Originally from a farm upstate near Ithaca, Jessica Brown grew up with Finger Lakes vineyards practically in her backyard. But her devotion to the vine began in Italy, where she adored Nebbiolo in particular, the fabled grape of Barolo from Piedmont. As the current sommelier and wine director at The John Dory Oyster Bar (1196 Broadway, 212-792-9000) and The Breslin (16 West 29th Street, 212-679-1939), her list now dabbles in a little bit of both of those regions, plus plenty of French, Spanish, Austrian, and Californian wines.
Brown’s New York City career began as an opening manager at Parm, but wine wasn’t the restaurant’s focus, so she left to work a summer at Nick and Toni’s as a sommelier while she figured out her next move. She was pleased, given her love of Italian wine, to then land a role at Scarpetta as the assistant general manager and beverage director. But her career would transition fortuitously into a happier place at her current position, when Carla Rzeszewski unexpectedly decided to leave last fall, and rang up Brown for the job.
How has the transition been at The John Dory and The Breslin, given you are filling some very big shoes after Carla?
The transition into my current role has been incredible and challenging. I was feeling a bit lost before I took this job. I wasn’t sure which road to take for my next step. I thought about maybe getting off the floor completely. Then Carla contacted me about the position, and things just clicked. Everything seemed to fall into place, and I couldn’t be happier.
Carla’s energy and presence is larger than life. She is an incredible person. I am not trying to fill her shoes; I think we just have different shoes, different styles. She set up a great foundation and program, and I am excited to build on that. I am diving in headfirst. I have been here since October, and we are already working on some really exciting additions and changes to the program.
How did you first get started in the wine and restaurant industry?
Like most people, I had to pay the bills while going to school. I started out as a host my freshman year in college and have been doing it ever since. I started managing restaurants after I graduated college and was doing photography on the side. Eventually this business just kind of consumes you. My now-fiancé worked in the industry as well, and all we would do when we were off from work was obsess over food magazines and restaurant reviews in NYC.
Why have you decided to dedicate your life to wine?
For me, it’s partly about the industry as a whole. We live and breathe it. Going out to eat and drinking wine is what we do for pleasure on our days off as well as for our job, and because my fiancé is in the industry as well (he is the wine director at The NoMad), it makes it even more so.
For me, wine is a chance to go a step further and be able to connect with this other world outside the restaurant. To be able to meet the winemakers, visit the vineyards, learn their stories…it opens up a whole other world, and being able to connect the two and share those experiences and stories with the guest is an amazing thing. Luckily, it’s also a delicious thing.
Have you made changes to the list or its overall focus since you started?
There is not a different focus to the list necessarily. Every wine director has his or her own palate that drives a list to some extent. You are always thinking about the food and the clientele, but what’s fun about the job is getting to express yourself through the list. My palate definitely leans towards old world, high acid wines that go with food, and some quirky off-the-beaten-path gems. We want the lists to have a diverse selection of styles, varietals, and price ranges and to offer a great value.
Are there any other changes at the restaurants we should know about? Anything to look forward to?
There are lots of things to look forward to!!!! I just don’t know if I can reveal them yet.
From whom in the wine industry do you draw inspiration?
I am particularly inspired by other women in the industry, especially now, in this job, as I am so lucky to be surrounded by mostly women who run this company. It’s incredibly inspiring since my past work experiences were with all men for the most part. Women in the wine industry like Jordan Salcito of Momofuku, Lee Campbell of Reynard, Juliette Pope of Gramercy Tavern…the way they have developed such amazing programs at such iconic restaurants with such grace and passion is incredibly inspiring to me.
Are there any wines you think are overpriced/over-hyped or undervalued/unsung?
I am a huge supporter of wine from the Finger Lakes. The region is just starting to get some recognition in the industry. There are some incredible producers making really beautiful wines from there.
Have you noticed any consumer trends over the last few years?
Trends come and go. What I will say is that consumers are definitely becoming more educated about wine and more adventurous, which is great.
What do you like to drink off the job?
Grower Champagne, rosé, and earthy, light-bodied reds like Nebbiolo, Gamay, and Arbois.
Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing?
Champagne and almost anything.
What are your interests outside of wine and work?
I have become an amateur hair stylist from cutting my fiancé’s hair over the years. It has quite a following — his hair, that is.
Based on the clues of Wine Director at Nomad and enviable hair, I am guessing your fiancé is Thomas Pastuszak?