A Guy Named Joe

Date August 31, 2009 at 10:00 PM

Categories Health & Beauty


He’s an easy figure to miss, sort of a blur, as he scurries from one event to another at the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta — baseball cap cocked at a jaunty angle atop his head and courier bag slung over his shoulder. But when the curtain rises on the first wine seminar at this year’s 19th event, Joe Spellman will be at his accustomed place on the podium as panel moderator. That this is his twelfth appearance at the event gives you an idea of how popular and how valued he is.

With a love for baseball and beer, Joe was an unlikely candidate for the high-falutin’ world of fine wine. As a classics major in English at the University of Chicago, he tended bar in a restaurant where he eventually became manager. Here he discovered much of the same intellectual appeal in wine that he found in his beloved literary classics. A career in food and wine became an easy choice.

After college, Joe moved up through the ranks with various Chicago restaurants, culminating in the honor of being named sommelier at Charlie Trotter’s in 1993, a position he served until 1998. Charlie Trotter is regarded as one of America’s greatest chefs and his restaurant is one of the best in the nation. Joe authored the highly regarded wine notes in Trotter’s plethora of cookbooks — and it’s some of the best wine writing we’ve seen in any celebrity chef book.

This segued into a six-year stint as Master Sommelier at Chicago-based Paterno Wines International, now Terlato Wines International, known for having one of the largest and most impressive wine portfolios from around the world in the United States. Spellman parlayed this into a two-year stint as Director of Education at Joseph Phelps Vineyards in the Napa Valley, one of the first wineries in California to employ a wine educator. This led to his current position of Winery Sommelier at Justin Vineyards and Winery, one of Paso Robles’ premier producers.

Over the years, Joe has garnered more awards, achievements, and medals than bedeck the uniform of a Soviet general. While at Charlie Trotter’s, in 1996, he earned the coveted Master Sommelier Diploma, now held by less than 200 people worldwide. A year later in Paris, he earned the title “Best Sommelier In The World in French Wines and Spirits.” He was only the second American, after Larry Stone, to be so named. This was capped by winning an international level competition where he went up against the best “somms” from 23 other countries, passing a written exam loaded with esoteric questions, a tasting exam, and then aceing the service component of the event. Still, he was “shocked” to win the title; but it garnered him more press than anything and put him in the public eye across the U.S.

In 2005, Joe was elected the chairman of the American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers, a reflection of the esteem with which he is held by his fellow sommeliers in this country. He devotes a large part of his energy and time to this organization as lecturer and examiner. The list of honors goes on. He was named Bon Appetit magazine’s Wine & Spirits Professional of the Year in 1998. He has coordinated wine dinners at the James Beard Foundation. But probably the role he enjoys the most is chairing panels and seminars at various wine events across the nation. He has made appearances at the Aspen Food and Wine Festival, the grand-daddy of wine festivals, as well as the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, the Pebble Beach Food and Wine Event, the Highlands Inn (Monterey) Masters of Food and Wine Festival, the San Diego Bay Food and Wine Festival, the Kapalua Wine and Food Festival in Maui, and TEXSOM, a sommelier-driven series of tastings and seminars at various venues across Texas. Clearly, this is a daunting schedule that would exhaust many a younger person.

Joe fell in love with the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta at his first appearance here. He finds the relaxed approach of our event quite a different feeling from the Aspen event, where it’s not uncommon to see Italian producers dressed in formal black suits pouring their wines (and, one year, standing in deep mud in their polished shoes as a downpour drenched and flooded the festival tent). He’s very excited by the wine, the restaurants, the art and the architecture that make up Santa Fe. He labels our Grand Tasting as one of the best such consumer tastings in the country.

I asked him how he goes about preparing for a panel seminar. Many of the vintners on the panels are familiar faces from previous years and he already knows their wines. He’ll also do his homework by perusing the web sites of the particular wine region and the specific producers. One of the most appreciated qualities of his seminars is that he does an excellent job of making sure the panels are not about Joe Spellman -- his fellow panelists are the star attractions. He actually views his role on these panels as a mere timekeeper; to be there to keep the oftentimes spirited repartee on track and on time. This is not an easy task with some of the wine world’s true characters like Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Winery or Bruno d’Alfonso of Di Bruno and Badge wines — in fact, it’s a chore akin to herding cats.

This year, Joe and fellow Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser will chair a class on Food and Wine Pairing: How To Build Your Own Wine Dinner. Joe is not particularly sold on the idea that there is something mystical with food and wine pairings. With some exceptions, he feels most wines go with most foods. In Joe’s view, the sommelier’s job is to build a sequence of wines to go with the various courses. Sometimes, he feels it’s best to build a dinner around one great wine, and sequence the earlier wines to build up to that great bottle.

In his role as Master Sommelier for Justin Winery, he views his job as a “wine educator without boundaries.” Still based in Chicago, he travels the country in support of sales and marketing of the Justin wines, working with sales reps and the various Justin distributors in each state. He has yet to encounter a case of conflict of interest, where his role with Justin conflicts with the independence a wine panel moderator must have.

I was also curious as to what corners of cyber space Joe pokes into on the Internet to keep abreast of the wine scene. He’s partial to the Decanter magazine site (www.Decanter.com), Tyler Coleman’s controversial Dr. Vino (www.DrVino.com) and the San Francisco-based vinography site (www.Vinography.com). He also enjoys and participates in the Wine Spectator’s guest sommelier blogs and finds the Guild of Sommeliers members-only site (www.GuildSomm.com) to be quite valuable.

As one of the nation’s highest profile sommeliers, Joe has had many opportunities to serve the world’s greatest wines to the rich and famous. One would expect such a person to be a bit of a stuffed-shirt and maybe on the pompous side. Nothing could be further from the truth. He’s easy to talk to and listens intently. Remember, this is a guy who’s equally at home relaxing in the outfield bleachers of Wrigley Field, downing a brewski.

Joe Spellman, along with fellow-sommelier, Tim Gaiser will host seminars on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of Fiesta week, September 23 through the 27th. See their website www.santafewineandchile.org for information and reservations.

Editor’s note: Regardless of your level of expertise the seminars are not in the least bit intimidating. You will learn as much as you are open to and you’ll have great fun doing it!