November 2008

New Leaders Award 2008

By: Anthony Dias Blue

We all know that the on-premise beverage business changes rapidly. This constant state of flux sometimes makes it difficult for bars, restaurants and hotels to maintain high levels of quality in beverage buying and beverage service. Leadership—the ability not only to do one’s job well but to inspire others to do theirs well—is absolutely essential if traditions of service are to be maintained at the levels that we, and our customers, expect. That’s why we at THE TASTING PANEL have created the New Leaders Award, presented in recognition of those industry professionals who have shown extraordinary leadership ability in their respective positions. Congratulations to this year’s group of honorees. Your excellence is an invaluable contribution to our industry!

—Anthony Dias Blue

The following recipients from Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Palm Desert, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle were honored earlier this month at Pechanga Casino in Temecula, California.


Best Bartender/Bar Management
George Sproule, General Manager/Mixologist
Downtown Cocktail Room

George Sproule
George Sproule began bartending in 2000 as a way to pay for college. After graduating, he moved to Las Vegas in 2005 to get a job as a bartender but couldn’t find work. He took a position in finance and started temping at a bar and learning what he could. When Sproule took a mixologist class with Francesco Lafranconi, his passion for mixology was born. Sproule joined the Downtown Cocktail Room, owned by Michael Cornthwaite, almost two years ago.

His drink philosophy calls for clean, bold flavors and balance, something he feels has been missing for years. Sproule says, “I’ve learned to balance a cocktail like a chef balances a plate.” Being off the Strip, the Downtown Cocktail Room caters to a hip local clientele and has an urban feel, fair pricing and no gaming. Drinks, which range in price from $7 to $12, are freshly-made, and Sproule changes the menu every three months, offering 15 to 22 seasonal cocktails at any time. Sproule is part of a growing mixology movement in Las Vegas and focuses on quality, flavor and balance at the Downtown Cocktail Room.

Best Sommelier
Jason Smith, MS, Director of Wine
Bellagio Resort Hotel
Jason Smith

Jason Smith is the youngest practicing Master Sommelier in the U.S. As Director of Wine at Bellagio, he oversees all wine operations for the AAA Five Diamond resort, including sales and service in 32 venues, from restaurants and bars to banquet space and in-room dining. Smith also manages the inventory of more than 60,000 bottles spanning approximately 5,000 selections—more than any other hospitality outlet in the country. Smith leads the wine education of Bellagio’s 3,500 service employees and is responsible for hiring and training the property’s sommeliers, a record staff of 15, which includes two additional Master Sommeliers. Smith previously held the position of Head Sommelier at Michael Mina Bellagio, the eponymous Michelin one-star restaurant of the famed chef and restaurateur.

Smith developed his affinity for wine accidentally. Dreams of being a chef led him to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, but his destiny changed forever after a required course in wine education sparked an enduring passion. Soon, a commanding wine repertoire led Jason to the prestigious role of Cellar Master at New York’s celebrated ‘21’ Club—all before Smith was 21 years of age himself. Two years later, at 22, he was awarded the title of Sommelier. Smith obtained the coveted designation of Master Sommelier in 2005 and is one of only 96 in the U.S.


Best Wine Program
Peter Zwiener, Owner, and Seyo Nurkovic, Sommelier
Wolfgang’s Steakhouse, Beverly Hills
Peter Zwiener

A licensed pilot at age 17, an investment banker with an MBA and a former electrical engineer, Peter Zwiener saw a great opportunity for his own father to take the helm of a restaurant at the time when most men are ready to retire.
Wolfgang Zwiener worked at some of New York’s finest dining spots: Luchow’s, Peter Luger and the Hilton. His son Peter zeroed in on the idea of continuing in the great American tradition of a world-class steakhouse in his father’s name. Partnering with Zijo Music, Ramo Feratovic and his father, with investors that included Chef Amiro Cruz, the first Wolfgang’s Steak House opened on glamorous Park Avenue in New York City, followed by its trendy Tribeca address. This past spring, they took on Beverly Hills.


Seyo Nurkovic

Born in Montenegro, Yugoslavia, Nurkovic worked at Wolfgang’s Tribeca (NYC) location for three years, becoming a star head waiter. Owner Peter Zwiener knew Nurkovic was the man to help him open—and run—the Beverly Hills location. Now positioned as Head Waiter and Wine Buyer, Nurkovic continues to impress customers with his wonderful personality and helps format a top-of-the-line wine list at Wolfgang’s. Next up, Nurkovic is to open Wolfgang’s in Hawaii and Miami. When he’s not working the floor, he’s on the tennis court, soccer field or shooting hoops.

