Her journey starts with sweet beginnings as a pastry cook at New York City’s Jean-Georges, before being called by warmer nights, and the opportunity to serve as the sommelier and wine director for Chef Michelle Bernstein, to Miami — the first stop on her road to developing more than 20 unique wine and spirit programs across the country.
Since then she has certainly made her mark on The Magic City, working with local staples including, Mignonette, Stiltsville Fish Bar, Café La Trova, and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
But her work doesn’t end on the dining room floor. Allegra has worked wine harvests in Burgundy, Tuscany, and Spain and holds an advanced-level certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers. She was the 2016 winner of TopSomm, the U.S. national sommelier competition and was a national finalist in 2014.
We sat down with Allegra — in a rare moment when she wasn’t in deep, developing Vinya’s wine program (or squeezing-in her 10-mile morning beach runs or engrossed in the latest Daniel Pink book) to get to know the woman behind the glass.
Tell us about the moment or experience when you first fell in love with wine — what were you drinking? Unlike most people, it wasn’t one romantic “light switch” moment, rather a gradual process — little moments connected together over time that buried a love of wine. One small moment that sticks out in my mind happened when I was in culinary school and just started to drink wine — I didn’t drink in college. After class, my friend Katie Kirby and I would ride in my blue Jeep up to the local wine store and buy cheap bottles of green glass Vinho Verde. Then, we’d head back to campus to lounge on the patio, bake in the warm afternoon sun, drinking our $6 bottles of spritzy Portuguese white wine out of plastic cups. We didn’t really know what Vinho Verde was or what we were drinking, but it didn’t matter. It was about sharing a late afternoon together, the summertime colors of the Hudson Valley behind us, endlessly gossiping about our day and planning our next great adventure. Prior to Vinya, what’s been your favorite stop on your professional wine journey? If it’s a literal stop then it would be the restaurant Michy’s, where I worked for six years. That’s a long stop, but it was an important one for me, not only as a sommelier, but as a person figuring out the twists of life in her twenties. Looking back, I made a lot of mistakes as a sommelier, but I had two extraordinary mentors, Michelle Bernstein and David Martinez, who threw me into the ocean and supported me every step of the way, regardless of my failures or accomplishments. To this day, I am immensely grateful for my time there. The restaurant is no longer open, but my handprints and initials are still engraved into the sidewalk outside the door. I get chills when I think about how much I loved working there as a young sommelier.
What was the hardest part of becoming a sommelier? Staying the course. Finding the discipline to do the same mundane tasks, day in and day out, over and over again. The nuts and bolts of the job are not fun, but it’s the small finishes that are immensely rewarding.
What is one thing that most of your colleagues and sommelier friends don’t know about you? I’m naturally a very shy person. It’s part of my DNA; growing-up I was a little awkward and kept to myself — a.k.a. not popular! Being a sommelier throws me out of my comfort zone every day and it’s terrifying and thrilling at the same time. I’m exceptionally good at hiding it, but I still get nervous when I engage with new guests about wine.
If you weren’t a sommelier by trade, what would you be? I’m obsessed with weather, and I like the extremes of the news. I would like to be a meteorologist studying natural disasters or a journalist on the fringes of a movement or rebellion.
What’s one piece of advice that you’d give a young sommelier? Do your homework. If you’re going to make confident statements, then have the data to back it up. The more you dig in and read, the more you realize that wine lives more in an area of grey than an area of black and white. You can debate hundreds of topics and unfold more than one side. It’s like going into a courtroom — don’t show up unprepared. Be over-prepared for everything from a brief five minute staff training, to a tasting with a supplier, to a winemaker seminar, to an exam setting. Overall, educating yourself unbuckles your mind, makes you more tolerant and respectful of others’ opinions, and in return, makes you more captivating as a person. Education is the best kind of reciprocation.
You have been in the Court of Master Sommeliers program since 2006. What has the process meant to you? Some of my closest friendships have evolved from my study groups and tasting groups over the years, from the east coast to the west coast. I am grateful for those friendships, and they will endure time because we have a common thread, a rather unusual thread, but nonetheless, a common one. Every sommelier’s process or line has a different length, shape and size, and that’s normal; it’s part of life and honestly, sometimes it flat-out sucks. I know what it feels like to pass each section and fail (many times!) each section. I know how those “highs” feel as well as those bitter “lows.” The process has kicked my butt, it has pushed me to dig deeper, to find my better, to squeeze out every drop of mastery from all my creases and folds — and, I wouldn’t change any part of it.
If you’re not drinking wine, what are your drinking? I get type-casted as a “wine person” all the time, but I equally love learning about spirits, liqueurs and more. My wheelhouse is a spirit-forward shaken cocktail. My current nightcap of choice is the classic “Champs-Élysées,” which is brandy, Green Chartreuse, lemon juice, simple syrup, and Angostura bitters. Use a good VSOP Cognac like Normandin-Mercier or Paul Beau to add complexity. Also, one of my favorite cocktails that I recently created is called a “Pisco Swizzle,” inspired by all the “Chartreuse Swizzles” I befriended at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. With my version, you lower the amount of Green Chartreuse and make up the variance with Pisco — try the puro style, Quebranta grape — followed by Velvet Falernum, fresh pineapple and lemon juice. Then, like a snow cone, top it off with Peychaud’s bitters. It’s dangerously refreshing.
What do you hope people get out of Vinya? We hope that Vinya is a beginning, not a one-time experience. Wine is simply the vehicle we choose to enrich lives, to tell stories and create new memories, which together make the experience. Beyond drinking something delicious and learning something new, we want people to engage with us, to ask us questions, to keep us on our “wine toes.” It’s a relationship and hopefully a very long one!