Top New York City sommelier Mia Van de Water talks about how she got started in wine and hospitality, key trends to watch in Spanish wine, and how the restaurant industry is adapting to an ever-changing landscape.
Mia, you’re one of only 269 Master Sommeliers in the world—the profession’s highest distinction—and one of the most respected voices in the New York City wine scene. After more than 3 years on the floor at Eleven Madison Park (which is widely considered to be one of the leading fine dining destinations globally), what’s your next adventure?
In early 2020, I was approached by the team behind Cote Korean Steakhouse, a Michelin 1-star (in fact, the only Michelin-starred tabletop grill restaurant in the world!) to join the team ahead of their planned expansion across the country. Those discussions were put on hold when the COVID-19 crisis hit in March, but we were able to restart our conversation over the summer and I came on the team officially at the beginning of August. At present I’m the Assistant General Manager of our New York restaurant, but I’m incredibly excited to help the company grow to our next location in Miami (expected opening in December 2020) and beyond! I believe strongly that great neighborhood restaurants are the future of the industry, and that it’s possible to provide world-class wine, service, and hospitality in a fun, fast-paced environment. We do all of these things exceptionally well at Cote in NYC, and I’m looking forward to expanding our reach around the world.
How did you get your start in the wine world, and what made you fall in love with Spanish wine in particular? What would be your advice for curious wine lovers thinking about pursuing a career in the industry?
I’ve been working in restaurants for almost twenty years. My interest in wine was sparked when I was a server in college, and truly caught fire when I worked for Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group at North End Grill. Like many of us, I started out drinking Rioja—not least because it was one of the most affordable ways to drink red wine with age—but was quickly entranced by the lighter, acid-driven wines of the País Vasco and Galicia. Today, my favorite wines from the country come from cooler climates—Mencía from Ribeira Sacra, Garnacha from the Sierra de Gredos, various Canary Island reds, etc. They are fresh and vibrant, fruitful but not sweet, and carrying enough body to be supremely versatile at the table.
In terms of advice for wine enthusiasts looking to make their passion a profession, I have a couple of thoughts. If you’re coming from another industry, look for points of overlap between what you were doing before and what you could be doing in wine; it’s easy to think that the only jobs are those that are visible, like sommelier or winemaker or wine writer, but the industry is vast and covers many fields, and there are inspiring, energizing people in all of those nooks and crannies. If you’re devoted to the idea of being a sommelier in a restaurant, keep in mind that the best sommeliers are also the best busboys (there’s a lifetime of instinct and muscle memory there), and that having a passion for wine and the know-how to take care of someone and really guide their experience are two different things. Start at the bottom. Do the work. Embrace the journey.
The world of wine and hospitality is in flux at the moment. What do you think the future of restaurants might look like, and how are wine professionals and businesses adapting? How do sommeliers fit into this “new normal”?
The COVID-19 crisis is really exposing the cracks in our industry (and in society at large), and is forcing restaurateurs and chefs all over to make incredibly hard decisions to stay afloat and carry as many people with them as possible. I felt this way before, but it’s even more important now: sommeliers need to be smart and savvy business people, who have the ability to think about their programs from a financial standpoint as well as a creative one. The wine program is arguably the single greatest opportunity to grow profitability in a restaurant, but it’s rare to see operators who truly understand it. We all need to wear more hats now, and the most important one is our CFO hat. How do we manage our programs in ways that actively bring people into our restaurants, and make them come back again and again? Having sommeliers on the floor is imperative, but very few restaurants before (and even fewer now) will have the luxury of those team members being “just” sommeliers.
Are there any trends specific to Spanish wine that you see in restaurants and retail that surprise or excite you? What do diners and consumers seem to be most curious about trying, and what’s a sommelier’s role in helping them discover something new in these changing times?
I’m tremendously happy to see an interest within the trade in cooler-climate regions; these wines are still a hand-sell, but they are so crowd-pleasing that it’s an easy one. I also think the move towards site-specificity is quite interesting, especially for wines like Cava that are more typically associated with affordability than quality. Diners are quite open to Spanish wines, although they might not specifically request them initially; I find that the easiest way to bring someone around is to draw a parallel with something more familiar to them (Mencía drinks a lot like Pinot Noir, but with more body and structure, if you like Right Bank Bordeaux, this Ribera del Duero will make you really happy, etc.), and since Spanish wine offers some of the best QPR in the market, that usually closes the deal easily.
Spain is one of the most diverse wine-producing countries in the world, with thousands of years of vinous history at its fingertips, and countless DOs and native grapes to choose from. Lately, what regions have you feeling the most inspired?
Red wines and alternative white varieties like Godello from Rías Baixas, the high elevation wines of Vinos de Madrid, and the wide kaleidoscope of the Canary Islands (plus, the Canaries are so visually arresting that it makes for a vivid tableside conversation).
What are your go-to Spanish wine pairings, both for guests and, well, just for yourself at home? Just what is it about Spanish wine that makes it so perfectly complementary for food, and vice versa? Any “secret” pairings you’d like to divulge?
I feel like a broken record here, but. . . Mencía and its friends from Galicia, Godello in all forms, and the Hondarribis from the País Vasco. I personally prefer wines that are less powerful and more lifted, and that structural combination works really well at the table, as well. But the beauty of Spain is that it produces nearly every style of wine, so no matter what you’re serving (or whom you’re serving it to—oftentimes a guest’s personal taste is more important to cater to than the food they’re about to eat), there’s a complementary wine for it.
And here’s our favorite closer question. . . You’re stranded on a desert island, and you have only one case of Spanish wine to keep you company (and to pair with whatever you can find to eat). What would you choose?
Quinta da Muradella Gorvia Blanco. Muradella was the first producer that really changed my mind about the potential of Spanish wine; previously, I had lumped all of the red wines into a “big, bold, spicy” group, and thought of the whites as either traditional and oxidative or simple and fresh. My first experience with Muradella was eye-opening - the wines are so subtle and lovely and elegant—and they remain one of my absolute favorite producers today.