February 28, 2007
Lisa Rongren, wine director for Ray's Boathouse
Seattle native Lisa Rongren is a certified sommelier and the wine director for Ray's Boathouse. Every day before the dinner crowd arrives, she oversees the restaurant's inventory of 4,500 wine bottles. As changes occur, she revises the wine list and preps servers on any updates. During the evening, she wanders the floor of the restaurant offering her wine expertise to Ray's patrons.
Q: How did you get started in the restaurant business?
A: I have been at Ray's for just over a year. My previous job was at Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar in Bellevue and I was the assistant to the wine director. And before that I was a server at Lampreia, in downtown Seattle.
Local wine tip
"I just discovered this new red by Fall Line. Fall Line is a fairly new winery operating out of Georgetown. They just do a really great Cabernet and a couple of great blends."
Q: Besides a love for wine, what are the big qualifications to being a sommelier?
A: When working at a restaurant, there's a lot of multi-tasking that needs to go on in your head. And of course you need to be a good people person. Good people skills for both the guests and also for your fellow employees is a huge plus. I definitely do computer stuff on Excel, Word and Pagemaker, so you have to have some familiarity in that. And there's a lot of inventory and math stuff.
Q: Is it unusual for someone to start their career as a server and become a wine director?
A: Some people start in the kitchen and then their love of food and wine together brings them out to the front, but I think most people do start out in the front of the house and maybe wine is their passion while serving so they move up from there.
Q: Is there formal training to be a sommelier?
A: Just being in a restaurant is invaluable experience. But I took classes through the International Sommelier Guild. They teach classes at South Seattle Community College where they rent out a room once a week. So that was where I got some formal classes, and then I also hold sommelier certification through the International Sommelier Guild and the Court of Master Sommeliers. When you hear about "Master Sommeliers" that's the organization that accredits them. I'm certainly not a Master Sommelier yet but I'm working up towards that.
Q: Do sommeliers make significantly more money than servers?
A: It all depends on the restaurant you're at. I've had server jobs where I've just made a ton of money. A lot of times during your first wine director job, you won't make as much as the servers. In the end it's just being part of management, it's always going to be steadier money and the more experience you have, the more money you'll end up making.
Q: What advice would you have for someone who wanted to be a sommelier?
A: Of course, taking classes is valuable. But I actually have a lot of people who approach me and say, "Your job seems like so much fun," and they've never worked a day in their life in a restaurant. Restaurant experience is an absolute must. Nobody is going to hire someone who has been to all these classes who doesn't have restaurant experience.
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