The World of the Professional Sommelier: a Conversation with Del Frisco’s Lauren Webb

I will just come out and say it. I love wine! I love drinking it of course, and I love learning about how the wine was made, the region of the world it comes from, etc. With every sip I feel like I am travelling to another part of the country or the world. Wine makes every special occasion and even just an ordinary day a little more special.

I have often thought it would be interesting to dive deeper and learn about wine. I did not know anything about sommeliers but I do know that they are professionals who devote their careers to being experts in wine. I thought interviewing women sommeliers would make an interesting series for Courageously Go! I know you will enjoy reading this conversation I had recently with Lauren Webb, the Wine Director at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse’s Orlando location. Lauren really peels back the layers of this often mysterious (but wonderful and delicious) world and I would like to thank her and the team at Del Frisco’s for sharing with all of us!

What inspired you to work in the wine industry?

Discussing what inspired me in my career as a wine professional all starts with my other true passion: hospitality. I have been working in hospitality, in various restaurants, since I was fourteen years old. In 2016 while attending the University of Central Florida, I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Event Management from the Rosen School of Hospitality. In 2017, I passed the Introductory Course (Level One) offered through the Court of Master Sommeliers and, at the time, had no idea what was to come. At this point in my life, I was looking for new career opportunities and personal growth when I applied for a Sommelier (also known as Wine Captain) position at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in Orlando, Florida.

Prior to discovering the open position at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, I revered it as my favorite restaurant in town and enjoyed celebrating all of life’s special occasions there. Not to mention, I was already interested in wine and knew Double Eagle had a Two Glass Best of Excellence, Wine Spectator award winning list, boasting approximately 1,200 labels. So, I was a bit intimidated to say the least and after getting the job, was absolutely floored. Thus, my career began as a wine professional and, like most in this industry, completely by accident.

I fully immersed myself into my newfound passion, approaching each day as a new opportunity to grow and develop. I found two great mentors in the then-acting Wine Director Brett Hitchcock and General Manager Rick Cheesman. I soaked up everything they taught me from inventory management to working with vendors, education, leadership, how best to represent myself, sales and service and hospitality. A year later when the opportunity to become the Wine Director was on the table, I knew it was time for my next career step.

Please tell us about your training to become a sommelier… the program, how long does it take, the most challenging part, the easiest part)?

There are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes about sommeliers, with many thinking we are usually snobs and that guests view us as if we were there to sell them a Porsche. I like to look at these challenges as opportunities, because the biggest opportunity I have each and every day is to exceed guest expectations, which I achieve thanks to my proper training and helpful attitude. Sommeliers add to the dining experience and we are there to make a lasting memorable impression. My role is so much more than selling wine. I am also here to manage others and to be a leader to my staff.

Another challenge of my job is to possess a seemingly endless amount of knowledge about food and beverage. Sommeliers, by definition, are the foremost experts on food and beverage in a dining room and communication is an integral part of this dance. So what happens when you put people together that have never danced before? It’s an interesting study in social psychology for sure, but I have learned that some people are afraid to talk about wine or beverage. They shouldn’t be.

A good sommelier really just needs to know and establish three things:
1. I need the guests to know I am here to help, with everything. Not just wine.
2. What do you like to drink? What label or grape varietal jumps out at you, especially one that you can (or most recently) recall.
3. Confirm a price range that is most comfortable for the guests for the most appropriate recommendations.

In reality, I am there to bridge the gap and assist with whatever the guests are seeking, while also doing it in a non-pretentious manner.

The part of being a sommelier that comes most natural to me is creating an impactful dining experience for my guests. I thrive on being able to be a part of the guests’ dining experience and to celebrate any occasion with them. These individuals who might be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, Chad’s 25th birthday, or Katrina, because she just beat breast cancer; they are going to remember you FOREVER. That is really important to me and it is why I do what I do. I can assure you that nothing else feels better in life. When you deliver the cherry – literally on top of the icing – and become part of their celebration, it touches your soul in a way nothing else can. Hospitality is infectious.

Is there a certification program or continuing credits needed?

There are education programs available at certain schools which are mostly culinary-based. The Wine Spirits and Education Trust has several schools and WSET Online has additional information. Other governing bodies include The Masters of Wine Program, The International Guild of Sommeliers and the Court of Master Sommeliers, just to name a few.

