September is Farm-to-Fork month in Sacramento, and for this edition of our Featured Artist series, we’re picking the brain of Sacramento’s newest Advanced Sommelier, Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou. As the beverage director, sommelier, and co-owner of East Sacramento’s Allora and North Sacramento’s Woodlake Tavern and Uptown Pizza Kitchen, she has the task of sharing her wine knowledge with patrons. This month, she’s taking that knowledge out of her restaurants and to this year’s sold-out Tower Bridge Dinner.
While she doesn’t see herself as a creative, there is no denying that there is an art to hospitality. Crafting a great dining experience isn’t limited to what’s served on a plate. A great wine can be that special additional ingredient transforms a great meal into an unforgettable dining experience.
Read on to learn about the life of a sommelier, her involvement in this month’s Tower Bridge Dinner, and how she is setting her sights to be the master of the wine domain.
Sommelier. Somm for short. You’ve probably seen or heard of the word, but what exactly is does the three-syllable French word mean? A sommelier (pronounced suh-mel-yay) is a wine steward or a knowledgeable wine professional who typically works in a fine dining establishment.
For Mandalou, the position involves her purchasing wine, crafting wine lists for her three restaurants, educating staff about said lists, and selling her curated selections to guests table-side. She sees her job as a translator of sorts, decoding her extensive knowledge of Mediterranean wines with guests to help magnify the textures and flavors of their meals.
However, she’s aware that the title comes with a not-so-stellar reputation.
“When people think of a sommelier, they tend to think of someone who’s snooty or purposely make you feel bad if you don’t go with their wine recommendation. There is this negative connotation that we’re always trying to sell you the most expensive wines. Rather we’re all about finding the best wine to accompany your meal and improve your dining experience within a reasonable price point,” says Mandalou.
Plus, becoming a sommelier is no easy task. To quote rapper Birdman, “put some respect on it.”
On July 12, 2019, Mandalou became the first woman and third Sacramentan to become an Advanced Sommelier, a distinction awarded by the Court of Master Sommeliers, an organization dedicated to setting the global standards of beverage knowledge and service.
As an Advanced Sommelier, she is one step closure to reaching the coveted title, Master Sommelier. With only 236 Master Sommeliers worldwide, reaching this feat is no walk in the park. Court of Master Sommelier exams are notoriously lengthy and challenging, not only probing a test taker’s knowledge of the history of wine and global wine regions, but also applying that theory in mock restaurant situations. Think Hells Kitchen, but with wine.
Court of Master Sommeliers Certification Levels
Two-Day Sommelier Introductory Course and Exam
Certified Sommelier Exam
Advanced Sommelier Exam
Master Sommelier Exam
Why would Mandalou put herself through all this work? Her passion for wine and a love of learning make studying obscure labels worthwhile: “Before [discovering the sommelier position] I was floating around in the hospitality world, not knowing what exactly I wanted to do in a restaurant. None of the positions I held satisfied the drive that I had…by taking on this role, I’ve found my purpose.”
Also, love’s got something to do with it.
“There is a lot of love at a restaurant. You’ll find love in the food you are serving, love in the groups that come into your establishment. Restaurants are where a lot of celebrations take place. It’s touching to be a part of someone’s special day. You are providing a service, but you also create an environment where people get to relax and reflect with the people that are near and dear to them.”
What’s next? Mandalou is giving herself a year to study for the Masters Sommelier exam in 2020. And studying requires her to drink and talk all things vino with Sacramento’s sommelier community through weekly and bi-weekly wine groups. She also has a cavalcade of mentors guiding her through the process – Jeremy Reed, Keith Fergel, Matthew Lewis, Fred Dame, Geoff Kruth, Thomas Price – and is currently participating in the Wine Scholar Guild’s Italian Wines Program and writer Ian d’Agata’s Italian lnternational Indigenous Wine + Food Studies Center (3ic).
While it is not her first tango with the Tower Bridge Dinner — this is her sixth time participating in the famed Sacramento event — this go-round is particularly special. For the first time, the picturesque farm-to-fork event will be led by an all-female chef team.
“I think it is really important that we live in a community that celebrates women. One of the best reasons to be in Sacramento is that it is diverse; we focus on celebrating talents,” states Mandalou.
However, she lets it be known that her talents, not her gender earned her a seat at the table.
“Personally, I don’t lead with the fact that I’m a woman — the [sommelier] exams I take are the same ones that everyone does. They are difficult to pass,” adds Mandalou. “[The Dinner] is demonstrating and showcasing that if you are a woman and are interested in the restaurant world, it’s a possibility.”
Although she’ll be tending to a packed bridge, on September 29, she’ll be doing what she knows best — elevating guests dining experiences with great wine.
“I’ve learned to adapt over the years. [There have been] bridge dinners that have been windy and chilly, to dinners where everyone was melting. You need to be prepared for everything. I want to make sure we aren’t serving bottles that aren’t sound…and make sure we are serving things at the right temperature,” adds Mandalou.
