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Q&A: Alpana Singh, Master Sommelier

Alpana Singh pictured at The Boarding House
© Tyler Colman | Alpana Singh pictured at The Boarding House
In 2003, at just 26, American Alpana Singh became the world's youngest female Master Sommelier. Well-known from her years hosting the Emmy Award-winning restaurant show "Check, Please" on Chicago television, Singh is co-owner of The Boarding House, a five-story restaurant in the city.

How did you get into wine?

I got into wine when I was 19 and started working at a restaurant in Monterey [her hometown in California]. Actually, I first applied for the job and they turned me down because I didn’t know anything about wine. I’m not one for taking no for an answer. I came back after I bought a couple of wine books. They ended up giving me the job.

William Shearer, who is now a Master Sommelier, was the wine director at that time. He had great classes – very engaging and fun – and I found myself paying more and more attention to it. So I went from not knowing anything to being engulfed and absorbed by wine.

Did you move to Chicago to join the restaurant Everest?

I did. I thought it was the opportunity of a lifetime to take over the wine program with 1,300 selections at a four-star restaurant at the age of 23 – who says no to that? I was at Everest from [age] 23 to 28 and then ended up moving over to the corporate offices of Lettuce [Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, a chain of restaurants]. I wanted to try my hand at something different. I wanted to get off the floor. I learned about purchasing liquor and corporate programming in general. I went from selling Burgundy to trying to work out how to get deals on Ketel One.

So when you opened The Boarding House, was it, in part, to get back on the floor?

Very much so. A lot of it stemmed from the fact that I have two really awesome partners and we found this space. I asked for a lot from my partners: I wanted insurance for my employees, I wanted carte blanche. There’s really no good reason to open a restaurant. Part of me wanted to return to the floor. But there aren’t a lot of jobs for sommeliers. It’s kind of a dying entity.

That’s funny because, on the one hand, America has this dynamic cadre of sommeliers but on the other hand, it’s hard to get a job at the top level?

I think it’s because of the death of fine dining. The recession was very hard for sommeliers and wine programs. Everything just got stripped down: you saw a lot more tap wine, a lot more $6 and $8 wines by the glass, more of a move to beer. Obviously cocktail growth has been fabulous. So if you’re going to hire somebody, you hire a mixologist and maybe not a sommelier.

One of my major goals is for the restaurant to become a breeding ground for sommeliers, and also to show operators there’s a lot of money to be made in wine! If you run it properly, hire the right person to run it, train your staff, put the investment in it, provide the great wine service… people are like, 'Wow!' The result is that we sell 50–65 cases of wine a week. That’s a lot of wine!

L-R: The Cellar Bar at Singh's restaurant; staff training in the dining room which has 9,000 wine glasses suspended from the ceiling
© Anthony Tahlier/Tyler Colman | L-R: The Cellar Bar at Singh's restaurant; staff training in the dining room which has 9,000 wine glasses suspended from the ceiling

What is the wine focus?

All across the board. It was very difficult for me since I had been off the floor for six years and didn’t know what the cool kids were drinking. People were like, are they drinking chardonnay or not drinking chardonnay? Are they still into South America? Is Greece hot?

So even from your corporate position overseeing many restaurants, you had become so detached?

Very much so. Because I’m not there every day, face to face with people. So we hedged our bets and did a global list. I didn’t put a lot of Australian wine on it [and] only one New Zealand sauvignon blanc. I’d like to expand Portugal. I left South Africa out – not because I don’t love them, but because you’ve got to choose your focus. So it’s rooted in the classics – Old World – with some New World stuff. Pinot noir from California and Oregon. Esoteric grape varieties from the Mediterranean. A couple of orange wines in there.

What I discovered is that everything sells. Everything! I hear my colleagues say that they don’t put syrah on the list since it doesn’t sell. But oh my god, we go through so much syrah here!

What is the best-selling category?

