Ever fantasized about working in wine? Turns out, it isn’t all strolls through vineyards and six-hour, wine-soaked “lunches” among the vines – it’s mostly business. The greatest challenge of all, in fact, is searching the globe for high-quality wines at a fair price. That’s the daily grind for Janine Lettieri, who runs the wine side of things for Tasting Room, a personalized wine service that’s growing faster than any other on the web.
Lettieri cut her teeth tableside, working for several years as a sommelier at famed New York dining institutions including Michelin Guide's 3-star rated Le Bernardin, and Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s celebrity hangout, Tthe Waverly Inn in the West Village. Dozens of talented winemakers passed through those restaurants’ doors each week to sell Lettieri their wine, hoping she’d then offer those selections to well-heeled diners. Today, the tables are turned. It’s now Lettieri’s job to push those same winemakers to craft reds and whites that’ll appeal to Tasting Room’s rapidly growing membership – all with a wide range of tastes. Therein lies the trick, in fact: Tasting Room is the only online wine service that selects bottles to match each individual’s personal tastes. So Lettieri can’t simply grab every wine she likes; she has to find bottles that Tasting Room members will like, and never pay more than $13 for.
Between sips of Sauvignon Blanc from France she found suitable for Tasting Room (and some Napa Cabernet she’d need to ask the winemaker to rework), Lettieri took some time to answer our questions about what it’s like working for Tasting Room.
Q: What’s it like being a sommelier? Do you taste incredible wines all the time?
Janine: You do occasionally, but mostly it’s really hard work. It’s easy to think that somms sit around and sip wine all day, appear at the tableside, point to a selection on the list, grab the bottle, uncork it, then go back to sipping some more wine. In truth, you’re on your feet for about 8 hours, running around like crazy, trying to keep up. And two hours either side of that you’re counting inventory, ordering new bottles, meeting with winemakers and polishing wine glasses. It’s exciting at some times, exhausting and stressful at others, but all that is all forgotten when you pop that extremely rare – but oh-so-perfectly-aged bottle of Côte-Rôtie.
Q: What’s the biggest difference between working as a sommelier in a fancy restaurant and working for an online wine club?
Janine: Honestly, selling a $500 bottle of wine to an investment banker or famous actor is easy. Searching the wine world, high and low, for awesome $13 wines is infinitely more challenging. And when you discover those great wines in South Africa, Sonoma, Mendoza [Argentina] or wherever, it’s an absolute thrill. It’s even better when I hear from happy Tasting Room customers that they loved a particular wine I discovered.
Q: What’s the biggest misconception about wine clubs?
Janine: There are two. First is that we’re all the same, just buying whatever cheap wine we can find in bulk, then slapping labels on the bottles. At Tasting Room, I work very closely with winemakers I know and trust in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, South Africa, South America, California and New Zealand, just to name a few – and I hold them all to very tough quality standards. That $13 wine had better taste like a $25 wine. The second misconception is that all wine clubs send every subscriber the same wines. Most do that, but we don’t at Tasting Room. Every member starts out by sampling wines in miniature bottles, in our exclusive Tasting Kit, which is $9.95. You log in to the site, tell us which wines tasted good to you and which ones didn’t – then your shipments of regular-size bottles are chosen because they match your personal tastes. We only send you wines you’re likely to enjoy drinking, thus taking the risks out of your purchase.
Q: That sounds like a lot of extra effort. Why not just ask people what they like rather than have them taste?
Janine: Tasting is the true storyteller. A lot of people drink Cabernet or Chardonnay exclusively because those are just the most popular wine varieties in America, and they never thought to try Pinot Noir or a Bordeaux or a Sauvignon Blanc. When people do try different wines, they very often surprise themselves how much they like those varieties more than what they’ve been drinking all along!
Q: What’s the best advice for a wine novice?
Janine: Never stop tasting and trying new things. Wine is a journey, not a destination. Keep track of wines you enjoyed [Ed. note: Tasting Room lets you rate your purchases, so you can go buy more of those bottles for the same $13 price], as that will only help you make smarter wine-buying decisions over time. You’ll get better wine for less money.
UPDATE: Janine and her team at Tasting Room are extending a special offer for Popdust readers. Follow this link to get your wine tasting kit for $6.95 (originally $9.95)!
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