November 2009

The Bluies: Our New Leader Awards

By: The Tasting Panel Editorial Team


This has been a challenging year for the beverage industry. But that hasn’t stopped a very special group of new leaders from appearing.

In fact, tough times demand the best talent, and these 12 wine directors, sommeliers and bartenders have what it takes to succeed when the going gets rough. That’s why we’re especially proud this year to honor the winners of our New Leader Awards.

—Anthony Dias Blue, Editor-in-Chief, The Tasting Panel


Wine Director:
Lucas Payá, SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills

Lucas Payá is the Beverage Director of SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills. In this role, Lucas is responsible for the hotel’s beverage program including the extensive, global wine list and modern cocktail program at the four-star The Bazaar by José Andrés.

Lucas’s career in the hospitality industry began at the Hotel and Catering School of Barcelona when he was just nineteen years old.  He specialized in dining room service his first year but a growing fascination with wine prompted Lucas to switch focus and immerse himself in learning the art of the sommelier.  After Lucas completed his studies, he became certified as a member of the International Sommelier Guild.

At Via Veneto in Barcelona, Lucas's role alternated daily between server, barman and sommelier.  The full skill set he had gained while studying, from tableside fish filleting to composing classic cocktails, was tested over his three years at the Michelin one-star restaurant.  After this experience, Lucas decided to concentrate solely on wine service and in 2000 joined the team at La Vinya del Senyor, a groundbreaking wine bar in the heart of Barcelona that was one of the first places to offer wine and tapas in the same location.

Eager to expand his knowledge, Lucas moved to London a year later to learn English and gain an understanding of the ever-expanding New World offerings. At Alain Ducasse’s Spoon in the Sanderson Hotel, Lucas moved from sommelier to chef sommelier and wine buyer within six months. Overseeing a team of four sommeliers and the hotel’s wine program afforded Lucas an extraordinary learning experience, one that was integral in his future position at SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills.

A position at the esteemed three-star Michelin restaurant El Bulli brought Lucas back to Spain.  As chef sommelier and wine buyer for both the restaurant and its associated hotel in Seville, Lucas developed a revered wine program that included wine pairings for an ever-changing menu of over 35 courses.  His in-depth knowledge and comprehension allowed him to pair complex dishes with interesting wines ranging from dry sherry to obscure whites. Lucas spent five years at El Bulli before moving to America, a step he had wanted to take for some time.

While working for a wine distributor in New York, Lucas was introduced to celebrated Spanish chef José Andrés, another El Bulli alum, who told him of his new project in Los Angeles. Intrigued by the unique concept and opportunity to work in a hotel again, Paya moved to Los Angeles and assumed the position of Beverage Director at SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills. 


Marcos Tello, The Edison Downtown

Marcos Tello is an accomplished bartender who is passionately committed to launching and sustaining a classic “cocktail culture” in Los Angeles. He created Blind Tiger Rx, which provides training and signature cocktail menus for restaurants and bars.

By consulting for various restaurants and lounges, he has successfully helped install classically inspired cocktail programs throughout the Los Angeles area, such as Seven Grand Whiskey Bar, The Doheny, Malo Taqueria, The Edison and The Varnish. Marcos is also founder and chairman of the craft-guild called The Sporting Life, which hosts monthly meetings to bring together bartenders and enthusiasts alike.

  To refine his artistry and the history of the trade, Marcos sought out, and studied with such cocktail guru’s as Sasha Petraske, Dave Wondrich, and Dale DeGroff and has recently received his B.A.R. certification (the highest level of spirit and cocktail education in the country). Marcos has also  consulted for various spirit companies like: Diageo, William-Grant & Sons, Pernod-Ricard, Young’s Market Company, and Brown-Forman.

This pure passion was soon discovered and praised by prominent publications such as: The Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, Imbibe, The Tasting Panel magazine and Robb Report. Recently, Mr. Tello has been voted president of the Southern California Chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild. Marcos has also been featured on broadcasts and digital media such as: James Beard Nominee “The Art of Blending”, The Tom Leykis Show, and KTLA Morning News.

This native Angeleno is determined to cement Los Angeles’s place in the “Cocktail Revolution.”


Wine Director:
Jesse Rodriguez, The Grand Del Mar

Jesse Rodriguez is the wine director at The Grand Del Mar, overseeing sommelier staffing, wine training and ongoing education of the food and beverage team, as well as heading the overall maintenance of the wine collections and storage for the resort’s five dining venues, the gourmet shop and catering functions.