Best Bartender
Skyler Reeves, Bar Manager
Villa Lounge, West Hollywood

Skyler Reeves.

Originally from a small town outside Ann Arbor, Michigan, Skyler Reeves began his journey in the hospitality business as a child, running a concession stand at a local recreation center. Following undergraduate studies in international affairs at CU Boulder, Reeves moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the nightlife industry. While working in a small Los Angeles bar, Reeves took it upon himself to learn every operational aspect of that establishment in a year’s time.

SBE, a top restaurant and nightlife group, took notice of Reeves’ keen business sense and incredible work ethic. It was with SBE that Reeves received a real introduction to the nightlife industry. “I’m proud to say that I was one of the first SBE employees. I watched the company grow from 20 or 30 employees to 800 employees in a four to five year span,” says Reeves. Over the next few years, Reeves systematically progressed through four SBE projects all the while swiftly moving up the ranks from bartender, to bar manager, to general manager. He is currently Bar Manager at West Hollywood’s celebrity magnet, Villa Lounge. “Sometimes it’s a thankless job,” says Reeves; “I’m really happy that THE TASTING PANEL got what we’re doing here.”


Best Sommelier
Omar Naimi, CFBE, Resident Manager
Desert Springs JW Marriott Resort & Spa
Omar Naimi.

Omar Naimi was born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden; his mother is from Finland and his father is Moroccan. “I learned from my parents at an early age that hard work would result in a successful life,” says Naimi. “I spent a lot of time at my father’s restaurant learning to cashier and clean dishes, but the most important thing I acquired was a passion for the business. My mother taught me values, principles, ethics and the love of family.”

To further his passion, Naimi enrolled in the Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland. “The most important thing I learned was that when a guest walked through the door, they could pretend to be whoever they wanted to be and it was our responsibility to let them live that dream while staying with us.” His passion for wine blossomed when he trained at the Vineyard Hotel in CapeTown, South Africa. The hotel was located near Stellenbosch Winery, whose chef was instrumental in helping Naimi understand how to pair food and wine.
Naimi actually researched and found the company for which he wanted to work: Marriott International. “The decision was easy once I learned of Mr. Marriott’s philosophy: If you take great care of your associates, they will take great care of your guests.”


Best Bartender/Bar Management
Mac Gregory, Director of Food and Beverage
The Phoenician Resort

“I am product-driven.” That direct and confidently-stated philosophy is what makes Thomas “Mac” Gregory fiercely independent in running the huge food and beverage operation at The Phoenician, the 20-year-old luxury destination in the heart of Scottsdale, Arizona. With almost two decades of experience in the hospitality industry, Gregory shows not only expertise but polish. Years of working for the Hyatt organization gave him his foundation in leadership, but his creativity is most likely innate. One of Gregory’s most innovative moves at The Phoenician was to implement a resort-wide custom call menu. “We don’t price drinks, we price alcohol,” Gregory explains. “It’s an interactive experience, engaging the guest and the bartender or wait staff. You can ask for a Margarita, but you choose your brand first.”

Gregory is taking tequila to an uninterrupted level of growth at The Phoenician, scouring importers, distributors and small-brand owners to fulfill his goal of introducing a premiere tequila program to his high-profile corner of the world. He has even taken his entire beverage team to Jalisco for an education in the agave fields and at the distilleries. “The Phoenician resort has the biggest F&B operation outside of any casino organization,” notes Gregory. “I’m driving a $70 million train.”


Best Sommelier
Erica Landon
Ten 01 Restaurant

Erica Landon

At Ten 01 in Portland’s Pearl District, Sommelier Erica Landon believes that consumers have an ever-expanding need to learn more about what they’re drinking. “We’ve actually had guests come in and request blind tastings based on terroir,” says Landon, “so we take out wines from different AVAs, then taste and discuss them”—a process that she admits makes her job quite fulfilling. She also helped implement a wine club that holds monthly wine tastings and dinners, creating the kind of personal interaction among wine lovers that Landon feels is critical. In her quest to keep the restaurant’s wine program fresh and innovative, she strives continuously to learn more and to share that knowledge with her customers.


Best Bartender
Bruce Lee Krager
Cowboy Star

Bruce Lee Krager.

