Shifting Gears

Master Somm Emily Wines on Managing a Multi-state Concept

A recent move finds her at 30-unit Cooper’s Hawk overseeing consumer programs and staff training

Photo courtesy of Emily Wines.

Master Somm Emily Wines received her MS certification in 2008 and was awarded the esteemed Krug Cup distinction for passing all three sections of the exam on the first try—she is one of just 14 recipients of the award. Wines has held top-level positions at Kimpton Hotels and Skipstone Wines, an exclusive Sonoma winery, and she worked for several years at some of San Francisco’s most celebrated restaurants, including Foreign Cinema and Kimpton’s now-closed Fifth Floor.

In June 2017 she became the vice president of beverage experience, a newly created position, at Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants, a Chicago-based hospitality concept that features a winery, wine club, and 30 restaurants with tasting rooms and artisan retail markets; its bottles range from around $16 to $40. Taking the reins, Wines put her knowledge and experience to use to help make wine more accessible and approachable for the company’s employees and customer base.

Making Wine Accessible

“Every somm loves to introduce people to wines and geek out and give them a sense of discovery,” says Wines, a native of Washington State who pursued a career as an artist before she discovered her passion for the hospitality industry. “For our clients, that sense of discovery just comes at a lower price point. We like to call it a democratization of the good life.”

Wines’s colleagues made a firsthand acquaintance with that philosophy at a mid-December tasting event for the marketing team. Wines selected seven wines that showcased French regions for the approximately 30 team members to taste and learn about, but instead of deep-diving into terroir or vintages, she shared informative yet easy-to-digest intel, such as why Pinot Noir and Cabernet come in differently shaped bottles and why Grenache and Syrah are commonly used in blends.

Says Tom Koenigsberg, the chief marketing officer of Cooper’s Hawk, “She described Pinot Noir by saying you don’t have to add a lot of makeup to it to make it look great, and a Viognier like Kim Kardashian—it’s out there, in your face.” Koenigsberg organized the event for his team as a hybrid of holiday celebration and education. “It was so awesome,” he says. “Some of the stuff I’d never heard of, but Emily just had these really accessible descriptions.”

Rising Through the Ranks

At Cooper’s Hawk, Wines oversees educational events and programs like wine dinners and tastings for what has become the country’s largest wine club—numbering approximately 270,000 members. She also works closely with the executive team to implement training protocols to educate and mentor bartenders, servers, and other employees who interact with clientele.

Wines’s current position marks a significant shift in her career. Up to this point, she oversaw programs that targeted an exclusive clientele that had a deep knowledge of wine and spirits—and the discretionary income to support their interest. She spent 15 years with Kimpton, working her way from sommelier and wine director at the brand’s esteemed Fifth Floor restaurant in San Francisco to a position at the corporate level. After passing the MS exam in 2008, Wines was named Kimpton’s first-ever senior director of beverage and bars, a position she created for herself to oversee the wine and spirits programs for 65 unique properties across the brand. She helped Fifth Floor earn Wine Spectator magazine’s prestigious Grand Award, as well as a nomination from the James Beard Foundation for Outstanding Wine Service.

“What I loved the most was [the feeling] when somebody came in and was intimidated by the wine list because it was so big, and I could put them at ease and make them feel comfortable, because they [felt] that they could trust me,” Wines says. “That’s really led me in my career.”

But after more than a decade of long hours working the floor and, catering to extremely discerning customers, Wines says she was ready for a change. “Those nights when the last table won’t leave—that’s the stuff I was done with,” she says. Not to mention the constantly aching feet: “Years of standing on a concrete floor—no shoes are good enough to get you through that as you age.” She next moved to Skipstone, a Sonoma winery specializing in sought-after Bordeaux-style wines, where she served as general manager and brand ambassador from April 2016 to June 2017, focusing on sales, hospitality, and operations.

