To a restaurant outsider, being a busy sommelier seems like a dream job, days brimming with tasting wine, glamorous events and exotic travels. While Christina Morris has had her share of those experiences, the reality of the life of a young somm is filled with restaurant responsibilities and an endless to-do list.
Accredited from The Court of Master Sommeliers, Morris became a second level sommelier in 2013 when she was 23 years old, one of the youngest at the time in her class. Morris has learned to get the more mundane aspects of the job out of the way early in the day. As the Sommelier for The Katharine Brasserie in the historic Kimpton Cardinal Hotel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, she begins to clear her administrative workload as soon as she arrives.
“There are lots of alcohol invoices, Excel spreadsheets, organizing the wine room, staff meetings every day and we go over different wines, plus meetings with distributors,” said Morris.
Distributors face no mean feat in convincing Morris to carry a vintage.
“When they bring in new product, I ask that they do it blindly and in order for me to add it to my list, it should be distinct enough for me to know the grape, country of origin and region inside the country, sub-region and year,” said Morris. “If I can get close to the price point just based off the tasting with those other factors, it is worthy of being on the list.”
Morris conducts tastings using a bedazzled spit cup her husband made for her as part of a proven system. She chooses classic styles primed for tasting based also on subjective criteria, including if the wine can command the right price. She has a passion for fine dining and her heart belongs to French wines – which is why being the sommelier for a classic French brasserie fits her like cork to bottle.
The road to her wine career hasn’t been all Bordeaux and rosés. Morris first got interested in the craft while studying neuropsychology in graduate school in Tucson, Arizona. She grew connected to the patients and struggled with the emotional burden of watching Alzheimer’s sufferers succumb to the cruel disease. When the fourth patient passed away, Morris realized that program was not for her.
“I was working at a bar to make ends meet and the beverage director asked me if I wanted to get into the wine industry,” said Morris. “He took me under his wing in Arizona and pushed me to get certified.”
It’s been six years since Morris received Level 2 Sommelier Certification and she has been on an upward trajectory ever since, working at Cuvaison Winery in the Napa Valley, the Nashville Food & Wine Festival, and City Winery in Nashville. Her science background came into play in Napa, accelerating the process of learning the science behind winemaking. Morris participated in internships and lab work as a contract enologist for about 20 different wineries.
Morris calls herself a history nerd through and through. That connection was part of the draw in relocating to Winston-Salem. The Katharine Brasserie is not only part of the restored Kimpton Cardinal, formerly the old RJ Reynolds Tobacco headquarters. It is within walking distance of Old Salem, one of the most historic destinations in the country. At the time of the offer, Morris had a cushy job in Nashville, Tennessee. She wasn’t one-hundred percent ready to leave it, but it was the right thing at the right time in a new hotel just finding its groove in elevated dining.
“The hope is always to find people with whom to share your passion and I found that at The Katharine Brasserie, which was an opportunity for us to wow the community and a chance to be awesome,” said Morris, whose wine choices accompany chef Adam Barnett’s archetypal French menu. “Chef Adam incorporates all the traditional techniques of French cuisine with a little southern flair, allowing me to have all types of pairing options, from his tarte flambée with a classic Puligny Montrachet, to his pork schnitzel with a little Morgon—he makes my job easy.”
Barnett’s dishes change with the seasons, but daily plates include classics like coq au vin, loup de mer, beef Bourguignon, bouillabaisse and lamb shank. The wine list currently includes the Bailly-Lapierre Cremants De Bourgogne Rosé, Vignerons De Buxy Cote Chalonnaise and Crocus L’atelier Cahors among dozens of others. Morris intends to add many more as she works towards her Advance Sommelier Certification.
“You can never know everything there is to know about wine, but Kimpton supports advanced education, so I couldn’t have asked for a better place to grow,” said Morris. “It takes guts to not just arrive in a fledgling city, but to direct a huge part of a restaurant.”
Morris says one of the biggest things that helped her navigate the wine business and develop the courage to strike out on her journey was a somm support group.
“In Nashville we called ourselves, ‘The Lady Somms of Nashville’ and it was such a supportive female group in which I learned not to let a man tell me I couldn’t do something,” said Morris. “It was tough sometimes as a lot of my bosses were older men with me being a very young woman and they often assumed they knew more because they had been drinking long before I’d even been alive.”
Morris tells new sommeliers to taste as much as you can, whenever you can, even vintages that don’t conform to your preferences. She also advises to smell everything, too, and keep friends at a distance during tastings.
“Friends always want to taste with me but it’s very distracting so I have a structured, dedicated tasting group and we taste together,” said Morris, who encourages young somms.“It sounds cliché, but you have to have faith in yourself.”