2014 Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Sommelier Julie DeFriend of Oakroom at the Seelbach Hilton

2014 Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Sommelier Julie DeFriend of Oakroom at the Seelbach Hilton
February 2014

Few sommeliers have a direct career path that leads them to wine. Rather, they find themselves at some point or another confronted with the nuance, variety, and manifold pleasures of wine, and instead of sipping happily like the rest of us, they fall in love. Julie DeFriend is one such person.

Born in Chicago and raised in Minnesota, DeFriend made her way to Kentucky to attend the University of Louisville. Already interested in the nuances of expression that would later show themselves in a glass, DeFriend pursued a double major in art and art history. She might have followed her passion for art into a museum or gallery, but, like many industry pros, DeFriend began waiting tables during college.

DeFriend continued in the restaurant industry after graduation, gradually making her way into the wine side of the operation. A Certified Specialist of Wine through the Society of Wine Educators, DeFriend became an Advanced Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2013. As head of the wine program from The Oakroom, DeFriend oversees an extensive list, peppering classic and boutique selections with exciting, lesser-known bottles. DeFriend also leads the Louisville tasting group for young sommeliers, never forgetting those early days of pivotal inspiration. 

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Interview with Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Sommelier Julie Defriend of The Oakroom at the Seelbach Hotel – Louisville, KY

Sean Kenniff: When did wine first pique your interest?
Julie Defriend:  When I was 19, watching this fabulous gay friend of mine at his wonderful house, enamored with everything stylish. There was some wine, a bottle of white zyn. I fell in love with the whole wine experience, not just the wine.

People like to talk about a wine epiphany … I used to drink white and listened to what people referred to as (supposedly) good wine. I never liked red. Then, out on a date with an older gentlemen, he said, “You haven’t had the right red.”

A lot of my guests say, “I don’t like this,” or “I don’t like that,” but than I give them the wine with the right food. You have to show them what they like, give them something to latch on to.  

SK: When did you get into the restaurant business?
JD: I started working in restaurants in 1994… at a Romano’s Macaroni Grill. Then I moved on to Azalea, out in the east end of Louisville. When it first opened, it was a hot spot. The wine list was completely domestic. I started as a server and very quickly became the wine person. I was more interested in it than anyone else. Even as a server I was very involved with the wine program. Then, when I became manager, it immediately became mine. I grew the list to 120, 130.   

SK: And when Azalea closed?
JD: I was recruited by Jeff Ruby’s and they hired me as the assistant GM. He was pretty happy to hand the wine list over to me. It was a big honor to be trusted with it. I grew that list to over 600, old and new world wines. It was really fun and a great experience.

When the recession hit, it was a lot less fun … to be at a big glossy steakhouse. I was politely recruited by The Oakroom—there were no hard feelings.

SK: How has the wine scene changed in Louisville since you’ve been in the game?
JD: Since 1994? It’s changed remarkably. Wine has gone from being the stuffy, rich person or elitist beverage to being something that you probably find at a frat party. There’s been a concerted effort over a period of years, a wine machine in motion brining wine down to the masses. Wine has an experience attached to it; it’s pretty tasty as well. There’s something for everybody at this point. And there’s a need for somms to lead the way. Also, there’s a desire on the other side of the table to learn.

SK: Do you have a wine mentor?
JD: [Master Sommelier] Brett Davis. He was a restaurant manger in Louisville. I’ve known him so long, I forget how we met. He told me, “You have a really good palette, you should explore that.”

[Master Sommelier] Scott Harper was also encouraging. Brett was pursuing his advanced certification then. His [wine tasting] group was not just doing it for fun. He looked into getting me in, and later I started my own group. We’ve been Together for 5 years now.

I’d had put my academic pursuit of wine on the back burner. All these people [in Davis’ groups] had these credentials and I decided I wanted them, too. I embarked on a journey to become a certified somm and wine specialist and educator.

SK: How many in your group?
JD: There are seven in my group, including me. Last year we met twice a week. Five have passed the certification exam and two have passed the educator exam. All are eyeing the advanced exam.   

SK: What’s your role in the group?
JD: I tend to be a natural born leader … or bully. I try to keep everyone together and committed and moving forward. I’m the only woman. It’s been a huge and amazing experience for me, for all of us.  

SK: What’s the biggest challenge facing a sommelier in Louisville?
JD: As far as our little group of wine people, we’re young. Wine is young in Louisville. Brett has led it. I don’t know of anybody in this town who is only a somm. It’s almost like doing the wine program should be given more of its own credit. To run an amazing program, furthering the cause, for ourselves and for guests, is difficult. It gets even tougher when you’re really a restaurant manager who’s also in charge of wine program.

SK: Where do you see the wine scene in Louisville going?
JD: The Oakroom is a wine destination, I’m lucky in that respect. I want more people to respect it. I have hope for our young community. Our foucs has been on betterment, certifications, passing exams. Now, what are we going to do with all that? Share. Guide. I’m a great guide because I can tell you what you need to do. At the same time, a lot of these younger people have these sort of superstar aspirations. They don’t understand the work. They wanna be a big glossy superstar. I’m there to say that for Brett and Scott it was a lot of blood, sweat, tears. There should be no illusions about it. I cried when I passed the advanced sommelier exam.