Jesse also spearheads the wine program which includes wine events, the creation of proprietary wines and other related programs that have garnered coveted recognition from Food & Wine, Santé, Wine & Spirits, Wine Spectator, and Esquire. Jesse was chosen “Best Sommelier, Reader’s Choice Best of 2008” in Ranch & Coast, San Diego’s luxury lifestyle magazine.

Previously in 2007, he was the opening head sommelier at Addison, the resort’s signature restaurant, where he put together Addison’s award-winning vast wine collection and 3,300 labels wine list, featuring the gamut of fine wines, from top California vintage cult wines, to new discoveries from South Africa and South America, to the classic wines of France, Italy and Spain—some housed in Addison’s designed 2,500-bottle custom wine room. Addison’s impressive wine list received the prestigious Wine Spectator Grand Award in 2009.

During his tenure at The Grand Del Mar, Jesse has helped assemble the resort’s 35,000 bottle wine inventory. He also collaborated with several noted California winemakers to create an impressive proprietary private bottlings collection for Addison and The Grand Del Mar.

Before joining the team at The Grand Del Mar, Jesse was part of the talented group at Napa Valley’s French Laundry, helping the restaurant become the only dining venue in California to garner a Three Michelin Star rating. Jesse was also California sales manager for ZD Wines, the estate manager for Phoenix-based Alliance Beverage Distributing Company; and a sommelier for The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona.

He is a certified advanced sommelier by the American Chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers and credentialed as a Certified Wine Educator by the Society of Wine Educators.

Mike Yen: Nine-Ten, La Jolla

My cultural background is a bit obscure since my mother is from Hawaii and my father was raised in Rome. However, this diversity has induced a willingness to browse through other cultures to find new techniques and profiles. Often, the “new” flavors that seem fresh and exciting come from fruits and spices that have existed for generations in other cultures. Whether if its flavors or applications, I feel that every door has opened another as mixology evolves and progresses. Inspiration is ubiquitous if we just open our eyes more.

   While playing soccer for U.C. San Diego, I suffered four concussions. I started bartending, hoping for some sort of “memory aerobics”. I already knew that I liked people, but found the outlet for creativity alluring. I’ve been in the business ever since.

I am now fulfilling my fifth year as mixologist at Nine-Ten restaurant and bar in La Jolla, California. As our cuisine keeps pace with the avant-garde, so must the cocktails. Previously, I worked at the Lodge at Torrey Pines. It is an old fashioned bar with zero latitude for creativity. I expanded my knowledge of execution and product, but was confined by the “classics”. Nine-Ten has been a different story. The doors are open to creativity and the ceiling is as high as you decide to set it. My craft has blossomed here as I try to reinvent myself every day.
Since there is no one panacea that satisfies every palate, each customer presents a new riddle. Some guests crave simplicity while others want to embark down the “rabbit hole” and play with some cocktail-morphic creations. Either way, my ultimate goal is customer satisfaction. I want people to leave with an experience, not just a good drink.

Lately, I have been playing more with varying formats instead of flavors. I’ve found that most people are not willing to jump into a new taste that may be foreign to them – but they are always excited to experiment with a new application. For example, I have a regular who only drinks Jack Daniels and Coke. So, I made him a Jack and Coke Trio. The trio consists of:
1) Carbonated Jack Daniels poured over frozen reduced Coke cubes
2) Jack and Coke Jello shot
3) Jack and Coke Swedish fish candies

Influences: Jason Knibb (executive chef), Jack Fisher (pastry chef), Chris Bleidorn (ex-sous chef, now at Alinea), Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria, Grant Achatz.


Wine Director:
Mark Bright, Saison

Born in Chicago, Mark Bright has been passionate about wine since he went to Europe at the age of 15. At 17, he starting working at Aqua Restaurant in the Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas, while attending the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he studied Food and Beverage Management. At UNLV Mark was the President of the Wine Club and helped organize many events to benefit the school. He joined the Bellagio Sommelier team on his 21st birthday, working on the floor at Aqua Restaurant.

