Q&As with Chattanooga Sommeliers

5 Sommeliers Delve into the World of Wine


Everyone loves a good glass of wine from time to time – it’s a great way to treat yourself on a birthday, a holiday, or simply after a long week at work. But for some, wine selection and pairing is more than just a rare treat: It’s an art, a science, and an integral part of their day-to-day work. For a sommelier, a refined and discerning palate is what sets them apart and what helps them to create the most memorable wine experiences for us, the uninitiated.

Here, five local sommeliers delve into the wonderful world of wine and what drew them to it.


By Anna Hill / Photography by Rich Smith



Sommelier Marcus Garner at Wine Down Bistro & Lounge


Marcus Garner

Wine Down Bistro & Lounge

CS: What got you into wine?

MG: I think, for me, it was the complexity of it all – the process of making it, storing it, and pairing it with food. Since I have a deep passion for cuisine, there was no better association. Also, when starting out with Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants before venturing out on my own, I met Emily Wines, who was the master sommelier for our company. Going through her ‘boot camp’ opened my eyes to a whole new world.

CS: What is one of your favorite wines right now?

MG: Right now, I’m enjoying Klinker Brick’s Old Ghost Old Vine Zinfandel (2016). Great spice, deep color and tannins, and pairs well with food. It’s also not very expensive, so many can enjoy it. I was recently introduced to it by one of my reps, and it caught me instantly, so I put it on my wine list at Wine Down.

CS: What tips do you have for someone who wants to get into wine?

MG: I would say be patient. You’re not just going to dive in and be super impressed by the whole process or appreciate what’s in the bottle right away. It takes time to develop your palate, and you’ll be surprised what you enjoy once you take the time to appreciate its backstory and the effort that goes into producing it.

CS: What wines would you consider to be overrated? Underrated?

MG: Overrated? White Zinfandel, because to me that’s not wine. Something more personal I guess would be Chardonnay. I’ve just never had one that blew me away. Underrated for me would be Txakolina. Maybe because it’s not available on most lists, but it’s slept on. It is absolutely amazing, and I enjoyed it very much when I was in Northern Spain a few years ago. More people should try it, but I’m finding when guests can’t pronounce it, they don’t buy it. It’s great with food. Crusty bread, citrus flavors, and slightly effervescent – it’s a home run.

CS: What’s a wine you would recommend for pairing with a holiday meal?

MG: I prefer to drink something complex but with layers for holiday meals. There are so many different layers to those meals, so you need something to take on the challenge. Beaujolais, of course; a nice Barolo, or if you can get your hands on it, a beautiful Antinori Tignanello from Tuscany. The 2017 is showing very well, as well as previous vintages, and it hits all parts of the palate for me: sweet and velvety with a stellar finish.



Sommelier Eric Carpenter at Ruth's Chris

Photo by Emily Pérez Long

Eric Carpenter

Ruth’s Chris

CS: What got you into wine?

EC: I started waiting tables at a fine dining restaurant in Pennsylvania that had an active wine diner program as well as a large charity auction/society, and it went from there.

CS: What’s the oldest wine you’ve tasted, and how was it?

EC: The oldest one I’ve had was a late 1790s Madera being sold at auction. It was very tired, but still true to Madera.

CS: What wines would you consider to be overrated? Underrated?

EC: For overrated, I’d definitely say California Cabernet. If people see meat on a menu, they tend to only look in one direction: Cabernet Sauvignon. This grape came about from crossing Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. These two grapes offer an incredible spectrum of body and flavor. However, people only want Cabernet Sauvignon. I do a lot of blind-tastings at wine dinners. I love to offer a surprise wine. I will pour a wine for people and step back and start asking for feedback. Almost without fail, I get rave reviews for the wine and how it pairs with the meal. When I tell them it is a Petite Sirah or a Cabernet Franc or a Mourvedre, most say that they have never heard of it or that they have never liked that particular wine before. It is all about perspective and pairing. As for underrated, I’d have to go with a Provence.

CS: What was your favorite wine-tasting experience? Is there a region or country you prefer when it comes to wine?

EC: I have owned Carpenter Wine Enterprise for 12 years. I mainly do cellar development and wine auctions. I buy and sell private collections in addition to finding rare wines for my clients. With a group of collectors, I put together a hundred 100-point scoring wines, and we took them to the Sotheby’s auction held in Hong Kong. A private tasting was held for all interested buyers. We tasted through all 100 wines as a way of generating interest in the auction lot. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As far as a favorite, I have never wanted to say there is a grape or region that I don’t like. Almost any wine with the right meal and in the right company of family and friends can be a special wine.

CS: What’s a wine you would recommend for pairing with a holiday meal?

EC: There are a couple of options I’d recommend. A Viognier from Northern Rhône, served slightly above cellar temperature. A Rosé Champagne Billecart-Salmon is excellent. Maybe a big California Chardonnay, or a Spanish Garnacha.



Sommelier Bobbi Heithoff at True at BHB


Bobbi Heithoff

True at BHB

CS: What got you into wine?

BH: I became interested in wine in my early 20s. A great friend of mine was taking his introductory sommelier course, and I had the chance to help him blind taste and hear his wine descriptions. I was fascinated – it looked and sounded so fun! I was a history and geography major in college, so wine seemed like the perfect fit for me; studying wine is such a great intersection of travel, regional history, and food science. Who wouldn’t love that? After reaching that realization, I decided to go through the Court of Master Sommeliers and eventually reached the Certified Level.

CS: What is one of your favorite wines right now?

