The 10 Most Buzz-worthy Sommeliers In Chicago

By John Lenart in Food on Nov 6, 2014 5:00PM

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Valerie Cao, Chief Sommelier at Grace, with Christopher Harris, now General Manager & Sommelier at Vie (Via Grace's Facebook Page)
In the movie Somm, chef and restaurateur Michael Mina said, “Somms have become the new rock stars of the industry.” Like their musical counterparts there are some big name sommeliers out there whom practically everyone knows. If you enjoy wine and dine out with any regularity in Chicago, you know these names; a list which includes Rachael Lowe, Arthur Hon, Liz Mendez, Dan Pilkey, and Alpana Singh.

But, like some bands that play the smaller venues in town, there are some really skilled sommeliers you may have heard a little about or maybe never heard about at all. But trust me, in the not too distant future, this buzz-worthy group will be joining the “rock star” list above.

It's a sad fact that many restaurants today can't afford to have a person on staff who is solely dedicated to wine, so in many cases these people have titles either different than, or in addition to “sommelier.” Their experience varies from just a few years to over a decade, and their job duties range from floor duties during service, to staff training, to creating and managing the entire wine list. Some of these people have been around for years, have won awards for their work and yet somehow their names have yet to garner the recognition they deserve. Remember, this group is not about the restaurants where they work, or the lists they work with, because in several cases, these incredibly talented people are not creating their wine lists. The reason these people are on this list is they provide consistently outstanding service, are passionate about wine and really know their stuff.

If you find yourself dining at one of these restaurants I encourage you to seek out the outstanding service provided by this talented group. By tapping into their incredible knowledge and passion, your dining experience will be so much more enjoyable.

I present the 2014 Top 10 Buzz-worthy Sommeliers:
(This list is presented in alphabetical order by last name)

Andrew Algren - Alinea

Job Title: Sommelier
Years of Experience: 7
Certifications: Certified Sommelier with Court of Master Sommeliers
Job Responsibilities: Pairings, wine list development, inventory, costing, service execution, works floor during service.
Areas of Strength: Champagne, German wine, Oregon, food and wine pairings.
Why He is Buzz-worthy: According to Chef Mike Bagale, “Andrew is young and thirsty, no pun intended. He is constantly reliable from a service standpoint, but as well he is devoted to the pursuit of great pairings with food, i.e. working with me on a daily basis to procure the right wine with what the kitchen is creating and adapting to an ever-changing restaurant, with ever changing menus. We usually operate on a nightly basis with a minimum of 16 courses per person. Andrew has shown that he is more than capable of handle constant changes and adapting to our 3 [star] Michelin standard.”

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Ryan Baldwin (Via Twitter)
Ryan Baldwin - Girl and The Goat

Job Title: Beverage Manager / Sommelier / Floor Manager
Years of Experience: 7
Certifications: Certified Sommelier with Court of Master Sommeliers.
Job Responsibilities: Staff education, list management, wine and beer inventory and ordering, works floor during service.
Areas of Strength: California, Bordeaux, Northern Italy, Rhone River Valley, and South America.
Why He is Buzz-worthy: Ryan has a great foundation of wine. He always wants to taste and learn about different regions as well as present fun esoteric wine.

Kelly Capri Peterson Bates - Boarding House

Job Title: Certified Sommelier
Years of Experience: 10
Certifications: Certified Sommelier with Court of Master Sommeliers. WSET Level 2.
Job Responsibilities: Ordering, inventory, and list management. Works floor during service.
Areas of Strength: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Spain, and Italy. Organization of the wine program and her ability to interact with customers and vendors alike.
Why She is Buzz-worthy: According to Alpana Singh, Master Sommelier and owner of The Boarding House and 7 Lions, “To be a good sommelier, one must strike a balance between being able to work the floor and to work the back end, managing inventory. Kelly brings both sides to the table in a professional fashion that both a Master Sommelier and a restaurant owner can appreciate and applaud. Due in part to the fact that Kelly is classically trained in music (Berklee College of Music, Boston, MA, Bachelor of Music Degree, Magna Cum Laude), Kelly's approach to managing a wine program is very methodical. She is both studious and passionate - both traits needed to survive in the wine industry. Her determination and discipline makes her a tremendous asset to the business.”

Valerie Cao - Grace

Job Title: Chief Sommelier
Years of Experience: 12
Certifications: Valerie is a sommelier by trade with 12 years' experience as a floor sommelier, beverage director.
Job Responsibilities: Responsible for the management of the beverage program. Assists in pairing wines, inventory control, stocking, ordering, and oversees the bar program.
Areas of Strength: France specifically, Rhone, Loire, and Burgundy.
Why She is Buzz-worthy: According to GM Michael Muser, “Grace is her first fine dining endeavor, and it's great to see her finally receive much deserved recognition. Personally, I've always known Valerie to be a very competent and knowledgeable sommelier.”

