In the SevenFifty Daily Supertasters video series, we choose the wines, then challenge some of the industry’s best palates to blind tastings in an effort to glean their extraordinary techniques.
Originally from Detroit, Nicole Hakli is the U.S. brand ambassador for Krug Champagne. A former opera singer, Hakli attended Wayne State University in Detroit, where she studied music and teaching, receiving her bachelor’s degree in music education in 2008. Since moving to New York City in 2010, Hakli has worked as a sommelier and beverage director at several of the city’s leading restaurants, including Eleven Madison Park, The Nomad, Acme, and Momofuku Ssäm Bar.
In 2016, Hakli was profiled in Somm State of Mind, a documentary by Lani Chan and Bianca Holman that follows women in the wine industry preparing for the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced Sommelier exam. Hakli earned her Advanced certification from the CMS in October 2016; she was a top scorer on the exam, which earned her the prestigious Rudd Scholarship. She has also received additional accolades for her work. In September 2016, she was named Best New Sommelier by Wine & Spirits magazine and in June 2014 she was a winner in the Ruinart Competition blind tasting challenge.
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In addition to her work promoting Krug’s world-renowned fizz, Nicole leads discussions on emerging wine regions—like Turkey—and the potential for New World wine traditions. She was a presenter at the 2017 TEXSOM Wine Awards on behalf of Turkish Wines and at the first annual Borderless Wine Symposium in New York City in 2018.
SevenFifty Daily chatted with her about how she is faring during the pandemic, as well as how her experience as a sommelier has helped her become a better brand ambassador, the one thing she wishes she could change about the wine industry, and her affinity for Turkish wines.
SevenFifty Daily: Currently unable to perform your job due to the coronavirus crisis, you and your husband have started a shelter-in-place side hustle, making and delivering manti, small Turkish dumplings. How is it going?
Nicole Hakli: My husband is super talented when it comes to creating flavor and texture, especially his home cuisine of Antalya, Turkey. We had long imagined opening a small business like this, but we were consumed by our regular jobs. Now that our normal jobs are not exactly “essential,” we saw an opportunity to create manti.
We started off delivering just to neighbors, and then expanded to friends and beyond. It has been a rewarding process to bring comfort to those at home. His Turkish cooking transports people to another place which is much needed right now. And who doesn’t love dumplings?
Champagne sales have been hit hard by this pandemic. How do you visualize the comeback?
Champagne is suffering because the consumer still believes that it is strictly for celebrating. However, I like to enjoy Champagne during difficult times as well. I find this opportunity interesting for when I return to my job because there is still so much more work and education to be done in this regard.
What do you miss most about your job?
My role as a brand ambassador was very social and unfortunately virtual meetings just don’t cut it; they fill a small gap but they can’t replace spirit, presence, or atmosphere. I look forward to the buzz and vibrations of dining again.
What are some of the strategies you learned from your experience working on the floor that you’ve found valuable in your latest role as a brand ambassador?
My experience in hospitality taught me the greatest life lessons of all: The business of people—how to listen, be patient, problem solve, and exceed the expectations of a guest. I still do all of these daily—not only with clients, but also with my team!
What was the epiphany that led you to choose wine as your career?
I adore food and when I realized wine could make food taste better, I was in love! One of my most cherished food and wine pairing moments was around 10 years ago with Raj Vaidya at Daniel. He poured Viña Gravonia with white truffles—which is close to scandalous in a French restaurant where white Burgundy is king—I loved it.
What’s something people get wrong about the wine business, and how do you as a brand ambassador push back against those misconceptions?
Sommeliers often create a mental division between the restaurant trade and the supplier-distributor trade. I don’t think this differentiation in attitude should exist. Hospitality is hospitality: either you have it or you don’t. It’s not something to turn on and off, depending on your relationships with people in different segments of the wine industry. I’ve unfortunately been on the receiving end of some shockingly inhospitable situations, which for me, has meant that I now educate my accounts on the role that a brand ambassador plays—and I remind them that I’m still a wine-slinging sommelier at heart, despite not working the floor any longer.
How do you stay current with trends in the wine industry?
Prior to pandemic, dining out in restaurants and listening to sommeliers was the easiest way to stay on trend with wine. I still like to stay connected to my friends in hospitality, but now we meet virtually for BYO and dream of better restaurant days to come. Sometimes winemakers join in; this is probably the best access one can have right now. There is also an overwhelming amount of free wine education available right now from some of my favorites like Jancis Robinson, Vinous, and GuildSomm. I’ve also been participating in a blind tasting format hosted by Convive Wines & Spirits, a wine shop in New York City, called “COVID-Cuvees.” The blind wine is sent to your home and proceeds go to the Service Worker’s Coalition. It brings the fun of blind tasting and community to your home while supporting a greater cause.
What bottle—or producer—are you particularly excited about right now, and why?
Weiser-Künstler from the Mosel region of Germany has been a long time favorite, and I recently got super excited to find a few back vintages at a wine store while traveling outside of New York. Most consumers still don’t understand Riesling—I absolutely take advantage of that when visiting other markets.
What wine region would you most like to visit in the upcoming year—and why?
Izimir, Turkey. The wine culture of Turkey is positively evolving. I like to revisit and taste the improvements year after year and see how producers are making the best of their native varieties.
If you could change one thing about the wine industry, what would it be?
The three-tier system in New York State is awful. It would be a dream to just drive to a winery and pick up the wines that you need for the week.
If you had to guess, about how many wines would you say you’ve blind-tasted and formally evaluated for professional purposes?
Thousands, maybe millions. When prepping for CMS exams, I was tasting a flight of six wines once a week for several years. That doesn’t include the meetings I had as a buyer, portfolio tastings, wine festivals, panels, or wine trips. MILLIONS.
What’s next for you?
Is it okay to say that I don’t know? I like to keep my options open and my network tight. I know I’ll always have wine close to my heart.
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Jen Laskey is the former executive editor of SevenFifty Daily. She is also an award-winning wine, spirits, and lifestyle writer and editor based in New York City, an associate judge for the IWSC, and a WSET-certified advanced somm and Diploma candidate.