It’s half past four on a late September day, and “family meal” is winding down at Estela, a trendy restaurant in downtown Manhattan. Early autumn’s muted, late-afternoon sunlight laps in through the tall windows at the front of the room, giving the marble bar something like a halo, the scuffed-just-so rustic wooden floorboards a warm glow. The family in this case is the restaurant’s staff, or many of its 30-odd members, anyway: cooks, servers, sommeliers—and Estela’s wine director, Amanda Smeltz, whom I will trail during tonight’s dinner service. For now, I sit on a bar stool and eavesdrop on this convivial scene.
When Barack and Michelle Obama were seen dining at the intimate, 45-seat spot in 2014, the food-focused website Eater proclaimed the former the “hippest POTUS of all time” in its headline about the dinner, and the subheadline made clear exactly what sort of place this is: “Forget white tablecloths. Barack and Michelle want some orange wine and mussels escabeche.” Its food is known to be delicious in a complex, cerebral way, more about unexpected flavor combinations and surprising textures than obvious pleasures, while still being undeniably pleasurable. And wine—distinctive, arguably unusual wine—is a significant part of the restaurant’s identity.
The menu changes often, but tonight it includes those mussels the Obamas might have ordered a few years back, an alluring assemblage of steak with eggplant and black sesame, and one of the restaurant’s signature dishes: fried arroz negro—black rice—with squid and Romesco. I’d tried this rice and it’s insane—one of the most headily flavorful things I’ve ever eaten. I’m trying hard to resist the overused word umami—described by some as the sixth taste sense category, the one that covers otherwise hard-to-classify, intensely savory flavors like anchovies and blue cheese and truffles—but I’ve never tasted anything to which it more aptly applies than this crazy rice dish. It is rich and strange and addictive: I just kept wanting one more bite, and another, and another. And it seems like a formidable challenge (for me, anyway) to conceive of a wine that might have the backbone to stand up for itself in the presence of so much so-muchness.
There’s a lot of laughter around the table during family meal, over big bowls of pasta. But it can’t go on much longer: the paying customers will start to arrive in exactly one hour, when the doors open at 5:30 pm. The chefs and the rest of the kitchen crew rise from the table first and return to their stations. The floor and bar staff, including Amanda, lingers just a little longer before springing up. But they’re working while their dinner winds down: Amanda starts to fill them in on amendments to tonight’s wine list, and brings them up to speed on changes to wines served by the glass (sometimes abbreviated to “BTG”), on what’s running low, on what will soon run out entirely (or, in restaurant-speak, what will soon be 86’d), on what’s new, and on what she’s especially excited about. “Lots of German tonight,” she tells them.
“Wunderbar!” a server replies, clapping his hands together. There is, for example, a Riesling from Hofgut Falkenstein, where Erich Weber and his son Johannes make wines according to rigorously traditional methods. The bottle has a striking label, featuring what looks like a fine woodcut of a large, ancient barn. The liquid Amanda pours from the green bottle is ethereally pale.
“Falkenstein,” Amanda explains, translates to “Falcon’s Rock.”
From the depths of my memory, the weirdly triumphalist theme song from the 1980s prime-time soap opera Falcon Crest—about a dysfunctional winemaking family in California—leaps forward. I am silently mortified, and I challenge my will to stifle it as quickly as it can. I resolve to focus on every word Amanda says. Fortunately, that’s not hard to do: listening to her is fun. I detect more than mere obligation while her colleagues listen to her describing the wines on the list. They’re enjoying it, too.
Falkenstein’s vineyards, she tells us, nestle in a sloping, treeless valley in the coldest part of the Mosel. There the Webers make “wines of wind and rock,” Amanda continues, “wines about brightness and lift.”
If you’re thinking that most people don’t talk like this, you’re right, and this is probably where I should tell you that Amanda is a poet. I don’t mean that figuratively. She is literally a poet. A bona fide, published poet. And I should also probably tell you that this is one of the main reasons, in a world full of talented and respected sommeliers, I wanted to focus on her.She doesn’t perfectly fit the mold of what some consider the ideal of “a classical sommelier.” And she will show you that that doesn’t matter.