And for 2019, in honor of guest lead chef Suzette Gresham of the two-star Michelin restaurant Acquerello, the Tower Bridge Dinner menu will be filled with Italian-inspired courses, playing right to Mandalou’s strengths. Attendees will be treated to balanced local wines that use Italian grapes – including a Vermentino by Plymouth’s Casino Mine Ranch and a dessert wine from Auburn’s Lone Buffalo Vineyards.
“As a native Sacramentan, I’m just so proud to be part of such a beautiful event. It just keeps getting better every year,” smiles Mandalou.
While not as tough as a Court of Master Sommeliers exam, we had to ask the pro a few questions about vino:
What was the first wine you fell in love with?
“I don’t remember the specific winery, but it was a Riesling I had at Ella Dining Room & Bar. It was something I’d never tried before and it was the first grape that intrigued me. It is so powerful and delicate at the same time…there is an incredible arch that goes with it. [Rieslings] are awesome with food. I’m an acid queen when it comes to wines and Rieslings are mouthwatering!”
What do you think is the most versatile wine?
“Italian wines, for sure. I would say the most versatile red grape on my list is Schiava. If someone is insistent in having a red [wine] with seafood, it is our go-to. It’s so soft and delicate. I often describe it as a ‘Pinot Noir turned down a notch.’ It shows red fruits like strawberries and raspberries. It still has some structure on your palate, but it has a dynamic range…and they do well with a slight chill.”
“Chardonnay is also a relatively neutral grape on its own. The hand of man manipulates it to what you want it to be, which can be anything.”
What is your favorite food and wine combination?
“I love truffles with Nebbiolo (a red wine varietal from Italy’s Piedmont region). It is a classic textbook pairing. One of my new favorites is from a wine appellation in Sardinia called Vernaccia di Oristano. It is made like a sherry…it’s nutty, a tiny bit sweet. It is awesome with hard cheese. I also love sparkling wine with oysters. I know it’s not that exciting, but it’s delicious.”
Which wines do you think are underrated?
“I’m a huge fan of Lambrusco, especially since it has a unique spectrum to it. You can have a light rose-like Lambruscos or have a ‘you can’t see through your glass’ dark. I like sweet wines. Sweet wines [can be] challenging to sell because someone at some point has had a bad experience with one. They can be too sweet or unfortunately, cheap garbage expressions of wine.”
Sacramento365 couldn’t leave these fascinating tidbits on the cutting room floor.
1. Along with letting your meal dictate your wine selection, here are a few tried and true tips to up your wine game:
Let a sommelier be your guide. “If someone is a California Cabernet drinker, I am not going to offer them something way out of left field. I’m going to give them something within the [grape] from Italy. Then maybe the next time, I’ll give them something with the same fruit profile. We’d slowly get more adventurous.”
Or throw caution to the wind and try something new! “What’s the worst that could happen? If you don’t like it, no good sommelier will make you drink it or charge you for it.”
Note: For those looking to try out the later, Allora offers half-off bottles of wine every Wednesday. “We do this because we know our wine list is a little obscure. Most people haven’t heard of some of the wines we have in our cellar.”
2. Her thoughts on Sacramento’s wine scene: “It seems that every day a new restaurant is opening up. There seems to be a growing focus on wines — it doesn’t matter if it is a casual or fine dining spot. Our region celebrates its chefs, bartenders, baristas, and brewers, and it seems that sommeliers are now getting that same attention. The somm community, I lovingly call them my Sommrades, is really exciting to be a part of because we’re working to create a wine culture that’s uniquely our own.”
3. On Allora’s Italian-focused wine list: “I was told it was a bad idea. Italian wines don’t typically sell as well at restaurants and they have names that are hard to pronounce. It’s true, but if you only give people one color, how else would they see other colors in the spectrum?…Plus, these wines are damn good.”
4. How does the busy body like to unwind? When she’s not working at one of her restaurants, you’ll find her either 1) sipping a cocktail The Red Rabbit Kitchen and Bar or Canon, 2) having a brewski at neighboring Del Paso Blvd. establishment King Cong Brewing, or 3) holding a hot cup of tea at home.
5. Her first foray into the restaurant world was at another Italian spot – Olive Garden. “I loved my time at Olive Garden. It was a great steppingstone [for me]. The structured corporate training prepares you for the challenges you’ll face in and out of the kitchen.”
6. Love at first bite: She met her business partner and chef husband Deneb while working with him at The Firehouse Restaurant.
7. While it’s hard to pick favorites, here are her top picks from her restaurants:
Woodlake Tavern (1431 Del Paso Blvd.)
Eggs in Purgatory
The enticing mix of spicy polenta, tomato sauce, coddled eggs, and Parmesan is the perfect calorie fest after a long night out.
Uptown Pizza Kitchen (1431 Del Paso Blvd.)
If you’re a mushroom lover, this is for you – along with Cipollini onions and fontina, the pie is covered with Tartufata (truffle) alfredo and wild and tame mushrooms.
Allora (5215 Folsom Blvd #4536)
Fettuccini (no ‘cette)
The pescatarian gets the restaurant’s seafood twist on the classic Italian dish (lobster!) minus the pancetta.
Hear what Elizabeth-Rose has to say about Sacramento’s wine community in our latest Featured Artist video produced by Visit Sacramento’s Demand Studios.