Name: Rachel Lea Speckan
At the moment: USA-Illinois
National Wine Director
Own Website: Rachel Driver
Please, tell us a little bit about your first encounter with wine & the wine industry? Any particular mentors at that time?
Although I dabbled in wine while living in Tuscany,Italy, and was on the opening team at Ella’s, the restaurant with Chef Miles James at the Inn at Carnall Hall at the University of Arkansas, I jumped into the wine industry, for serious, right out of graduating from the University of Chicago MAPSS [Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences]. After searching for a job that was derivative of my masters’ degree to no avail, I was intrigued about the opportunity in an emerging wine retail concept.
Most of my experience was developed on the job, creating and crafting, refining and always learning. However, I gained industry savvy from the owners of the retail shop, delved deeply into the study group sessions, seminars and tastings throughout Chicago. Every opportunity to quench the thirst for knowledge and know how was on the calendar. We also hosted winery personnel and winemakers from around the world. I made time to travel to wine regions to taste, learn, touch, and gain a sense of place. All the while, I also refined service and sales technique, cultivated deep local relationships and clientele.
As for mentors, I asked for guidance from all sorts of folks. The local Master Sommelier crew has been instrumental in fostering my development and success, but, also other beverage professionals. I leaned in and leaned on the community. Specifically, Serafin Alvarado and Fernando Beteta, Alpana Singh and Jesse Becker have been simply amazing. In the community, Jill Zimorski and Jim Bube, Scott Tyree, Arthur Hon, Jennifer Schmitt, Mike Baker, Ryan Arnold, Kevin Bratt, Jon McDaniel and Dan Pilkey have formative for me. I thoroughly admire and draw strength and poise from Jill Gubesch and Rachael Lowe. Sian Ferguson-Nagan puts a little punk rock with incredibly precision and focus into the community. I worked alongside Jane Lopes and Erin Drain, teaching and learning from their path. And, from the wholesale side of the business, Zach Patap and Michael D’Amato, Daniel Klieman. Mitch Einhorn gave me the first opportunity to grow into this business.
What specific traits or skills should a Sommelier(e) possess for professional performance and is there any person with that qualities you especially admire within the wine industry?
The traditional definition of a Sommelier rings true, in my experience. The Sommelier must be a service ninja with a deep understanding of all beverages and culinary and pairings, but, also is pivotal in bridging the front and back of house, entertaining clients, schlepping boxes and organizing the cellar, understanding financials and administrative tasks, all at once. The Sommelier must support the team and be a leader on the floor.
As this is a rare combination of skills and the typical sommelier job description at most restaurants does not necessarily incorporate all elements, there are only a handful of service professionals that enact these traits on a daily basis. Bobby Stuckey, MS and James Tidwell, MS do come to mind. Jane Lopes, too.
What would be your advice to a young Sommelier(e) i.e. Commis Sommelier(e) where to look finding an adequate position at home or abroad? Any further tips?
I highly recommend that young and aspiring service professionals engage in an apprenticeship with a mentor. I also recommend developing experience in all tiers of the business, including restaurant, retail and wholesale to cultivate a full spectrum of skills. Learning always, listening deeply and continuously asking questions. Collect a community of professional support and exude amazing hospitality and balance, integrity and a drive to sell more.
When evaluating job opportunities, the best strategy is to ask for assistance in making introductions, utilizing a shared network of knowledge and professional connections. Be open to all levels of positions and be ready to work up. However, I also highly recommend keeping a personal goal and target at the front and center, always driving towards it and not compromising or accepting a position that does not advance opportunities toward that goal.
When a customer asks for advice on selecting wine what’s in your opinion would be the best approach?
When responding to a customer inquiry or request for advice, my immediate strategy is to ask them follow up questions and listen and observe for what the client really likes, doesn’t care for, price range, etc. The goal is to give them what they are looking for. If I can also provide an adventure or engage in stories or conversation or expand their experiences, it is an exceptional bonus. However, I am here for hospitality and optimal guest experience.
What’s your philosophy about glasses? Are you working with well known brands or are you considering new brands as well and how do you determine?
The company for which I work has an exclusive glassware partnership with a major, well known, historic and respected brand. However, I personally have a range of glassware from classic companies and use them for various purposes, specifically. I am always up for experimenting with glassware or evaluating new brands.
