Rising Stars

5 Rising Stars in New York City

In a highly competitive wine, beer, and spirits landscape, these enterprising drinks professionals stand out from the crowd

Zwann Grays. Photo courtesy of Olmsted.

In our Rising Stars series, seasoned beverage professionals spotlight five of the most outstanding up-and-comers in their city—and discuss the mark each is making on the drinks scene.

The song says that if you can make in New York, you can make it anywhere. The bustling city has long been a hub of dining and drinking, attracting top talent from across the country and around the world. Given the sheer access to wines from every corner of the globe, the emergence of dozens of craft breweries, and its identity as the hotbed of cocktail innovation, at times it can feel as if the New York beverage industry has everything imaginable at its fingertips. This is both a blessing and a curse—with the bar set so high, it takes a lot to stand out in New York. In one of the world’s greatest beverage and hospitality cities, these five upstart professionals are writing the script for the future of New York’s drinks industry.

The Inclusivity Specialist

Rising Star: Zwann Grays, beverage director, Olmsted
Nominated by: André Mack, founder and winemaker, Maison Noir Wines

A few years ago, wine powerhouse André Mack—who is not only a winemaker, but an author, restaurateur, designer, and the former head sommelier at Per Se—received an Instagram message from an aspiring sommelier, Zwann Grays, who was looking for mentorship and advice. The two connected, and Mack mentored Grays as she worked her way up through the wine business. “Her demeanor and the way she interacts with guests is a breath of fresh air,” says Mack. “Not only is [she] down to earth—[she’s] very personable.”

Grays initially came to New York to write, and she was working in print media when the industry took a downturn. To pay the bills, she picked up some part-time work in wine shops before securing a food-running position at Bouley (now closed) through a friend in 2006. Entranced by the tastes of rare wines shared with her by Bouley’s sommelier at the time, Michael Madrigale, Grays dove headfirst into the wine industry through positions at Anfora, several different locations of Terroir, and Estela. She joined Brooklyn hotspot Olmsted in October 2017, a place where she “feels at home,” and built its current list from the ground up. Every night on the floor, Grays works to welcome guests—neighborhood residents as well those from afar, many of whom have fought for a coveted reservation at Olmsted—and introduce them to something new.

“Some guests are ready to go for the ride,” says Grays, “and some are simply not. Those who are a bit reluctant are a lot of fun because there’s a bit more back-and-forth in conversation, and if I nail it and get them something new that they really like, I’m very happy.” In addition to welcoming guests every night, Grays also hopes to welcome more people of color into the wine and hospitality industries in the future. In the way that Mack helped her foster a belief in her own abilities, Grays wants to lift up others. “If I can in any way give back … to a person of color that’s starting out, I’m doing it,” she says. “My goal is to throw back a rope as I go deeper into the rabbit hole.”

Claire Sprouse
Claire Sprouse. Photo by Anjali Pinto.

The Sustainability Revolutionary

Rising Star: Claire Sprouse, owner, Hunky Dory
Nominated by: Julie Reiner, co-owner, Clover Club and Leyenda

Julie Reiner knows a thing or two about running cocktail bars; not only is she the co-owner of Clover Club and Leyenda in Brooklyn but she also founded iconic spots like the (now closed) Flatiron Lounge in Manhattan. When she was introduced to Claire Sprouse by Ivy Mix, her partner at Leyenda, Reiner recognized Sprouse’s forward-thinking energy. “She is leading the charge when it comes to sustainability in bars,” says Reiner. “She consults with bar owners to make changes beyond eliminating plastic straws.”

Working with several farm-to-table chefs early on in her career instilled in Sprouse an ethos grounded in sustainability, but her aha moment came while she was living in San Francisco in 2012, during the height of a severe drought. “I started paying a lot more attention to where and how we use water behind the bar,” she says, “and how carbon footprint ties into global warming. In general, I looked at how hospitality spaces are interconnected with these bigger ecological issues.” Together with her partner, Chad Arnholt, Sprouse founded Tin Roof Drink Community in 2014 and began educating and consulting with bars and restaurants across the country about sustainability. She continues to balance her work at Tin Roof with running the restaurant Hunky Dory, which she opened in January in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood.

