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.
In the past few years, Philadelphia has seen a new surge in creativity in its drinking culture. The proliferation of craft breweries in the city helped spark the locals’ appreciation of craft beverages—beer, cider, and cocktails. Wine and spirits, however, have had a harder time breaking ground in this control state known for its complicated alcohol laws. But recent demand from sommeliers for a more diverse selection of wines has shown distributors it’s worth venturing into the market. And given the city’s energized food scene, Philly is becoming one of the most exciting places in the U.S. to eat and drink. From a tavern owner who pushes natural wines and lesser-known grapes on her BTG list to a social justice-oriented beer entrepreneur, here are five of Philly’s rising stars.
The Nouveau Francophile
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It was the Good King Tavern’s by-the-glass program that first sparked Hai Tran’s interest in Chloe Grigri when he moved to Philadelphia. The two later became friendly while serving on the board for Philly Wine Week. “Her Good, Better, Best [BTG] labeling program allows people to expand their horizons in a very nonintimidating way,” says Tran, adding that Grigri uses the BTG list to promote lesser-known grape varieties and natural wines among customers. “She has a great way of introducing the obscure in a way that’s digestible for guests in a more casual setting.”
Grigri, who opened the Good King Tavern with her father in 2013, wanted to honor her father’s Provençal heritage, although with her own spin. “We wanted to create a space that reminded us of [Provence] and the places you sort of stumble upon [there]—just focusing on good-quality food and drink in an atmosphere that’s convivial and fun and relaxed. We wanted to provide the Philadelphia market with something that differed from the white-tablecloth, brasserie-style French destinations.”
Natural wines are a focal point at Good King, and Grigri says the intention is to “stay true to our roots with a French-dominant list.” However, she adds, “there is a home for labels that don’t exist in France, such as a fresh approach [to] Syrah being grown in Northern California.” When building her BTG and bottle lists, Grigri says she looks for wines “that have a singular identity and fit well with the program and make it a little more interesting.”
The Host with Flair
Alex Cherniavsky met Kevin Lopez when she used to hang out at The Olde Bar, where Kevin had one of his first gigs. “He’s one of the most personable, outgoing, wonderful people behind the bar,” says Cherniavsky, “and he makes people want to come back over and over again.” For a period, before splitting off into their current ventures, the two collaborated on the same side of the bar when Cherniavsky hired Lopez on at another local venue. “He’s probably one of the most creative bartenders I’ve ever worked with. He’s always coming up with fun new cocktails.” For example, she says, one year he used a chicken fat–washed whiskey to make a Thanksgiving-themed cocktail that “tasted like Thanksgiving dinner, which was very cool.”
In addition to his flair for building innovative cocktails, Lopez has a background in theater and writing. He was working on a screenplay at the time he moved to Philly from northern New Jersey and needed to make some money, so he took up bartending—and is completely self-trained. “It was kind of trial by fire,” says Lopez, “in terms of bartending and in terms of learning about cocktails and spirits.”
Although he likes to bring theatrics to some of his cocktail creations—one of his favorites, Overpump Rules, pays homage to a favorite TV show, Vanderpump Rules, and features pumpkin-seed oil and tagine spices—Lopez says he’s a classicist at heart. “Instead of trying to learn every cocktail that’s ever been invented, I just focus on the guest experience,” he says. “I take it back to square one and make sure that everyone who’s coming into my bar has a good time and is enjoying these things that I’m offering them.”
Before Mariel Wega became the Pennsylvania sales lead for Skurnik, she was the wine director of Philadelphia’s acclaimed a.kitchen + a.bar. It was there that she met Etinosa Emokpae and, while overseeing her work as a server, recognized her potential. Wega saw an opportunity for Emokpae to advance her career as a sommelier and sent Emokpae’s résumé to Patrick Cappiello, the cofounder and co-owner of the Walnut Street Café, shortly before the café opened. “She was very proactive,” says Wega. “She loved selling wine and talking with people—guests, other servers, her peers—about wine. She helped me with training and ‘fun’ stuff like counting bottles in the cellar. There was nothing that was too mundane for her. She was open to taking on really anything, as long as she was learning about the industry.”
