The 10 Most Buzz-Worthy Sommeliers In Chicago Of 2016

By John Lenart in Food on Nov 15, 2016 4:00PM

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Photo: John Lenart

Once again, we present our list of Buzz-worthy Sommeliers. Like previous years, this list includes a wide variety of somms, from those early in their careers, to well established somms that for some reason or another don’t always get the recognition we think they deserve. Like last year, we have also included a Sommelier who works in a retail establishment.

New to the list this year is our first ever repeat recipient, and for the first time, an entry that covers not just a single somm, but an entire sommelier team.

We look forward to seeing what they all will do in wine in the upcoming year!

(Presented in alphabetical order by first name)

AJ Augustine - Formento’s

Job Title: Sommelier
Years of Experience: One year
Certifications: CMS Certified
Job Responsibilities: Owns list maintenance, training, and service
Areas of Strength: Italy
Why he is Buzz-worthy: If there was a wine rookie of the year, AJ would get it. Per owner Phillip Walters, “AJ puts excitement back into wine every day as only someone who is peeling back the industry in his first year can. It’s my privilege to work with him and ensure his success after someone like Steve Morgan [the former sommelier at Formento's] stewarded such an incredible program.”

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Amanda (Mandy) Sparacino
Amanda (Mandy) Sparacino - Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House

Job Title: Sommelier
Years of Experience: Four
Certifications: Preparing for the Court of Master Sommeliers Certified Exam, Spring 2017
Job Responsibilities: Floor sales and hospitality, also assists Wine Director with inventory and staff education.
Areas of Strength: Spain and France. Genuine hospitality.
Why she is Buzz-worthy: Wine Director Amy Lutchen tells us, “Mandy has a great energy on the floor during service and her positive energy radiates through the staff. She is eager to learn and is on a quest for knowledge. She is a great addition to the sommelier team at Del Frisco’s!”

David Murr - Tru

Job Title: Wine Director, Tru
Years of Experience: 10
Certifications: CMS Certified
Job Responsibilities: Purchasing, staff training, creating wine pairings menu and by-the-glass list, working with chef on creating specific pairings to his cuisine, overseeing cocktail program, main presence on floor with guests
Areas of Strength: Italy, Burgundy and Domestic
Why he is Buzz-worthy: While not working at one of the newest places in town, David maintains one of the city’s finest (and perhaps least talked about) great wine lists. "David is very easy to work with. I look for great personality at the table as well as deep wine knowledge for this role; David possesses both," says Executive Chef Anthony Martin.

FrankieVillar.jpg Frankie Villar - Maple and Ash

Job Title: Cellar Ninja
Years of Experience: "Frankie came to Maple and Ash after working as a sommelier at Cherry Circle Room, but he has been working in restaurants (his family’s) since he was 10 years old" Says sommelier Belinda Chang
Certifications: CMS Level 2
Job Responsibilities: Wine cellar pruning, working the floor, inspiring his teammates. Making every guest leave happy.
Areas of Strength: Again Chang explains, “It’s not for nothing that he is our ‘ninja.’ He got that nickname from our team. Frankie is the like a stealth bomber in wine service. Guests and his teammates never hear nor see him coming and he just destroys with his wine service prowess!”
Why he is Buzz-worthy: “Frankie has what so many wine professionals lack,” Chang tells us, “a genuine, authentic love of wine service He is not about one-upping people with his knowledge. He is not about the exercise of blind tasting just for the show. He is not about upsetting a guest with a classic palate with a sherry and steak tasting. He is not interested in upselling until a guest’s credit card screams. He is not about confusing and mystifying our guests with weird. And our guests and team all feel his love for the game.”

Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Frankie Villar had no formal certifications. The error has been corrected.

Hannah Grossman - Monteverde

Job Title: Floor Sommelier/Beverage Manager
Years of Experience: Six
Certifications: Court of Master Sommeliers, USA, Certified; Wines of Portugal, Portugal & USA; ‘Academia do Vinho’ Level 3 Advanced course examination; professional affiliations include Guild of Sommeliers.
Job Responsibilities: Manages the wine program (purchasing), updates the wine list with wine consultant Rob Mosher, leads staff beverage training, interacts with guests on wine, and along with Chef Sarah Grueneberg and Partner Meg Sahs, supports bar manager Justin Kaderabek on his cocktail/spirits program.
Areas of Strength: Natural wines, Italian wines with a solid grounding in Sangiovese and Nebbiolo.
Why she is Buzz-worthy: "Hannah came to Monteverde with a desire to showcase both the classics and the au courant: she has a respect for both the best of traditional Italian wine regions, as well new up-and-coming wineries from around the world. The list is global, and ever-changing. Just like Sarah's food, it's rooted in the culture of the Italian home and heart, but doesn't demure from pushing the boundaries. As long as the wine is well-made, has a story to tell, and speaks of its origin, it could have a spot on the list. Above all, she seeks to showcase producers in whom we believe,” says Rob Mosher, Partner/Wine Consultant, Monteverde.

