Everything worked, and it was the most amazing thing I had tasted up to that point.

AB: Have you experienced similar epiphanies since then?

AT: That was a one-time breakthrough for wine, and now it can never be the same again. Of course, there are things that you taste that are unbelievable - the '94 Haut-Brion Blanc, or the '94 Harlan [Estate Cabernet], which Peter Peterson, our general manager, said was his idea of communion! But there are different levels of enjoyment now; the interesting, little, wacky wines are quite fun. Right now, Argentinian and South African wines are quite fascinating to me. I just returned from my honeymoon in South Africa, and I enjoyed its unusual varietals-- the Pinotage, for example, which is interesting because you smell both Burgundy and the Rh™ne at the same time.

AB: You've been at Grill 23 since 1991, so I imagine it must feel almost like home·

AT: It does. It's a great house, and after nine years being there, I do feel comfortable. What's great about the Grill is that it's been there eighteen years but it's constantly changing. We just opened our second floor, with four private dining rooms, a second kitchen, a bar, and a temperature-controlled wine room with a table for twelve. I'm also grateful to have the support of two assistant sommeliers now, who bring different areas of knowledge and different approaches to the program- a woman named Nathalie Vaché, who is from Bordeaux and worked at [Ch‰teau] Pichon-Lalande, and an American named Walter Moore, who's also a pastry chef by trade and has a bit of a sweet tooth when it comes to wine. Our wine sales had taken off - we were doing over $2 million a year - and doing it all by myself had become masochistic and impossible.

AB: What are your ambitions for Grill 23's wine program?

AT: I would love to make our wine list nationally renowned, so that people who are traveling to Boston will want to come check us out. When I started here, in 1991, one of our dining room managers was doing the wine list. We got a Wine Director about five years ago, a gentleman who was instrumental in setting up the wine program. When I took over for him, about three and a half years ago, there were about 200 bottles on the list, which I doubled last year to a little over 400, and it's about to become 600 at the beginning of the year, so it's become a bit of a monster. We've started a cellaring program, which I wish we'd done eighteen years ago. I'd like to take our wine program to a level that the Grill has not seen before.

AB: Last year you participated in the harvest with Jed Steele, the well-known California winemaker. Do you anticipate doing future stints in the vineyards?

AT: Yes, absolutely. Forming relationships with winemakers has been one of the best parts of the job. Being out in the vineyards, harvesting, seeing what's going on, is so important. Having two assistant wine managers enables me to travel more, which is great - it's education for me, for my staff, and for our customers as well. Next year I'd like to work with [California Rh™ne varieties specialist] Sean Thackrey; Syrah in any form is one of my favorites.

AB: While you were working at the restaurant you went out and earned a M.A. in psychology from Harvard. What motivated you to take on that extra commitment?

AT: I'd always been in the restaurant business to pay for school, starting as an undergrad pursuing a psychology degree. Psychology has always been fascinating to me; I'm very interested in neuro-psychology, how the brain works, and also in how people work. The longer I was in the restaurant business, though, the more that was the direction in which I wanted to go; what initially was my vehicle to get me somewhere else became where I wanted to be. But the M.A. was something that I wanted, and although it was not the easiest thing to do it was definitely possible, and the Grill was very generous with me, as far as giving me time when I needed to be off. Psychology is something I use every day, dealing with customers and sales people. I have a stone face when it comes to sales people, and having a degree in psychology definitely intimidates them! What do you do with a psychology degree? Well, being a wine director is exactly what you do.

AB: Do you continue to find your job stimulating, beyond the daily administrative and service challenges you face?

AT: Definitely. Wine is an immense pleasure and a passion for me, and it's something that keeps me interested. I've never been a nine-to-fiver, and I was worried that I would not be interested in what I was doing every single day, but there's a new challenge every day. Our program is evolving, and I'm learning so much in order to keep up that I feel as if I'm in school all the time. It's wonderful to do something that you're so passionate about. Artists, writers, and musicians all have to create, and I do have to drink wine.

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