Kaitlin Fischer - Bavettes

Job Title: Beverage Director
Years of Experience: 7
Certifications: Certified Sommelier with Court of Master Sommeliers.
Job Responsibilities: Inventory, weekly ordering & budgeting, staff training, as well as general management responsibilities.
Areas of Strength: Strong service background, specialty knowledge in California Cabs & Bordeaux.
Why She is Buzz-worthy: According to Hogsalt Hospitality Beverage director Jean Tomaro, “Kaitlin is a generous, hospitable person who not only cares about wine, but also her staff & guests. She is a pleasure to be around and has tremendous drive and work ethic. I'm incredibly proud to have her be a part of our team.”

Charles Ford - The Bristol

Job Title: Manager/Lead Sommelier
Years of Experience: 3
Certifications: Certified Sommelier with Court of Master Sommeliers.
Job Responsibilities: Inventory control, floor sommelier, management, staff training.
Areas of Strength: France, Spain, North America. Detailed wine service.
Why He is Buzz-worthy: According to Dave Johnston, “Charles has enormous empathy for our guests and their needs. He never lets his personal taste take precedent over finding the right wine for the guest. Hospitality comes so naturally to him. He is extremely down to earth and approachable, which are essential attributes to put a guest at ease and to quell the anxiety of having to navigate a large wine list. Charles's passion and enthusiasm are infectious.”

Christopher Harris - Vie

Job Title: General Manager & Sommelier
Years of Experience: 2
Certifications: Certified Sommelier with Court of Master Sommeliers.
Job Responsibilities: List creation, pairing, inventory control, management, works floor during service, staff training.
Areas of Strength: Service, staff education, pairing, working with guests.
Why He is Buzz-worthy: Christopher focuses on wines that complement Chef Paul Virant’s cuisine, but can also stand up on their own. He pushes the limits, particularly in the suburbs, and loves introducing guests to new varietals and wine regions. He makes you feel comfortable with the wine list while taking you out of your comfort zone.

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Steve Morgan (Via Squire Wine Co.)
Steve Morgan - Formento's (coming soon to the West Loop)

Job Title: Manager/Wine Director
Years of Experience: 10
Certifications: American Sommelier Association, Vineyards and Viticulture Course, Certified Sommelier Court of Master Sommeliers.
Job Responsibilities: List creation, inventory control, management, works floor during service, staff training.
Areas of Strength: North America, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Eastern Europe.
Why He is Buzz-worthy: According to Dave Johnston, General Manager, B Hospitality, “Steve is definitely a force in the Chicago wine community and has done so much to promote small, family owned winery operations who are doing amazing things. Steve is so unbelievably knowledgeable - he is totally inspiring to be around both as a colleague and as a guest.”


Patti Robison - Vera

Job Title: Sommelier
Years of Experience: 7
Certifications: Just took: Court of Master Sommelier Introductory Course/Exam and Society of Wine Educators Certified Specialist of Wine.
Job Responsibilities: Creation and management of new coffee and tea list. Working on a small list of amaro, vermouth and sherry to pair with coffee and tea. Inventory control, service, management, works floor during service, and staff training.
Areas of Strength: Spain & Italy; great floor sommelier.
Why She is Buzz-worthy: According to Liz Mendez, owner of Vera, “Patti has an extraordinary rapport with guests, and she has a knack for helping guests navigate esoteric wines among the classics, to ensure they not only have a great time, but have a unique experience. New York City can be like getting a master’s degree in cooking for chefs, but only a handful of sommeliers have left Chicago to go to New York City to hone their craft. Patti has done just that. Like it or not, New York has access to so many more wine opportunities, from visiting wine makers to top wine programs in the country. Growing on her Chicago roots, her experiences in New York give her a work ethic, tenacity and perspective in all aspects of beverage (wine, spirits, coffee, tea). Patti has her finger on the pulse of what is happening not just in Chicago, but also throughout the country by way of her New York experiences and she's now one of the sommeliers that is pushing to help make Chicago a wine destination."


Shea Zimmerman - The Kitchen Chicago

Job Title: Sommelier
Years of Experience: 8
Certifications: Certified Sommelier with Court of Master Sommeliers.
Job Responsibilities: Works floor during service and staff training.
Areas of strength: Italy.
Why She is Buzz-worthy: Mike Elmore, Wine Director and GM of The Kitchen Chicago says, “Shea is a brilliant Sommelier. She is constantly engaged and always finding new things to learn about wine. We are very lucky to have her at The Kitchen to forge relationships with our winemakers and educate our guests about the latest developments across the wine world.”