Adjusting to a New Demographic

Founded in 2005, Cooper’s Hawk now has a presence in 30 markets across eight states, with five more openings slated for 2018. Its business model incorporates upscale restaurants, Napa Valley-style tasting rooms, and artisan retail spaces all under one roof. Cooper’s Hawk has made its own wine from the beginning. Sourcing grapes from New and Old World regions around the globe, the company produces 5 million bottles a year. Cooper’s Hawk has also accumulated more than 400 wine awards and industry recognitions, including the honor of having one of its sparkling wines—the Blanc de Blanc—selected to toast First Lady Michelle Obama at the Illinois Inaugural Gala in 2009, and more recently, being selected as the wine sponsor for the 2018 Screen Actors Guild Awards.

One of Wines’s central challenges is fostering a broader understanding and appreciation of wine and spirits in the company’s mostly suburban markets, a demographic she says tends to be overlooked. “There’s this idea of the suburbs and smaller towns being like a desert for wine culture, and we’re helping to change that,” she says. “What I’ve come to realize is that there’s a lot of passion out there for exploring. What we’re seeing is that these are people hungry for that sense of community and exploration around wine, who want to come to wine dinners and tastings. And from the economics side, there’s a lot of money in these areas, and they want to spend it.”

Wines says that many servers and staff at Cooper’s Hawk’s locations also express a strong desire to expand their knowledge of wine, which she is taking advantage of with a new emphasis on mentorship and ongoing education. “In each of our restaurants are staff who are the wine geeks, the ones who … want to grow beyond just the basics,” she says, adding that this growing group has been nicknamed Emily’s Army. “Those are the people I want to start to teach how to really engage with our guests, because I can’t be in all places at all times. If I can have them really excited, talking about wine and sharing their passion for it, it will only grow.”

At the same time, Wines recognizes that bartenders, servers, and other service staff provide critical insights into customer preferences and buying patterns—which is especially important since, though she travels frequently to Cooper’s Hawk’s headquarters just outside Chicago, in Countryside, Illinois, as well as other markets, she still lives in Oakland, California. In other words, communication is very much a two-way street—and that open communication is a skill Wines developed while overseeing 65 unique bars at Kimpton and one that’s especially important as she learns about a very different customer base.

“You really have to rely on people who are on the ground to tell you, ‘This is what people are excited about; this is what they’re drinking,’” Wines explains. “They become your eyes. The biggest mistake you can make in a role like mine is assuming that you know better.”

Making a Mark

Although she’s been with Cooper’s Hawk for less than a year, Wines’s expertise is reflected in several aspects of the company’s brand and outreach. She has helped refine and polish the wine pairings offered with every menu item in the company’s restaurants and created new materials for the tasting rooms, such as easy-to-understand graphs for each wine that identify components like tannins, acidity, and alcohol and aim to help customers better understand their preferences. Wines also contributes to the wine club’s monthly newsletter, writing about the wine of the month and providing lifestyle tips, such as food pairing ideas and how-tos for at-home entertainment. “I have one [article] coming up about glassware and how to select it at home,” she says. “I also do a regular cocktail feature because we have fruit wines and sweet wines that work well in cocktails.”

Such initiatives reflect a change in the way Wines approaches her work at this stage in her career. “I feel like at this point, the things I say and do all have to count,” she says. “Earlier in my career, I had the luxury of experimenting, and it could fail. Now I feel like I have to take the time—and really put in the work ahead of time—to learn how to make things successful.”

Cooper’s Hawk’s new tasting notes, which will be launched in three restaurants in February and rolled out company-wide in spring, are a prime example. Wines decided to scrap the old, text-heavy format with complex language in favor of a more visual concept—one that features images depicting the prominent flavors of each wine, its origin, personality (like “soft and earthy” for Pinot Noir), and suggested pairings, as well as a pie chart illustrating the components of sweetness, body, acidity, tannins, and alcohol level.

It’s another tangible way in which Wines hopes to build rapport among Cooper’s Hawk’s clientele. “Speaking to people’s knowledge in a way that’s not demeaning is so important to winning their trust,” she says. “And ultimately selling more wines—and making them want to come back to you.”

It’s a mind-set that hasn’t gone unnoticed among Wines’s colleagues. Says Koenigsberg, “She provides guidance and insight with a gracious humility that belies her significant accomplishments.”

Blane Bachelor is a lifestyle and travel writer based in San Francisco. Her work regularly appears in New York magazine, Marie Claire, the Washington Post, Hemispheres, and many other publications.

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