Cristie Norman: Sommelier Extraordinaire

It's not every day that you meet a young and talented female sommelier who also happens to work at Spago, one of the top restaurants in Los Angeles, or as many would argue, the world. We met Cristie Norman last year during a wine tasting at the Malibu Beach Inn and have been big fans ever since. She's warm and approachable, and despite being more knowledgeable about wine than most of the population will ever be, she'll never make you feel embarrassed about what you don't know. Oh- and she's funny too. She recently debuted her own YouTube show, Adulting with Alcohol, a mix of comedy and wine education.

Intrigued by her story, we asked for an interview to get her take on $2 wine, pink wine, and her favorite wine region.
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This Girl: Describe the moment you discovered that you had a talent for wine.
Norman: I think very few of us have a definitive moment when we discover having a talent for wine. It comes more like ‘Ah-ha’ moments that inspire us to keep learning and growing. Being talented in wine means having a holistic understanding of the beverage world, but it also means being an example of complete hospitality, salesmanship and business sense. With that definition in mind, would I consider myself talented? Certainly not yet. However, I have had a few ‘Ah-Ha’s recently. A few weeks ago, a woman asked to see the sommelier (me) and said she wanted something spicy, red-fruit driven and jammy. I suggested a few varieties and she was open to anything, except Grenache. She said Grenache was far too light. She told me to surprise her so I brought a bottle with the label hidden, gave her a taste and she LOVED it. I revealed that it was an Australian Grenache by Kalleske. It was a risk, but changing her mind about an incredibly versatile grape was worth it. ‘Ah-ha’.This Girl: Tell us about your background in this industry.

Norman: I got my first serving position at a teahouse at sixteen years old. We had over 120 teas on the list. I had to guide guests to the right beverage based on variety, region, taste profile and personal preference; sound familiar? I always joke that I first started off as a tea sommelier and that’s why I’m so young in this industry. After getting hired at a small steakhouse at twenty years old, I was quickly promoted to lead server. I wanted to understand our wine list better, so I started reading books like “Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia” and “Zraly’s Windows on the World” which sparked a curiosity, which eventually set fire. About two weeks after my twenty-first birthday I took my level one sommelier exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers and passed. Six months later I passed level two, became a Certified Sommelier, and was hired at Spago Beverly Hills. Just to make sure I actually knew my stuff, I tested into WSET Level 3, Advanced Award in Wine and Spirits, and passed with Merit. I just came back from the Advanced Sommelier three-day course in Dallas by the Court of Master Sommeliers and should hopefully get to take the exam in 2018. I have a long way to go and a lot of studying to do, but being around Spago’s wine list of over three thousand selections and under the apprenticeship of Phillip Dunn and Rina Bussell, I’m confident I’ll get there.

This Girl: What was one biggest misconceptions you had about wine before you became an expert?

Norman: Before becoming a sommelier, I thought that wine became more expensive in correlation with the level of quality. What I find that I love most now isn’t the major producers and hyped up brands, although I do taste a lot of them where I work. I love wines that drink far above their price point. Value-wines are much more exciting to me.

This Girl: There stills seems to be a disproportionate number of male Somm's. would you agree with this and if so, why do you think this is?

Norman: Fortunately in Los Angeles, there are quite a few female sommeliers, but overall we are still a minority in the industry. I think that the stereotype of the sommelier is an older male, so it doesn’t occur to women right away that it’s a career option open to them; it definitely did not come to mind for me, until I was knee-deep in becoming certified. We are here though and if we continue to be present, provide leadership and mentorship in our community, our girl-power is only going to grow.

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This Girl: Somebody recently told me that there's really no difference between a $30 bottle of wine and a $2 bottle. Either spend big or go cheap. What are your thoughts? 
Norman: There is definitely a huge difference between a $30 bottle and a $2 bottle of wine. I actually just made a video on this, but there are huge costs that go into a wine’s production. A lot of people forget that wine is an agricultural product… produce from a place name with ethical treatment of the environment are going to cost more, but they usually taste a whole lot better. Same with wine grapes. The cost of the land doesn’t even factor in the cost of harvesting, bottling, marketing, etc. When I see a bottle with a $2 price tag, I’m asking myself what they had to sacrifice to drop the price that low.
This Girl: 20 years ago we rarely saw anyone drinking pink wine. Now it's a staple in the home wine cooler. How did trashy go to chic?Norman: Everyone should drink rosé. Rosé is just such a versatile food wine. I think once people began to notice really prominent producers making really great rosé, the trend began to shift. It’s nice in the summertime when it’s hot, or all the time if you’re in LA, and it still has some bitter tannin to handle substantial food. Chateau Simone’s Les Grand Carmes Rose from Provence makes a rosé that is such a deep ruby that sometimes guests change their mind and ask for a lighter one. I want to tell them that it would go better with their entrées, but alas, I’m just a servant of the people.

This Girl: What's your favorite wine region and why?

Norman: My favorite region right now is Piedmont. I didn’t have a taste for Italian wine for a really long time, definitely because I didn’t drink enough of it and the laws confused me, but I’m growing to love it. I’m especially loving Luigi Einaudi’s 2010 single vineyard Barolo “Terlo” as a more modern, approachable introduction of Barolo. Nebbiolo is so versatile and really allows each producer to express their vision.

This Girl: Which part of the world's wine country have you yet to explore and what makes your want to go there

Norman: I would love to visit the Mosel in Germany. I think the river lined with vineyards is just so beautiful, that’s definitely a dream destination.

This Girl: Do you believe in the ABC rule or is that just for "wine snobs"?

Norman: Are we talking about “Anything But Chardonnay”? I completely disagree with that. I think that oaked chardonnay from the US suits a particular taste; you either love it or you don’t. Unfortunately, I think that gives chardonnay a bad rap in other regions where it can have restrained oak-use or none at all, in a tastefully done and balanced way. I would not identify as a person that likes new oak on wine, however, when a wine is balanced it can blow you away. I had an 2002 Henri Boillot Grand Cru from Chassagne Montrachet last week that literally made me start dancing. It was that good. Did it have oak? Definitely. ABC is silly.

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Cristie and Wolfgang

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