Jennifer Knowles, Founder of OuiSomm LLC Wine and Hospitality Services
My first encounter with wine wasn’t the rosy epiphany that one might expect, especially for someone who has spent her entire professional career focused on wine and hospitality. It involved a box of Gallo Hearty Chablis in the fridge that resembled a water container to my young eyes, and I knew my mom drank from it every night so it must be tasty right? I put my head under the spout and with a quick twist of the nozzle, the clearish liquid I assumed would be water turned out to be wine. I gagged and spit what was left on the floor at the foot of the open door. Let’s just say it was years before I was interested in trying wine again and not just because of the taste; my mom was choking back laughter when she ran in to the kitchen and I was embarrassed to say the least. My mom was just happy I had learned my lesson. Or so she thought at the time…
My first hospitality position was at a retreat for the Jesuit professors from local universities. Little did I know that embarking on a summer job in my home town of Cohasset, located on the South Shore of Boston at the age of 13, would be uncannily predicative of my adult career focusing on wine and spirits as well as restaurant hospitality. My daily tasks involved cleaning up breakfast dishes, setting out all the trimmings for a lunch buffet and serving dinner ala a traditional tableside waiter. As the summer grew on, so did my endless questions in the kitchen- ‘what are those?’ ‘Those are shallots and leeks.’ Or ‘those are knife sharpening blocks.’ Or ‘That is a mandolin.’ I never stopped asking ‘Why do you use them? I’ve never seen those before in my kitchen’ and this led to me become her sous chef, helping prep in the kitchen as often as I could.
I also had the task of setting up the liquor credenza for Happy Hour every day before dinner and I was so intrigued by all the different shapes, colors and smells of those bottles. A few of the Brothers saw my interest was piqued and asked me if I knew anything about the liquid inside or how they were made. As the summers went on, they became more involved in my education of the fancy bottles and once the brothers started debating the intricacies of Scotch versus Canadian whiskies, I was hooked, a sponge for any knowledge they would offer. They were what I came to learn were ‘oenophiles’ and ‘foodies,’ my first exposure to people who cared so deeply about what they ate and drank.
The summer after I turned 17, while still working days with the Brothers, I began waiting tables at a high-end restaurant that solidified my growing awareness that wine was a primary focus in fine dining. My curiosity and wonder at how such remarkable aromas and flavors were present in a simple glass of wine brought out my natural inquisitiveness and gave me the confidence to start asking questions when wine reps would bring bottles for the staff to sample. I could taste wines during meetings, but was told I had to spit, which would sound insane to any teenager who is getting permission to drink, and at work no less. But the more I tasted, the more intrigued I became, and I will never forget asking one of the wine salesmen how they strained out all the cherries and peppercorns from a glass of Syrah. He stifled a giggle and explained to me that all those smells and tastes were coming from grapes, and just one type of grape in particular. Clearly, he didn’t know what he was talking about and I decided I was going to learn more about how a glass of boozy grape juice could taste like herbs and berries or smoke and spice.
Upon graduation from high school, I was awarded a scholarship to study Chemistry at Syracuse University where I realized how making wine was intrinsically tied to the chemical world. I was so excited to hear about chemical reactions that took place during fermentation that created aromas that I recognized from my past experiences and it turned my curiosity into a pursuit of knowledge about wine making and grape growing, or viniculture and viticulture. After three years balancing courses and tending bar, I returned home to focus on expanding my knowledge of wine, which was proving to be my true passion. A close Chef friend referred me to the wine-centric restaurant he was working at and I was offered a server position. My mom got me a subscription to Wine Spectator and my friend gave me his enormous wine education book from the CIA, and I began to read voraciously about anything wine or food related. As my research deepened, I began to build the knowledge base and vocabulary that would propel me to leave my small town and travel 3000 miles to ‘Wine Country.’
Coincidentally, two of my best friends had decided they wanted to move to San Francisco before they settled down into real adult life and said I was going with them. No questions, no argument. Learning about an Oenology program at UC Davis motivated me to head west and when I arrived in San Francisco I applied at several prestigious restaurants as a server. Much to my dismay, no one was willing to take a chance on a 23-year-old fast talking girl from the East Coast with a resume based on serving priests. Luckily, I had the lessons from those priests and experience bartending so when the General Manager at one restaurant shunned me for lack of experience, the bar manager asked if he could look at my resume before I was shooed away. Kent Leader asked me a host of questions about liquors and beer and a little about wine and he felt my excitement grow when he asked me about my career goals. He asked if I knew what a sommelier was, and I said I had read about them in Wine Spectator and found the position out of my reach. He hired me on the spot, giving a wink and a grin to the GM . After gaining a following of wine reps during Happy Hour at MC₂, the Wine Director Doug asked me if I would like to learn some common sommelier practices like blind tasting and the all-important monthly inventory. I jumped in headfirst and my career path suddenly took a turn that I would never look back from.