Pinot noir from California; pinot noir from anywhere sells. What doesn’t sell that much is California chardonnay. But I’m really excited about these newer producers like Arnot-Roberts and Sandhi – what’s coming out of Santa Barbara with the young-gun winemakers. Peay in Sonoma. Everything is cyclical. I think Australia’s going to be awesome with some of these smaller producers. California is going to be awesome with the obscure grape varieties such as albariño and trousseau.

America: a great country to be a wine consumer in, or the greatest country?

I’m going to say it’s the greatest country to enjoy wine in; the diversity of offerings – that’s what makes it fabulous. The downfall sometimes with European countries is that they get very provincial or regional and they don’t have the offerings you might expect.

And Chicago?

We’re at the crossroads. Having lived and worked in the California wine business, it’s fair to say that California focuses a lot on California. New York is very focused on wines from abroad. The good thing about Chicago is that we’re in between. The Chicago wine drinker is very curious and wants to try new things. It’s just up to us to give it to them.

Is the Chicago wine market more restaurant-driven or shop-driven?

We have really great retail presence – Sam’s [taken over in October 2009 by rival Binny's Beverage Depot] was probably the greatest wine store to have ever existed. And there’s the Binny’s juggernaut. We’ve got some incredibly passionate smaller retailers, like what they do at Lush, or Craig Perman of Perman Wine Selections, so I think we’ve got a good blend of the two.

The success of a great restaurant program goes in tandem with having great retail options. It’s one thing to discover a wine at a restaurant but it’s important to find the wine at retail, buy it and continue to fall in love with it. Wine shouldn’t be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

In 2023, will there be a markedly higher number of female Master Sommeliers?

I think so: we are half the population, after all.

But what is the percentage right now?

There are 18 of us out of a total of 197. But if you go into an advanced exam right now, it’s a lot more women. But beyond women, I think there will be a lot more minorities in general.

A Sandhi Wines vineyard in Santa Barbara County, California
© Sandhi Wines | A Sandhi Wines vineyard in Santa Barbara County, California

I went to a talk by Jancis Robinson recently and she praised the by-the-glass programs of many U.S. restaurants. How do you use your by-the-glass offerings?

I poured more esoteric wines by the glass at the beginning – I had an aglianico, a Côtes-de-Provence, a Picpoul de Pinet – but it didn’t really go over well. I found that people wanted sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, cabernet, malbec.

So they’re not using it to experiment?

No they’re not. Because we are so big and we have so many people here, we still have to provide those comfort zones by the glass. So what we’re doing is the expected grape varieties but [also] interesting producers. We’re now on our third pallet of Chinon! Baudry and Olga Raffault. Chicago loves Chinon. But Cerasuolo didn’t work. Your clientele will tell you what works. 

You’re stepping down from hosting "Check, Please" after 10 years. Why now?

A lot of it is just how you want to define yourself as a person. I’d been doing it for 10 years. I want to redefine myself in the role of restaurateur. As I embark on this new adventure, I want to find out what is my signature. You get a certain vibe or feel. Certainly wine will be a part of that. But also a sexiness, blending a night-life element – more social – but with awesome food and service.

What’s the best-value region today?

Italy. I’m still discovering grape varieties from Italy – it has wines that are interesting and diverse. Spain has good values but can get too homogenous in the ripe fruit bombs.

What’s a memorable food-wine pairing you’ve had?

At Charlie Trotter’s, a foie gras dish with roasted beets served with a Weinbach Pinot Gris. It was a combination of the richer, more unctuous pinot gris, the silkiness and fatness of the foie, and also the sweetness and earthiness of the beets that made it a magical combo.

What’s your desert island wine?

Riesling! Because you’re going to be on the island a long time and it ages well. You could chill it in the water so it stays cold. There’s a lot of seafood and tropical fruit – it’s an island, right? You’ve got to think about food pairings with your desert-island wine.

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