The selfish part of this is that I love poetry as much as I love wine, and there’s no question that I know more about it than I know about wine. The less selfish part is that, because I knew Amanda is both a poet and a sommelier, I sensed that in her I would find someone for whom wine is not everything, or the only thing that matters, and that she would have none of that disturbing automaton quality that had turned me off of some sommeliers I’d seen on television and read about in books and magazines, even some who had served me very good wine. It just seems to me that a life fully lived requires more than wine alone, as wonderful as wine is.
It was, in fact, poetry that brought her to New York City—not wine. When she moved to the city in 2009, it wasn’t because she was looking for a big break in high-end hospitality; it was to do a master’s of fine arts course in creative writing at the New School University. Her first book of poems, Imperial Bender, was published in 2013, and was commended by the Chicago Tribune and the Poetry Foundation as one of the year’s notable titles in the genre.
Words not only matter more to Amanda than they matter to most sommeliers, they matter more to her than they do to most humans. Her language is both evocative and precise, and her deep, husky voice and distinctive speech pattern bring to my mind the singer and bassist Kim Deal of the Pixies and the Breeders. And with her long and layered dark hair pulled back, and some of her tattoos showing, Amanda looks like she could be an indie rock star, too.
Her Falkenstein lesson sits somewhere between recitation and reverie—but what she doesn’t want it to be is a monologue. The floor is open for discussion. Amanda asks one of the servers to talk about the wine’s aroma. He inhales and focuses. “Orchard fruits. Gray slate. Soil. It’s intensely mineral.”
Amanda nods in encouragement. “It tastes like stone,” she says. “It’s as acidic as a wine can be.”
“It’s sooooo German,” her colleague adds.
“There’s a sense of coldness,” she says, whereas, with other wines, “sometimes one can smell warmth and sun.”
Only twelve cases of this wine of wind and rock came to the United States—and four of those were destined for Estela. Amanda is on fire for this wine. I’m reminded of a delightful column by Jay McInerney, called “How to Impress Your Sommelier, Part One,” in which he explains:
If you’re having trouble getting over your fear of sommeliers, here are a few tips on how to make him think you are cool:
If sommeliers have a consistent point of snobbery, it’s a slight disdain or at least weariness with Chardonnay.
Tease yours by asking about Austrian Rieslings. All sommeliers love Austrian Rieslings. Then, bring it on home. Ask him to recommend a German Riesling.
Don’t roll your eyes. Get over your Blue Nun/Black Tower prejudice.
Yes, Riesling is among Amanda’s favorite grapes. But she avoids using the word on the menu, so that she and the sommeliers and servers under her supervision can avoid what she calls “the sweet/dry conversation.” Riesling can be controversial: it’s an often misunderstood variety, unable to shake that association, to which McInerney alludes, with the cloying sweetness for which certain well-known, mass-produced Rieslings are loved by some and loathed by others, and to which this Falkenstein bears absolutely no resemblance.
For a wine this good, and this scarce, it’s also surprisingly reasonable at $15 a glass. (Currently, the most expensive wine on offer at Estela by the glass is $20, and the least expensive is $11.) And since the relationship between wine and food must always be foremost in a sommelier’s mind—with the food leading the way, not the wine—Amanda suggests to the team that it would be great with the tilefish, the corn, the burrata, the crudités, and anything vegetal and herbal. There can be real magic in a just-right pairing, or at least a deeply satisfying sensory synergy, and the sommelier is the person best equipped to make that happen.
Next, she describes a French red, also new to the list: It is made from 100 percent Gamay grapes, grown in a soil of mixed clay and limestone. It has undergone “full carbonic maceration”—a process in which fermentation begins inside unpressed whole clusters of grapes. Guests don’t necessarily need to know this in order to enjoy the wine, but Amanda believes that the staff should know as much about each wine as possible. She is unabashedly scholarly in her approach. Knowledge is vital to her, and details matter.
“It’s evolved, but light in body,” she continues. She’d like to disrupt people’s expectations of Gamay—often associated with the florid Beaujolais Nouveau that shows up on many Thanksgiving dinner tables—and show that in its earthier manifestations, it is a serious grape.
The staff has been briefed. The tables set. The lighting lowered. The cellar is in order, and the bottles of wines sold by the glass are in place behind the bar. What remains is to wait for the most important, and unpredictable, element to arrive: the dining public.
