Meet Our... Director of Fine Dining, Wine and Spirits - Holly Smith
Tell us a little about yourself?
Well, I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, in a very small town, which is more of an exit number off of I70 than a known destination (my Jer-z friends know what I mean). In high school, I loved anything to do with sports from watching it, to writing about it in the school newspaper, to playing for my school, town or church. It was either baseball in the field with my Dad and brother or soccer in our neighborhood, where I was the only girl who played! Yes, I will admit since there are yearbooks floating around, I was the captain of the cheerleading team and cheered from 4th grade until I graduated from Greensburg Central Catholic High School. After high school, I attended Villanova University where I thought I wanted to teach elementary children but fell madly in love with the culinary world from working in restaurants such as Passerelle and The Rador Hotel. I surrounded myself with friends who were either restaurant managers, servers, chef-to-be and all major foodies-in-the-making. We lived for days off to plan 8-course dinners complete with wine pairings or travel to NYC after we saved up for weeks to have lunch (we couldn’t afford dinner) at some chic brasserie!
When did you decide to make a career out of wine?
The wine world sort of found me. I was struggling out of college to pay my student loans so I worked at various restaurants on the Main Line in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My love for the entire culinary world emerged when I worked for Chef Georges Perrier owner & chef of the famed Le Bec Fin. I was given the opportunity to open Le Mas Perrier as a floor Captain where in the pre-opening stage we logged hundreds of hours reviewing French cuisine, cooking terminology, steps-of-service and of course, wine and spirits. I couldn’t wait to get home after 8-10 hours of classroom to study and look up all of my questions in my “Food and Wine Lover’s Companion.” Let’s just say this was before the “Just Google It” days! I knew I was on to something here but I didn’t know what it was? I would wake up at night frantically scribbling down AOC’s, phonetic pronunciation of French words and listing mother sauces before they would leave my head! This is where I knew I had to go to the wine since it wasn’t coming to me. So, I packed up everything and moved to California! I had an unbelievable opportunity to work for one of the greatest hotel management companies in the word, The Ritz-Carlton. In my stay with the company, I worked at the Marina del Rey and Laguna Niguel locations in Southern California. Here in beautiful Dana Point, I opened ENO the Ritz’s first wine, cheese and chocolate tasting room complete with my own glass cellar in the middle of the room and a cheese cave! This was heaven for wine, chocolate and cheese loving guests.
How do you decide which wines to serve in each restaurant?
Each outlet has a wine list that matches either the caliber of the restaurant, the specific cuisine and/or the price-point of the outlet. For example, Autumn’s wine list caters to pairing crisp white wines with the fresh oysters and seafood while the big jammy Cabernets and Aussie Shiraz’s make the steak at Aqueous even juicier! And of course, Lautrec boasts the 1500 label wine list concentrating on French, Italian, North American, and South American wines as well as interesting labels from Morocco, Slovenia and Lebanon.
|Holly in front of huge Slovenian aging barrels at Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona in Montalcino, Italy.|
The wine list changes on a weekly basis with the new additions, vintage changes and deletions from the last bottle of that label that sold in the cellar. This week I am really having fun placing pre-orders for still and sparkling Rosés for the upcoming Spring releases. We will have some fresh Rosés from the best regions: Provence, Tavel, Spain, Italy and Oregon.
I don’t have a favorite bottle of wine but I do wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that question. My favorite varietal or grape really depends on what time of year it is, what I am eating and of course, if I am paying! In the summer, there is nothing better than sipping on an Italian Falanghina while enjoying fresh clams and mussels at the shore or warming up with a Cote-Rotie in the winter with a venison stew. But, if I had to choose only one wine to drink for the rest of my life, I would turn to a perfectly chilled bottle of Contratto “For England” Rosé. This is a perfectly mastered Italian sparkling wine that is exquisitely balanced and pairs with my Camembert cheese and is complex enough to enjoy with my New York Strip, off of the grill. Perfection in a glass, in my opinion.
If I am not drinking wine, I am trying to find a dry apple cider to enjoy in the summertime that lacks that typical sweetness of a cider and is also gluten-free. Few of my favorites are Samuel Smith’s Organic, Crispin’ Honey Crisp and Stella Artois Cidre. I am really looking forward to enjoy these with some BBQ this summer!
