Sommelier Interview: Kelli White and Scott Brenner from PRESS Restaurant

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 04-26-2012

An article I recently read proclaimed, “30 is the new 300” when describing the shrinking wine lists of many Bay area restaurants. I presume this trend has its benefits – it’s costly to select, store, and sell a massive number of wine selections. Additionally, perhaps a limited number of wines differentiates a restaurant or certainly makes it easier for consumers to choose.

Bucking this trend is PRESS Restaurant in St. Helena. Last month the restaurant announced the debut of its new wine cellar, which holds up to 10,000 bottles. The cellar currently stores the largest restaurant collection of all-Napa wines anywhere. Super cool. Kelli White and Scott Brenner have been the sommelier duo behind PRESS since they moved to the west coast from New York City in 2010. The couple quit their jobs the day after they received the offer. :) Read more about Kelli, Scott, and their age-worthy, sometimes funky, all Napa wine program below:

When and how did you fall in love with wine?

Kelli: I got a job in a wine store by accident during college — at the time I didn’t even drink. So when I decided to “get serious” about wine & spirits, I thought that meant drinking Bordeaux and Scotch. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t loving it, until I had my first white Rhone. It was a Vieux Lazaret CDP Blanc — then I understood how people could dedicate themselves entirely to a life in wine.

Scott: While working my way through school in restaurants. I had always enjoyed wine, but while working at the Salish Lodge outside of Seattle, WA I was exposed to older Burgundies and Bordeaux– they blew my mind and set my course.

How’d you end up a sommelier?

Kelli: I had worked in almost every other facet of the industry — retail, importer, distributor, writer, even production — so when I heard that wine-mecca Veritas in NYC was looking for a sommelier, I applied. Even though I didn’t have a lot of service experience, I knew a lot about wine and had good people skills — I got the job.

Scott: I graduated from college in an economic climate not dissimilar to the one we currently find ourselves in. Instead of trying to break into the field of finance (my major), I used my existing experience in the restaurant industry to leverage a job as a sommelier.

What type of training or experience prepared you to become a sommelier?

Kelli: I literally learned on the job. It was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.

Scott: I had already worked as a waiter so I understood service. I attended as many tastings as I could and found that I had a really sharp palate — also a good memory for wines tasted, vintage information, and customers’ preferences.

How did you end up at your current job?

Kelli: I had worked a harvest in Burgundy in 2005 and ever since I dreamed of moving to wine country full time. Scott was offered the job as Wine Director at PRESS and suggested to them that we share it, so that we would each have personal time to play around in the vineyards. They agreed and we quit our jobs the next day. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Scott: I had helped launch Clo Wine Bar in NYC the week the market crashed. When it became clear that this business was not going to succeed as I had hoped, I decided the time was right to pursue the secret dream of most sommeliers– making wine. To do this required finding a job in wine country. Soon Leslie Rudd reached out to me regarding his esteemed restaurant PRESS in St Helena and I knew that opportunity was knocking.

Tell us something interesting about your wine program.

Kelli: It is 100% Napa Valley. This may seem limiting, if you think of Napa as only a good source for Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. But truthfully, there is so much diversity here. Our list is full of funky alternatives– Charbono, Grenache, Ribolla Gialla, even Albarino.

Scott: We are really focusing the list on older wines from Napa. We are typically buying them from the wineries themselves or local collectors so the bottles haven’t moved much and the conditions are terrific. We keep the prices low to encourage people to drink wines they might otherwise pass over. Every night, we are opening people’s eyes to the age-ability of Napa wines.

If you could only pick one bottle, what would you order off your own list — and why? 

Kelli: 1975 Mayacamas from Mt. Veeder. I tried it once in a tasting, it is one of the best wines I have ever had.

Scott: 1963 Inglenook, Cask C-3. Brilliant wine.

What’s the best value on your list?

Kelli: The lovely, bright, food-friendly whites of Massican.

Scott: 1990 Dalla Valle for $240.

Forget about your wine list. What wines are you most excited about right now? And why?

Kelli: I have an obsession with Beaujolais (not Nouveau!). If I see a bottle on a wine list or in a store, I buy it over everything else. I love the freshness and bounce of high quality Gamay.

Scott: Burgundy, always Burgundy.

Who is the most famous person you’ve ever served — and what did they order?

Kelli: Whoopi Goldberg. An Arnold Palmer.

Scott: Robert DeNiro. Chave white Hermitage.

What do you like to drink?

Kelli: At home, we drink mostly crispy white wine, of all sorts, so long as it has a really driving acidity.

Scott: Riesling.

Do you enjoy beer? What about hard liquor?

Kelli: We’ve really fallen in love with the beers from Russian River Brewing Company, and I used to work in a distillery, so I have enormous appreciation for fine spirits and cocktails

Scott: All of the above. I’m from the Northwest so I always appreciate a good microbrew.

What is the most challenging situation you’ve been in or request you’ve received as a sommelier?

Kelli: When people try to send back wine as flawed when it’s not flawed, they just don’t like it or understand it. It can be a very sensitive situation.

Scott: I agree with Kelli, that’s always the toughest part of the job.

What is most rewarding about your job?

Kelli: I really feel like our wine program is having an impact on people’s perception of Napa. It’s not just about serving good wines, we’re educating our customers and that means so much more.

Scott: Working alongside my girlfriend, Kelli. It’s great to spend so much time with her, both personally and professionally.

What’s least rewarding about your job?

Kelli: Coming from New York where people never bring wines to restaurants, it’s hard for me to understand the culture of corkage in California. It’s one thing when you want to bring in a special occasion bottle for your anniversary or something, but we get a lot of people bringing in wine from the end shelf of the supermarket. After they pay the corkage fee, the wine often costs more than if they had bought it off our list, so they aren’t actually saving money.

Scott: The busy season in wine country coincides with harvest time, which makes for a very sleepy sommelier!

If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing?

Kelli: Making music.

Scott: Making wine.

Comments (2)

  1. thanks for this information. Thank you for enjoying our family wines and we look forward to many generations of farmers and winemakers.

  2. Great interview; thanks for posting. I love that Robert DeNiro ordered a Chave Hermitage Blanc. That dude has always been my hero, and he knows his wine!