It's just before midnight on a Thursday when they straggle into the hushed lobby of the Rittenhouse Hotel, many bleary-eyed from their restaurant shifts, each toting a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag.
Upstairs in Lacroix's private dining room, these servers and sommeliers gather around a long table, pouring their wines into decanters and arranging their spit cups. After a few stifled yawns, the group is primed for a deep dive into this week's theme: domestic reds.
Led by Justin Timsit, the hotel's wine director, and his assistant sommelier, Samantha Germani, more than a dozen participants from some of the city's top restaurants - Volver, Serpico, Fork - take turns trying to identify the wines based on appearance, aroma, and taste.
This blind-tasting method is an odd ritual for the uninitiated, with a lot of swirling, sniffing, swishing - and declarations like, "I'm getting Twizzlers on the nose."
"It almost seems like magic, but a lot of it is really just knowing the theory and knowing what it can't be," said Alexandra Cherniavsky of Amada. She and Timsit are highly skilled tasters, working toward the coveted master diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers.
After Timsit moved to Philadelphia in 2014, he got together informally with Cherniavsky and other wine directors, including a.kitchen's Mariel Wega. But he missed the sense of community he'd felt in Los Angeles, where sommelier meet-ups are more prevalent.
"I wanted to create a group where people could come in a very noncompetitive environment," said Timsit, who encourages a mix of novice and advanced members. He believes they can all learn from one another because each person brings a unique palate and professional experience to the table. Those who have a less academic approach might be passionate about natural wines, for example, and can advance the scene in a different way.
Timsit and Cherniavsky started the Thursday-night meetings last fall, and since then, to his surprise, the group has expanded to about 30 people through word of mouth. A bottle of wine is the only cost to participate, and there are no requirements to join. But almost all the participants work in restaurants and most have passed one of the four levels of the Court of Master Sommelier exams.
In a city historically known more for BYOBs and PLCB (Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board) regulations than great wine programs, these sessions are just one indication of how much the region's wine scene has evolved.
Though there are an estimated 50 or so working as sommeliers in some capacity in the region, very few hold the official title. And, as Cherniavsky acknowledges, rigorous testing is not the only path to success. Some of the best sommeliers opt out because of the time commitment, cost, or simply because they're not interested. For instance, Steve Wildy at Vetri is vice president of operations and beverage director, yet he was named sommelier of the year by Food & Wine.
Wega credits the blind-tasting practice at Lacroix with helping her pass her certified sommelier exam, but she also coordinates a more loosely structured monthly get-together for sommeliers, general managers, and other wine buyers to get exposure to new wines in an environment free of sales pitches. "It's just people appreciating wine," she said. "It's a way for us to connect."
When hiring a wine professional, Ellen Yin of the High Street Hospitality Group says she looks for someone with passion, some level of wine knowledge, and an ability to engage guests in an approachable way.
Yet Yin has witnessed a noticeable change in the industry in the last two to three years, with more twentysomethings interested in specializing in wine and more people taking the exams. "These days, increasingly, the wine certifications are becoming more important because they're more accessible," she said.
A few people attending the wine tastings are there only to refine their palates, but many are on the exam track.
Indeed, with an uptick in people wanting to learn about wine, local sommeliers predict increased opportunities for collaboration and networking, and a more vibrant wine scene.
As the overall knowledge and service levels improve, it's ultimately the diner who will benefit.