She's some 'somm'
Making it seem effortless, Andrea Fulton-Higgins, sommelier at the acclaimed Joel Palmer House in Dayton, deftly pours a glass of premium Oregon pinot noir for a delighted diner.
The restaurant stocks Oregon pinots from 175 different wineries in its cellar. The collection has been meticulously built over the years since the restaurant’s opening in 1997.
Almost from the moment he arrived in Oregon, owner Jack Czarnecki began reaching out to members of the Yamhill Valley wine community, which was rapidly evolving all around him. He personally tasted and selected wines for the cellar, installed in the basement of a Victorian residence built for Oregon pioneer Joel Palmer in 1857.
When Fulton-Higgins joined the staff in 2009, primary responsibility for maintaining and augmenting the cellar moved to Czarnecki’s son, Chris, who had assumed the proprietor and executive chef roles.
The younger Czarnecki welcomed having her share in the decisions on future selections, with the mandate to continue the lofty standard set by his father more than a decade earlier.
Only a handful of fine dining establishments in Oregon boast a full-time sommelier. Those striving to gain a reputation for special attention to and expertise in wine feel the necessity to fill this position, however.
The French term “sommelier” translates to “wine steward” in English. Coming up with such a sophisticated sounding word to describe a person who serves that nation’s favorite beverage is so like les FranÇais.
Now, however, as the interest in wine has skyrocketed around the country, restaurant waiters who pull corks tableside have adopted the name with a fervor.
Wine steward is out. Sommelier is in.
To make the commandeered term even more Americanized, those in the know have shortened the word to “somm,” and they pronounce it like “psalm” instead of the French “sohm.”
The good thing is that the new wave of former wine servers or stewards are taking their position and its implied responsibility with “somm” seriousness. They know that to really deserve the title of sommelier, you have to do a whole lot more than memorize primary characteristics of popular wines and the entrées they go with on the menu.
The vast majority of professionally trained sommeliers in this country are concentrated in the major metropolitan areas, where wine is most appreciated and the best restaurants almost instinctively strive to pair wine and food.
The rural exceptions to this big city exclusivity — and there are some stellar ones —include Joel Palmer House, known nationally as a mushroom mecca as well as a special spot for pinot noir.
That is precisely the kind of place Fulton-Higgins was looking for: A seriously committed restaurant where fine wines make perfect pairings for a masterful menu and the owners have built a serious wine list to support the proposition.
She came to the job with a love of fine food; a broad and deep knowledge of wine, based on extensive firsthand experience; and a commitment to service with style, even a touch of elegance.
Her career in beverage service began on a Tuscon, Arizona, guest ranch in 1977, where the former head bartender at Chicago’s famed Pump Room showed her the ropes.
She then headed west, trading the desert for the seashore, and landed a job as beverage manager at the Larkspur Inn. The esteemed establishment was one of the Bay Area’s most popular restaurants at the time.
Inn owners Victor and Roland Gotti were near legendary restaurateurs, having for many years owned Ernie’s, arguably the most venerated restaurant ever in San Francisco.
Taking a liking to their obviously talented new manager, the Gottis put her in charge of staff training and sent her to represent them at prestigious wine tastings in wine-immersed San Francisco.
She set up a series of tours and tastings for the inn’s wait staff at wineries in Napa, Sonoma and even Mendocino, at the time when the California wine industry was burgeoning.
This was only the beginning of a career that saw Higgins become one of an elite circle of certified sommeliers in America. And the most amazing part of it is that she was essentially self-taught.
The sommelier aspect of her wine expertise came in 1984, when, swept up in a romance with a chef, she moved with him to Austin, Texas. She needed a job, and heard about two men from San Francisco who had recently opened a restaurant featuring seafood and sourdough bread flown in twice weekly from the City by the Bay.
What the partners were looking for was not a beverage manager or bartender, but a wine steward, a sommelier. Filton-Higgins had never done it, but knew the basics.
She essentially taught herself to be a sommelier in a city where there were none, male or female, and made a success of it. That made her a woman of wine — one of the few.
Meeting two other noted women in a man’s world, she made friendships destined to last a lifetime with Madeline Triffon, the first female master sommelier in America, and Jean Arnold, a sales representative for Chateau Montelena in the Napa Valley.
Triffon and Arnold have supported Fulton-Higgins throughout her career, and she has reciprocated. And quite a career it has turned out to be.
She has served as a judge at the Dallas Morning News American Wine Competition, earned her certification from the British Court of Master Sommeliers and worked for 13 years at Monterey’s world famous Sardine Factory.
She is the Wine Services Director for the Wine Spectator Wine Experience in New York, handles logistics for the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival and has judged wine for 15 years at the Los Angeles County Fair.
In 2007, she and her husband, Randy, decided to move to his home state of Oregon. They set up shop in the Eola Hills, where he became a vineyard manager at Bjornson Vineyards and she found a home at Joel Palmer House.
“It’s a perfect fit, she said. “I love pinot noir more than any other wine, and the entire staff is a wonderful team that appreciates what I bring to the table.”
A final exclamation point on this outpouring of praise comes from noted wine writer Jerry Mead, who called Fulton-Higgins “one of the most trusted sommeliers in America.”
Karl Klooster can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 503-687-1227.