BH: At the moment, I’m really loving Comando G’s La Bruja de Rozas. It’s a hand-harvested Garnacha from Spain – a red variety that’s flowery and earthy, but still has fine tannins and a great acidity. It’s very versatile for food pairing.

CS: What tips do you have for someone who wants to get into wine?

BH: If someone is interested in learning about wine, I always point them to the super easy-to-read yet detailed books Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine or Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible. If you can’t get your hands on a book, Wine Folly also has a great website filled with useful glossaries, maps, and guides to wine for beginners who might not know where to start. I would also recommend stopping by your local wine shop to get recommendations on wines they think you’d like based on your palate.

CS: What wines would you consider to be overrated? Underrated?

BH: I think big Napa Cabernets are overrated due to both the price and the practices of some of the estates. The most underrated wines in my opinion are Spanish wines, such as Tempranillos, Garnachas, or Mencías; you can find beautiful, biodynamic, well-made wines that won’t break the bank or give you a pounding headache, and they pair excellently with rich foods such as beef or pork.

CS: What’s a wine you would recommend for pairing with a holiday meal?

BH: I love to serve Valpolicella to my family at holiday gatherings. It’s a red wine from the province of Verona in Italy, and it typically is made from three different varieties of grape. Valpolicellas can range from strong wines to dessert wines, so there’s some good options to choose from depending on personal taste. It’s typically something that people would not pick out for themselves, and most discover they like something new when trying it.



Sommelier Joi Mason at Whitebird


Joi Mason


CS: What got you into wine?

JM: I had a manager who started a new concept restaurant in Chicago and asked if I would be interested in coming on board. I knew absolutely nothing about wine, and at my very first wine class with this company, I realized my career path would be altered – it was exciting and motivating all at the same time.

CS: What’s the oldest wine you’ve tasted, and how was it?

JM: Regis Cruchet Vouvray Sec (1994), and the bottle was only $32. For the age, I thought it held up well and was showing nicely. After we popped the cork, it was a bit funky and a little oxidative, but that blew over after letting it breathe for a moment. I mean, it was a 21-year-old bottle of Chenin Blanc; I wanted to buy the rest of the stock just to keep trying it out!

CS: What is one of your favorite wines right now?

JM: Hans Wirsching Iphöfer Julius-Echter-Berg (2015). Everything about this wine is captivating, from its dark green bottle to its dry, refreshing taste. It has great minerality, slight citrus notes, and a savory herb finish. I immediately shared the bottle with a manager and one of our wine reps. I knew this bottle would be special, so I wanted as many people as possible to enjoy it with me.

CS: What tips do you have for someone who wants to get into wine?

JM: My advice is to build a core group of people interested in studying and learning about wine. Studying and tasting with a group helps tremendously. If you work in a restaurant, practice blind-tasting your wines by the glass. Ask your manager if you can sit in on wine tastings with reps. Tasting as much and as often as possible is crucial for getting started and understanding wine in general.

CS: Is there a particular region or country you prefer for wine?

JM: I have been a fan of the Loire Valley for years. I love the versatility in Chenin Blanc, but at this moment I am having a love affair with Austrian wines. They are fabulous. If you love Pinot Noir, then you would really appreciate the Saint Laurent grape – deep red fruit, tannins, richer in texture than Pinot Noir, and balanced acidity. I also love Zweigelt; it’s light, juicy, and easy drinking. My final new favorite from this region is Grüner Veltliner – it is perfect with food. It’s herbaceous and has great acidity and texture. Wagram, Austria, from what I have tasted, produces some of my favorite Grüner Veltliners.



Sommelier Michelle Richards at St. Johns


Michelle Richards

St. John’s Restaurant

CS: What got you into wine?

MR: When I first started at Alleia Restaurant, it was an ALL Italian wine list curated by Marc Denis, our general manager at the time. I didn’t know anything about wine, and I had to study to stay employed. One night, the chef made the staff a tagliatelle pasta with black truffle shavings, butter, and white truffle oil, and Marc opened a bottle of Barolo to pair. It was truly a magical pairing that brought pure joy. I said to myself, “Italians eat like this all the time? What am I doing with my life, and how can I make this my career?” So, I began my studies toward becoming a sommelier that night, and the rest is history.

CS: What’s the oldest wine you’ve tasted, and how was it?

MR: It was a Chateau Margaux (1967) from Bordeaux, France. It was truly amazing. The ‘taste’ was not even half of a glass of wine, but the sips that I was able to enjoy were incredible. Of course, I wanted more.

CS: What is one of your favorite wines right now?

MR: I have always been a big fan of Chenin Blanc, but lately I cannot get enough of Savennières! Savennières is a commune in the Loire Valley that produces wine from the Chenin Blanc grape variety. I love how Chenin Blanc has such diversity in its ability to pair with food. There are many different styles; Chenin Blanc can be made in still, sparkling, and dessert varieties, and all in varying sweetness levels.

CS: What tips do you have for someone who wants to get into wine?

MR: If you are wanting to get into wine for enjoyment, try out different grape varieties from different regions of the world and write down what you do and don’t like about them. Learning what you dislike is just as important, if not more important than figuring out what you like.

We have awesome wine shops here in town with very talented people who are willing to help you find out what you love. As wine professionals, we don’t take it personally if you don’t like a wine that we suggested – we want to help you find the best wine for you.

CS: What was your favorite wine-tasting experience?

MR: I have been lucky to have many wine friends who are extremely generous in sharing special bottles of wine, so it is hard to choose just one time. Once we did a Bordeaux wine blind-tasting that was from the ’80s; that was an experience I will never forget. CS

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