Amanda is 33, which may sound young to be in a position of major responsibility at a restaurant that has been voted one of the world’s 50 best—especially at a restaurant that places an even greater, more defining emphasis on its wine list than do most. The whole staff “has to be on board with wine,” she says. “It’s almost a prerequisite. That’s not true everywhere.” And her duties don’t end at Estela: Amanda is also the wine director at Café Altro Paradiso, a substantially larger place that is one of Estela’s siblings in the same restaurant group.
But she has, if not quite an ageless quality, an age-is-beside-the-point quality. She could be an uncommonly sophisticated 25. Or an especially energetic 40. She has “been involved with wine,” as she puts it, for more than a dozen years, since she was 20, at one of her earliest restaurant gigs. She is warm but not gooey, and friendly in a no-nonsense, not obsequious way. Creeping behind her in my standard-issue New York City uniform of black dress and black leggings and boots, I feel not quite overdressed, just wrongly dressed: I thought I’d just fade into the background, but instead my formality makes me stand out a little too much. Amanda is wearing jeans and a T-shirt and sneakers: casual, but there is no mistaking her authority and her intelligence. In less than a decade in New York City, she rose to the top of her trade.
Amanda owns strong opinions and, whereas some sommeliers might be classified as generalists, she has a distinct point of view: she’s a champion of “natural wines,” an imperfect but serviceable designation generally taken to mean wines to which nothing is added nor taken away during their making, and which were produced in relatively small numbers using sustainable and organic methods by independent growers from grapes that were harvested by hand. This is exactly how wine was made during most of its thousands of years in existence.
But the production of wine changed dramatically during the second half of the 20th century, when chemical interventions, additions of natural and artificial flavors and colorants, and other “innovations” were introduced to the process, and the industry broadly became bigger, more commercial, more corporate—and less intimately bound to its sources, its makers, the challenges of soil, the caprices of climate.
Proponents of natural wines believe that wine was more interesting, more varied, and, simply, better before that shift occurred. (The so-called orange wine mentioned in Eater’s item about the Obamas’ visit to Estela refers to one category of natural wines in which white wine grapes are fermented on their skins and seeds, which impart a darker, deeper color than most white wines possess.) And if one prefers their food to be organic, untouched by pesticides and other chemicals, and produced by small farms, it follows logically that one might also favor wine that is made under similar conditions, and that meets similar criteria.
Amanda is discerning, but not snobbish, at least not in the conventional sense of the word. And if a season immersed in the world of wine has taught me anything, it’s that there’s a world of difference between discernment and snobbery. That distinction might just be what separates the truly great sommeliers—the ones who are more passionate than pedantic, who demonstrate taste more than rote memorization—from the lesser ones.
Family meal is over, and now Amanda makes sure that her wines by the glass are stocked. She gives me a quick tour of the tiny “cellar,” which is actually upstairs from the restaurant, built into a space that also serves as a general storeroom and office—where a quick glance confirms that being a wine director easily involves as much paperwork as pleasure. Responsibilities vary from restaurant to restaurant, but, for all the romance that working with wine might suggest, rightfully or not, it’s clear that a substantial part of Amanda’s job is managerial. There’s the invoicing, and the updating of spreadsheets. There are vendors to deal with. There’s ordering. Returning. There’s the regular editing and revising required by the wine list. Cellar maintenance. There’s troubleshooting. Supervising. Hiring. “Organization is key,” she tells me. This, she adds, “will be crushing news” to would-be sommeliers who don’t already know to expect it. It’s not all tasting, and talking about, beautiful wine.
I follow her back downstairs to the pass between the kitchen and the dining room, where Emily, the maître d’, briefs the floor staff on the VIPs who will be dining with them that night, among other useful information she dispenses. For her part, Amanda tells the servers to “keep it tight with comps tonight.” Which means: It’s nice to make a customer feel special now and again, but there’s no need to give too much wine away. There’s friendly chatter about regulars who are getting engaged. An impromptu alliteration game involving items on the menu (it seems that most of this crew loves language—and Keara, one of the younger sommeliers, whom Amanda has mentored through stints at a few different restaurants, is also a poet). There is the usual kind of jokey banter that happens at restaurants in the liminal hour before service starts.