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Jon Leopold
Jon Leopold - GT Prime

Job Title: Wine Director and Assistant General Manager at GT Prime
Years of Experience: Over 7
Certifications: Court of Master Sommeliers Certified Sommelier level 2
Job Responsibilities: Curates GT Prime's expansive wine list and by the glass selections.
Areas of Strength: Jon combines an expansive knowledge of rare and historic bottles with strong management, and fantastic service. His wine program targets the world's best wine regions, making a truly noteworthy list.
Why he is Buzz-worthy:"Jon gives a great diversity to GT Prime’s wine program,” says Chef Giuseppe Tentori. “Not only does he focus on a variety of grapes, he sources wine outside of the well-known labels. He is also a phenomenal teacher - he has taught our staff so much about different types of wine, how to pronounce their names, and what to recommend to our guests. He is also a manager at the restaurant and he takes great care to focus on both aspects of his job - being a wonderful wine director, as well as being a great manager."

Josh Perlman - Giant

Job Title: General Manager, Partner, Beverage Director of Giant
Years of Experience: 20
Certifications: None
Job Responsibilities: Josh oversees the front of house operations at Giant and curates the beverage program.
Areas of Strength: Josh is focused on making every guest feel comfortable, relaxed and welcome with a wine list that reads as unpretentious and perfectly suited to the menu's seasonal, simple approach. Travels abroad, with recent visits to small and large producers in France and Portugal, have reinforced Josh's desire to create an eclectic wine list, which offers a variety of small-batch producers. He's excited to share what he considers "interesting" and classic wines, along with cocktails and beers.
Why he is Buzz-worthy: Perlman has assembled a great list at Giant. From the classic to the geeky, it's all there and is a ton of fun. According to chef/owner Jason Vincent, "Josh is what I like to call an 'anti-somm.' His wine knowledge is wildly deep but he keeps it in his back pocket, which is a trait I wish more people had rather than spouting off incessantly and making people feel like they're in class. And, his pairings are spot on. He makes us look like we actually know what we're doing!"

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Liz Martinez
Liz Martinez - The Purple Pig

Job Title:Sommelier and Beverage Director
Years of Experience: 3 years (since 2013) at The Purple Pig, previously held positions at Topolobampo, and The Florentine
Certifications: Court of Master Sommeliers, Level 2 Certified
Job Responsibilities: Runs entire beverage program, staff training, service.
Areas of Strength: Mediterranean, Greek, Eastern European wines
Why she is Buzz-worthy: While Martinez has been doing some of the Chicago’s coolest stuff for the past 3 years at The Purple Pig and her list gets mentioned all the time, for some reason her name isn’t mentioned as often as some of the other star somms around town. Purple Pig Chef/Owner Jimmy Bannos Jr. tells us, "First, Liz’s palate is incredible, and her ability to pair with the wide variety of dishes we do at The Purple Pig is really impressive. She looks at the wine program the way I look at our menu - we march to the beat of our own drum and do things our own way. Liz has really taken the reigns on making the wine program unique, and on educating guests about lesser-known grapes and styles."

Sandeep Ghaey - Vinic
Job Title: Owner
Years of Experience: 15
Certifications:Advanced Sommelier CMS, Stage 2 MW Student
Job Responsibilities: Purchasing, Sales Management, Event Planning, Customer Service, and General Store Maintenance.
Areas of Strength: Providing customers with a unique and intimate shopping experience. A broad comprehension of wine producers and regions.
Why he is Buzz-worthy: Vinic manager Marcus Yakhinis explains that Ghaey has a proven five-point platform for success and Buzz-worthiness:

1.He appreciates the value of large format wine bottles.
2. He’s a bit of a thrill-seeker when pairing food and wine is put to task.
3. Embodies all the qualities of the ideal son-in-law.
4. Turned down a World Wrestling Federation contract to pursue a career in wine.
5. He has an adorable smile.

Team Alinea

Sian Nagan Ferguson, Alinea Sommelier
Years of Experience: Eight years as a wine professional (27 years in restaurants)
Certifications: CMS Level 2, WSET Level 3, ISG Level 2
Job Responsibilities: Floor service, cellar management, wine pairing selection, peace maker
Strengths: Spain, Austria, German, Italy (Piedmont), New Zealand.

Michael Murphy, Alinea Sommelier
Years of Experience: 10 years as a wine professional (15 years in restaurants)
Certifications: CMS Level 2
Job Responsibilities: Floor service, wine list printing and management, wine pairing selection
Strengths: France, Italy

Diana Hawkins, Alinea Sommelier (repeat recipient)
Years of Experience: Five years
Certifications: CMS Level 2, ISG Level 2
Job Responsibilities: Floor service, manage and maintain staff training documents, wine pairing selection
Strengths: United States, Spain, Loire Valley, Rhone Valley, Italy, South Africa, Biodynamic/Sustainable Producers

Devin McKinney, Alinea Sommelier
Years of Experience: Two as a wine professional (10 years in restaurants)
Certifications: Pending
Job Responsibilities: Floor service, wine list printing and management, cellar stocking and organization, wine pairing selection
Strengths: Liaison between Wine Team, FOH Team, and Culinary Team; Jerez; Champagne; Germany

Why they are Buzz-worthy: Because of their seamless teamwork we couldn’t give this spot to just one somm at Alinea, so we gave it to the entire wine team. According to John Schafer, GM of Alinea, “This is a four-headed monster of a wine team. Sian, Michael, Devin, and Diana work in concert to bring new ideas to the table based on their collective years of experience. There is no ego involved, as they are all pushing toward the same goal of putting the best beverage experience possible in front of the guests in the unique context of Alinea Restaurant. They maintain a classic framework of a wine program while allowing for any number of options from outside of that structure -- spirits, beer, sake, and non-alcoholic selections are all fair game.”