In 2004, Rajat Parr, the wine director for Michael Mina's restaurants, invited Bright to be the opening sommelier for one of the biggest restaurant openings in San Francisco's recent history - Restaurant Michael Mina. Bright fell in love with San Francisco's diverse culture and cuisine and found many people who shared his passion for food and wine. During his time at Michael Mina, Bright also assisted in the wine programs at many of Mina's restaurants including Arcadia in San Jose, Sea Blue and Nob Hill at MGM Grand Las Vegas, and Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Monarch Bay.

Bright's consulting business has worked with many restaurants and chefs throughout the Bay Area, including, Dosa, Circa, Cosmopolitan, Lingba, Oola, Pampas in Palo Alto, Sushi Groove, Home Restaurant, and 111 Minna. In 2007, Bright opened his first restaurant, Local Kitchen and Wine Merchant in San Francisco, as a co-owner. The development of this location was exciting and revolutionary, combining a wine merchant, wine bar and restaurant. In addition to Bright's consulting business, he was also a sommelier with the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay, working in the restaurant Novia and the Ritz Carlton's wine program.

Knowing that the best wine professionals in the industry are ones who know there is always more to learn, Bright continues his exploration and study of wine. His studies and travels have taken him throughout the wine regions of South America, Australia, South Africa, Europe, United States, China, and the saké breweries of Japan.

Erik Adkins, Heaven’s Dog

  Erik Adkins has been bartending in San Francisco since 1993. He is responsible for elevating the bar program at Charles Phan’s celebrated Slanted Door restaurant and for designing, opening and managing the bar at the Phan group’s new establishment, Heaven’s Dog. He has also designed the bar program at Flora in Oakland. His cocktails have appeared in several national magazines and newspapers.

Erik’s bars draw on the eye for detail and execution that defines New York cocktail culture and the respect for ingredients and responsible agriculture that is the San Francisco Bay Area. He likes to showcase spirits and cocktails that demonstrate a link to agriculture and to a specific place and time in history. He is grateful to be bartending at a time when there are so many passionate and talented people involved in the resurgence of the American cocktail.


Wine Director:
Jeff Eichelberger, RM Seafood

In and out of restaurants since the age of twelve, Jeff has always had a enthusiasm for food and people. Wine just seemed to be a perfect extension for those passions.

 It was while working at Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bistro in Las Vegas that Jeff met Wine Director, Michael Anthony, who would mentor Jeff’s development as a Sommelier. After completing the Advanced Certification with the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2005, Jeff was promoted by Master Sommelier Paul Roberts, to join the team at Michelin three-star restaurant Per Se in New York. It was during this time, that Jeff was named one of Wine & Spirits Magazine's Best New Sommeliers in America for 2005.

Per Se was an incredible opportunity, allowing Jeff to work with Chef Jonathan Benno's amazing cuisine and extensive menus, allowing him to craft his skill at pairing food and wine together in new and creative ways.

Brought back to Las Vegas by Stuart Roy, Director of Wine & Spirits at Caesars Palace, Jeff had the incredible opportunity to work for Michelin three-star Chef Guy Savoy and his son, Franck at their only restaurant in the United States. Restaurant Guy Savoy gave Jeff the opportunity to focus on French wines and Chef Savoy’s legendary cuisine.

Simultaneously, Jeff worked with the wine program for the Pellegrino family and their Las Vegas outpost for Rao's. Family owned and operated, the Las Vegas restaurant proved to be a high volume environment with the opportunity for Jeff to focus on Italian producers.

Jeff is currently Beverage Director of Chef Rick Moonen's rm seafood at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas. In a restaurant known for its work with sustainable products and seafood, Jeff has developed one of the preeminent wine lists in the country to focus completely on sustainable producers. The wine list has garnered national attention, including awards from Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast magazine.


Alex Velez, Crescent Gaming and Bartending School

My name is Alex Velez—also known in the industry as "Mr. Mixx." I’m originally from Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. I got my start in the industry at the tender age of 15. Being raised mainly by myself in a very tough neighborhood, food and beverage jobs offered me a way out of the streets and into the bar in 1993, when I got my first job at the historic Amanda's Cafe in Old San Juan designing my first drink menu.

It wasn't long before that my skills and ingenuity were recognized. I worked in such famous venues as The Caribe Hilton, where I designed the first specialty drink menu for The Peakcock Paradise Restaurant in 1995; Club Lazer in 1997; The Parrot Club and Dragonfly, both from 1998-2000; Tantra, which I helped open in 2000, and El Convento in 2002.

