Family Tree

The Pay It Forward Philosophy of Laura Maniec Fiorvanti

How the mold-breaking Master Somm educates and empowers a new generation of somms—at her Corkbuzz wine bars and beyond

Laura Maniec Fiorvanti
Laura Maniec Fiorvanti, MS. Photo by Liz Clayman.

“Clearly, you’re asking to talk about me, but I hate it that I’m only talking about me, so thank you, but I’m sorry.” It was noontime at Corkbuzz Union Square, the New York City flagship of Laura Maniec Fiorvanti’s trio of education-oriented wine bars, and the boss was letting me have it. “It’s so weird,” she said. “I just spent two hours talking about myself. Terrible. Torturous.”

Despite the media attention that this Master Sommelier and businesswoman has garnered over the past decade and more, it wasn’t surprising that she was uncomfortable with being profiled. She’s built Corkbuzz into one of the most influential institutions in wine. But for Fiorvanti, 38, it isn’t about the image; it’s about the work.

An Early Start Rooted in Hospitality

“Laura was one of the most motivated young employees,” says her mentor Greg Harrington, a Master Sommelier who directed the wine programs for Steve Hanson’s B.R. Guest restaurant group in the early 2000s. “Many say, ‘I want to be a Master Somm.’ My answer is, ‘Awesome. Meet me in the cellar at 7 am tomorrow.’ So many want the fun of tasting but don’t understand that you are a logistics person, moving boxes in and bottles out. It’s grunt work with a few sips of wine in between. Laura actually showed up the next day. And, in awe, I put her to work.”  

This attitude toward work is an ethic Fiorvanti learned from her grandmother, who helped raise her in the 1980s and ’90s in Bayside, Queens. “My mom got sick when we were young and didn’t live with us,” Fiorvanti explains. “So my mother’s mother, Grandma Rose, fed us, took us to buy clothes, and gave us that unconditional love—plus this ability to entertain.”

Rose enlisted her grandchildren to staff her legendary Sunday suppers. Fiorvanti brewed espresso, poured drinks, checked coats. “[My grandmother] would make the chores seem glamorous,” says Fiorvanti. “When there was a lot going on in our family, cracks and breaks, that was the peace within the chaos. The art of hospitality exists in a home before a restaurant, and I think the passion for it comes from your [desire] to take care of people, which is what she did. I knew that I wanted to own a restaurant because I wanted to re-create that.”

In her teens, Fiorvanti earned money at the “crazy” Queens Italian restaurant Giardino and a degree in hotel and restaurant management at Nassau Community College. At 20, she moved to Manhattan and scored jobs as a cocktail waitress at Del Frisco’s and a service bartender at Ruby Foo’s, a 300-seat B.R. Guest restaurant. That fall, she planned to use her savings to train as a chef at the Culinary Institute of America. The year was 2001.

“I read that the American Sommelier Association was hosting its certification class at Windows on the World at the World Trade Center,” Fiorvanti recalls. “I had no idea what that meant, but I’ve always been thirsty for knowledge, and I couldn’t be stagnant while I waited for CIA to begin. The first week, Andrew Bell [the cofounder and president of ASA] taught. He was just back from Burgundy, and he’s like, ‘Puligny-Montrachet and this and that.’ We were like, ‘This is so cool.’ It was Monday nights for 18 weeks. I was going to miss the last three weeks and just go to CIA. We were there one Monday, 6 to 10 pm. I’m sure I could look in my notebook and see what class we had that night. Then we wake up Tuesday morning, and it’s September 11.”

Like many New Yorkers in the wake of the Trade Center attacks, Fiorvanti rethought her plans. “Why would I leave my friends?” she says now. “My sister’s best friend’s dad was in there. So it was like, Let’s put off what’s not an emergency and just see what the hell this means.”

Laura Maniec Fiorvanti, MS. Photo by Liz Clayman.

Working Her Way Up from Bartender to Sommelier

That decision shaped Fiorvanti’s future. B.R. Guest was slated for its biggest opening—Blue Fin, in the W Hotel in Times Square—on New Year’s Eve 2001. “The director of ops said, ‘We’re looking for people to open this new place, so I said, ‘Okay, I’ll go.’”

Inez Holderness, who had been at Windows on the World, came in as Blue Fin’s wine director. “Having just dealt with this crazy tragedy, she was overwhelmed,” Fiorvanti says. “It’s a hotel. We were doing food and beverage with two bars in Times Square—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s bananas. So I was like, ‘How can I help?’ We moved boxes, put things in the cellar, organized.”

When Holderness decided to move home to North Carolina a few months into the gig, Fiorvanti got her break. As Harrington recalls, “Bartender to sommelier was not a typical path. The restaurant was doing 700 covers a night, for some of the most discerning customers. It would be extremely difficult for a newly minted somm to command that room. I said to Steve, ‘I stake my reputation and job on Laura. She will be amazing.’ And she was. She quickly became one of the most skilled, and more importantly, most loved sommeliers in New York.”

Fiorvanti had been hungry for the opportunity. At Del Frisco’s, she had pressed the corporate wine director, David O’Day, to educate her. “He’d say, ‘These are the towns of Napa,’” she says, “and he would make me repeat them, and if I could remember them the next day, he would teach me something else.”

But with characteristic candor, Fiorvanti remembers her step up less romantically: “Greg said, ‘I’ll pay you $30,000, and you should want to do this because no one gets this opportunity.’ So he got someone to do 70 hours of work for nothing, and he let me have the experience. Steve Hansen said something like, ‘How are you going to let this 21-year-old kid run your restaurant with its $25-million-a-year revenue’ and blah blah blah. But I did it.”

Eventually, Blue Fin hired another sommelier, and Fiorvanti, not wanting to transfer from the star property, agreed to be closing manager, while helping move wine. It was time to make lemonade. “I got invited to GM meetings, and that led to Steve knowing me better,” says Fiorvanti. “If I just did wine, I would never advance.”

In 2003, B.R. Guest got the contract for the restaurants at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and Fiorvanti moved there to be opening wine director at chef Michael White’s Fiamma. It was the first of several B.R. Guest restaurants and hotels that Fiorvanti would open around the country, and the opportunity took her wine education to another level. Wine & Spirits magazine had just named her Best New Sommelier of the Year, and in Las Vegas she encountered other ambitious young pros: Raj Parr at Sea Blue; Heather Branch at Craft. They’d open a bottle of Raveneau or Screaming Eagle for a VIP and then leave each other a taste on the host stands. It was a freewheeling, community-building time.

Corkbuzz interior
Photo courtesy of Corkbuzz.

Becoming One of the Youngest-Ever Master Somms

Vegas marked the start of Fiorvanti’s involvement with the Court of Master Sommeliers. “In New York, Steve Olson was doing great things without it,” she says. “Paul Grieco was not associated with it, [neither was] Daniel Johnnes [or] Bernie Sun—it was not that important. But there were nine Master Sommeliers in Las Vegas.”

Harrington encouraged her, and she finished the introductory course and then gunned for advanced certification. “It was more about a personal goal,” she says, “because that’s who I worked for.” It took a while. Prepping her for the service portion of the exam, Harrington pushed her so hard that she panicked during the real test. “It wasn’t his fault,” she says. “That’s my own shit. I thought that my career was over because I literally walked out of the service exam. Then I picked myself up, took it the following year, passed, and was fine.” That was 2005. In 2009, at the age of 29, Fiorvanti became one of the youngest Master Sommeliers.

“Anybody who can pass the exam has a lot of talent,” says Fred Dame, the founder of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas. “But she was just so dedicated, and she worked extremely hard at this.” In 2014, Fiorvanti went on to become a member of the court’s board, handling communications for the next three years. And, maybe in part because of her early hardship with the exam, she poured her energy into supporting aspirants.

Says Stacey Gibson, a member of Corkbuzz’s opening staff who is now a partner at Park Avenue Fine Wines in Portland, Oregon, “I became an advanced somm while working for her. I still have her [voice] ringing in my ears when I’m on a blind taste: ‘Call a grape and a place. Name a producer. Get the ums and the kind of’s out of your tasting. Say what it is and move on.’ She would blind-taste in front of staff all the time, and you learned a lot just being near her.”

But Fiorvanti is also the master of the pep talk. “There’s big anxiety before things like that [exam], and she always had strong words [to boost] confidence,” says Rebecca Flynn, a sommelier at Eleven Madison Park in New York City who is another former Corkbuzz employee.

Now a Master Sommelier and the beverage director for NoHo Hospitality in New York, Josh Nadel trained Fiorvanti at Ruby Foo’s. By the time he was studying for his advanced certification, the tables had turned, with Fiorvanti providing the instruction. “Laura is a very giving person,” he says. “She tried to help us, and there weren’t many people doing that.” Nadel numbers Fiorvanti among those who built the court into the “touchstone of education, mentorships, networking, and job searches” that it is today. Her focus on education became the foundation of the business she would soon dream up.

Laura Maniec Fiorvanti, MS. Photo courtesy of Corkbuzz.

Taking Corkbuzz from Dream to Reality

Fiorvanti was already teaching wine classes on the side at the French Culinary Institute in New York City when her idea for Corkbuzz started to percolate. Harrington had left B.R. Guest to open the winery Gramercy Cellars in Walla Walla, Washington, in 2005, and Fiorvanti had replaced him as the company’s wine director. Given her position, she was sought after as an expert. But at just 24, she felt as though her career was peaking. “In the beginning,” she says, “we had fine-dining restaurants, but as those closed, it became less interesting. In New York, there were only a few jobs where you got six figures—and I wasn’t going to have run 25 restaurants and hotels across states and then go to work at even the best restaurant, so it was like, ‘Oh shit, what will I do?’ Then I passed my Master [Sommelier] and started Corkbuzz in my head.”

Grandma Rose’s son, Frank Vafier, had made a fortune in software. He helped his niece develop a business plan, then offered himself as partner. “He was the person at my grandmother’s house as excited as I was about making gelato,” says Fiorvanti. “He took me to Chanterelle for my 19th birthday, and I met [wine director] Roger Dagorn and tried Madeira and Bandol Blanc. We decided that we have a lot of the same business goals, morals, and values. I quit my job in July 2010.”

B.R. Guest had been “a free education,” Fiorvanti says. “We were in director of ops meetings; we got P&L [data]. Yes, I had a focused wine career, but I always wanted to take care of people and be on the business side, so that company worked for me.”

Colleagues highlight qualities that Fiorvanti insists she learned at B.R. Guest. “She instilled [that you] never burn bridges,” says Chris Raftery, the wine director of Gramercy Tavern in New York City, who worked at Corkbuzz for four years starting in 2013. “Have integrity. Be nice because it’s a tiny world.”

Fiorvanti credits Greg Harrington with teaching her about demeanor. She says that he’d tell her: “Don’t treat people like shit if they’re interviewing you or selling you wine. You have one name in the business. Keep it sacred.”

Harrington himself points out another of Fiorvanti’s assets. “She is the rare operator who understands the feel of a dining room,” he says, “the right music at the right time at the right level. Lights are the same way. You can really drive the experience with lighting and music.”  

According to Fiorvanti, Steve Hanson was the source of those lessons. “He’s like the psychologist for the restaurant business,” she says. “That’s why I spent so much money on lighting design—because he said people want to feel good even in the bathrooms.”

Corkbuzz cellar. Photo courtesy of Corkbuzz.

Redefining the New York City Wine Bar

When Corkbuzz Union Square opened on November 29, 2011, it upended expectations. “People were like, ‘No one can get a new license in Union Square,’” Fiorvanti says, “but I did the licenses for B.R. Guest. I knew I needed community outreach, and I started it before I signed a lease.”

Fiorvanti built a front bar and a light-soaked, flexible events space/dining room. She bought a cellar from a collector and crafted an education-oriented wine list focused on classic regions, grapes, and producers, with plenty of good values, some esoterica, and some old and rare bottles.

Corkbuzz was an instant hit. The Wall Street Journal called Fiorvanti the wine scene’s “it girl.” In the flush of success, though, her first lesson was how to relinquish control. “I realized it wouldn’t work to do everything,” she says. “I had to let people shine. It made my life nicer.”

Corkbuzz’s first employee, Stevie Stacionis, focused on communications and content for the wine bar. “[Laura] would give me projects and the bravery to approach them. ‘You’re smart. Go for it,’” she recalls Fiorvanti saying. A natural teacher, Fiorvanti helped Stacionis, now co-owner of the Bay Grape Wine Shop in Oakland and founder of the women-in-wine conference Bâtonnage Forum, learn by doing. “It was hands down the most formidable experience of my professional life,” says Stacionis. “I got to have a kick-ass female mentor.”

“I thankfully had strong people,” says Fiorvanti. “I’m sure it has to do with the fact that the [Corkbuzz] brand lends itself to developing a career. It’s not a waiting-tables job. People feel ownership.”

Ryan Totman can attest to that. Six years ago, he started as a runner at Corkbuzz in Union Square. He knew Fiorvanti from the “relatable” wine seminars she held for staff when he was a server at Ruby Foo’s. He was looking for a place where he could study for his advanced somm certification. At Corkbuzz, “there’d be a classified first- or second-growth Bordeaux, easily $500, but she’d be blinding it to staff,” he says. “There was more opportunity with her than anywhere else.”

Today, Totman is Corkbuzz’s beverage director. “We have to have classics, but we’re also tied into innovative styles,” he says. “When [Fiorvanti] sees something that needs direction, she’ll communicate with us. But we have creative liberties, and it’s just encouraging.”

Gramercy Tavern’s Raftery points out the benefits of Fiorvanti’s management style. “There are a lot of owners who try to hold on to the [wine] program while distracted by other things, but that can be detrimental,” he says. “It’s a huge skill of hers, and something I’ve tried to embrace, to trust your somms and wine director while having an invisible hand. Then her employees respect her so much, and the last thing we want is to disappoint her.”

But Fiorvanti also dives into the trenches to support staff development. As Raftery recalls, “She’d say, ‘You go participate in the Ruinart Challenge, travel, see appellations. Do not say no. Make connections to think about what’s next in your career. I’ll watch the restaurant.’”

Expanding Corkbuzz to Other Locations

In 2014, Fiorvanti expanded Corkbuzz to New York’s Chelsea Market. The following year, she launched a location in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Vafier, her uncle and partner, owns a home. As with Union Square, the success of the Corkbuzz in Charlotte has surprised some. “People would tell us you could only sell California Chardonnay and Argentine Malbec there,” says Fiorvanti. “We found out that’s not true. We host sold-out classes, and we’ve found passion and interest in that market.”

Like the other locations, the Charlotte Corkbuzz reflects Fiorvanti’s philosophy that “wine should be approachable but not dumbed down.” That ethos attracts a host of high-caliber producers, regions, and wine associations to showcase their labels at each of the Corkbuzz locations. For one event in Union Square, Laura Catena, the managing director of Bodega Catena Zapata in Mendoza, Argentina, dreamed up a “double-blind poetry session,” in which blindfolded guests would taste her wines and write poems based on their impressions. “When I first went to sommeliers,” recalls Catena, “they said, ‘This is crazy, it’s too complicated.’ I called Laura, and she said, ‘It sounds amazing. We can definitely do that for you.’ There’s not a lot of places where you can mount something totally different, and they will pull it off like they did.”

“[Fiorvanti is] confident and assertive but also comfortable and inclusive,” says her friend Samantha Rudd, the vintner at Rudd Wines in Oakville, California. “That’s a rare combination.” It’s embodied in the way in which Corkbuzz levels the field so that everyone can learn and drink together. Industry opportunities—postshift specials, trade gatherings, study groups, advanced seminars—share space with tastings, dinners, and introductory, 101 classes for customers. And everyone comes together for daily blind-tasting happy hours. At Corkbuzz, wine “becomes an everyday discussion,” says Totman, “all day long.”

Frank Vafier and Laura Maniec Fiorvanti, MS. Photo courtesy of Laura Maniec Fiorvanti, MS.

Keeping It Real Despite Her Success

Fiorvanti continues to advance wine education through other channels too. She is vice chair of SommFoundation, the Guild of Sommeliers’ educational foundation. She helps run the Rudd Roundtable, bringing top MS candidates to Napa for a weekend of learning. And she just launched the Corkbuzz Scholarship for Women, open to women sitting for the Court of Master Sommeliers’ Advanced Exam in 2019.

“I was reading stats about the MS program,” Fiorvanti says, “and the numbers of women were too low. It could be because they need more resources, so I figured I’d do the scholarship, and the rest of the 32 women who hold this title would think, ‘That’s great. Maybe we’ll do that, too.’ If I sponsor, and others do it, it will become a movement.”

That kind of leadership is crucial, says Victoria James, a partner at Cote in Manhattan and the restaurant’s beverage director. “She’s an icon,” James says. “She provides women something to aspire toward—to become small-business owners, stand behind producers they believe in, and know that [they] can be successful in a man’s world.”

Over the years, Fiorvanti has received numerous accolades, including being named in 2013 to Crain’s New York Business 40 Under 40 list, the Wine Enthusiast’s Top 40 Tastemakers Under 40, and Food & Wine’s Sommeliers of the Year. Corkbuzz was also a semifinalist for the Beard Awards’ Outstanding Wine Program in 2017 and 2018.

The accolades haven’t changed Fiorvanti’s very human approach. James remembers being on a panel with her at the women’s coworking space The Wing. “Someone in the audience asked, ‘How do I become a sommelier?’ Laura didn’t hesitate. She said, ‘Come work for me. I’ll hire you.’ That’s so unusual and beautiful,” says James. “It shows how she supports young women, but not just women—anyone hungry to grow and learn.”

Some of Fiorvanti’s extracurricular activities are good for business. She extends her brand through bespoke tastings with corporate clients, for example. She’s an expert who makes bottle selections for the direct-to-consumer site Weekly Tasting. She appeared in Jason Wise’s movie Somm 3 and is cooking up projects for the upcoming streaming network Somm TV. In addition, she’s working on a book and a podcast.

But other endeavors she’s involved in, like the women’s summit she’s planning with Rudd, are just for the love of the industry. And as good a businesswoman as she is, Fiorvanti has no plans to take Corkbuzz in a B.R. Guest direction. “I have lines in my head,” she says, “about how to keep balance.”

Fiorvanti married last year, and she’s hoping to start a family. But she also wants to “continue to have integrity within the business.” That includes keeping the Union Square location fresh so it feels “like it hasn’t been there for seven years,” as well as developing her career. “I might look into the MW program,” she says. “I want to continue my own growth as a wine professional instead of just doing payroll.”

In the meantime, professionals throughout the wine world—producers showcasing their bottles, knowledge-hungry novices, pros on a certification path—will come to Corkbuzz, and Fiorvanti will take care of them, with warmth and hospitality, just as her grandmother taught her. Rebecca Flynn, one of the many sommeliers who learned at Fiorvanti’s side, gives voice to a common view when she observes, “It’s like she wants to host a dinner party and make sure everyone’s included.”  

Betsy Andrews is a journalist and poet. Her award-winning books include New Jersey and The Bottom. Her writing can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com.

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