Spotlight: Miami

Sunshine, amazing beaches, and nightclubs. That’s all anyone used to talk about when the word “Miami” was mentioned. And yes, those three things still (appropriately) draw droves of people to the southern tip of Florida… but today, you’re just as likely to hear people respond with “cocktails, cuisine and culture” as reasons for checking out our Magic City.

As a matter of fact, our city’s nickname comes as a reference to its extraordinarily rapid population growth. And yes, people are still flocking to Miami—not just from elsewhere in the US but from all over the globe. Today, our city is truly a cross-section of cultures; one that I’d most closely compare to Cape Town, South Africa, or Melbourne, Australia. You’re as likely to run into an old friend as you are someone speaking a language you’ve never heard before. Some billboards are in English; most are in Spanish; and the people here speak everything in between. We’re bright, flashy, new—and deeply historical at the same time.

To be fair, Miami has undergone several food and drink “rebirths” in the past decade or so, but the most recent one is, without question, the most exciting. South Beach has long been a trendsetter and the figurative epicenter of Miami culture (think: Don Johnson, Joe’s Stone Crab, Art Deco), and that particular area’s rebirth has, this time around, brought the rest of Miami along with it. Downtown, Coral Gables and the many “sub-zones” are all exploding with their own little food, wine and cocktail meccas.

And this citywide boom is mirrored in our tight-knit sommelier community. As Miami has grown, it has likewise attracted great beverage professionals from all over the world. Locals and visitors alike are becoming more and more adventurous in their eating and drinking, and there are more exciting opportunities and openings for sommeliers in Miami than ever before. The folks referenced here are among the most fun, smart, quick-witted and collaborative I’ve had the pleasure of working with; they show off some of what makes the Magic City so, well… magical.Andrew McNamara MS

Featured below are six sommeliers from Miami: Brian Grandison (Head Sommelier, Hakkasan Miami at the Fontainebleau); Eric Larkee (Wine Director, The Genuine Hospitality Group); Kirsta Grauberger (Managing Partner, Market 17 & Day Market Kitchen); Zach Gossard (Wine Director, Thompson Miami Beach); Jennifer Wagoner (Head Wine Sommelier, Zuma); and Heath Porter (Managing Partner, Uvaggio Wine Bar).

How does the Miami restaurant scene compare to other big cities/metropolitan areas in the US?
Heath: Well, I'm the new kid in town, so I don't know Miami as well as the rest, but this town is different for sure. Lots of flash, razzle-dazzle, “see and be seen” with huge ticket prices… and often a lack of substance and service. Fortunately, I do feel we’re in the midst of a revolution; some bright, fresh talent is arriving on the scene, eschewing the bull**** and singing the praises of real F&B.

Jennifer: Miami, compared to when I moved here in 2006, has exploded into a vibrant food and beverage city that is powered by a youthful excitement for the business. Before I moved here, I equated Miami (and South Beach, specifically) with cheaply made but expensive-to-buy drinks. Now the community really works together to push quality levels and creativity. It’s really exciting.

Zach: Almost no one here is actually from Florida. There are some notable exceptions—like my boss, Chef Michelle Bernstein, and Michael Schwartz—but overall Miami is mostly full of chefs from other markets looking to bring their talents to South Beach and party with the rest of the world.

Eric: We get everybody here. Not just everybody from America but everybody from the whole world. At Michael's Genuine, I could segue from a table of Nebraska folks who saw us on TV to a Brazilian real estate investor to a table of industry people from New York. Our job is to figure out how to make a somewhat normal life in a place that’s usually a playground. 

Kirsta: We've seen enormous growth in Miami’s restaurant scene over the last five years. On one hand, Miami is like a small version of Vegas, with luxury hotels signing on national chefs to cater to locals and tourists. On the other, great artisans and local chefs are creating awesome restaurants and neighborhood joints in places like Sunset Harbor, the Design District and Wynwood. And since most people come to Miami to have a good time, the guests are generally pleasant—it also doesn't hurt that the weather is great.

What are the most exciting wine and beverage trends hitting Miami now?
Kirsta: Guest demand for quality and a desire to explore new beverage options--whether it's craft cocktails, craft beer or small production artisan wines. I've seen an enormous increase in questions about where things come from, how they’re produced and what people can try that they’ve never had before.

Zach: Small distributors are proliferating and bringing in some amazing wines from all over the world. I once had Robert Chadderdon tell me, “Nobody in Florida knows what f-ing Barolo is!!!” While it may have been true at that time, those days are long gone.

Jennifer: A move back to classics. Sake. High quality, house-made ingredients. And passionate wine and beverage staff leading the way to educate guests (and one another), creating a population of smart diners who really care about the story behind what they’re consuming.

