Sean Van Straatum is a Certified Sommelier and the Food & Beverage Director of the Oakmont Country Club. He has been in the hospitality business for over 10 years while gathering experience as a chef, dining room manager, and sommelier. Most recently, he is honored to join the Glendale Arts’ Illuminate Dinner and Wine Auction to help raise funds for the Illuminate Fund, and has donated his time to this important cause with the curation of the wines for the dinner and auction.
Throughout Sean’s career, he has been privileged to work with amazing individuals that continue to motivate and inspire. He looks forward to always being open to explore, learn new concepts, and immerse himself in the world of wine.
1. How did you get into the wine business?
While I was working at Charlie Trotter’s Restaurant in Chicago, I was a cook in the kitchen, but wanted to pass my exam to become a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers. Therefore, after working 12-14 hours a day, I would then come home and study for another 2-3 hours for wine. Working at Trotter’s was truly amazing, as I had access to wine and education that has propelled my career immensely. It was a true crash course of culinary and wine knowledge at the highest level. Not to mention, I was only 22 years old at a 2 Michelin Star and 5 Forbes Star restaurant.
2. What are the most frustrating and rewarding parts of your job?
The most frustrating part of the wine business can be the hours and days that you work, as we are at work when most people are off. So planning life with family and friends can be a bit difficult. However, like anyone in the service industry, you make it work and have fun along the way.
There are so many more rewarding moments involved in wine. I love that the wine business has been around for centuries and still to this day continues to evolve and change. I get true fulfillment from mentoring the next generation of wine professionals and see the spark in them that got me started. Sharing knowledge and experiences with young people that are eager to jump into the business is very encouraging and gives me a sense of pride.
3. What is your most memorable wine experience?
My hands-down favorite beverage in the world is Champagne. While working at Charlie Trotters, we hosted a Dom Perignon lunch for all of Chicago’s prominent Sommeliers and our guest of honor was Richard Geoffroy, former Chef de Cave of Dom Perignon. We had an amazing line-up arranged by the Dom Perignon crew, such as 2003 Rose, 2002 Brut, 1996 Oenotheque, and finishing with the 1976 Oenotheque. But Charlie, being the show boat he was, had our Sommelier Ryan Steins run down and grab the 1962 Oenotheque that he had collected over the 25 years of having his restaurant and we did a surprise last pairing. Richard Geoffroy immediately stood up from his chair and exclaimed, “No, no way you have that, I have not even tasted the rare 1962 bottle.” So for us to be able to truly surprise the maker of such a legendary wine made me feel really special. From that moment on, I made it a mission to go to Champagne, France, and in 2017 I was finally able to make it to the motherland of my favorite beverage.
4. What is an upcoming trend you see in wine?
I see that the average consumer has become savvier and is using technology to gain information quickly and accurately. Therefore, our jobs as sommeliers have become increasingly difficult in maintaining relationships and trust. So we need to be more humble and true to our craft in order to be relatable enough to gain the sense of trust from our guests. But the dependency on my wine apps and cellar trackers are key in order to be able to tap in and educate consumers. The more educated they are, the more interesting wines you can put in front of them without full shock or mystery.
5. What is the best piece of advice someone has given to you?
To always be honest. While working at the Peninsula Chicago, I was assisting a guest with a wine selection. They chose a wine and I went to retrieve it, but we did not have the bottle they had requested. So I returned with a bottle that I thought was the same quality and told the guest it was the same price. That was not true, and as the guest was a prominent wine professional, they replied, “Unfortunately you are incorrect and that bottle is actually $150.00 less, so I don’t think I should pay the higher price.” Naturally, I was completely embarrassed and they told me that in my career there would be moments that I would not have the answer, and that’s okay! Just be humble and honest with your guests, they will appreciate you immensely and honor your relationship.
Sean Van Straatum
6. What is one tip you have for someone just getting into wine?
Study and taste! It is quite simple: if you want to know about wine, you must learn about wine and love to enjoy wine. I have four wine interns at Oakmont who assist with our wine program, and we do blind tastings weekly. For months before we started tasting, I had them study first. It is my philosophy that tasting without knowledge is a waste of time. I loved when they had an “AH HA” moment of when they tasted a wine and could tell me all about it, based on their studies. So the best tasters in the world are also the ones that know the most about theory!
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