What advice would you give people on pairing wine with food?
Again, I listen to what the client’s preferences and aversions are and try to create the best match for their palate and the landscape of their table. I use the entire arsenal of pairing recommendations, from classic to cutting edge. I am always tasting and taking notes and trying new things, thus, it is always an adventure and incredible opportunity to create beautiful pairings. My most serious advice on pairing is to be clear about what you like and do not care for, but, also be open to surprises. A pairing is not necessarily the sum of its parts.
Should a Sommelier(e) taste the guest’s wine?
This entirely depends upon the steps of service and protocol at the restaurant. I would highly prefer to taste the wine prior to presentation, however, I understand that is not always possible. Thus, it is important to be present and attentive while pouring the client the first taste.
Where would you suggest a young Sommelier start searching for Sommelier positions on the internet in your country?
Look everywhere. I was snagged the connection for a job through a post on Twitter about a connection between mutual friends. However, Guildsomm is a great resources. Culinary Agents is a preferred listing, as well. LinkedIn and Indeed. Facebook and Instagram can also be a resource. Restaurants often also list openings or have an application process embedded on their website. And, it doesn’t hurt to go in and ask, or, apply for a stage.
What are the key ingredients for creating a wine list for a restaurant and what is your opinion on some ridiculous pricing on wine in restaurants, do you have tips on how to determine markups?
Creating, crafting, curating. All contemporary terms for a collection of beverages. In terms of building the architecture and foundation for a list, my first step is to evaluate the culture, mission statement, location, clientele of the restaurant, as well as reference in-depth dialogue with the owner about vision and preferences. The guiding principle is deliciousness and balance. I generally rely upon a core of classics mixed in with new classics and boundary pushers. Consider season and culinary pairings.
Pricing should be inclusive and encouraging, but, with range. Wine should be on the table as part of the landscape, so, making the pricing accessible is important. But, each client and table is unique in their budget and there is always the opportunity to sell more or celebrate lavishly. I usually work on a sliding scale of mark ups, balancing the cost target and ratio with sales volume and speed. And, I love to create pockets for clients to be adventurous, try something new, without a financial burden.
Also, research, research…drink, taste, read and collect menus.
How do you manage to stay on top of the changes in the wine industry?
Taste. Read. Attend educational seminars. Attend educational conferences. Travel. Listen. Ask. Scan social media and visit the local wine shop and grocery store. Research other restaurant lists.
How would a new vineyard get the attention of someone like you to notice their wine and what’s the best way for producers to improve their chances of being listed?
Be involved. Understand my program and what the culinary situation is. What is our brand and how do clients engage with our wine list. Seasonal shifts. A great way to create an opportunity specifically with me is to host an educational seminar or consumer event.
If you were a wine, which variety would you be, and why?
Chenin Blanc. High acid and textural. Can be unpredictable and adaptable. Delicious. Slightly baked and fuzzy.
What are the top 3 types of wine (your faves) would we find in your home wine collection and what’s your desert island wine?
German Riesling, GG
Champagne, generally Blanc de Blancs of vintage
Barolo with moderate age
Desert island wine is Madeira. It is already baked and oxidized and easy to open.
Any interesting suggestions about magazines or online platform?
I avidly devour all possible forms of education and perspectives, both from online platform and print media, social media sites, etc. I do vet sources and keep a balanced viewpoint, personally. I do try to keep up with developments across outlets. Some of the staples are Decanter, Food & Wine, Punch and SevenFifty Daily. Also, Beverage Media and many blogs or independent wine writers including Hawk Wakawaka, Alice Feiring, Jancis Robinson, Karen MacNeil, Tim Atkin, Lettie Teague, Jamie Goode, James Suckling, and Eric Asimov and Jon Bonné. The Wine Enthusiast and The Wine Spectator are essential for understanding what the consumer is referencing, too. I read a bunch, I suppose. I also consume podcasts from GuildSomm and I’ll Drink to That with Levy Dalton, A Time and a Plate and A Splendid Table, Spilled Milk for fun.
Rachel Lea Speckan
@ by Dominik Kozlik – Zeitgeist Sommeliers – www.sommelier-jobs.com