Brian: As in other cities, the craft/classic cocktail movement is in full force. Greek whites have been making their presence known, and this year sake has been extremely popular.

Eric: Proper, generous glass-pour levels. This might be a trend, or else everyone over-pours just for me (thanks, please keep it up). Lately I’ve noticed that most quality places aren't trying to sneak by on the four-ounce pour, and I find there to be something really satisfying about the weight of that six-ounce pour. 

Heath: Miami has long been known as a cocktail town—Mojitos for everyone!! But finally, I’m noticing a major breakthrough of local brewers and some pretty sick taps coming around.

What stereotypes about Miami would you like to dispel (or perpetuate!)?
Brian: That everyone in Miami listens to Pitbull and is a terrible driver. Most of us, yes—but not all.

Kirsta: They are all true. No really, I can't dispel any; everyone is sexy, we spend all our free time at the beach, and we all speak Spanish...

Jennifer: There are definitely a lot of beautiful people in this city. That is totally true. Not everyone listens to dance music… at least not all the time.

Eric: That Malbec gets poured with ceviche. It’s true. It happens. Outside. In 90+ degree heat. Swap oysters for ceviche? It still happens. We keep Muscadet stocked, ice cold, in case of emergency.

Heath: I’d like to dispel the myth that the only good food here is Cuban or tapas. There really is good food here (you just have to search like a mother to find it sometimes). I recommend Mandolin for Greek food and wine, Tropical Chinese for dim sum, and Bombay Darbar for Indian that can compete with anyone in the country.

Zach: I know that we are perceived to be New York’s sixth borough, but we are so much more. Make it down to Little Haiti, Little Havana, and our Upper East Side. We have a ton of fresh seafood and produce available year-round. We are a port of entry for everything South American, and our market hosts some of the most diverse and discerning guests in the world. We are finding our voice through this filter.

What is your favorite and least favorite aspect of running a wine program in Miami?
Zach: My favorite and least favorite aspects are one and the same: The fact that so many chefs open outposts from other cities. Then they approach Miami with a prejudice, saying that you can’t write the same wine list in Miami as you can in other markets. While that may be so, it is not necessarily due to an uneducated consumer or beverage professional. It’s more likely that many suppliers and distributors limit their selections, so we don’t have the full spectrum of a portfolio to select from. Further, our liquor laws mean that every bottle of wine has to pass through a distributor’s hands. We have to clear anything that doesn’t have a supplier in Florida. This makes it very difficult to find fun, oddball wines that would really make a list stand out, or to source back vintage wines.

Eric: Least favorite is receiving small allocations of awesome wine that we'd totally sell more of if we had higher allocations… but we “can't get more wine because we don't sell enough of it.” I'm confused. I also wish all delivery trucks would automatically have their A/C units turn on when the heat cracks 80—so basically every day after 10 am, even in January. Have I mentioned how hot it is lately? 

Heath: In all likelihood, the same reason I can hate running a program in Miami is the reason why I love it. When we were opening, everyone laughed when we said we’d be a true wine bar with an inventory mix of old-school classics alongside eclectic geekdom. For all the guests who come in looking for a Malbec or Spanish powerhouse red, it’s a kick to introduce something completely new… and then to have them return the next time wanting Virginia Viognier, Canary islands Listan Negro, or just saying: “We don't know what the hell you served us last time, but we'll leave it in your hands tonight!” That’s pretty much the reason most of us stay in the business, isn’t it? (Other than getting paid to drink.)

Kirsta: My favorite aspects are the choices and opportunities we are spoiled with in Miami. Outside of New York, I think we have one of the largest purchasing selections on the east coast—and, more importantly, we have plenty of people who like to drink them. I also think a lot of winemakers enjoy coming to Miami (it's always a fun place to visit!), so we get to meet and eat with so many amazing people from around the world making great wine. Isn't doing inventory everyone's least favorite aspect, regardless of city??

Jennifer: My favorite part of this business is the service aspect. I love meeting incredible people from all over the world. The clientele, being so international, always provides me with unique perspectives on wine preferences that are different from my own. The hardest part is that it is a time-consuming profession with late hours, especially in a city that really never sleeps. Sometimes I wish I had more days in the week!

What's the most popular category of wine on your list?
Brian: Despite all this warm weather, Pinot and Cab from California as well as Malbec from Argentina are the most popular.

Kirsta: Pinot Noir—approximately 70% to 30% New World to Old World, with Oregon versions slightly more beloved than others.

Eric: Sauvignon Blanc. It’s Pinot Grigio's sexy new tart of a cousin!