Belly-up to the bar at Cowboy Star and you’ll quickly discover one thing: The staff are genuinely happy people. And lead bartender Bruce Lee Krager is no exception. “It’s about taking the ego and attitude out of the bar. Bartenders are truly public servants,” he points out. “I have my hands on what you are about to consume, and you are telling me about your day, about your life—and that’s a big deal.”

This sense of responsibility in the service industry is rare. “People come in looking for an experience, something they can’t do for themselves or don’t necessarily want to do,” Bruce says. “I do this full-time. My mind is always going. I am continuously thinking of ingredients for a new cocktail or how to recreate an old classic.” Krager’s love of cooking no doubt plays a role in his success as a mixologist. He gestures towards Cowboy Star’s kitchen: “If a chef can pull alcohol into the kitchen, then why can’t a bartender pull food out?” Krager does: His latest creation is a Sagebrush Martini.

Grateful for his success, Krager shares his modus operandi: “I focus on the now,” he smiles. “Life has opened up some really amazing doors for me every time I’ve just done what I love . . . and done it to the best of my ability.”


Best Wine Program
Lissa Doumani, Co-owner, and Susan Naderi, GM

Lissa Doumani and Susan Naderi.

This dynamic duo manages one of San Francisco’s most innovative wine programs, and they make it look easy all the while. Ame’s list—one that includes sakés, which are growing in popularity—must accommodate both the pairing demands of Chef-owner Hiro Sone’s signature cuisine and the palates of Ame’s global clientele, many of whom reside at the St. Regis Hotel where the restaurant is housed. Co-owner Lissa Doumani, whose service style has been widely recognized, works closely with General Manager Susan Naderi to insure that Ame’s list looks forward to emerging varietals—invigorating whites from Southern Italy are a recent addition—while maintaining a solid foundation with wines that have proven their affinity with Sone’s cuisine. Naderi, who conducts staff training, strives to keep an inspired dialog about the wine program going at all times. “Our customers are excited about sake, and they are looking to us for direction. We make a point of staying one step ahead in securing our allocation of seasonal sakés so we can showcase those releases.” Doumani also points to a strong up-tick in sales of both high-profile and vintage wines—a good indicator that Ame’s clientele has tremendous confidence in their program.

Best Bartender
Amanda Washington
Amanda Washington.

Bay Area native and world traveler Amanda Washington has been doing her part to further the revival of cocktail culture in San Francisco. For the last four years, Washington has tended bar at Rosewood, 15 Romolo and, most recently Rye (all three owned by Jon Gasparini and Greg Lindgren) and has been widely acknowledged both for her award-winning cocktails and as one of the City’s most popular talents.

Much of her inspiration comes from learning the traditions behind the products she’s using. “Spirits companies have turned their focus to bartenders,” says Washington. “They are personalizing the experience for us, and that has given me a much better understanding of history behind many brands. I find that I’m more likely to use products that have made education part of their program.” Twenty-six-year-old Washington’s current interest is coffee, and her latest cocktails are inspired by the fruit and acidity found in the artisan brews at Blue Bottle Coffee Co. When she’s not traveling in search of more cocktail culture, she’s researching the local scene. “There’s a real sense of camaraderie among the bartending community here in San Francisco; it’s something that has emerged over the last few years and it’s been a great source of inspiration.”


Best Sommelier/Wine Management
Jeffrey Dorgan, Wine Director
Barking Frog at Willow Lodge

Jeffrey Dorgan never dreamed of his position today when he started working as a server at the Space Needle. During his nineteen years high above Seattle, Jeffrey found a mentor in his co-worker, Helen Hamilton, who would taste wines with him in the back of her car after work. From there, his passion for wine was born. After the Space Needle and a short stint managing a local café, Jeffrey went back to serving at Cascadia in Belltown. He passed the Level 1 Master Sommelier exam and worked as the Assistant Sommelier, later becoming the Wine and Spirits Director. At Cascadia, Dorgan was challenged to be creative while pairing wines for the monthly 3-course menu offering.

Dorgan then opened his own place, Smash Wine Bar & Bistro, where he tried to demystify wine and make it approachable for his customers. A year and a half ago, Dorgan joined the Barking Frog. He features a wine list reflecting the best Washington has to offer: 90% of his list is from local Washington producers. Dorgan enjoys the challenge of making sense of the country’s fastest growing wine region and passing his passion on to his customers.

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