Meeting Karla Kilgore not only solidified my career shift but also gave me my first mentor, and she offered me my first sommelier position. Karla decided to take the Introductory exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers [CMS,] and received the highest score in the class. She was so elated and proud that I decided I would try to follow in her footsteps and dedicated my free time to studying. I took a shot at the exam and although I did not get the highest score alone, I did tie for the highest score out of 100 students which solidified my desire to continue testing. After Karla resigned, I took on the Wine Director position as well as becoming the bar director. I was learning so much about the beverage world every day, as well as about sales and true hospitality, but I was growing more excited to continue my path with The Court. Asking the advice from other wine professionals about how I could further my education with a specific focus on taking the Advanced exam, I realized very quickly that almost all came back to the same person- Master Sommelier Larry Stone at Rubicon Restaurant. I was warned that he never hired sommeliers. He would hire servers, bartenders or food runners, and then they would have to prove themselves in those positions in order to be promoted to the coveted sommelier title. So I made up my mind, and much to the surprise of all, in a career move that caused me enormous stress but also showed my extreme drive and foresight, I traded my fancy position as Wine and Bar Director for a server position to gain access to my most influential mentor still to this day. Under Larry’s tutelage and guidance, I was introduced to the kindest form of hospitality I had ever seen as well as access to wines of all prices and varieties, some that may never be seen or sold again. His generosity with his Google like knowledge of the food and beverage world (as well as plumbing, German Poetry and more topics than I can list) made pushing the envelope of studying to almost fanatic heights seem like an adventure that was never ending in it’s scope.
During that time I was named StarChefs’ New World Rising Star Sommelier which was crazy to me because during my 2+ hour interview with them, I saw the list of sommeliers they had met and they were THE names in San Francisco at the time, people I believed were so far above my caliber. Up until that point, the category had been reserved for one young sommelier, but after meeting me, Antoinette Bruno decided to make it a 2-pronged category- Old World and New World rising star sommelier. It was one of the proudest moments of my career because I realized I had honed a type of wine hospitality that was based on the principles Larry had always taught us- truly listening to our guests and passing no judgements on what they liked or how much they wanted to spend.
On my 3rd attempt I passed the Advanced portion of the CMS in 2009 and knew I had to expand my knowledge and skill on my which meant running my own wine program. My growing desire to return to the East Coast was answered by an opening at The Inn at Little Washington which boasts a Wine Spectator Grand award winning wine cellar, 3 Michelin stars in its restaurant as well as being the longest standing Forbes 5 star and Mobil 5 Diamond property in the country. I was solicited for the Cellar Master position but after speaking to the Food and Beverage Director she hired me as the Wine Director, a position I held with distinction for three-and-a-half years, from 2010-2014. While there, I was named “Best Sommelier” by the International Academy of Gastronomy and received the 2013 Golden Goblet Award for Excellence in the Beverage Sector by the Association of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs. More importantly for me, I was welcomed into the burgeoning Virginia wine industry where I was able to participate as a speaker in 3 Virginia Wine Summits as well as helping to create the program V2 focusing on wine varieties outside of the norm.
When it was time to step-up my exploration in the hospitality world, I accepted the Wine Director position at The Jefferson Hotel in Washington, DC. I had been lucky enough to meet the Owner Connie Milstein while at The Inn at Little Washington and she asked me to take on the position as the sole beverage person for the hotel and the Michelin starred restaurant, Plume.
Then in December 2016, I was tapped to help develop a new restaurant named Mirabelle as the General Manager and Beverage Director. I trained and mentored a new staff at Mirabelle, located steps from the White House with the help of Zach Faden at the helm of the bar program.
In September 2017, I was sought out by (then) celebrity chef Michael Isabella to lead the opening of what was to be his highest-level concept to date, Requin at The Wharf, as the General Manager and Wine Director. Although it was a very difficult road to and after opening, I did my best to deliver a successful opening which gained exceptional reviews. I built a 450-selection wine list and trained the staff on every wine I could get my hands on while also espousing the belief that education goes hand in hand with humility and open conversation leads to successful conversations with our guests.
However, restaurateur Hakan Ilhan believed he again needed my expertise and asked me to return to Mirabelle in June 2018. Leading the restaurant in a reorganization for a relaunch in August 2018, I secured a new executive chef and reunited a talented staff who had worked under my directive for the landmark restaurant’s grand opening in March 2017. While at Mirabelle, I maintained the level of guest driven service I had created from my experiences working with some of the best front-of-the-house professionals in the country. My focus with training was led by my belief that for the staff to anticipate the guest’s needs and to be fully immersed in their goal to exceed the guest’s expectations, they must be kind, caring, attentive and confident. My goal was to bring as much of a focus on continuing education as possible and to empower everyone with the tools they need to be as successful as they can be.
My next move was back home to Massachusetts completing the circle so to speak. In September of 2019, I was hired as the Food and Beverage Director for the private side of Fenway park and was asked to revamp the hospitality program in the private suites, clubs and catering department. I was the first female Food and Beverage Director as well as the first person to be hired outside of the existing organization. While making amazing headway with staff training and reorganization, my tenure came to an end in October of 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I have since started my own business, OuiSomm Wine and Hospitality Services, LLC, and am looking forward to bringing my knowledge and passion to the area and beyond.