The Court of Master Sommeliers is more sales- and service-based. If you are working in a restaurant, it should check a lot of boxes for you and is the governing body whose certifications were best suited for my career path. The Court offer four levels of examinations which include:
• Level I – Introductory Examination
• Level II – Certified Examination
• Level III – Advanced Examination
• Level IV –Masters Examination

To put things into perspective according to The Court of Master Sommeliers, there are 164 professionals who have earned the title of Master Sommelier as part of the Americas chapter since the organization’s inception. Of those, 138 are men and 26 are women. There are 255 professionals worldwide who have received the title of Master Sommelier since the first Master Sommelier Diploma Exam.

Do you have a favorite wine? A favorite wine region?

This question is almost impossible answer, as it changes all of the time! Daily, in fact.

Some of the best wines I have had are largely influenced because of the company I shared it with, the experience, or the food with which it was paired. I am a very situational and an experiential person. Sharing food and wine with friends or family is a ritual unlike any other. Wine enabled us to celebrate life in a very unique and meaningful way, not often experienced otherwise.

Recently, I am primarily enjoying wines from Spain and France but there are great options from all over the world. Because of the strong commitment to developing wine worldwide, there has never been a better time to drink wine than right now. In other words, I haven’t met too many wines I didn’t like, even if it didn’t go so well the first time we danced.

What expensive wine can you recommend that is worth the splurge?

When it comes to worth and “splurging,” it is all relative. I am asked this question all the time in the dining room, and I always reply in jest, “Who is buying, me or you?”

Exceptional wine is made at varying price points. One wine I recently splurged on was a 2002 Bodegas Numanthia called “Termanthia.” I had already tasted this wine as a current vintage, but enjoying this wine with some age on it was completely worth the splurge to me.

The wines trading for the highest dollar amount in the global marketplace are often from Bordeaux, France and Burgundy, France. The cost for some of these Bordelaise and Burgundian wines are the equivalent cost of a dream vacation for most individuals. I would argue that to some individuals, purchasing a 750ml bottle of fermented grape juice is better than their dream vacation, and they find it is worth it to them.

You really want a splurge? Go buy a 1990 Chateau Latour from Pauillac, Bordeaux, France.

While these options may be extremely far fetched for most, I have experienced pivotal moments through tasting some of these exclusive wines and it’s worth trying at some point, if you can.

What inexpensive wine is a great value?

Again, value and worth are completely relative when defining ‘inexpensive.’ You can find hand crafted, hand harvested wines for a relatively inexpensive price, but you just have to be willing to be adventurous. One wine I purchased recently was called Evodia and its old vine Grenache (or Garnatxa/Garnacha) from Calatayud, Spain. I spent less than $20 and it went really well with my lamb lollipops.

I find a lot of great value in Spanish wines and those from around the Mediterranean. I absolutely swoon over red wines from Priorat, Spain. They typically offer the “oomph” I am looking for in terms of being full-bodied while offering high alcohol content and a killer finish.

What do you love most about your job? The least?

What I love about being a sommelier, and working in a restaurant, is that I am able be hospitable in every sense of the word. I strive to be a “hospitalian” – a phrase that I have borrowed from Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey – who defines it as follows:

“Service is what you do TO somebody. Hospitality is how you make someone feel. I call the people that truly practice authentic hospitality; HOSPITALIANS.”

This phrase is a persona that I have personified every day. I am also able to be hospitable to my staff through educating them with wine and service.

Being a hospitalian is also exhibited during the most fun part of my job: dinner service. This is where I truly shine! I command the dining room, with a presence that encourages all those who dine with me to take this hour or two for a break, decompress, enjoy their company and to be present in the moment. Whether my guests are joining us for business meetings or celebrating good, bad or indifferent times, I strive to provide a positive contribution to the dining experience. I am there to assist with wine selections and pairings for any budget. I do so in a non-pretentious way and in a manner that makes guests feel comfortable trusting in me. I am fortunate to work with a wine list that boasts over 1,200 selections, so I am able to introduce guests to new wines from exciting regions. The feeling of being able to entertain and educate my guests through beverage and cuisine is truly gratifying. As individuals, we aren’t afforded the opportunity to experience life through all our senses very often, but an impeccable dining experience allows us to do so.

I am in the business of caring about people and Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse helps define that with two of their core values that I resonate with the most. The practice of FEED, which is an acronym for Far Exceeding Expectations Daily and “Celebrating Life in Restaurants.” Both of these mantras are hyper-focused on caring about the experience and what we can offer to our guests.

There has been quite an explosion of craft breweries in recent years. Does the popularity of craft beer threaten the wine industry in any way?

The explosion of craft breweries only helps to promote the appreciation of spirits, which is great for everyone. Especially, if you make a living as a sommelier or in the beverage industry. Lest we forget, history tells us that we drank wine, beer or meade, because it was not safe to drink water. This was done with no economic pressure, and continued for thousands of years.

A common misconception is that sommeliers are only versed in wine, when in actuality, we know about every consumable liquid served in a restaurant and feel comfortable making any recommendations. If you like wine, chances are you are going to enjoy beers for your taste as well, due largely in part to structural and aromatic profile similarities. Wine and beer share similar flavor profiles, effervescence, alcohol/body, acidity and sugar/dryness. The craft brewery movement is tugging on the sleeves of those that want more out of their traditional beverages. The trend helps people be aware of new options and opportunities to try something new. Beer and food are also as classic as wine and food pairings, and they both should be celebrated.

What are some trends/innovations happening in the wine industry that you are excited about?

International and indigenous wine varietals are on the rise. While countries like Greece, Portugal and Italy have been making their native grape varietals into wine since 5,000 years before the common era, it is now much easier for consumers to access them. Access thanks to technology encourages people to try something new, and I find we as a whole are more open and willing to spend a bit extra for these varietals. In other words, keep your eyes on the export market and, in particular, what is being brought here to the United States. I would encourage everyone to be adventurous, be open to suggestions and try to eliminate any or all predispositions before indulging; biases are no fun anyway!

Looking into your crystal ball, what do you see in the future for the wine industry?

Looking to the future I see the wine industry still heading towards sustainable winemaking practices. Our guests tend to like to know where their food and beverages are coming from, how they are being harvested, and what, if anything, is being added to them. Either where it all begins in the vineyard or during the vinification (or winemaking) process.

How had climate change affected or will affect wine?

Wine is being made in a larger abundance and produced in many different styles all over the globe. More wine is being made now than ever before. The vineyard owner or manager also has to combat more than just temperature changes, such as rain, hail, frost, drought, insects, fungus, bacteria and other wildlife, to name a few. These elements or challenges have far greater impact than any human developments, and it has been this way throughout time. I think the more pertinent issue is taking care of our planet and ourselves.

Wine does change year to year based on growing conditions. How do you know when a wine is ready if it is a favorite wine?

While there are favorable vintages, reputable winemakers are usually going to put out great wine, despite growing conditions and challenges throughout the vintage. A very smart person in my life once said, “…great winemakers make great wine, regardless of vintage…” As it turns out, they were right.

I have my favorite winemakers so I tend to follow them and buy wines from wherever they are producing them. In a great vintage, most winemakers do not have to be adept at winemaking in order to produce a great wine, as they have the liberty to throw it in a barrel and let it age. However, during a challenging vintage, a winemaker has to stretch its legs and work hard to produce an exceptional wine. In fact, I often enjoy those “inferior” vintages, because they aren’t, in fact, inferior at all. Plus, it gives you a window into the winemaker’s dream and that dream is actualized (or becomes actualized) the moment you enjoy it. You can sense where the vines may have struggled, the challenges the winemaker faced and what they did to overcome them, and it’s absolutely beautiful. That, to me, is art and the artist’s expression in the world of wine making.

When is a wine ready to drink? Whenever you think it is. It’s all a matter of personal preference. Wines have primary and secondary flavors, and aromas. These are ever evolving and changing as wines age. In layman’s terms, all wine wants to become vinegar. What is also equally important is where the wine comes from when referring to the chronology of its purchase, from grapes to glass. The cellar conditions or how the wine has been stored over time comes to mind. If the bottle has been sitting in the window sill of your kitchen, chances are it’s not going to be very good.

Most wines that are produced are to be consumed almost immediately. Some wines that may have a potential to be laid down or cellared are ones a buyer would like to see mature in their collection, have paid a premium for or have purchased to enjoy on special occasions. Typically, wines that have potential to be cellared tend to be thicker skinned grape varietals, think Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, or Syrah, or dessert wines and ports. Keep in mind this is a very broad generalization and is by no means a hard fast rule.

Thanks Lauren!

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