For wine “newbies” what advice would you give?
Let's start with the scenario that you are just getting into wine and perhaps are just a beer drinker. I would compare your favorite beer choices with a complimenting wine. For example, if you enjoy fruitier flavors such as malt or sweeter beers I would suggest a Riesling or sparkling dry moscato. If you like a hoppy beer, start somewhere in the middle with a Chardonnay or red blend and if you are all the way to dark beers that are heavily malted, go for the gold and open a big Shiraz from Australia or a Malbec from Argentina!
If you really want to find out what varietal or style of wine you enjoy and save some money... research. Spend an afternoon at a local winery with the option of tasting through their varietals before purchasing a bottle. Most local wineries have an area to picnic so be sure to pack a basket of artisan cheeses, cured meats and a fresh crusty baguette!
Lastly, splurge on a tasting menu with wines at a restaurant where the knowledgeable Sommelier will not only describe the wine in detail but also why it pairs with certain components in the cuisine. This is where one has to keep an open mind about wine and trust the Sommelier. Don’t tell the Sommelier to only pair white wines or wines from North America… venture out of your comfort zone and you will be amazed what new grapes you will discover!
Do you have a favorite food and wine pairing? I have so many do I have to choose just one? Well, if I have to it would be potato chips and Champagne. Yes, simple kettle-cooked, lightly salted and peppered homemade potato chips and a glass of bubbly. Champagne with the minerality, acidity and slight sweetness is perfect with that fatty, salty golden waffle!
Is there a cool wine gadget we should all own?
There is a really neat device out there called the Coravin Wine System that allows you to enjoy a glass of wine without ever pulling out the cork. This was created by a gentleman named Greg Lambrecht who also designed surgical needles for spinal taps. Coravin has a similar thin hollow needle that is inserted into the cork while Argon pressurizes the bottle and wine flows through the needle into your glass. Oxygen never touches the wine inside of the bottle after the needle is removed, the cork reseals itself and you can enjoy that second, third and fourth glass of wine days, weeks or months later. We will not only be featuring this device in Aqueous this Summer with rare vintage wines, but also selling it in the Heritage Shoppes for our enophiles that can’t go home without one!
What is your favorite candy bar?
Milka with Hazelnuts. The ones available in the US don’t taste the same as the ones purchased in Europe so I tend to have to travel to a European country once a year to get my fix.
When you are not working at Nemacolin what are some of your favorite hobbies?
If I am not hiking with Ellie my 3-year old German Sheppard Lab mix, then I am swimming with her. Snow or shine we are hiking it up in Ohiopyle on one of the many trails. This past winter, Ellie and I maybe missed 7 or so days due to horrible weather conditions but we will make them up this summer!
What made you want to join the Nemacolin team?
I moved back to Pennsylvania to be closer to my family in 2010 from California and I am happy to say that when people ask me, why would you ever leave California? My answer always remains, it wasn’t home, and Pennsylvania is. Nemacolin has become family to me and our guests recognize that everyday. One of the constant comments I hear and read from our guests, is that everyone is so genuine or we loving coming back to see this server, butler or bartender. We celebrate anniversaries, birthdays and marriages with guests that we have known for years. It is not why I joined the Nemacolin team, but that’s why I stay.
You have been at Nemacolin for a few weeks now. Any “WOW” moment?
If you have been to Nemacolin and enjoy a cocktail or two or three, you have run into Dayna our mixologist. Not only will you remember her but she will remember you and your drink preference. Dayna has gone out of her way in the dead of winter to find a rare fruit from Asia for one of our guests. She noticed our guest’s arrival in the reservation system and was on mission to have this drink waiting in the Lobby Bar when he and his family checked-in. However, in the bitter, freezing temperatures of February in the Pennsylvania Laurel Highland Mountains where do you find this exotic fruit for this ultra-special tropical martini? After several calls to specialty stores and a trip or two to local grocery stores, she found the fruit not fresh but imported with its own delicious syrups even more perfect for creating a simple syrup. If that isn’t an employee trying to make memorable experiences for someone, I don’t know what is!