The chef de cuisine, Sam Lawrence, enumerates the specials and asks Amanda to chime in with pairing ideas. “Aperitivo wines are nice with crudités,” she says. “The fresher the wine, the better they will show.” With grilled foie gras and grape leaf, she suggests a bottle from the Pyrenees: “It’s long for a rosé.” That sounds exactly right to me. Foie gras and grape leaf and a long, cold glass of rosé? Yes, I’m thinking, I want that.
The chef tests the staff on the information he shared minutes earlier with a rapid-fire round of questions: “What are wood ears?” “Where’s the steak from?” “What kind of eggplant is it?” They have it down. Amanda asks a few more pointed questions about the steak, and is told that it’s “lacquered with garlic oil, beef fat, and fish sauce”—and it’s almost like I can see her paging through the restaurant’s big book of wine offerings in her mind, considering the bottles that will complement all of those big flavors. Right now, the number of bottles listed in the book hovers around 300.
Amanda carries two armloads of wine bottles over to the bar, then dashes upstairs to deal with a troublesome delivery issue. I stand beside Emily, at her maître d’ station, waiting, and making small talk. I say something blandly but truthfully flattering about Amanda—along the lines of “she’s really good at what she does.”She’s a champion of “natural wines,” an imperfect but serviceable designation generally taken to mean wines to which nothing is added nor taken away during their making.
Emily quickly agrees, and almost as quickly adds: “Her other calling is teaching.” I’d already started to see what she means by that. “She’s a history buff, and she makes it fun.” Amanda is a master of precise and evocative descriptions, but her pedagogic style is Socratic: she wants and expects the sommeliers and servers with whom she works to taste and think for themselves, and to express their ideas with clarity, confidence, and conviction. (I’ll see this in even fuller effect the next day—at the weekly “wine class” she conducts for the restaurant’s staff.)
I’d been a bartender since the mid-1990s, and had only stopped very recently before the night I trailed Amanda at Estela. I am accustomed to working on my feet, but suddenly I’m not sure I’m going to survive this shift. And naturally, just as this wave of worry washes through me, it’s too late to turn back. It’s opening time, and the first guests have begun to file in.
It’s not a mad rush, not at first. Two two-tops fill up right away. Then four people claim seats at the bar. The guests who arrive during “first turn”—not a formal, scheduled seating, but broadly the first influx of customers into the restaurant when service starts—aren’t quite as serious about wine as diners in the later turns will be. The early birds are more concerned with food than drink. Still, this is a weekday evening, which, I am told, means the people who are out for dinner will probably drink more wine—and care about it more, and know it better—than their weekend counterparts.
Many of Estela’s guests are epicurean tourists, people for whom eating and drinking well is the best portion of seeing the world. They’re fun, they’re open, they’re interested in trying new things, but they can also be demanding. Guests who understand up front what kind of food and wine happen at Estela know not to expect the kinds of traditional, “prestige” bottles they might find, say, at an upscale steakhouse. They might already know that natural wines dominate the list here—and that that’s an understatement, as natural wines make up the whole of the list. But, even knowing all this, there are times, Amanda says, when a guest might find a wine a little too challenging. Once in a while.
At one table for two, both of the guests have ordered beer. Amanda likes beer—and there’s a fine selection of mostly local bottles at the restaurant. But it’s a sign: they’re scared of wine, and the thought of a conversation with a sommelier probably scares them even more. She’s not going to force it on them. Even people like these, who choose to eat at a place like this, are intimidated by wine, and by the prospect of talking with a sommelier.
Then a group of young men breezes in—Wall Street types, finance dudes, bros in blazers. They’re seated at a table near the back. More than a decade working as a bartender has taught me that it can only go one of two ways with guys like these: there’s an excellent chance that they’re going to be entitled twits who utter not a single “please” or “thank you,” but there’s also a possibility that they’ll be polite and friendly and well brought up, in possession of impeccable manners, embodying a sort of old fashioned noblesse oblige. They start with a round of martinis.
“They’ll be looking for a full-bodied red,” Amanda predicts, whispering to me as we stand a few yards away from their table. The guys are not whispering, and we overhear them order almost every dish on the menu (most are suitable for sharing). Amanda riffles through the book. “Never approach a table without some ideas in mind,” she tells me, before walking toward them.