A native New Yorker, Emokpae moved to Philadelphia three years ago for the experience of living somewhere new. Her job at a.kitchen was her first one in the City of Brotherly Love, and under Wega’s mentorship, she says her hospitality skills evolved significantly. Wega, she says, helped her build up her wine knowledge as well as her confidence in her abilities as a sommelier. “She is somebody,” says Emokpae, “who, being a woman in a male-dominated field, just crushed it. The wine program was all natural and biodynamic wine, which was pretty unique in Philadelphia. She knew wine was something I was super interested in. She was always pushing me to go to the next level.”
Prior to Emokpae taking over the program at Walnut Street, the restaurant’s list was dominated by French wines with many from Burgundy and the Loire Valley. “I’m trying to broaden it a little bit more,” says Emokpae. “I think just from all the places I worked I’ve picked up a pretty eclectic taste in wine. For me, it’s all about [understanding] what the trends are that are going on in the world. Sometimes it may seem like it’s a little bit all over the place, but it’s about focusing on smaller producers that care about the environment, how their wines are crafted, how their grapes are grown. It’s really important to feature wines like that on my list.”
Beverage industry veteran Gordana Kostovski knows talent when she sees it, and Harry Jamison, the bartender-sommelier-manager wunderkind at Townsend, stands out to her as the exact person you would want in your restaurant. “He’s very well versed,” she says. “He’s an amazing bartender, he’s part of the contributing team for the cocktails at Townsend, and he also helps manage the floor. When I realized he was also gifted with wine, my respect for him grew immensely.” While Kostovski notes that Jamison works seamlessly with a team, it’s his independent streak she really applauds. After a couple of training sessions with Jamison (Oloroso and Townsend are in the same restaurant group), “I was like, Okay, you got this, you don’t need me,” she says. “That’s the epitome of how it should be; you should be off and running on your own.”
Jamison made a concerted effort to become knowledgeable across the wine, beer, and spirits categories because he felt it would help him offer his guests an optimal experience. He’s observed that many of the drinks industry people he encounters tend to be interested in either cocktails or wine but not both. “I often find that weird,” he says. “One of the most important aspects of [my] job is learning different things about alcohol that maybe most people don’t know. The point is to make people feel comfortable about what we’re offering them—and at the end of the day, getting people the best example of what they want. That process is the same for a cocktail as for a wine as for a beer. If that’s the goal, then we should focus on all the [categories] all the time.”
The Philanthropic Brewer
Rising Star: Tess Hart, co-owner, Triple Bottom Brewing Company
Nominated by: Erin Wallace, owner, Devil’s Den and Old Eagle Tavern, and chapter leader, Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Pink Boots Society
Seasoned beer professional Erin Wallace dedicates much of her time working to empower women in the beer industry through the nonprofit Pink Boots Society, and Tess Hart’s mission, in particular, struck a chord with her. “I meet Tess a few years ago when she was still in graduate school and working on opening a brewery in Philadelphia,” recalls Wallace. “She reached out to Pink Boots to meet other women in the industry and to make some contacts. I found Tess to be extremely knowledgeable and friendly, but also very community focused. She and her partners are looking to create a brewery that is very integral to the community.”
The “triple bottom” in Hart’s brewery’s name refers to people, planet, and profit. Hart, whose background is in community development, is working with her partners, Bill Popwell and brewer Kyle Carney, on opening a “social enterprise craft brewery” in the late spring. “We’re really focused on fair-chance employment practices,” she says, “and really invested in the skill development of all our team members—recognizing the strengths they bring to us no matter what their background is, and helping them to develop those strengths even further.” Hart notes that while the a new generation is energizing Philly’s beer scene, about a quarter of the city’s population live below the U.S. Census Bureau-recognized poverty line. “So we’re at the intersection of these two trends,” she says. “This idea that Philly is a city on the rise, and [that it] is still really struggling in many neighborhoods.” Her assessment of Triple Bottom is that it will be “a place where those two experiences come together—a place that’s joyful and thoughtful, has great beer, and [where] people can learn from each other.”
Shana Clarke is a freelance wine writer based in New York City and a PR/Marketing consultant for the wine and restaurant industries. You can often find her drinking BYOB Champagne at dim sum brunch. Follow her on Instagram or visit www.shanaspeakswine.com.