“Sustainability is a journey and there is no cure-all,” says Sprouse. “We chip away at it the best we can with whatever resources we can muster.” At Hunky Dory, this includes using sustainable ingredients and working with sustainability-minded partners like Novo Fogo Cachaça and Diaspora Co., a spice company; using water more efficiently with a pebble ice machine and reusable ice molds; offering reusable bamboo straws to guests; and recycling waste by sending kitchen scraps to the local community garden’s chicken coop. Mindful practices alone won’t lead to greater responsibility and sustainability within the hospitality industry—Sprouse also emphasizes the need for communication and shared information rather than competition.

Eric Fleming
Eric Fleming. Photo courtesy of Eric Fleming.

The Innate Host

Rising Star: Eric Fleming, sommelier, Charlie Bird
Nominated by: Jordan Salcito, director of special wine projects, Momofuku; founder, Ramona and Bellus Wines

As the former beverage director and now-director of special wine projects for the Momofuku group and the founder of the popular wine spritz brand Ramona, Jordan Salcito is used to juggling many projects at once—something she shares with Eric Fleming, the sommelier at one of her favorite restaurants, Charlie Bird. Though Salcito has extensive experience interacting with restaurant professionals, Fleming’s approach to hospitality stands out to her in a unique way. “[He] is a bright light,” she says. “He is a force of positivity in the New York restaurant community.”

Fleming’s entry into the hospitality industry was born of necessity; unemployed and on the verge of leaving New York, he landed a job at ABC Kitchen as a back waiter in 2010. After being promoted to server three months later, and then bartender in 2011, Fleming moved over to the bar team at Charlie Bird in 2014. Inspired by the restaurant’s wine program, he began working with the wine team in 2017. But Fleming’s affinity for hospitality comes from a deeper place than merely the need to pay the bills. Driven to help people feel and be their best, Fleming became a life coach in 2013 after completing a yearlong program through an organization called Leadership that Works in New York, which offers a Coaching for Transformation accreditation. He regularly applies his coaching skills on the floor.

“I see every interaction as an exchange of energy—good or bad,” says Fleming. “As service industry professionals, we have a really cool opportunity to support and facilitate meaningful life experiences for guests through that exchange of energy.” He will soon launch his project Wine and Wellness Coaching as a way to integrate wine education with life-coaching sessions, with the goal of making wine more approachable while lessening the stigma of mental and emotional health problems. Fleming also thinks wine provides an opportunity to create community outside restaurants, which is why he founded the Gay Wine Club—a social series of wine tastings for queer people and their allies—last year. “I think wine and food have incredible power to bring communities and people of diverse backgrounds together,” Fleming says. “We should use that power. If we’re not, then we’re doing ourselves a great disservice.”

James Sligh. Photo by Kypo Karamas.

The Authentic Storyteller 

Rising Star: James Sligh, sommelier, Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels
Nominated by: Pascaline Lepeltier, MS, managing partner, Racines NY

As a Master Sommelier and the first woman to win the title Best Sommelier of France, Pascaline Lepeltier has high standards for wine knowledge and service. When she interviewed James Sligh for a sommelier position at Rouge Tomate (now closed) in 2016, the two clicked. It wasn’t just Sligh’s in-depth knowledge of wine that caught Lepeltier’s attention—it was his pure, unbridled curiosity for the subject and desire to share that passion with anyone and everyone. “Here is someone who is as enthusiastic about sherry and orange wine as he is about drinking beer with pizza,” says Lepeltier. “He doesn’t just want to pass an exam and make more money—he’s an example of what more people should be like in the wine business.”

