The Wine Hustle Series | Carlin Karr Award Winning Sommelier Extraordinaire
Last week we had the pleasure of exploring the French fairytale of Tawnya Falkner of Le Grand Courtâge. This week we take an unedited look at what it takes to become a successful Somm.
Grit, valor and passion. That’s what it takes to make it as a Somm in today’s world and is exemplified by Food & Wine’s 2018 Somm of the Year Carlin Karr. I was lucky enough to get a moment of her time away from her demanding job as Wine Director at Frasca Food and Wine Inc. where she oversees the beverage programs at Frasca Food and Wine, Pizzeria Locale Boulder and the group’s newest restaurant in Denver, Tavernetta. While she has been recognized by multiple publications and awards, including Food & Wine’s Sommeliers of the Year 2018, Forbes “30 under 30” in 2011, Wine & Spirits Magazine “Best New Sommeliers”, Eater “Young Guns”, Wine Enthusiast, The Wall Street Journal, Wine Spectator, The Denver Post, and Zagat’s “30 under 30”, Carlin remains true to her roots and embraces the “soul” of each restaurant to ensure diners get the best and most authentic wine experiences.
So, grab a glass of Champagne, a slice (or two) of Margherita pizza and dive into Carlin’s intriguing journey to her stardom in wine.
How did you get your start in wine and what was your initial inspiration?
After graduating from the University of Colorado in Boulder, I moved to San Francisco to attend Culinary School. While in Culinary school, we had a wine education class, and I was instantly obsessed. It all just clicked for me - everything we learned seemed to soak in and make complete sense like nothing previously had for me. I was enamored with how History, Geography, Farming and Winemaking all came together in the glass. I knew then that wine was my calling. I immediately dropped out of culinary school to pursue a career in wine. I studied wine like a maniac. I visited Sonoma and Napa weekly and tried to teach myself as much as I possibly could using the resources I had at the time - in 2008 this was before the GuildSomm, or so many resources that are available today. I studied wine books and opened wines as I read along in classic textbooks about the region. I took the Court of Master Sommeliers Introductory and Certified exams back to back. At this point, 2009, I had never worked in a restaurant before. I was applying to every Craigslist ad for any restaurant position in San Francisco. Nobody called me back. Then, remarkably, I was introduced through mutual friends from college, to two guys, Matt McNamara and Teague Moriarty, who were opening a restaurant on Nob Hill. I’d like to think they were visionaries in hiring me, but really they were just young and we were all eager. They hired me (who never worked in a restaurant before) to be their General Manager and Wine Director. Together, we opened Sons & Daughters. This was the greatest experience of my life. We lived there. We created an incredible small restaurant in the best time for dining in San Francisco. We earned a Michelin star in our first year and became the hip young darlings of San Francisco. We earned all kinds of accolades from Zagat, the San Francisco Chronicle, Forbes 30 under 30 - it was unreal. I learned more each day at Sons & Daughters than I can even explain. I had mentors everywhere. Master Sommelier Jesse Becker lived in the building next door and blind tasted me out of the goodness of his heart every Saturday. Master Sommelier Alan Murray worked down the street at Masa’s and helped me learn the art of pairing food and wine. Raj Parr invited me to endless late nights at RN74 to taste epic burgundies and Rhône wines that I still hold as benchmark wine experiences. The generosity and mentorship I had from these men in the Bay Area was incredible and the reason I was able to grow so much so rapidly. This inspired me then and still inspires me today.
What do you feel differentiates you from other somms (aside from being a bad ass wine babe)?
My number 1 goal is doing right for my company - and I take this incredibly seriously, this is what sets me apart from most sommeliers. As Wine Director for Frasca Food and Wine, Inc., I buy wine for all of our restaurants (Frasca, Tavernetta, and Pizzeria Locale) and I oversee all wine education, wine special events, and wine staff (we currently have 8 sommeliers). We are a robust wine company. Our owner is a Master Sommelier, Bobby Stuckey, and Bobby has taught me an incredible amount about the importance of developing lasting, thoughtful relationships with my suppliers. This is probably the least exciting response I could give, but in reality, this is the most important part of my job. The essence of my job is to bring more revenue to the bottom line and bring great wine talent into our company and foster a great wine culture so we grow that wine talent within our organization. The only way for a restaurant, which we all know runs on the thinnest margins, to be able to provide healthcare, 401k, vacation, maternity leave, and retain great employees, is to continue to grow and continue to grow profit. My job is to make sure I keep pushing the ball forward and provide a wonderful wine experience for every guest while making the business money. Most sommeliers are responsible for slanging bottles on the floor of the restaurant, which is fun and I love to do that - but what is most exciting for me is the big picture.
