What Do Wine Nerds Drink Off-Duty?
It’s not Bordeaux. Why some somms prefer to relax with vodka (neat), crisp beers and Costco wine.
Ask any wine nerd what they’re fawning over right now and you’ll likely get a long-winded description of a rare Burgundy, austere alpine wine or something single-vintage and super hard-to-source. Peeking at a sommelier’s Instagram will probably confirm this hunch — you’ll find bottle shots of grail bottles and elaborate tastings.
But as a sommelier wraps their shift or a winemaker finishes harvest, it’s not Bordeaux and Burgundy that wine pros are drinking. Often, it’s anything-but-baller, low-brow beverages meant to take the edge off a hard service. Maybe it’s a Cosmopolitan, craft beer, strong shot, wine spritzer or spicy margarita. (After 10 years on the floor in award-winning restaurants, I still step off shift with a spicy margarita or an Averna shaken with lemon — it tastes like iced tea.)
Want to drink like a wine nerd? Perhaps you already are — here are what some of the country’s top wine names drink off-duty.
Extra Special Bitter
“It doesn’t matter what I planned to drink that day, but if I see an ESB (extra special bitter) on tap, I have to order it. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest where microbrews were a part of life long before the craft beer scene. Yet despite all the IPAs, it is virtually impossible to find a good bitter beer in New York. My other comfort drink, once the temperature hits about 75 degrees, is a frozé with a shot of raspberry Stoli. I know, I know, I am so ashamed, and yet I can’t wait for Saturdays in July.” — David Weitzenhoffer, Wine Industry Veteran and Founder of Community Wine & Spirits,
“When I’m off duty, I’m still stuck on wine. I wish grocery stores in the U.S. had bulk wine like they do in Spain and Italy — I’d love to refill my own jug with cheap juice every time I run low. For me, the next best thing is Costco’s Kirkland Signature line of wine, which I enjoy at home frequently. I’m partial to the Rioja, which is only $7.99 and tastes like true Spanish red. Other times I’ll go with the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which I’m not too proud to add ice cubes and a splash of club soda to when it’s blistering hot. I also buy full cases of the Premier Cru Chablis when it’s in stock — it’s $18.99.” — Alex Ring, Somm at Michelin-starred Sepia + Proxi in Chicago.
Vodka on the rocks
“Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka, on the rocks, with apple juice and a splash of ginger beer. After a hard day, I cannot get enough. There’s a hint of cinnamon that plays off the boozy warmth and it’s so smooth, easy to drink and pretty cheap.” – Kylie McCalla, Beverage Director at Chicago’s Offshore Rooftop
“I love wine and everything about it, but there comes a point in the day that you don’t want anything to do with it. When I get to that point, I don’t want anything I have to think about, just something cold and refreshing. For me, that’s PBR — arguably the greatest American beer. Fight me! It’s crisp, clean and refreshing. The touch of malty sweetness adds a layer of complexity and above all… it’s refreshing. Bonus points if a shot of Wild Turkey or Fernet Branca ends up next to it.” — Alex Cuper, Wine Director at El Che Steakhouse & Bar
“Plenty of sommeliers will say craft beer, but frankly I can hardly stand it — all the hops and weird fruits and cloudy stuff? If I’m drinking beer, it’s because it’s hot out and I want something cold – it’s going to inevitably be a Heineken. Just a plain ol’ Heineken. That said, weekends are for Burgundy and Champagne.” — Jim Silver, the managing director of New Frontier Wine Co
Gin & Tonic
“A good sommelier has a great appreciation for any and all beverages, especially wine. But after all the glasses are polished, the wine inventory adjusted, the bottles restocked and the doors locked, the physical demands of working a restaurant resolve themselves with a cold glass of something other than wine. A great option for the tired and thirsty sommelier would be a classic gin and tonic, with its requisite squeeze of lime. A long, tall, well-iced drink is a delicious contrast to the tiny samples of red wines drunk through an evening’s service.” — Joseph Spellman, Master Sommelier, JUSTIN Vineyards and Winery
“Yes, it’s fun to post the 1st growth we open (also delicious) or the obscure varieties we get to try because we are in the industry (also often delicious) but what do we drink behind closed doors…? I’ve been drinking a lot of Sicilian whites lately. My wife loves Grillo, so we have been opening a ton of those as well as some Catarratto and Caricante. Italy is home to some of the greatest white wines in the world but, sadly many people never get past Pinot Grigio simply because it’s everywhere. Sure I’d drink Barolo and Champagne every day, but that is not as realistic as I’d hoped.”— Torrey Grant, who teaches a wine appreciation course at Syracuse University,
“There is nothing, and I mean nothing, better than watching the creamy head form at the top of a pint of Guinness. When one takes that first — very long — sip after a long dinner service or after working six days in a row, all of the problems of the world fade into distant memory. If all of the greatest winemakers that ever lived got together with unlimited capital and a perfect growing environment, that result would fall far short of the magic of Guinness. It’s a drink, a food, and a religion all tied into one mythical elixir that can only be improved with a neat, single malt Islay Scotch on the side (preferably Lagavulin: never ice, one drop of water added by the tip of the finger to unleash the aroma).” — Jonathan Waxman, Beverage Director, Barbuto
“Working in the wine business every day, I like to refresh my palate with spirit-infused cocktails like the classic Espresso Martini. Except, I sub vodka for tequila. Another favorite cocktail of mine is the ‘Pusser’s Painkiller’ because it makes me feel like I’m on vacation. Pusser’s actually just came out with their ready-to-drink version, so that’s what I’m bringing to the beach – no questions asked.” — Sydney Edwards, director of marketing for Shaw-Ross International Importers
Campari and Soda
“It’s my go-to because Campari is generally found everywhere. I’m Jamaican by origin, so my first cocktail was Campari and Ting. In France. I drink americanos (Campari, Sweet Vermouth and soda water). Here, Campari and Soda is a sessionable option that I don’t feel bad about drinking.” – Tia Barrett, Beverage Director at Michelin-starred Esmé
“My low-brow drink at home is typically a lazy girl’s Paloma. Just Reposado Tequila (usually Espolon because it has a good price-to-quality ratio for mixing a drink) and some kind of grapefruit seltzer or soda. Usually, it’s Trader Joe’s Italian Grapefruit Soda, Top Note grapefruit soda out of Wisconsin or even a Nixie Grapefruit sparkling water. But if I’m out on the town, I always start the evening with a 50/50 martini, made with gin and really good blanc vermouth, like Bordiga or Atxa or Quintanye Royale, and finish the night with a Last Word.” — Cara Patricia, Co-Founder of DECANTsf
“For off-duty drinks, I love ALL types of sparkling wine, but I also like to make my own — rather, a spritz of flavored sparkling water and boxed wine. One of my favorite combos is Sauvignon Blanc and mango sparkling water, or guava bubbly water with Rosé.” – Ryan Plas, Wine Guy at Coquette
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