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Know Your Sommeliers: Christopher St. James

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17/10/2023 Christopher St. James: Crafting Memorable Wine Experiences with a Mountain Boy's Heart and a Quest for Endless Wine Knowledge.

Meet Christopher St. James, a sommelier whose passion for wine was born in the Colorado mountains and blossomed through a diverse career. With nine years in Chicago, his love for wine grew during his time in an artisanal specialty department, eventually leading him to the role of assistant sommelier at Esquire by Cooper's Hawk.

Driven by an unquenchable thirst for wine knowledge, Christopher sees his journey as an ongoing academic pursuit filled with humility and a sense of community. As a sommelier, he excels at tailoring experiences for each guest, mastering timing, maintaining cellar inventory, and enhancing wine sales through pairing menus, staff training, and strategic merchandising.

Christopher's true joy lies in satisfying guests and expanding their wine horizons. With a genuine and humorous approach, he elevates the guest experience through staff happiness, professional genuineness, thoughtfulness, and unwavering attention.

Tell us about yourself.

Being raised in Steamboat Springs Colorado makes me an outdoor mountain boy at heart. Now, after living in Chicago for 9 years, I feel like a proper native. My interest in wine started while working in an artisanal specialty department and throughout my different career opportunities that seed grew more and more. I've always worked with wine in some capacity or another and when I was a restaurant manager, I finally decided to make the leap and transitioned to be an assistant sommelier at my most recent endeavor, Esquire by Cooper's Hawk.

Why did you want to become a sommelier?

I kind of got the bug for it. It's an endless pursuit of knowledge, which to me makes it my grand academic pursuit. There is beautiful humility when learning about wine. You'll never know it all, but that's where community comes in, all of us together work as a tapestry of knowledge that gives back.

Questions you would ask a customer who doesn't know anything about wine?

1. Is this for a special occasion or an everyday occasion?

2. What is your favorite dish to eat?

3. Outside of wine, what do you like to drink (alcoholic or non-alcoholic)?

4. Do you like food that is robust and heavy or delicate and light?

What are some of the most important skills for a sommelier?

1. Read your audience: Know that every table requires mental flexibility in terms of approach.

2. Timing: Is there a pre-selected wine for a guest coming in that could use some love from a decanter well ahead of time, or within time to drop and pour before entrées hit the table?

3. Inventory: We are, after all, wine stewards! Accounting for what bottles you have and where to make concise variance reports for your COGS is a part of the job. Managing cellar temperatures and bottle rotation are important as well.

What methods do you use to grow wine sales - top line?

1. Food and Wine Pairing Menus: I worked with an event coordinator picking out certain wines to pair up with special menus for events. A different wine per course. Great experiences for special occasions make word travel.

2. Staff Training: Continuously trained and educated our staff about the wines we offered. Knowledgeable staff can confidently make recommendations and answer customer questions.

3. Wine Merchandising: Displaying wines prominently in attractive ways in establishments, can pique customer interest. Environment is part of my big three for what makes a restaurant successful, the other two being the product (food & bev), and service.

What's the best part of your job?

Satisfying someone’s dining experience. Or! Introduce a variety that a guest has never had and blow their mind. There is a Chardonnay for everyone, you can apply this thought to any varietal. It all comes down to reading what you think your guest’s palate would most appreciate.

Image source: Christopher St. James & Pexels

How do you elevate the guest experience? Please give 4-5 examples and insights here.

1. Staff happiness: If you can make the environment you work in enjoyable for yourself and those you work with, both tone and body language will change and guests will pick up on that energy and have a better time themselves.

2. Professional genuineness: I crack jokes with tables, I enjoy being humorous and clever at a table, that’s my "me" element. If you can give a sense of your genuineness at a table, I believe that table reads it as honesty and ice is easier broken.

3. Thoughtfulness: A little goes a long way with guests. I can read body language from across the room, assess situations, and check in with servers or tables to see if there is anything you can do during potential mishaps that will end up elevating the experience. Extra points for having spider senses and getting ahead of something before it can be something.

4. Attention: We all want to be seen and heard; we all want to be wanted. Knowing this can make you give extra attention to both staff and guests.

Your favorite TV show right now?

I've been watching Vampire Diaries with my wife lately, and it fills the campy supernatural romance drama my heart needs.

What are the biggest faux pas that customers tend to make when ordering and drinking wine?

I mean, preference is preference. If I had to pick two that go against my wine brain though, I'd pick holding stemware by the bowl or putting ice in your wine.

Do you have any favorite food and wine pairing suggestions for drinks enthusiasts?

It's tried and true, Pad Thai with a kabinett riesling :* Yum!

Your favorite book?

Not a book per se, but Bill Watterson's comic series Calvin and Hobbes. I also really love Douglas Adam's sense of humor, so Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a personal fav. Liquid Intelligence is also great for getting into the mindset of overanalyzing a concept and trying anything and everything even if it means you only make micro improvements.

How can suppliers work with you to drive sales?

By establishing strong and mutually beneficial relationships. Some examples I can think of are understanding the restaurant's concept and needs, tastings and samples, and regular communication.


Can you share with us an example of a solid wine program?

Webster's Wine Bar Chicago! They’ve been a part of Chicago since 1994, and have a great natural wine selection that is paired up with delicious bites.

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