   Beginning at Bleu Bar and Tapas in 2004, I began working at various bars to assemble flair bartending teams, mixology teams and specialty drink menus. During this year, I set up such programs at Jaliscos Mexican Grill and Chapas Bar and Grill in 2004. Further, I was a regional brand representative for Absolut vodka in 2004 and in 2005 for Svedka Vodka and for X Rated Vodka (Chicago). In addition to being a brand representative, forming flairtending programs and creating cocktail menus, I also worked sporadically with the television show No Te Duermas Pub Tour beginning in 1994, with a weekly segment in which I travelled around the island to bars and nightclubs showcasing new products and spirits while performing flair—I’m especially well-known for the enormous fireballs I can spit!

In March of 2005, I moved to Chicago to fulfill my other lifelong goal, getting a graduate degree in forensic psychology. My first job in Chicago was at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Chicago as a Master Mixologist, where I was hired to institute a mixology and flair program. While at the Hyatt, I participated in several highly publicized events for which I created specialty cocktails, like “The Dragster,” a signature cocktail for The Speed Channel, and was exclusive flair/mixologist for Maxim magazine’s silver anniversary party.

At the I.M.L. conference in 2005, I was the exclusive flair/mixologist for the hotel parties and hold the sales record of 18,000 in one event (what a night—no doubt one of the best!!!). I also helped open Club Hard Drive at the Hyatt and designed drink menus for Club Hard Drive and the Hyatt's Stetson Steakhouse and The "BIG" BAR , which at 190 feet is the biggest in Midwest. In 2006, I moved on to the famous and historic Checkerboard Lounge, where I implemented flair bartending and mixology into the newly re-opened famous Hall of Fame Blues Club. And I was recognized by Chicago's Metromix magazine as their bartender of the month in February of that year while working at the Checkerboard Lounge.

While in Chicago, I was introduced to the U.S.B.G. (United States Bartenders Guild). I quickly completed their program and became a member of the Illinois Chapter. While with the USBG, I bartended at Charity Events such as the Taste of the Nations and competed in various cocktail competitions. I also became a Bona Fide Connoisseur of Mezcal in 2006. I opened the 2006 Moet/Hennessey cocktail competition with one of my signature flair shows.

Late in 2006,i moved to Las Vegas, where I continue to develop the newest, most exciting and uniquely innovative methods in mixology. While in there, I started flair/mixology programs at The Mayan Latin Dance club and at the Spirit of Cuba Restaurant and Bar, where I was the master mixologist and developer of the first molecular drink menu. I also became involved with the U.S.B.G. here in Nevada. While working and attending classes at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas as a psychology major, I became more proficient in molecular mixology successfully creating spheres, foams and liquor dusts, using a variety of other strange and exciting molecular techniques and teaching them in a series of seminars at U.N.L.V. I also worked at the Foundation Room of The House of Blues in Mandalay Bay as a special events flair/mixologist.

Recently, I was one of the top 100 mixologists who were invited to the 2008 Grand Marnier/Navan Mixology Summit in Vail, Colorado, shocking the Grand Marnier team with my awesome recipes. I can also be seen online at Condé Nast Travel magazine's website, where I was photographed at Grand Marnier's mixology competition "The Toast Heard ‘Round the World" in May of 2008.

Currently, I’m continuing to develop and implement molecular mixology in my cocktails. I started a consulting company called “Liquid Creations" and began the first line of cocktails with edible insects as garnishes, which are selling fast at local hang-outs like Adam's Ribs, for which I help put together the biggest tequila bar in Nevada, with 500-plus tequila selections.

I’m often referred to as "The Ferran Adria of Mixology," but my friends call me "Mr. Mixx,” the name I have adopted for a television show called Molecular Mondays that I’m currently shooting for the Food Channel. On this show, I will give advice, answer questions, and twist vintage cocktails into molecular forms while experimenting with exotic flavors and discussing the history of the spirit.

My goal is to keep raising the bar with molecular techniques and flavors that are unimaginably unique, flavors that qualify as umami. I’m also building the first Organic Bar in Nevada for the Silverton Hotel Casino, offering a wide selection of organic spirits, juices and garnishes, making it possible to build a drink that’s 100% Organic. I’malso working on my first recipe book, which is a guide to get to know about my passion—in other words, my life told or narrated by the drinks I made to all these years of sacrifice and hard work.


