Washington state transplant and sommelier Jessica Certo, now a decade deep into her NYC residency, knows how to work the floor of a steakhouse. She’s so good at her job, she can sell a glass of Chardonnay to a lawyer ordering a filet. And Certo doesn’t work at any old steakhouse, but the impressively designed Del Frisco’s Double Eagle (1221 Avenue of the Americas, 212-575-5129) in Midtown. How did this aspiring — and female — opera singer become a sommelier at an unabashed temple of meat and red wine, its parishioners composed primarily of the local, suit-clad, male workforce?
We recently chatted with Certo to discuss her evolution from singer to steakhouse sommelier, trends in consumer drinking preferences, and her penchant for junk food and wine pairings. Read on to find out her favorite Spanish wine for a late night bowl of Kraft mac and cheese.
How did you get your start in the restaurant industry?
I moved to NYC in 2004 to attend graduate school for Opera Performance at Manhattan School of Music. As with most musicians, a day job in the restaurant industry is required in order to sustain the music “habit.” I started waiting tables in 2005 and found Del Frisco’s in 2008.
What was the first wine that hooked you?
Marcassin Vineyard “Blue Slide Ridge” 2004, sold to table 31 in early 2009 while I was a server at Del Frisco’s.
Are big Cabernets the most frequently ordered wine? How does Bordeaux do against Napa?
California Cabernet dominates sales. Being such a rich and full-bodied wine, it’s a shoe-in for steak, and our wine list is weighted towards the Cabernets from California. That being said, we do sell a significant amount of Bordeaux (both Cabernet Sauvignon heavy and Cabernet Franc/Merlot dominant), Rhone Valley, sturdy Spanish reds from Ribera del Duero and Rioja, and Italian reds including Barolo, Brunello, Amarone, and Super Tuscans.
Does anyone ever order white wine with their steak? Rosé?
Yes! In fact, I recommend both French and American Chardonnay and Rhone Valley whites for guests who do not enjoy red wine. They are great pairings with a filet mignon.
What’s the most expensive bottle you’ve sold at Del Frisco’s?
$9995 Domaine de la Romanee Conti “Romanee Conti” 2009.
What percentage of your clients are men versus women?
As we are located in mainstream Midtown, we are geared towards the power players who play in this neighborhood. We do serve more men than women, but over the years, the percentage of women has risen substantially.
Do customers treat you differently than your male colleagues (if you have any)?
Our wine team is composed of four fantastic females. I cannot speak to how our guests would treat a male, but I can say that many of our regulars, both male and female, are proud to have a team of women serving them. It’s not something you see often; in fact, I do not know of another restaurant that boasts an entirely female wine team.
Are there any wines you tire of having to carry because people want them? Any you wish you could but customers won’t order them?
Of course there are wines on our list that I do not order for myself when I go out to dinner. However, at the end of the day, if I can make a guest feel comfortable with a familiar bottle of wine, then I can build the relationship so that the next time they dine with us, they will trust me to choose something new. And then things get really exciting!
Have you noticed any consumer wine trends over the last few years, specifically at a steakhouse?
Malbec has been the trend for the last few years. It is value friendly, easy to drink, and great with a steak. With Malbec becoming more mainstream and prices moving upwards, Spanish wines have taken the spotlight. Again, value friendly, exciting blends with enough oomph to stand up to a steak.
Are there any people who inspire you, either inside or outside of the wine industry?
I am really inspired by the musician P!NK and her “anyone can achieve anything, everyone has value” message. I love that she champions underdogs and outcasts.
Also, DLynn Proctor makes me want to study until I crash and then get up and study more. His passion for wine and his determination to succeed make me want to be better.
Finally, our general manager, Scott Gould, is a life example of the statement “hard work equals success.” He started at Del Frisco’s NYC as a server and has worked in every part of this restaurant, from bartender to broiler cook. No task is beneath him, and he stays until the job is done, putting in more hours than any other member of our team. Everyone wants to succeed in life — I have stolen many pages from his playbook.
What do you like to drink off the job?
I am a huge Riesling fan. I can drink it at any time of the year, in any climate, with any sort of food.
If you could be traveling anywhere right now, where would you be?
I have focused my studying on France in the last few months. I would kill to tour the major regions. Start in Champagne, do a bike tour through Burgundy, rub elbows with the Bordelais, and finish with an exhaustive trek through the Northern and Southern Rhone.
Are there any questions you wish a journalist would ask you but hasn’t? If so, what’s the question and answer?
Sure! “What wines goes best with junk food?” My pairings:
Lambrusco with chocolate (especially chocolate cake), buttery California Chardonnay with potato chips or fried chicken, aged Champagne/sparkling wine with McDonald’s french fries, new world or Spanish Grenache with Kraft mac & cheese.