There was a time when nearly every sommelier was a humorless, old, white guy, bottled up in a suit. But just as wines evolve, so do the people who pour them. In South Florida, the somm community is as ethnically diverse and as dynamic as the region it serves.
Court of Master Sommeliers-certified (except for one), these six somms curate wine lists with a range of styles, much like the somms themselves: from austere, Old World whites to unfiltered, New World reds to fierce blends with a little of everything.
“I think people still see a black person who is serious about wine as some mythical creature,” said Michel-Ange Lafleur, who developed his palate for wine at Laurenzo’s Italian Center, where the North Miami native of Haitian descent worked in the seafood shop. “When I first started out, it was the chocolate notes in a single-vineyard Barolo that really stuck in my mind,” said Lafleur, 28. After Laurenzo’s, Lafleur was an assistant manager at the now-closed Cellars Wine & Spirits Warehouse in Aventura. At Total Wine & More in North Miami, Lafleur helped customers seek out bottles from hard-to-pronounce regions, doing so with the lyrical ease of Jay-Z and the vocal confidence of the late Walter Cronkite. Now, he’s a sommelier assistant at Zuma in Miami, working closely with head sommelier Jennifer Wagoner. “Once I start speaking with a client in earnest, and they see how much I love wine, all preconceived notions about race and intellect are out the window, and we’re fast friends,” Lafleur said.
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“The first drink I ever had was Hennessy,” said Amanda Fraga, 25, a Hialeah native of Cuban and Colombian descent. “My mom drank wine, but it was, like, Cavit. For dinner, we had water.” Fraga turned water into wine as a Florida International University hospitality-management student who used residual scholarship money to travel to regions like Tuscany, where she fell in love with vino. Fraga also won the Jay Willard Weiss Scholarship, a $5,000 award that enables students to visit Napa and Sonoma counties. Before becoming a somm at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Miami, Fraga earned an internship with winemaker Nicolas Potel in Beaune, Burgundy, where for five weeks she picked, sorted and foot-crushed grapes alongside French men.
“I took the Court of Master test, and it turned me off,” said Tahiirah Habibi, 32, who this month starts as sommelier at the soon-to-open Soho Bay in Miami Beach. “It was too pretentious, and I just wanted to see if I could create a career without it.” Habibi’s wine journey began in her native Philadelphia, where in college a bottle of Ménage à Trois inspired her to attend the Wine School of Philadelphia. When she moved to Miami three years ago, she went from being a cocktail server to becoming a somm at the St. Regis Bal Harbour’s J&G Grill. “I wore giant boxer braids and big earrings, so it wasn’t a corporate fit,” she said. Then Habibi popped another taboo. “I broke the cork on Michael Schwartz’s white burgundy,” she said, giggling. The corky meeting didn’t turn off the restaurateur — it led Michael’s Genuine offering Habibi a part-time somm and manager position. She later served as somm at Bâoli in Miami Beach before joining Soho Bay.
“For me, wine wasn’t love at first sight,” said Syed “Sy” Ali, 44, who has been the beverage manager at Steak 954 in Fort Lauderdale for four years. Ali, who is from Karachi, Pakistan, grew up in a dry, Muslim household. When he was 14, his family moved to Rockville, Maryland. “After I joined the Navy, I started drinking beer and bourbon,” Ali said. After the Navy, Ali moved to St. Thomas, “just to be a beach bum.” At 22, he discovered wine. “Iron Horse chardonnay resonated with me,” said Ali, who earned a hospitality-management degree from Florida International University and oversees a wine program that Wine Enthusiast Magazine declared one of America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants in 2013 and 2014.
“Every time I sell to a man, I have to try harder to make him feel that I know what I’m doing,” said Aniece Meinhold, 33, co-owner of The Federal Food, Drink & Provisions in Miami. “With a woman, I’m like, are you in the mood for a flip-flop or a stiletto?” Meinhold doesn’t flip-flop when it comes to wine. As a judge at the annual Miami International Wine Fair, she sniffed around and informed a table of her male peers that one of the competing bottles was corked. Born to a German father and a Vietnamese mother, Meinhold grew up in the business, her father being a seasoned hospitality executive. “My dad taught me how to set a table,” she said. But don’t expect to see any big, fruity wines on Meinhold’s table. “Highly extracted, highly alcoholic, New World wines that taste like jam should be on your toast, not in your glass.”
Miami Beach Edition
When Jeffrey Galloway was called into the dean’s office in junior high school, he didn’t know it was the first step in a 28-year food-and-wine career. “I thought I was in trouble, but he offered me a job working at a restaurant after school,” said Galloway, a 50-year-old Puerto Rican-American from New York. Galloway started as a dishwasher and advanced to making salads and sandwiches. “I was really intrigued by the menu’s expensive wine bottles,” he said. Galloway eventually moved to Miami, where he was the somm and banquet captain at The Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove’s Bizcaya and The Rusty Pelican. Before he joined the banquet team of the newly opened Miami Beach Edition, Galloway was assistant banquet captain and sommelier at Fontainebleau Miami Beach. His personal, 350-bottle wine collection includes everything from Opus One to Lafite-Rothschild. “When I go into a wine shop, sometimes I get a dirty look or no attention,” said Galloway. “But as soon as I open my mouth, it’s a different story.”
Dinkinish O’Connor is a Miami-based writer and sommelier. Contact her at email@example.com.
Somms’ top bottles
▪ 2011 Domaine De Bila-Haut Côte de Roussillon Villages Lesquerde, $48
Available at: Steak 954, W Fort Lauderdale; 401 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-414-8333.
▪ 2011 Domaine Bru-Baché Jurançon Sec, $37
Available at: The Federal Food Drink & Provisions; 5132 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, 305-758-9559.
▪ Bollinger Special Cuvée Champagne, $150
Available at: Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink; 130 NE 40th St., Miami, 305- 573-5550.
▪ 2011 Francois Villard Les Contours de Deponcins, $95
Available at: Zuma, Epic Hotel; 270 Biscayne Blvd. Way, Miami, 305-577-0277.
▪ 2010 Jean-Luc Colombo Les Fées Brunes Crazed-Hermitage Syrah, $90
Available at: Miami Beach Edition; 2901 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 786-257-4600.
▪ 2012 Emmerich Knoll “Vinothekfullung“ Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Wachau, $90
Available at: Bâoli; 1906 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 305-674-8822.