Wine Director:
Jeff Groh, The Heathman Restaurant and Bar

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Jeff Groh moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2000 after attending Ohio State University. During his time in Ohio, Jeff was employed with Cameron Mitchell Restaurants. Once in Oregon, Groh headed to the Newport, on the Oregon coast, and was the Food and Beverage Director for the Inn at Otter Crest. He commuted to Portland to attend classes at the International Sommelier Guild, completing the fundamentals course and graduating from the diploma program with top honors.

In 2004, Jeff moved to Portland and joined The Benson Hotel as Director of Restaurants, where he managed all restaurant food and beverage operations for the hotel. Acting as sommelier, he refocused the wine program to feature the highest quality producers and vintages. An active participant in the Northwest wine industry, Jeff has served as a guest sommelier for the Classic Wines Auction, ¡Salud!, and the 2005 French Master Chefs Dinner. He has also been the Maître d’Hôtel for the prestigious International Pinot Noir Celebration. 

Jeffrey Morgenthaler, Clyde Common

Jeffrey Morgenthaler has been tending bar since 1996, in everything from neighborhood taverns and college nightclubs to fine restaurants and upscale lounges. He currently manages the bar at celebrated restaurant Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon.

Jeffrey has been writing about bartending and mixology for several years at his website, The website features original cocktail recipes, product reviews, and discussions of bartending technique.

His recipes and wisdom have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Wine Enthusiast, Playboy, Wired and Imbibe magazines. Forbes Traveler called him one of the "Cocktail Movers and Shakers" of 2007, and named him one of the top ten mixologists in the United States in 2009.


Wine Director:
Nelso Daquip, Canlis

Nelson Daquip has been the most rapidly promoted employee in Canlis' history, rising from server assistant, to server, to assistant sommelier, to wine director in only four years. We weren't the only ones to notice - Food and Wine Magazine featured Nelson in their June 2005 profile of national up-and-coming sommeliers. The following year, Wine & Spirits Magazine named Nelson one of the "Best New Sommeliers" of 2006, and in 2008 he was recognized as Seattle's "Best Sommelier" by Seattle Magazine.

After earning a culinary degree from Kapiolani Community College through the University of Hawaii, Nelson served at the prestigious Alan Wong's restaurant in Hawaii for three years. He found Canlis in the summer of 2002 and within the year, Nelson had earned his place in the much coveted six-month Canlis Vinternship program, aimed at developing young sommeliers within the Seattle wine community. Under master sommelier and Canlis Wine Director Shayn Bjornholm, Nelson learned how to run a world-class wine program. Proving his time was well spent, he became a master sommelier candidate by passing his advanced course for the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Nelson expanded his horizons on his first trip to Champagne, France in order to assist with the second bottling of Jean Milan "Canlis Cuvée" Brut. He later led the Canlis Wine Team to Walla Walla Valley to bring the 2006 Buty "Peter Canlis" Syrah from vineyard to bottle.

Nelson brings the aloha spirit to the table - a welcoming tradition where he shares a piece of his life with each guest. As Queen Lililuokalani stated in her last message to the people of Hawaii, "Kulia I ka Nu'u"—strive for the highest.


Jim Romdall, Vessel

Jim Romdall is making some of Seattle’s most compelling cocktails, but his professional life took a few twists and turns before landing behind the serious bar where he belongs.

  Jim grew up in Seattle and studied film at the University of Washington. Soon after turning 21, he got a bartending job where he was instructed, “sling drinks as fast as you can and cram as much alcohol into them without having them taste like it.” Jim excelled at his job, yet soon tired of breaking up fights and cleaning up messes. He wanted to make movies, so he moved to Los Angeles.
After a careful job search—between catching waves—he became a bartender at the fine dining restaurant Granita, in Malibu. He became immersed in the world of food, wine and spirits, and was soon promoted to bar manager. He remained there and indulged his passion for knowledge, flavors, and experiences until the restaurant closed. 

Jim returned to Seattle in 2006. Vessel had recently opened, and the bar manager there, Jamie Boudreau, was hiring. Classic cocktails? Sure. Romdall soon fell in love with the world of serious cocktail culture; he absorbed everything he could, and became bar manager in 2008. Jim was awarded the Starchefs Rising Star Mixologist award for 2009. He is also one of the founding members of the Washington Bartenders Guild, established in 2008.

Jim loves being on the forefront of the cocktail world and plans to stay there. He says his high ambitions are matched only by the amount of fun he’s having.


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