Video

Rebecca Flynn on the Transition from Beer to Wine

The Eleven Madison Park sommelier discusses how her background in beer has informed her work in wine

Rebecca Flynn.

In SevenFifty Daily’s 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.

Rebecca Flynn is a sommelier at Eleven Madison Park (EMP) in New York City. She studied modern foreign languages at James Madison University, and it was while studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, that she became acquainted with Malbec—the wine that sparked her interest in becoming a sommelier. Flynn received her bachelor’s degree from JMU in 2009 and went on to earn an Advanced Level 3 certification from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in 2012. She passed her Advanced Sommelier certification with the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2019.

While Flynn has worked in hospitality since high school, she forayed into the beer industry before setting her sights entirely on wine. In October 2011 she joined Carton Brewing in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, where she first ran the brewery’s tasting room and later managed sales and marketing in the company’s South Jersey accounts while building relationships with brewers in New York City and Philadelphia. 

In 2014, Flynn transitioned into the wine world when she began working as a server under Laura Maniec, MS, at Corkbuzz in New York City. She went on to lead wine and beer education at the Cushman Concepts hospitality group’s O Ya and Covina, working her way up to become the assistant wine director of all the group’s concepts in the Park South Hotel before taking her current position at EMP. 

After shooting Flynn’s Supertasters video, SevenFifty Daily asked the somm how she keeps up with wine trends, how her background in beer has informed her work as a sommelier, and what tips she would offer on being a good manager in the hospitality business. 

SevenFifty Daily: How do you stay current with trends in wine? 

Rebecca Flynn: I try to keep up with emerging producers and stay current with news in sustainability and the environment. I work with seven amazing sommeliers who are constantly traveling to wine regions, teaching classes, attending seminars, or simply having great wines at dinner. We regularly check in with each other about what we’re drinking—and what we’ve tried and enjoyed lately. 

I also visit my local wine shops in Brooklyn to see what’s new on their shelves and what the buyers are excited about. I read online publications like Punch and Eric Asimov’s columns in the New York Times to learn more about what’s going on. I also have the bonus of living with another wine professional who’s incredibly open to trying new wines and expanding his palate, so we bounce ideas and new wines we like off each other. 

How has your background in beer helped you become a better wine professional, and what prompted your transition to the wine world? 

I was interested in wine before I worked in beer, but a small brewery, Carton Brewing, opened up near my hometown after I graduated from college and while I was taking WSET courses. I took a job there as the tasting room manager. The brewer and Carton’s owners trusted my—very young and green—palate and listened to my feedback about flavors and styles we were working on, which helped me gain confidence in my tasting skills.

Working in a small brewery tasting room enabled me to communicate and connect with guests on a personal level. Craft beer was a very new concept eight years ago, and a lot of the hardcore craft beer fans who visited the tasting room were bringing along girlfriends, wives, or friends who weren’t as interested in beer. Neighborhood folks who were used to drinking light lagers also started coming in to taste our products. I used common flavor descriptors—like citrus in IPAs, or coffee in porters and stouts—to speak a common language with guests who were just getting into tasting new beer styles. 

I managed the tasting room, and then I started working as a sales rep, traveling all over South Jersey to great bars and restaurants. I treated accounts and buyers with the same respect that I gave to guests in the tasting room. Forging these relationships not only helped me pique people’s curiosity about our beers but helped me take my hospitality skills to a new level. Pouring beer at festivals and events further sharpened the way I spoke about the products and helped me network and make connections even faster. 

I think brewers have a really demanding job—they have to maintain a spotless brewhouse, keep perfect records of recipes and trial runs, and manage staff. And yet the brewers I’ve worked with and met are all so down-to-earth, gracious, and fun. I aspire to bring some of that balance of precision and fun to the wine world. I’ve also brought beer in as pairings for a few cheese courses at EMP this year.

My career transition into the wine world was a bit unexpected. I was ready to move to New York City, and I sat down at Corkbuzz after a long interview for a receptionist position at a financial institution. I met a friend for Blind Tasting Happy Hour, had a blast chatting with the bartenders, and left my résumé after they overheard I was in the city for an interview. I was able to turn down the receptionist gig and start my wine career at Corkbuzz, where I worked with the most patient and encouraging team. 

What bottle—or producer—are you particularly excited about right now, and why?

I am obsessed with Brendan Stater-West’s Les Chapaudaises Saumur Blanc. Stater-West is an expat living in France who moved to Paris to teach English and fell in love with wine, then began working under Romain Guiberteau. Stater-West produces this wine in Saumur in the Loire Valley.

I recommend Chenin Blanc a lot in the restaurant for its versatility—it helps bridge a few courses on the tasting menu at EMP, and I can’t stop purchasing it for myself at home. This bottling by Stater-West is delicious. It’s the perfect combination of salty linearity and plush orchard fruit—plus, it goes with all of the takeout my fiancé and I order on our Monday nights off. Stater-West recently released a Saumur Rouge that’s incredible too. I wanted to be an ESL teacher living abroad before I became fully immersed in the hospitality business. I like to live vicariously through this winemaker, since I never took the step to do all of that myself. 

If you had to guess, about how many wines would you say you’ve blind-tasted and formally evaluated for professional purposes?

Thousands! I wouldn’t know how to calculate. I felt like I tried more than 100 Barolos at Vinitaly in April alone—and needed to get myself some Italian Sensodyne. 

What’s your best hospitality management advice?

Create a healthy work environment where your employees feel valued and safe. Allow individuals to grow their interests. My former boss Ted Kilpatrick, the co-owner and beverage director of Chickadee in Boston, would use the term “water the plant.” The idea was that if, as a manager, you notice someone on your staff has an interest in a particular facet of the operation, like wine or coffee in a restaurant, encourage them to learn more and help them grow. 

If you could change one thing about the wine industry, what would it be? 

Be more open to learning things about regions or wines that you might otherwise be inclined to write off. One thing I learned that changed my mind this year is how rustic and rugged the Valdobbiadene region of Prosecco isit’s got intensely steep slopes, hand harvesting, and true multigenerational farmers! I went from seeing Prosecco as only having a place in my spritzes menu or at bridal showers to a region that deserves a great deal of respect. 

What wine region would you most like to visit in the upcoming year?

Mineral-driven, juicy reds are my favorite wines to drink, and I think it would be fun to visit an island wine region, so I’d love to climb Mount Etna in Sicily and taste some of the outstanding wines being produced thereor see the ancient, wild vines on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. There are so many smart winemakers working in extreme soils and conditions that I would love to meet. 

What’s next for you?

I’m excited for the upcoming episodes of Sip Trip. I went to Northeast Italy with the incredible Jeff Porter to film his online show, which is focused on traveling and learning about culture through beverageand in particular, wine.

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. 

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