This article and the Making of a Legend series is brought to you by Légende, the taste of elegance.
“I had this 8-year-old existential crisis,” Andrea Morris says with a laugh. “My friend, who was so much cooler than me, refused the sip of wine our parents offered and opted for lemonade. But I wanted the wine. I said, ‘Yes.’”
Saying yes is a theme in Morris’ life; that sip started a journey that has taken her from competitive gymnastics to culinary school, onto stints at some of the most illustrious restaurants in New York and, most recently, recognition as a rising star among sommeliers. In early 2018, she’ll be blazing a new trail as beverage director at Intersect by Lexus, a luxury space where Morris will champion a smaller, meticulously curated wine list.
Morris’ understanding and appreciation for wine deepened during her education at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). At that time, the school required students to have experience working in restaurants before admission, so Morris got a job at Bay Wolf—an Oakland, CA, restaurant often compared to Berkeley’s Chez Panisse for helping to establish the local culinary scene. She didn’t tell them she only ate fish (not meat), because she wanted to learn everything owner Michael Wild and staff wanted to teach her. “I was making the sausage from the meat I was butchering and just all sorts of the old-school stuff: curing, making pâté. It was awesome.”
That work primed her for CIA, where her culinary background expanded to wine. “Wine class was the first time we were talking a lot about history, geography and chemistry in a way I could really understand. Classes with professors [Steven] Kolpan and [Michael] Weiss were the first time I felt really stimulated.” Morris ended up working as a tutor in their classes and engaging with winemakers who visited: “That, plus tutoring the class where I was constantly going over information, was really important for me and my baseline knowledge.”
But the real seed of her eventual career was planted in the summer between semesters. “I interned in the kitchen at Masa in San Francisco—French food, Michelin-starred. I had already taken the wine class, but I wasn’t sure what that meant [for my career] at that point. Alan Murray, who’s a master sommelier, was the beverage director there and always had some bottle of wine open at the end of the night. You could try it as long as you let him say something about the wine to you. I was 20 and wasn’t allowed to taste, but I remember thinking that the way he engaged was really cool.”
It was then Morris realized she didn’t have to be a chef; she could express her creativity through wine. First, through work at Maslow 6, a now-defunct wine store that was “run by a really fantastic woman named Mollie Battenhouse who’s now a Master of Wine,” and then, through jobs at Eleven Madison Park and Oceana.
Morris—named one of the 2016 30 Under 30 Rock Stars Redefining the Industry by Zagat—became a sommelier at age 22 and passed her advanced wine exam at 24, weeks after being promoted to the wine team at Jean-Georges. From there, she went on to become the floor somm, mentored by then-Chef Sommelier Eric Hastings (now Brand Marketing Manager at VINTUS Wines). “I had been there for a while and was getting restless. Eric let me start suggesting wines by the glass and pairing wines and learn how to source them by getting in contact with the reps. I told him I wanted to run my own wine program but didn’t totally know how, so he gave me a realistic opening budget and target cost to hit and told me to go make a wine list.”
Two months later, Hastings sat back down with Morris and reviewed her list, line by line and wine by wine, helping her learn the less-glamorous aspects of the business. “Nobody wants to talk about it,” she says, “but if your wine list isn’t making money, you’re failing as a wine director—even if it’s everyone’s favorite wine list. Eric taught me the not-so-fun side of things that nobody wants to talk about, and he did it in a way that I really related to; it really made me feel that that I could do it.”
Hastings explains he did so because of Morris’ commitment: “Andrea brings tremendous exuberance, but also humility, to the wine industry, which isn’t always so common. Her passion for wine is obvious, but she’s never had an attitude where she knew enough and didn’t need to continue the quest for knowledge.”
The curious somm says she draws inspiration not only from colleagues in New York, but makers from around the world. “I think Instagram can actually be a pretty cool jumping-off point. I like following international winemakers because, a lot of times, they’ll post what they’re excited about drinking, not just their own wine. If these people who I really respect are really into [that wine], I want to know what’s going on with it, too.”
One of Morris’ favorite parts of the job is pairing, but she recognizes it has its limitations. “If you really love big reds and you’re eating fish and white wine isn’t wine to you, then you should probably drink a big red. As a somm, your job is to make sure that people are enjoying their wine. Yes, I want to teach people. But I also really need the guests to like their wine. Nothing feels worse than pouring someone a wine that they don’t want.”
And this is part of what makes Morris so successful, Hastings says. “She has a way of speaking about wine that can put customers at ease and follow her recommendation with confidence in the same way that she can educate her service staff on wine that is appropriate for their interactions with the guests at the table.”
She holds her own despite the fact that, at 5’ 2” and 28 years of age, Morris admits she could be mistaken for a high school student. “I’ve definitely gotten comments like, ‘Oh you’re far too pretty to be a somm,’ but then I’m usually like, ‘But I am, so are you going to take my advice?’ I appreciate that you like my hair, but let’s talk about wine because that’s why I’m here.”
And Morris has no plans of going anywhere else. “There’s something really cool about the conversation that the somm has with the table or that two people have with each other. There’s something about sharing a bottle of wine that you can’t do with a cocktail. Wine brings people together.”