Glance around any of Boston's high-end dining rooms and you'll find that almost everyone, from your server to your busboy, is a fresh-faced 20-something. For the industry, that's no surprise. It's an accessible career start for those with a strong back and a need for quick cash. But for Boston's wine scene, the invasion of youth is new.
In the last five years, the wine industry has started targeting a younger audience with a blitz of fuzzy-animal labels and fresh marketing ideas. It turns out that Boston restaurants, too, are making their wine lists accessible to a new demographic. "Youth is an advantage as we market our wine list to a younger audience," says Mary-Catherine Deibel. The co-owner of UpStairs on the Square made 30-year-old Matt Reiser wine director two years ago. "He speaks their language," she says.
All over town, restaurants are hiring younger people to run their wine programs. Reiser, along with peers like Erin O'Shea, the 26-year-old wine director at Eastern Standard, and Excelsior wine director Dan O'Brien, who is 28, are out to prove that age is not a factor when it comes to understanding wine. "Ten or 20 years ago, in order to have the experience someone like Dan [O'Brien] has, they would have had to work at it for years," says Paul Dias, who is the senior VP of operations at American Food Management, which owns Excelsior and Grill 23 & Bar. "Now, with Boston University's wine courses and 10 wine tastings happening every night, you can learn a lot faster," he says.
O'Shea's wine education started when she left Fordham University and switched to restaurant management, then the beverage program, at Johnson & Wales. Now she's managing Eastern Standard's 110-bottle list. "My favorite part is the moment when it clicks for people," she says. "When guests learn the importance of drinking rose with food, for example." She's adding a few unusual bottles to the list, such as a Slovenian ribolla from Movia, and a Swiss wine made from the amigne grape by Germanier. Chilled reds and more half-bottles are coming this fall.
On an average weekday, O'Shea meets with two to six sales representatives from various distributors to taste. She also trains the staff and works the floor almost every night. After successfully completing the first part of the Master Sommelier exam two years ago, she's studying to take the second this fall. It's a rigorous written and tasting exam; if she passes, she'll be a certified sommelier.
O'Shea's education was put on the fast track when, as a senior in college, she won a scholarship that sent her to vineyards from Italy to France to Napa, where she watched production and tasted wines. After graduation, she was offered the position of wine director at Clio, where she met her mentor, Shayn Bjornholm, Master Sommelier for the Washington Wine Commission, who was dining at Uni, Clio's sashimi bar. He proctored her first exam and is helping her study for the second.
"What struck me immediately was her precise attention to detail and eagerness to learn," Bjornholm wrote in an e-mail. As someone who was also mentored, Bjornholm thinks it's necessary. "The subject is so complex and potentially confusing; there must be a knowledgeable but demanding person who shares their passion and service standards," he says. As for how customers react to someone young, he adds, "It is difficult for some [diners] to entrust a $250 purchase to someone who has only legally been drinking for four years - or are more than half their age - but the younger folks that study and serve seriously can have a stronger foundation than some more experienced who have done it for years without necessarily keeping up with the recent changes."
Plus, says Eastern Standard owner Garrett Harker, O'Shea's energy and enthusiasm are infectious. "She's fearless," he says. "This whole younger generation is like that."
That same energy is apparent in O'Brien. He took over as Excelsior's wine director two years ago. He started unloading wine shipments at Providence's Capital Grille while attending the University of Rhode Island. "I remember holding a bottle of 1938 Beringer Reserve thinking, 'This is really cool.' " When he turned 21, he became beverage manager at Ten Prime Steakhouse and Sushi in Providence. Later, taking a break from the industry, he went to work with his father, then moved to Boston for a bartending job at Grill 23. From there, it was a quick step over to wine manager.
He credits Grill 23's extensive list as a primary source of his education. "When I wrote my first list in Providence, I would look to their wine list to see which verticals I should include and how to structure the list," he says. At Grill 23, he met wine director Alex DeWinter, 29, who gave him pointers. "He would toss a bottle at me and say, 'Don't worry, it's just grape juice.' "
Now at Excelsior, O'Brien is intent on growing the restaurant's exclusive labels. "There are a lot of producers on the list that you can't get anywhere else," he says, pointing to a Toulouse Estate pinot noir and a bottle from a single barrel of Shafer's Hillside Select "Sunspot Vineyard" cabernet sauvignon. He travels to California frequently to find small growers who will give him exclusive shipments like this.
Of all the young wine experts in town, UpStairs's Reiser may have had the steepest learning curve. In 1999, he showed up at what was then UpStairs at the Pudding on Holyoke Street. With a freshly minted liberal arts degree from Ripon College in Wisconsin, he wanted to work in communications but learn more about the city first. He had no intention of staying. "I always thought that restaurant jobs weren't careers," he says.
He started as a server and worked almost every job in the front of the house. When previous wine director Shane Lessard left, co-owners Deibel and Deborah Hughes asked Reiser if he wanted to try out. He started studying the entire small-producer-focused list of 3,000 bottles, researched every label's origin and production process, and taught himself the history of the industry.
Under the restaurant's three previous directors, he had learned what to look for when blind tasting and how to educate customers. Being on his own forced him to understand every element of the business.
But he's not a snob. "You'll never catch me correcting a pronunciation or garrulously babbling about esoteric specifics," he says. "At the end of the day, it's just wine, after all."