EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of two columns from Stella Hernandez of Lolita Vinoteca + Asador in Portland.

“Snotty Somm.” That’s one sommelier’s tag on social media. (She’s actually one of 236 master sommeliers worldwide and, by all accounts, an amazing wine professional.) Even if it’s meant to be self-deprecating, it does give me pause every time I read it.

Until recently, I wore the title of sommelier a bit ambivalently. It made me think of stiff, stuffy types who wanted to make you feel inadequate. Or nearly the opposite – really talented people I knew who had spent decades learning about wine, taking exams and being consummate hospitality professionals.

Despite all the work I was doing to learn about and sell wine, when customers at Bar Lola (my husband Guy’s and my first restaurant) would ask me if I were the sommelier, I’d balk. I’d say, “I’m the one who picked the wines” – and leave it at that.

As I head into the 11th year of owning my own restaurant (and more before that as a server), creating wine lists and serving wine to countless people, I’m starting to get more comfortable with the idea of being a sommelier. But on my own terms.

Back in 2006, Guy and I laid out a hospitality model for our businesses. Our goal was that, as one guest so lovingly put it, “You leave with a great sense of well-being.” That takes more than food, and more than wine. It’s about leading with genuine hospitality – a quality that seems to be on the wane. It sounds easy, but that’s deceptive because true, welcoming hospitality is really quite difficult to pull off across a whole crew night after night after night. To work, it has to be part of the fabric of the place.


Wine is a key piece of it. At Lolita, we work hard to train our staff so they can help guests find a wine that works for them. Our staff isn’t there to sell customers the most expensive bottle we have or to foist their favorite wine on customers.

Also, I always try to have a story ready to tell about a wine. (Selfishly, the story helps me remember the wine, too.) Something about the winemaker, or maybe why I think that particular bottle goes well with that particular dish.

Trust me, most people don’t care how long a wine was on the lees or whether it uses whole cluster fermentation. While those things are part of what I might research in picking a wine for our list, or learning about wine generally, unless you’re really into geeking out about wine, information like that is not going to get you excited about drinking it. To me it’s a sign of poor training when a wine professional tries to show you how smart he or she is. That’s not the point. Selecting something to drink should be a conversation, not a monologue.

My job is making sure people find something they will enjoy, and it’s a huge compliment when a customer says, “We trust you. Pick something for us.” If a customer is a wine enthusiast and actually does want to discuss details, I’m happy to do that, too. The guest leads the way. In the back of my head, I still hear the voice of my first real mentor trying to show me that there are no absolutes. He always said, “A good wine is a wine you like to drink.”

At Lolita, people often ask why we use “vinoteca” in our name and what it means. Literally, it means wine collection. In my head, I think of it as a wine library. Most of our wine is displayed on shelves that line the restaurant’s side walls. True, because we’re so small, it’s also our only storage.

We see the wine as an equal and important complement to the food, and I’m always looking for an opportunity to offer more opportunities for diners to try new wines. Recently, we started offering a wine flight on Thursdays: Three wines, chosen to pair together in some way. They might feature the same grape varietal but from producers in three different countries. For example, we might have pinot noir from Oregon, one from Burgundy and a third from New Zealand. Or three wines from a specific region – on a recent Thursday, we had a flight of Lebanese wines.


Then on Mondays, we do tapas, and with them we feature four wines that aren’t currently on our list. The pours are inexpensive – $5 each, and they come with a tasty bite from the kitchen. These opportunities are meant to be fun, a chance for diners to taste and compare and maybe find a new love. It’s wine, not heart surgery.

(Curious about what the “Asador” in our name means? It generally refers to cooking over an open fire.)

At this point in my career, I’ve passed two exams and am happy to wear my certified sommelier pin. In addition to working more than full time, I studied for months to earn that pin during the only free time I had – 3:30 to 6:30 a.m. four days a week before our son woke up for school. I did blind tastings at lunch with anyone I could find to join me. A bazillion flash cards later, I booked a hotel, flew to Florida and spent a day trying to make my hands stop shaking so I could pass the service exam portion without dropping a full tray of champagne flutes. Apparently, I answered enough questions about obscure terms and wine-making details correctly.

I’m still deciding whether or not to keep going and study for the next exam – it’s like a full-time job to get to the next level. But even if I don’t, I won’t stop reading, tasting or trying to make myself a better professional. I’m okay with calling myself a sommelier now, but it’s an ongoing project.

Stella Hernandez is co-owner and wine director at Lolita Vinoteca + Asador. She is also a certified sommelier in the Court of Master Sommeliers program.

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