She offers the guys—let’s call them the Blazers—the book. It’s a cue that says, “When you’re ready, I’m ready.”
One of them has been designated to take charge. He doesn’t look completely comfortable in this role, but he is less anxious than his companions. As if on cue, he tells her they’re going to want a pretty big red—but maybe they’ll have a bottle of white first. She’s not surprised to learn that the sort of white they want is chardonnay, a white Burgundy. And they would like it very, very cold, please.
Amanda manages to keep the whole room in her sights while tending to the Blazers, scanning to see where cocktails are finished, where glasses are low, even though she praises the servers for their adroitness and attention to detail. She watches one of them bringing the grandest glasses in the house—vessels that could comfortably accommodate a pair of goldfish—to a table, even though the wine that the host of the table has ordered does not require them for optimal enjoyment. But Amanda does not disapprove: on the contrary, she knows that the server has read his customers well. These are people who like fancy glassware, and probably fancy everything. These are people who relish, and expect, a bit of “zhuzzhing,” Amanda says. Some diners like to be fussed over; others just want to be left alone. Divining their desires is a valuable skill in a sommelier, but when it’s not possible, good, clear communication does the job just as well.
Meanwhile, the Blazers have been drinking, fast. Happily, they’ve turned out to be the rarer, better version of Wall Street dudes, all politesse and relaxed gratitude. They are loving the food. They are loving the wine. And even when they’ve grown a little loud (inevitable after a round of martinis and two bottles of wine) they are still disarmingly good-natured. They put their faith in Amanda not to misguide them, and she, in turn, acknowledges and appreciates their trust in her. They do not require any hard sell, but that doesn’t mean that she will take advantage of their openness, or exploit their insecurity where wine is concerned. She wants them to have a great experience—and maybe learn something, too. It may sound dramatic when she says that she perceives one of her objectives as a sommelier to “open the gates of knowledge,” but it’s clear she sincerely means it. She wants all of her guests to learn a thing or two about wine, where it’s from, and the people whose labor and skill and care bring it into existence. “When you withhold knowledge,” she says, “you can really rip people off.”
If the worst caricature of sommeliers portrays them as intimidating, supercilious pedants determined to upsell to customers the most expensive bottles they can (and experience tells me that this stereotype is grounded in some truth), Amanda operates in a very different fashion. She wants you to drink something good, and she wants that something good also to be something you might not experience elsewhere, under the guidance of a different sort of sommelier. In a 2017 article for SevenFiftyDaily, she wrote:
[W]hat’s the point of being a sommelier if you’re not doing this very thing—educating yourself about philosophies of viticulture and winemaking around the world and the changing trends in wine drinking? Why bother building a list if you don’t love teaching about and sharing wine, in its remarkable diversity? Why stock wines that taste the same as all the other wines on the shelf, that provide nothing of specificity beyond “This one’s red and that one’s white”? There’s one understanding of hospitality and wine service that says: Give a guest what they say they want, make money off it, and don’t push discourse. As for me, I have always preferred dialogue over mute acquiescence.
It’s as close to a manifesto as Amanda has put on paper. She knows that, as a woman, as a person in her early thirties, as someone who did not pursue certification or titles through any of the governing bodies that test and award credentials to sommeliers around the world, she doesn’t perfectly fit the mold of what some consider the ideal of “a classical sommelier.” And she will show you that that doesn’t matter, because she knows who she is as a sommelier, and she knows what she wants to give to her guests.
It’s far from a frantic night at Estela, but the restaurant is filling up. The crazy rice is very popular: I see a plate of it on almost every table. Toward the front of the room, there’s another group of three men drinking martinis—but I can already tell they’re not going to be as friendly or as game as the Blazers. When Amanda approaches their table, they look at her as though she has rudely intruded. She gives them the space they seem to want.
Toward the back of the room, a very different class of customer is settling in: a refined young European couple, a woman and a man. In their speech and their dress, they are confident, elegant, and understated. They have enviable posture. They’ve made a point of discussing the menu with their server before asking to speak with a sommelier, before even considering what they’ll drink. They’ll let the food lead. Amanda regards them from a distance, sizes them up, and registers that these are people who know things about food and wine.
Excerpted from Becoming a Sommelier by Rosie Schaap. Copyright © 2019 by Rosie Schaap. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster.