Kaela Miller: Sommelier

  • Name: Kaela Miller
  • Job Title: Sommelier
  • Age: 32
  • Location: San Francisco, CA

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How did you get into the wine industry?

I got into the wine industry through a natural progression of working in the service industry. I started working in restaurants when I was 16 to have extra cash for gas, car insurance, pizza with friends — those type of things. While attending community college, I started working for a great restaurateur out of Carmel, California. He started out as a busboy and worked his way up to opening seven or eight restaurants on the Monterey Peninsula. It really showed me that you don’t need to go the societal norm college route to be successful.

At the same time, I started hanging out with a really good crew of other servers. I was about 19 and they were all in their late 20s. I attribute a lot of my success in the industry to spending time with that group outside of work. They would take me out to places in Carmel and Monterey where I really learned what it meant to enjoy and appreciate a bottle of wine.

I started bartending when I turned 21 and one of my coworkers suggested I look into being a sommelier. I didn’t know anything about sommeliers. I didn’t even know how to spell the word, but I started reading about it and became very interested. After about a week, I sat down with my mom, who loves wine but never knew much about it, and I told her that I loved being in hospitality but wanted to look into a career that is more focused on wine. She suggested I get a job at the wine club she was part of. I was 23 when I started working at a placed called A Taste of Monterey. I spent about 6 years there learning about wine and refining my palate. The great thing is that it was that it focused solely on Monterey County so I began to really understand the difference in grapes from each local vineyard. I would taste five different Pinot Noirs from five different plots in Monterey county and could tell the difference in each one. It was amazing how much I learned to understand the intricacies and details of the different wines. That fueled me to want to learn more about the rest of the wine in the world.

I read that San Francisco is one of the most competitive markets for sommeliers. Tell me about you experience at The Battery.

I moved to San Francisco about three years ago to work at The Battery under an amazing Master Sommelier from France named Christophe Tassan. The Battery was a brand new members-only club that hadn’t even opened when I was hired. There were two other sommeliers that I worked with on the floor and then Christophe who managed the program. Since the project was new with no established wine list, Christophe challenged us to create a wine culture. It could have easily been a boozy bar-driven club or beer-driven because The Battery offered those types of beverages in the restaurant. But Christophe tasked us with getting to know the members and opening them up to wine so that we can build our program. We were able to convert beer drinkers and spirit lovers to wine. We grew an amazing clientele of members who came there to speak to us about out wine list. We had 17 countries represented and more than 1300 wines available to order. We gave them different ways to experience wine. We had 30 wines by the glass at all times: white, red, rose, and sparkling, plus sherries and ports, and usually a Madeira. We also had really cool tools. We utilized the Coravin quite a bit.

What’s a Coravin?

It was created by a surgeon. It’s a mechanism with a fine needle that uses argon gas to pierce the cork and allow wine to come out. You preserve the wine without ever having to uncork the bottle. We allowed our guests to taste very special wines without compromising the product. We would have members who would buy a bottle, have us Coravin it so that they could drink two glasses that night, and then come back in three months later for another glass. We had a lot of fun opportunities to really engage the members and their guests with different wines and technology.

The experience at The Battery taught me so much about being a sommelier. Not only was I pouring wine, but I was leading deep conversations about different vineyards, producers, and regions. Opening a customer up to a new wine is the thrill of being a sommelier on the floor.

Were you learning through experience? Or did you take classes about wine?

It was all from experience. I remember when I first started at The Battery, I would open a bottle of champagne by holding it with my left hand and twisting with my right. That was most comfortable since my dominant hand is my right. Our director pointed out that in competition it will look awkward since I would then need to transition the bottle to my right hand to pour. When you take the exams, it’s really a competition with yourself — how good are you and how much better can you be. Having people around you who have gone through rigorous examinations and have earned their prestigious title — they have insight into those little things.

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Tell me about the exam that you are currently studying for.  

I’ve progressed through level two and I’m currently studying for the Advanced Sommelier Exam. It’s the one right before the Masters Exam. I haven’t had the opportunity to travel outside the United States so I really want to get at least a few travel experiences in before I buckle down and devote a year or two of my life to these exams.

Is that how long it takes to prepare?

It depends. The knowledge portion is probably the hardest because it’s so expansive. They can ask you anything on the exam from grape varietals to what river runs or mountain range runs through the region where the wine was produced. It takes a lot of training and knowledge to be able to verbally answer those questions on command.

So you are currently in study mode?

Yes, but while studying I’d like to travel to some of these regions so that my knowledge expands beyond just what I’m reading in books. I really want to experience and understand the people and the culture.

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Where are you going to visit?

I want my first trip to be to France: Alsace, Loire Valley, and then down into the Rhone Valley. My second trip would be to Italy: Piedmont, Veneto, and Alto Adige. But I also really want to visit the Sherry Triangle in Spain. Sherry is such an underappreciated wine. It’s awesome when you pour a dry, crisp, white wine sherry to someone. Most people are used to the creamy sherry from the grocery store.

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What’s the most difficult portion of the exam?

For me? It’s going to be the knowledge part, which again just comes back to my lack of travel. I’m comfortable with service since that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few years. Then the tasting portion just comes down to trying different wines consistently and having a good group of people around you who help challenge your palate. It’s amazing how many wines taste similar even though they are so different. It’s important to have a good tasting group.

Do you have a typical study regimen?

Right now I study between two and four hours a day, which is a low margin compared to the people who are taking the exam later this year. Many of my friends are studying from anywhere from 6 to 9 hours a day outside of work. I’m more in vacation mode right now planning my travels but will go more into study mode within the next year.

 What is the goal after the exams are completed?

The goal is to transition from the floor into private cellar management and evaluation. Wine collectors are usually pretty knowledgeable when they establish a cellar with 1000+ bottles of wine. However, in many cases there is a need for a sommelier to provide information on what to buy and sell. It would be more of a private sommelier position where I would manage and evaluate cellars for various clients.

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That’s a really interesting route to take. What drew you to cellar management?

It still allows for the excitement of turning people on to new wines but it’s much more of a personal connection of getting to know the preferences of specific clients. Also, I’ve been in the restaurant industry for 17 years and would love to have more of a normal work week. And of course, the travel that goes along with having clients in different cities around the world.

Which wines are you most excited about right now?

I’m always excited about Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley. I’m also really enjoying what California is doing with the Rhone Rangers program. It’s a bunch of wine makers from all over the state who are committed to making Rhone varietals. There’s some really exciting wine in this program coming from the cooler regions like Santa Barbara, Monterey, and Sonoma. On top of that, my heart is always with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Monterey. When it’s a producer I know and love, I can’t resist it when I see it on a wine list. The wine director at The Battery knew I was form Monterey County so he sourced a 1976 Chalone Vineyard Pinot Noir and hid it in the cellar for only me to sell. He didn’t tell any of the other somms. It was such a cool experience to sell the bottle. I think my excitement transferred to the guests enjoying it that much more.

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What advice would you give to aspiring sommeliers?

Always stay passionate about wine. Even if you’re working at the Olive Garden, you can impress people with your knowledge and turn them on to wine. The knowledge will give you confidence, and with confidence you will advance.

Question from last interviewee: Is there any career you ever wanted to pursue besides the one you’re in?

Yes, I was taking classes in photography, creative writing, and psychology because I wanted to be a photojournalist. I stopped because I actually have really bad vision so it was hard to take a sharp photograph. It became very frustrating because glasses couldn’t correct my vision enough, especially when looking through a camera lens. Contacts were finally made available for my impairment when I was 22. For the first time in my life, I actually saw the details of leaves on trees and bricks on buildings. I finally noticed the detail in the world.

I’m sure it’s fun to have photography experience when you are traveling to different vineyards.

It’s hilarious how many photos I have of wine.

It’s interesting that you chose a career that relies so much on taste and smell.

People have told me that I have a really great palate and nose. I associate that with the fact that I didn’t see for so many years so my senses had to develop in other ways.

What one question do you want to ask the next interviewee on People With Cool Jobs?

Which part of your job have you found most difficult and why?

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