One side-effect of Philadelphia’s restaurant boom is the rise of the sommelier. Once a job title held at only a few high-end restaurants, the som is now seemingly everywhere. At its core, wine is a profit center for a restaurant. Restaurateurs call on specialists to create wine programs that not only work well with the cuisine and the bottom line, but provide value and education for vino-obsessed patrons.
Among the crew of New Yorkers who last year moved down to open Walnut Street Cafe at the base of the FMC Tower in University City were owners Patrick Cappiello (himself a well-regarded sommelier), managing partner Branden McRill, executive chef Daniel Eddy, and head sommelier Kaitlyn Caruke.
Caruke, now 29, grew up in Plymouth, Mass. Family drink of choice: Light beer.
How did you get into wine?
My grandmother’s Italian, so there was always house wine. But my mom is even still flabbergasted that I work in wine, because she would put a handful of ice cubes in her white wine or drink. I had no sort of wine background. But now she’s getting more into it as I’ve made a career out of it. Light beer was definitely what was around the house with the family and cookouts. Maybe college and around that time, I was a gin drinker, and beer mostly. I went to school in Vermont, so there was a ton of craft beer.
And then I tasted. I had gotten hired at [Cappiello and McRill’s former restaurant] Pearl & Ash in September, and that Thanksgiving, I stayed at Pearl & Ash and we had a big family meal. Our head som poured muscadet, and she poured a natural red wine from the south of France, and I was like, ‘Wait, what is this?’ Like, I thought white wine was just pinot grigio and I thought red wine was California cab. I was like, ‘This is really good. Can you write this down for me?’ Even now, as simple as I think muscadet is or that sort of thing, how natural it is or comes to me, those were some changing moments in wine for me, for sure.
How did you decide to move to Philadelphia?
Patrick asked if I was ready to start my own program, and that program was going to be in Philadelphia. At that time, I had been in New York for maybe five years and I was like, ‘Let’s roll.’ I was ready to see another city and make my own list.
What is it like to be a sommelier in Philadelphia?
It’s cool. The dining scene is smaller [than New York], but you get to know people faster. Everyone who I’ve met thus far is super-friendly, super-welcoming. Mariel Wega [a longtime sommelier, now a sales representative], Lauren Harris from Townsend, Chloe Grigri from Good King Tavern. We actually all just went to France together. In New York, there are a bit more cliques. They all kind of stay within their own circles. Whereas here, it’s just almost immediate where you met maybe like 20 to 30 people. It is a smaller community, but I think it’s pretty tight-knit, and also pretty welcoming.
Are Pennsylvania’s liquor laws an impediment or a challenge?
I would say the biggest part for me was two things. The turnaround on how quickly you can order wine here is much longer than it was in New York. You could order wine on a Wednesday at noon and get it by Thursday at noon. Here, it’s definitely a bit longer. Everyone who heard I was coming down tried to do their best to prep me on what it would be like. Mostly, I’ve had to understand when to order and when it would be here and which vendors can get things here faster. It’s not a huge deal — just things to get used to. Pricing, too, jumped up quite a bit because of the sales tax. For the longest time, if in New York we were charging X amount, and then here with the same markup, we’d have to charge this amount. My heart does this thing where it ends up pricing things at a pretty good cost value. If you’d sell something for $65 [in New York], then you’re going to have to sell it for $78 [in Philadelphia], I’m like, ‘Eh, let’s knock that down a bit.’
Pearl & Ash and Rebelle [another previous Cappiello and McRill restaurant] had these massive, massive lists. Patrick and I decided to offer a big by-the-glass list. He said, ‘I think having a larger by-the-glass program will do really well.’ And I came back and said, ‘Let’s have a smaller bottle list. I think that will do really well.’ The list right now is anywhere between 40 and 50 by the glass, and we have about 100 bottles on the list. Anything $150 and under we also do in half-bottle format. I take the remaining half bottle and we sell it as a special to guests. Or we have something open that we usually don’t have open. If you want to do it by the glass, we may have it available.
Tell me about the misconceptions people have about wine.
I think some people think it could be a little uppity, perhaps, or not approachable, if you will. I definitely don’t think I had a proper glass of wine until I worked with Patrick. At 24, I had no interest in it whatsoever. The more and more knowledge you have on something, the more you want to know. And the further you can go with something and take nuances away. People think the most expensive wines are some of the best, but that’s definitely not true. I’ve had wines by the bottle for $17 a bottle and it’s changed my opinions. Loire Valley wines were that for me. I was getting into wine and wanting to learn more about wine, and that was the region that was price-point affordable for a 25-year-old working as a server assistant. I could go out and get a bottle of wine for $19, read all about it, teach myself on the region, and that sort of thing.
Tell me about your list.
I’m super-proud of it. Of course, I want to drink off this list. I put it together. I think it has a little bit of something for everyone. As much as I trumpet natural wines, I love the classics. White burgundy, pinot noir from Burgundy. We have a lot of northern Rhônes and classic producers, too, and everything at different price points. We start at $39 a bottle and go up to $395. I really am proud of what we’ve been able to create together.
So it’s all glamorous?
Well, I’m working on the floor quite a bit. I clear tables and run food and do all those things. That’s the in-between.
Wine. But do I want to stay in restaurants? Wine offers a wide scope. You could work in a winery. I’ve been lucky in the last four years and I have met all these wine makers. If I even wanted to move out west at some point later down the road, I could work for them in a tasting room, even in that capacity. Wine writing. Getting into doing something like that. I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth, but it would be great to see another wine bar in Philly at some point, too. I think that would be super-exciting, especially with the taste-makers that are really into natural wines. Once you speak the language of wine, you can speak it anywhere.