Chris is a former actor who found his way into wine by way of working in restaurants in between shows. A love of telling stories on stage soon became a passion for telling the stories behind wines and winemakers. Chris began his career in wine in Cincinnati, Ohio. After working at several wine-focused restaurants he decided it was time to move east. He soon found himself in New York after a three-year stint in Boston. He is the Assistant Wine Director at Eleven Madison Park and is currently consulting and doing freelance work as the world rights itself in the face of the pandemic.
1. How did you get into the wine business?
Once upon a time, I pursuing a career on stage. I loved acting, singing, writing, directing, you name it, I wanted to do it. In order to do that in Cincinnati, Ohio, there was always the side hustle. The easiest, and most transient, was restaurants. It allowed me to make good money quickly, and if a place didn’t work out I could easily move on to the next. My determination didn’t allow me to be okay with working at the corner restaurant; I wanted to work at the nice, fancy places with white tablecloths and large wine lists. I remember I was interviewing at a fine dining place and was asked if I could name a couple of wines that are “spicy.” I couldn’t do it, and thankfully, the manager saw something in me and asked me to come back in a week to re-interview. I went home and hit the books and fell in love with the storytelling aspect of it all.
Turns out, those nicer restaurants aren’t super keen on having the staff take extended time off, especially on the weekends to do plays. I remember asking a mentor of mine for advice and he told me that if I wanted to be truly great at acting or wine that I should go all-in on one of them. It was hard to leave theatre behind, but I was able to parlay my love of storytelling on stage to the telling of stories tableside. Creating experiences, directing service, making connections were all something that I didn’t realize I had experience with—it was only a matter of perspective. So I left my theatre company and moved to the east coast to pursue a career in wine and hospitality.
2. What are the most frustrating and rewarding parts of your job?
As someone who works in a restaurant, we’ve been asked the question, “So what do you really want to do?” Then as you explain that working in hospitality is what you want to do, there’s a silent judgment that happens. I had a table once ask without making eye contact with me, “So you used to be an actor, and now you work in a restaurant. What does your mother think?” My jaw dropped to the floor, and the woman’s daughter protested on my behalf. Restaurants are amazing—they allow people from all walks of life to be a part of the experience, and they allow people to meet others who are different from them and to learn from them. Some work in a restaurant as a means to an end, to get by, to allow them to follow their true passion. There is also a set of people who love hospitality, taking care of people, and making sure their special moments are the best they can be. There is nobility in service and I’m proud to be apart of it.
As for rewarding: mentorship, mentorship, mentorship. From the people who have helped me along the way to those that I have guided, the camaraderie and honest desire to see others succeed is something that “fills my gas tank.” The altruism that was shown to me as I evolved in this industry fuels me to pass that generosity along tenfold. I know some of the questions and meetings I have asked in the past can be a burden, but I never saw it on the faces of those who I’ve asked. I model that attitude myself, and as I continue my career I realize more and more how much time was spent on my development by others. The desire to pay it forward, backward, and every other direction by those in this industry is astounding and infinitely inspiring.
3. What is your most memorable wine experience?
Central Otago. I’ll always be chasing another trip to New Zealand. The trip featured sommeliers from all over the world in order to showcase their signature grape, Pinot Noir. The only catch was that it was for only three days. I would spend nearly as much time traveling to and from as I would there. Nothing has compared since. I remember seeing the southern Alps from my airplane window, and the majesty of it all was a great introduction to what I would experience over the next 72 hours. Sitting at Rippon overlooking beautiful Lake Wanaka with a glass of wine in hand, I was able to take a minute and appreciate everything that led me to that moment. I was able to forget the work that was on my mind at the moment and just be. I’ll never forget the people I got to meet and will sing the praises of Central Otago for any who will listen.
4. What is an upcoming trend you see in wine?
Wine from the extremes. The unfortunate reality of climate change is stretching the boundaries of winemaking. We’re seeing places that were on the fringes and now are able to consistently make delicious wine. Whether it’s exploring the southern reaches of Chile and Argentina or popping the cork on a proper English sparkling, people are always looking for the next big thing, and I believe that there is plenty to mine there.
The other trend, brought on by COVID-19, is online seminars and how to create a memorable experience remotely. We’re at the beginning of something big, as we all try to figure out the best way to utilize zoom/IG live/skype/etc. and how to supplement those platforms and seminars with wine and literature.
Assistant Wine Director,
Eleven Madison Park
5. What is the best piece of advice someone has given to you?
Ask for forgiveness, not for permission.
This was a piece of advice given to me early in my career at Eleven Madison Park. As long as your heart and intentions are in the right place, you can’t go wrong. There is a lot of trust in that restaurant; everyone wants to be the best version of themselves, and sometimes we don’t always go about it the best way, but as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons you’ll be fine. Now as a manager would I give this piece of advice to your team? Perhaps not, but it forces you to think about your actions, the consequences, and the reasons you do things. That self-reflection is key to growing in this industry and as a person.
6. What is one tip you have for someone just getting into wine?
Stay hungry. Go to every tasting, every seminar, and every event that you can. Even if it’s something you don’t like, or think you don’t like, you never know when something will change your mind. Make yourself indispensable to your employer; don’t just be a sommelier, a server, a food runner. Volunteer to help put orders away, organize linen, help deep clean, anything that needs to be done. There was a restaurant I worked in where I would show up early every day and help with whatever needed getting done. By the time I was leaving, I could say that I could wear the hat of a dishwasher, backwaiter, server, sommelier, maitre’d, and manager because I was always there offering to help while only carrying the title of server/somm.
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