“Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.” – Ernest Hemingway
Born on Long Island, world traveler and wine sommelier, Julie Berger knows a thing or two, and more, about pairing the best wines with the best foods to please the most discerning palate.
Named as the General Manager of the perennially popular eatery Nick & Toni’s (136 North Main Street, East Hampton) in 2015, while continuing as the restaurant’s wine director/sommelier, Berger has melded her extensive travels, educational pursuits and front-of-the-house responsibilities as General Manager to ensure that a fine evening is had by all.
Establishing a relationship with Nick & Toni’s beginning in 1995 as a server, Berger then pursued her professional career in the hospitality industry in 2003 at Pacifica Del Mar in California. Returning to the East End, she became a server and the house sommelier at Nick & Toni’s from 2006 through 2011. After gaining additional experience and increasing her wine knowledge at the three-star Michelin restaurant, Jean Georges in New York City, Berger returned to East Hampton to become the wine director at the Honest Man Restaurants, which includes not only Nick & Toni’s, but Rowdy Hall, Townline BBQ, Honest Catering, as well as Nick & Toni’s Cafe in New York City.
Continuing to develop and refine her wine knowledge, Berger has visited vineyards in Italy, Spain, France, Argentina, New Zealand and other locales in pursuit of advancing through the prestigious Court of Master Sommeliers. Having completed Level II, she also holds an advanced certificate from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). Additionally, Berger took over the Honest Man Restaurant group’s wine program in 2012, which she has kept going along with her General Manager responsibilities, including staff training and development, profit and loss management and wine purchasing for the restaurants.
Hamptons.com caught up with the busy Berger who graciously offered some insight as to the role of both a General Manager and Sommelier.
For me, wine brings people together; it makes a meal more than just food, it becomes an experience. While growing up I was lucky to have a family that collected wine, and most importantly, loved to share with friends and family. I have so many fond memories, it was an easy decision.
How has adding the responsibility of General Manager affected your time to travel and pursue your Master Sommelier certification?
Luckily not too much, the seasonality of the Hamptons has made it possible to continue wine focused travel and studies outside of the busy summer season.
How important is a server’s general knowledge of wines to recommend to customers?
Customers ask servers questions daily, it’s very important they have a good sense of the wines we offer. We have regularly scheduled staff trainings focusing on wine regions, grape varieties and wine pairings. I love leading staff tastings and sharing my thoughts, but I encourage everyone to have their own opinions about the wines we serve.
How important do you feel it is for someone pursuing a career in the restaurant industry to have a formal education, such as Hospitality and Restaurant Management degree programs offered at Cornell University and Johnson & Wales, or other accredited schools?
I do not want to discredit formal education, but I have seen amazing chefs and sommeliers without formal training rise to the top. I believe you can succeed in anything you put your mind to. The amount of knowledge you can absorb from experienced people in your field is incredible. If your dream is to become a great chef and you cannot go to culinary school, start from the bottom in a great restaurant. Do internships, travel and expand your world, anything is possible.
You mentioned that you are off to France soon, which region of the world do you believe offers the finest wines for a beginning collector?
Think of wine as an adventure through the world. Begin where you are comfortable and then expand your comfort zone. The journey is amazing!
Are there many female sommeliers?
Times have changed, so, yes, more and more every day.
What’s next in pursuit of your Master Sommelier certification, and how many years does such certification usually take?
Becoming a Master Sommelier is a big commitment and can take years, my only plan is continuing to study, taste and travel as much as possible.
What’s the oldest wine carried by Nick & Toni’s and what are the top three criteria you use when purchasing wines for the restaurant?
Currently, 1982 is the oldest wine on the list – nothing too crazy. When purchasing wines, my main concern is keeping the list balanced. I try to offer wines that appeal to everyone’s tastes while complimenting the foods we serve. It’s important to offer different styles of wine, price points as well as places of origin.
Many people may fancy themselves schooled in the proper wine to pair with a meal to maximize the enjoyment of taste, so we have to ask: white or red? When and why?
You don’t have to commit to a bottle, go by the glass and have it all, but don’t forget to include sparkling and sweet wines too.
Here’s a toast to you, Julie!