Sommelier profile: Melanie Alioto Mancini, One Market
By Jeannine Sano
Few aspects of dining out can create the sort of trepidation brought on by having to choose the proper wine from that long list of producers, varietals, regions, and sometimes flavor profiles, such as light, aromatic, or full-bodied (which can be just as confusing), presented along with the menu upon being seated.
Before I became acquainted with the variety of talented sommeliers from many of the great restaurants that we are blessed with here in the Bay Area, the image in my head of a sommelier was fairly close to the Anton Ego figure in Ratatouille – if you were to sling a silver tastevin around his neck. Melanie Alioto Mancini (yes she is related to that Alioto), the sommelier of One Market restaurant, a Michelin one-star recipient for both 2008 and 2009, is about as far removed from that image as you can get. A vivacious blonde with a contagious smile and infectious enthusiasm for that lovely fermented grape juice that can be the source of both joy and intimidation, Mancini looks and acts more like your best girlfriend from college who just happens to know everything you might want to know or learn about wine. Assuming, that is, your best friend has just passed the Certified Sommelier examination by the Court of Master Sommeliers and knows every nook and cranny of every major wine producing region in the United States.
Mancini also knows a great deal about wines outside the United States, but the Lark Creek Restaurant Group, to which One Market belongs, is firmly entrenched in the philosophy of only serving wine produced domestically, as an extension of its local-sourcing principle. While that concept is a bit of a head-scratcher for me, I can’t argue with Mancini’s personal philosophy of seeking out the best she can find among artisan, domestic wine producers. Mancini admitted that although she loves the diversity of international wines, she appreciates domestic producers that take care to preserve the individual characteristics of terroir and vintage, like Dehlinger, Roar and Lioco. “They have to be true to the varietal. It has to have the original characteristics. I do not want Pinot Noirs that taste like Syrah, and I love Syrah.”
Before One Market, Mancini managed the Wine Bar & Shop at Two Embarcadero Center, but wine was not her original career choice. In the course of obtaining her undergraduate degree in physiology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, a friend pestered her to take a beginner wine-tasting course. Because that class was already full, Mancini decided to enroll in the eight-week advanced wine course, with detailed coverage of various wine-producing regions around the world. As one of only 20 students in the advanced class, she absorbed the information so quickly that she soon ended up assisting with the beginner course. After graduation, she moved to San Francisco to obtain a master’s degree in kinesiology and she worked as an athletic trainer, but one summer job at Viansa winery changed her fate. She fell in love – with wine and the man who recently become her husband – and the rest is fairy-tale history. Sort of. Mancini is the only sommelier on the floor of One Market, which does over 200 covers per night. The job of a sommelier also involves a lot of heavy lifting, literally. Those heavy boxes of wine do not unload, move, and stock themselves.
Not to mention, despite the growing number of women in the field, including highly prominent women master sommeliers, there is still lingering sexism in the wine industry. Mancini graciously jokes about how often she is told, “We are waiting for the sommelier,” when she approaches tables to assist with wine selection. Upon discovering that Mancini is the sommelier, one diner even quipped, “Does that make you a sommeliette?”
To get a full taste of Mancini’s talents, check out the Chef’s Table at One Market, which not only allows diners to see the behind-the-scenes action and talk to the cooks who prepare each course, but showcases Mancini’s customized wine pairing with the changing tasting menu, such as lightly smoked mi cuit (half-cooked) Tasmanian ocean trout with J Brut Rosé. The day of our interview, Mancini was in the process of creating pairings for a party that consisting of a pregnant woman, a wine professional, a wine novice, and a beer drinker.
Not bad for a sommeliette.
Correction: The piece on Dennis Kelly of the French Laundry in the April issue inadvertently identified Thomas Keller as the only American chef to obtain a three-star rating from Michelin. It should have stated that Keller is the only American chef to have two simultaneous three-star restaurants.