Jennifer: Champagne.

Zach: As our menu has a large focus on fresh seafood, and our clientele is very classic, we tend to move a lot of Loire whites and white Burgundies.

Heath: Honestly, it depends on what we have on the menu at that time. With our concept, the most popular juice changes for us all of the time because we pair the hell out of everything. We build much of the menu around the wines we’re serving and vice versa, so when the menu changes, the hot spots on the list change.

What's the most challenging category for you to sell on your list (and why do you think it is)?
Zach: Surprisingly, our South American wines do not move very quickly. I’m okay with that.

Kirsta: Despite the weather, white wine in general does not sell as well as I think it should. At Market 17, we only serve dinner, so I think this is a major part of it. For whatever the reason, I think many guests think of red wine as more appropriate for dinner and food, with white wine only as a starter or a daytime thing. Our new place, Day Market Kitchen, will be mostly a daytime operation, so I'll let you know how my theory holds up!

Heath: Napa Cab—because we only carry one of them.

Brian: With Cantonese cuisine, we should be selling a lot more Riesling than we do. Like George Washington never telling a lie or Christopher Columbus actually discovering America, even in the face of evidence, people cling to their own beliefs that all Rieslings are super sweet.

Eric: The most challenging category to sell is orange wine. Because most of it is terrible and undrinkable, and through the wisdom of babes most consumers don't want to touch the stuff. Alright, half kidding.

I'd say the most disappointingly difficult category is red Burgundy, and I fully put the blame on wines like Bella Glos Meomi. That "Pinot" has ruined the palate for actual Pinot Noir in this market (I'm definitely going on a black list for this one...). Seriously though, the stuff has a bunch of sugar and who knows what else in it. It’s terrible. What it has is 75% California Pinot Noir. This is a transitional wine for late-stage developing teenagers (read: post-college) who were lifelong soda drinkers and now are trying to be sofistimicated by drinking wine. This is an alcoholic beverage derived from grapes that has zero correlation to Burgundy except setting up misconceptions of what Pinot Noir should taste like. Short of shipping Grenache and Syrah up from the Rhône to juice up the Burgundy... oh... wait... is that how Meomi is made?!...

Most inspiring wine list in town? Best cocktail or beer program?
Heath: If you’ve got the cash and want to head to the beach, you can do some damage at all of the Fontainebleau or the SLS. Eric Larkee always has some fun twists on all of his lists with the Michael’s Genuine group (just please don't tell him I said that). The Broken Shaker is super hot right now for drinks, and J. Wakefield is brewing the best sudz in south Florida. El Carajo is a tapas spot with a lot of wine in the back of a BP gas station close to my house. You can find me there with a bottle of rosé most Sundays.

Brian: For wine: Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink, Uvvagio, Bourbon Steak. For cocktails: The Broken Shaker, The Regent Cocktail Club. For beer: The Abbey Brewing Company, Kush Wynwood, The Local.

Eric: Now you want me to hurt some feelings (don't make me say Uvaggio, don't make me say Uvaggio). I'm going to pull a “I don't really want to answer your question” answer. What I love is to see an inspiring wine on an uninspiring list (or beer for that matter). By mentioning anyone I'd kind of be dogging them out, so I won't, but its great to see a random, delicious, ten-year-old Barbera on what is essentially a bar list. I love that. Would have never seen that five years ago.

Zach: I think that Heather Porter at Uvaggio has really put himself on the scene with a small but precise wine list, with a ton of whimsy. As for drinks, The Broken Shaker has taken Miami by storm and has garnered international attention. They’ve struck a chord with a casual setting executing outstanding seasonal and regional cocktails.

Kirsta: I love the list at Uvaggio, and any list Danny Toral puts together is always inspiring. Best cocktails: The Cypress Room, The Regent.

Favorite spot to grab a bite or drink after work?
Brian: Yakko-San in North Miami.

Jennifer: I’m a big fan of Corner. It’s a little spot a few minutes from Zuma that has an incredible craft beer list and endless people watching. They have a great jazz night on Tuesdays where they showcase some incredible talent.

Zach: Momi Ramen hits the spot for me, with plenty of vegan options. The industry standard if you have to head anywhere north is Yakko-San. They are open very late, and they do great Japanese for dirt cheap. I’m still waiting for food trucks to be licensed on the beaches. They would kill it!!

Heath: The Mighty is a cool little dive by my pad; it’s low key, has a good bourbon selection, solid brews and house-made sausages. Also Taurus in the Grove. It’s old-school and devoid of hipsters.