What is your strategy when developing your ideal wine list? Do you put a certain Carlin Karr twist on it?
I think about what each restaurant’s “soul” is. For instance, the Pizzeria has a simple rustic regional Naples soul that is centered on pizza - so I stick to wines mostly from the region. I don’t over complicate it. I just think of what is delicious with pizza. For Frasca, this is a restaurant that has been open for 14 years and has an incredibly deep, luxurious wine cellar. I stick to iconic regions and producers that will always deliver. I think long term for Frasca. Most of the wine I buy for Frasca doesn’t go on the list right away - we put it in our offsite wine cellar and put it on the list when it is drinking at its best. Frasca is the “icon”, filled with “Classics”. Lastly I designed Tavernetta’s wine list as a celebration of Italy. The menu and concept of Tavernetta is the greatest dishes of Italy from all over Italy, as such, I wanted to create an Epic, all Italian wine list. The only exception is Champagne and this is because whenever I have travelled in Italy, I have drank a ton of Champagne. Italians love champagne and it is such a huge part of the Italian lifestyle, think “La dolce Vida” - the wine list there to me feels like a lifestyle. All Italian plus Champagne - whenever I tell an Italian winemaker this they say “of course” because it is SO ITALIAN to have a list of all Italian plus Champagne. Aside from that, I like wines that are made with intention, by producers that farm organically, and produce wines that are sound. I like many Natural wines, but not flawed wines - I think this is an important distinction these days because there are a lot of flawed wines on the market that are masking their flaws as “natural”. I also always gravitate towards wines with bright acidity that lend themselves towards the table. I also always arrange by price - from lowest to highest, this isn’t original but important in my opinion.
What is your favorite part of your job?
The people - working with Bobby Stuckey and meeting legendary winemakers, hearing stories, visiting wine regions.
What is the best advice anyone’s ever given you? Do you have a “mantra” you stick to?
You never know where everyone is going in this industry and to be great to everyone. Treat everyone like they are the next editor of Food & Wine Magazine, because they might be. Work hard, be nice, be authentic.
At WINEFARER, we love hearing about the unexpected journeys that stem from wine. Can you share your favorite wine journey with us?
The Journey that is the ongoing journey of my friendship with my closest friend Hayley Johnson. I met Hayley in San Francisco before I got into wine. She was a server in restaurants and was friends with my roommates. We were fast friends. She taught me how to open a bottle of wine , how to use a tray, she helped me with the opening of Sons & Daughters. We have come up through the wine industry together on our individual paths. She is an importer for Schatzi wines and I have the pleasure of buying wine from her now on occasion. She is AMAZING and I love her. We have travelled in Europe together and visited wine regions but most importantly she is my soul sister. When I told her that I was getting the Food & Wine Sommeliers of the Year award, she cried with Joy. I owe her so much and am forever grateful for her and our experiences together over the last 10 years in the wine industry. Without her constant encouragement, I wouldn’t be where I am today. This is what it is all about. Friends helping friends forever. Women helping women.
It seems like you love wine as much as we do, in three words, describe your love affair with wine? Obsessed with the Aromatics. also it always makes me hungry (for food and info)
Finally, what advice would you give entrepreneurial spirits who want to start their “wine hustle” but are hesitant to take that leap?
Just do it. The wine industry is wildly huge and always growing. Millennials are the biggest population of wine drinkers yet. Wine is alluring and accessible. The wine industry is vast and constantly getting bigger. There are so many opportunities to create. Pursue your passion. Learn your stuff and master it. The rest will fall into place.