Somm City, U.S.A.

by Mary Choi and Korakot Suriya-arporn
Antoinette Bruno
December 2014


A new kind of wine scene is cultivating in D.C., all thanks to somms who dare to expand the tastes of Washingtonians, bursting their Cabernet and Burgundy bubbles. D.C. somms are sussing out on their own paths, taking their knowledge and expertise and running with it, going whichever way they see fit. With fun, playful, outside-the-box wine programs that exude the personality of their creators popping up throughout the District. Somms have surpassed the food-centric notion that wine can’t carry the meal. Backed by restaurants and a wine-drinking community who put their ultimate faith in their programs, these somms have so much liberty to design and play. And, they have each other, together building a “rising tide lifts all ships” mentality through conducting blind tasting groups and test prep sessions to lunches and after-service powwows. These six somms and wine directors exemplify and testify about why D.C. is the best place for somms right now.



Julian Mayor of Bourbon Steak – Washington, D.C.


Call it a youth rebellion, the young wine talent in the Nation’s Capital is on the rise in numbers unprecedented in other cities (reflecting the overall demographic trend in D.C.). Their fresh perspectives bring vitality to an already-booming restaurant scene. “There has been such an influx of young people that restaurants have had to adapt,” says 2014 Rising Star Sommelier Julian Mayor of Bourbon Steak, who dove into the deep end of wine after quitting a government job “cold turkey.” A trained chef, a veteran of Balthazar’s wine cellar, and with no certifications and no plans to get them, Mayor says the haydays of “stuffy French” places and “clubby steakhouses" are long gone.' D.C. now welcomes a more varied, casual range of eateries from gastropubs to avant-garde brasseries. Mayor has started a popular and influential in-house wine event called “F(l)ight Club,” pitting somm against somm with guests as judges. He’s animated by the world of pairing possibility opening up in the District, “Whenever I can find foods that you would normally not pair with wine, like Mexican or Indian food, it excites me. Experimenting is great!”


Brent Kroll of Neighborhood Restaurant Group – Washington, D.C.


“With D.C. opening over 200 food service restaurants in 2013, the sommelier population is growing up with it,” says Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG) Beverage Director Brent Kroll. “[Since 2008], I’ve seen D.C. go from conservative to adventurous palates. The days of having to have certain generic wines to avoid complaints, are a thing of the past.” The 2014 Rising Star Sommelier’s list at Iron Gate reflects this new found freedom that the D.C. somms are both driving and working within. From fizzy Peloponnese Moschofilero to Sicilian Nerello Mascalese, he’s teaching Capital juicers how to drink outside the box. “I don’t write the wine list for myself. I like to put myself in the customer’s shoes. My philosophy has changed over the years from thinking I need to pair Sauvignon Blanc with fish, because it acts like the lemon, and the dish has to be balanced to be complete, to, now, I want a good dish with a good wine—just make sure the wine does not overpower the dish and vice versa. It’s about what the moment and the dish call for. There is no such thing as a perfect pairing.”


Sebastian Zutant of The Red Hen – Washington, D.C.


At Red Hen, 2014 Rising Star Chef Michael Friedman is cooking simple Italian soul food executed at the highest possible level. Somm Sebastian Zutant revels in shaking up that soul with a wine list that is mostly NOT Italian. Says Zutant: “Wine is important, but it’s not that serious. It’s something that should be considered fun—after all, we’re just getting drunk, right?” His 75 percent natural wine list is not limited to Barolos and Chiantis. The nearly extinct Kisi varietal is on Zutant’s concise, cosmopolitan list. He showers diners with orange wines from Slovenia, Portugieser from Serbia, as well as rouges from Hungary—all wines that offer value, as well as taste and adventure, to guests. From his perch at Red Hen, Zutant is transporting D.C. vino-philes to locales like Greece, Croatia, and the Republic of Georgia—one sip at a time—reflecting the city’s melting pot and the entire world of wine.


Danny Fisher of Ripple – Washington, D.C.


To Ripple’s General Manager and Wine Director Danny Fisher, it’s the flavors of a place that matter the most when selecting a wine. “I prefer rustic and earthy wines. Those notes can really give you a sense of where the wine comes from and what the soils are like,” says Fisher. These wines feature prominently on Ripple’s list, as well as lesser-known natural wines that stick to Fisher’s sustainable, organic, and biodynamic ethos. Fisher highlights small-production wineries when sharing them with his D.C. clientele, enlightening and enlivening the dining experience. From Sonoma County Zinfandel—close to his wine first-love, Napa—to a Cerasuolo di Vittoria Frappato-Nero d'Avola blend, Fisher is showcasing wines and vintners he truly loves. “We champion real people, who make real wine,” he says. “We love telling stories about winemakers and places we know personally, so we make sure to represent them on our list.” 



Max Kuller of Estadio – Washington, D.C.

Biography • Photos

Max Kuller is a rogue somm. He has no official certifications, badges, bells, or whistles. Kuller has chosen to advance on his own terms. Along with Executive Chef Haidar Karoum, at Estadio Kuller optimizes the most Spanish of flavors. Consisting mostly of Cavas and Riojas, with a small percentage of wines from the U.S. and Portugal, Kuller’s list reminds of the power of straightforward pairing. He chooses an El Maestro Sierra amontillado12 year Sherry for halibut glazed in Sherry and served with cherries, garbanzos, pine nuts, and smoky romesco. “The Sherry is medium-dry style, crisp, salty, and has bitter orange and classic nutty notes as well. That plays well with the pine nuts in the dish,” he says. Kuller also oversees the wine program at Karoum’s Doi Moi, where duck larb and lemongrass beef bun are served with crisp Rheingau Riesling. Here, Kuller digs deep and off the beaten path, taking diners to Portugal, Greece, and even the Balkans as they trek through the cuisine of Southeast Asia.   


Morgan Fausett of Proof – Washington, D.C.


Somm Morgan Fausett boasts more than 40 by-the-glass wines and a 1,000-bottle selection at Proof (also a Haidar Karoum establishment). “The classics will always be present,” she says, “but I find that wines off-the-beaten-path tend to be more exciting discoveries, both for myself and guests.” Embracing modernity even within Proof’s tradition-honoring spirit, Fausett is excited about how the wine program will expand (enabling her to expand her customers minds and palates as well), especially the by-the-glass program, as Enomatic and Coravin wine dispensing systems are now in the equation. Of her daily obstacles and the tactics she uses to overcome them, Fausett says, “Being young and female is challenging in a male-dominant city with politics. So, sometimes when they ask for the sommelier and a young woman shows up, it throws them. But knowledge is my weapon. I try to guide people to newer options—but put the guest first. Listen to their wishes. It’s about reading people. It’s all about the guest and what’s best for them.”