Sligh first started in the New York restaurant industry in 2012 while he was also working as a freelance fact-checker at a magazine. His first position as a busboy at Corkbuzz Restaurant & Wine Bar in Union Square evolved into a server position, which he followed with stints at the Brooklyn wine shop Vine Wine and the now-defunct Pearl & Ash and Rouge Tomate. Though Lepeltier jokes that she was forever pulling Sligh away from tables as he passionately shared information about the wines he was pouring at Rouge Tomate, she also calls his storytelling ability one of his greatest assets. “Storytelling,” says Sligh, “is an incredibly powerful way to connect with people, but that means you should use it responsibly.” He believes it’s important to find the right wine for the guest’s palate and preferences before sharing a wine’s story. If the sommelier relies on the story as a sales tool, he says, the guest can feel alienated if they aren’t truly happy with the wine once it is poured.

This guest-first approach also drives the consumer and trade classes Sligh teaches for Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels’ Wine Bootcamp series. Having taught English-as-a-second-language classes in the past, Sligh works to involve students in classes rather than lecturing at them for an hour. “Ideally, they leave feeling like they have a more confident grasp of one small part of the world of wine,” he says, “and feel more empowered to go out into the world and drink with curiosity and pleasure.” In the future, Sligh hopes to continue telling stories by means of his own list, featuring wines made by forward-thinking and classic farmers alike. “The stories I want to tell aren’t brand narratives or sales pitches,” he says. “They’re ways of connecting two pieces of earth that don’t touch, of making an absent person present, through a glass of wine.”

Angela Steil
Angela Steil. Photo courtesy of Angela Steil.

The Flavor Devotee

Rising Star: Angela Steil, manager of education, Murray’s Cheese
Nominated by: Katherine Kyle, general manager and partner, Blind Tiger Ale House

When Katherine Kyle met Angela Steil in 2018, the enthusiastic beer professional had just moved back to New York City from Grand Rapids and was looking for a job in the city’s drinks industry. “I knew immediately that she was a go-getter and would land something soon,” says Kyle, the general manager of one of New York’s original craft beer bars. “[Steil’s] knowledge is vast, her taste is impeccable, and she has the drive to succeed in anything she puts her attention to.” One of just 121 Advanced Cicerones in the U.S., Steil was soon hired at Murray’s Cheese to be the manager of education, where she gets to share her enthusiasm for flavor in both beer and cheese while furthering her own education.

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Steil fell in love with beer before she could even legally drink it while working as a server in several New York restaurants. She earned her Certified Cicerone designation at age 21 and followed it with the Advanced certification in 2017. Steil isn’t one to discriminate against an opportunity to learn—she has worked in beer bars and cigar lounges—and even as a beer draft installation and cleaning technician. Her role at Murray’s Cheese, which includes creating and teaching classes about all things beverage and cheese, has actually helped her learn about beer through a new lens. “It forces me to try new things and to get another perspective on flavor,” she says, “so taking this step back into other mediums has been immensely helpful in my palate journey.” While Steil has sat for the Master Cicerone test once and hopes to pass the exam in the next few years, she is currently looking into studying for the Certified Cheese Professional designation to embrace her current role at the intersection of cheese and beer.

In the future, Steil hopes to drive emphasize inclusivity and diversity in the beer industry both through encouraging forthright conversations and creating inclusive workspaces. In August, she was a panelist for the beer industry magazine Hop Culture’s Breaking BEERiers dinner and roundtable discussion, which highlighted the concerns of women in the beer industry. “I think it’s easy to begin to assume that just because we have struggled, we somehow have an idea of what other people’s experiences and struggles must be like,” says Steil. “Inclusivity and diversity in the beer industry can only come from within the industry itself, and the actual work has to begin with people getting together in the spirit of honest exchange.” To go one step further, Steil hopes to helm her own bars in the future—“I can use them,” she says, “as an example of how attention to quality, community, and mutual respect doesn’t have to be an afterthought when putting together a business plan.”


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Courtney Schiessl Magrini is the editor-in-chief for SevenFifty Daily and the Beverage Media Group publications. Based in Brooklyn, she has held sommelier positions at some of New York’s top restaurants, including Marta, Dirty French, and Terroir, and her work has appeared in Wine Enthusiast, GuildSomm, Forbes.com, VinePair, EatingWell Magazine, and more. She holds the WSET Diploma in Wines. Follow her on Instagram at @takeittocourt.

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