Kirsta: GoBistro in Hollywood has amazing ramen and sushi, and I enjoy Sugarcane for late-night cravings. For a drink, I also enjoy Lagniappe. But mostly, since it's a little harder to find places with great wine that serve late, and since I luckily happen to own the place, I usually just open up my restaurant cellar and invite people over.

Eric: I'm lame... home.

How do you engage and train your staff?
Heath: With a constant barrage of profanity-laden commentary about their ineptitudes of not only food, beverage and service but also life decisions. (Kidding… mostly.) We push the staff and ourselves daily with blind tastings, weekly tests at all degrees from Intro to Masters level, pop quizzes on pairings, food, service and other beverages. Not because we expect the staff to become masters by any means, but because we expect the best from them, and in turn they will get the best from us. I like to think the staff is getting paid to learn, and it’s their job to help encourage and teach the next level and generation. I feel like I’m singing a Bette Midler song now...

Zach: Being the wine director for the hotel, I get to engage multiple venues formally and informally. I’m able to train staff from in-room dining servers to our more classic dinner servers, all in a classroom setting. We are running seminars on spirits and wines, etc., that any F&B staff can attend. And, as I’m the face of the wine program for the hotel, staff from all departments will stop me in the hall to ask me random questions, and it’s great to really open up this new world to them. It’s amazing to have staff who had never opened up a wine bottle tell me that they’re interested in pursuing courses, which pushes me to train them more and more.

Jennifer: Our wine and sake team is a little family. Each person brings something to the table that makes the others stronger and more effective as professionals. We sit after the shift and taste while running through quizzes on the Guild website. We talk about products that we’re passionate about and really just integrate education and love for the job into our everyday lives.

Kirsta: In addition to pre-shift meetings, we invest heavily in staff education. We are three Sommeliers that run and manage the front of house, so hopefully our passion rubs off a little, but we also do intensive wine and beverage class every Saturday, with tastings and discussion. We try to keep it fun and focused on helping our staff do their jobs the best they can. We also support our staff in external food and beverage education (i.e. CMS, WSET, Cicerone, Charcuterie classes, etc.).

How does the local sommelier community collaborate or work together to become better?
Kirsta: We have so many great trade event opportunities in all of South Florida, which helps develop a strong sense of community, camaraderie and finding many partners for tasting and studying. Additionally, having six helpful Master Sommeliers living and working in the South Florida market is a huge asset for improvement and inspiration to be better at what we do.

Brian: As a community, we have our local tasting groups. And working in a resort with other restaurants steps away means blinding after work if you have something interesting open, and sharing a passion with likeminded people means dinners out with fellow somms for general eating, drinking, being merry and the occasional shop talk.

Heath: I've only been in town for a little over a year now, but this is a small community. For the most part, people like each other (other than Larkee), and we try to get people together for blinds and pass around some theory anytime we can. There’s not a lot of the "better than you" bullshit egos like you see other places.

Jennifer: The wine community is a fairly tight knit group here. There are lots of brilliant characters and people that you generally just want to be around, whether it’s at work or not. We have get-togethers that incorporate sharing wine experiences and knowledge… as well as, on a good day, some sort of dance party/sing-along.

Zach: There are a number of study groups in the area centered on blind tasting and theory, but we mostly hang at the nightclubs enjoying EDM and DRC. We came up with a “Molly and Malbec” that is really blowing up, and Rick Ross is rewriting his song around it….

What Pitbull song would you most want to hear played in your restaurant in the middle of a busy shift?
Eric: No comment, but there is this.

Heath: Who's Pitbull? Is that the guy who hosts Hotel Impossible on the travel channel?

Jennifer: None.

Zach: Ahh yes. Mr. 305. You know, Thompson Miami Beach was just featured on FOX New Year’s Eve across the United States and South America with Armando. I can call him that because we go way back, sipping on Voli (his Vodka brand) and Fireball (which he drinks from stemware)… Just a reminder, he’s now Mr. Worldwide, so I expect to find this question as a regular in features on other cities. Next time someone asks you for that cinnamon elixir, don’t cringe, just “Dale!”

Editor’s note: Brian Grandison originally replied to the request for this interview with the following comments: Would love to participate! So the answer to your question is "Mmm Yeah." I will "Get it Started" and reply to your questions about the "Exotic" Miami wine scene, whether it be about working "On the Floor" or my "Wild Wild Love" of Riesling. Working at the historic Fontainebleau resort has the iconic "Back in Time" feeling combined with "Sexy People" and even a little bit of "Hotel Room Service"—which occasionally leads to some "International Love." "I Know You Want Me" to answer the questions by the 15th. I will comply, and in the meantime I will "Live It Up" until the "Tik Tok" of the deadline.