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Alpana Singh Takes the Fear Out of Fine Wine

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"I get really upset with people who are snobby, who sniff the cork...and I feel really bad for the people they're dining with," says Alpana Singh, the 26-year-old sommelier at Everest. "Pretension for me is a cover-up for 'I don't know, so I'm going to mask it with all these rituals.' And with wine there's just so much to know, you can't know it all."

When Singh approaches your table and gently asks what wine you like, her trademark low-key style isn't what you might expect from someone in her profession. Other ways she defies stereotyping are less apparent: She was only in her early 20s when Jean Joho, chef-owner of Everest, hired her. And in March Singh scaled another peak by becoming the youngest master sommelier in the United States.

"It's a privilege to do what I do. It's not a right," she says. "Statistically, I'm not supposed to do what I'm doing."

Singh's great-grandparents, indentured by the British as overseas laborers, were moved from their native India to Fiji. Her parents migrated to Monterey, California, shortly after Fiji achieved independence in 1970. Singh's "humble background" also has roots in the food-service industry: her father is a chef at a French restaurant in Pebble Beach, her mother is a waiter in a Carmel restaurant, and her younger brother manages a tasting room in nearby Carmel Valley.

Singh began waiting tables when she was 15 and went on to work at several retail wine stores. In 2000 she met Joho at the Masters of Food and Wine festival in Carmel. The Alsace native had just finished preparing a dinner when Singh approached him, telling him she'd never worked in a fine restaurant but wanted to work at his. "I said, 'Right now it's two o'clock in the morning and it's too late to do an interview,'" Joho recalls. "'If you want to come to Chicago, I'll be glad to talk you.'" But he says he was so impressed by Singh's love of food and ability to talk casually about wine that he knew right away he would hire her.

Calling herself an ambassador, Singh describes her job as the "bridge between the food and the wine....If you take the food out of the context, you're no longer a sommelier....The wine itself is one experience and the food is another, but when you bring them together, that's when magic happens."

Of course, ambassadors need cultural sensitivity. And the culture of Everest is all about elegance and comfort; the entire staff works to discreetly showcase food as high art. "Chef is always going over the fact, 'Make them feel comfortable. Make them feel welcome,'" Singh says, "because he understands there are places out there that are like a church."

Her "ideal customer" states clear preferences and then puts a price on them, allowing her to match her knowledge with their tastes. "If I don't get a customer that's like that I'll ask some questions like 'What have you had recently that you really enjoy?' I'm just so afraid that if I don't get more input, they're not going to have a good experience here." She says she gauges the success of her suggestions by facial expressions. Joho praises Singh's "diversified palate" and "great knowledge of wine." "No matter how expensive the wine is, she looks for the character, not the label," he says.

Part of Singh's job is to oversee Everest's cellar, a converted office suite on the 39th floor of the Mercantile Exchange, one floor below the restaurant. The 400-square-foot space, maintained at 55 degrees, houses 1,400 selections, 350 from Alsace. Singh says Joho will give her "names written on a small piece of paper, and I say, 'OK, Chef, where am I going to get these wines?' and he says, 'I don't know,' and we go to great lengths to get these wines." In many cases, she'll end up ordering only a single wine from a tiny distributor. "It's a nice little project."

It's easy getting people to order bottles from Joho's famous Alsatian collection, she says. "If you have the Alsace food, you're not going to have the experience if you don't have the wine....The only problem that I have is trying to get it out of people's minds that the wines are sweet."

It's not the only misconception she works to demolish. "There are so many rituals that don't make sense, like 'you can't have red wine with fish.'...Very often the person with the lobster will say, 'I really like red wine--I'm sorry,' and I say, 'Why are you apologizing? You're paying good money for this dinner.'"

Singh credits her work at Everest with helping prepare her for the "very rigorous" master sommelier's test, which took her four years to pass. In doing so she joined the ranks of 109 master sommeliers worldwide. She's one of ten women in the U.S. to have earned the title.

With all her specialized knowledge, her favorite customers are still "people who are coming out once in their lives for a 25th anniversary," she says. "They're going to remember the experience....I come from a very similar background. My parents never went out for fancy dinners...so when I look at these people I think of my family and I just want to make it happen for them....That makes me feel good, more so than discussing what vintages of La Tour they have in their cellar."

Although there's no degree to be earned from such encounters, "I've learned a lot working at this level," says Singh. "Like money doesn't buy you happiness. Money doesn't buy you class. But the most amazing moments have come with those couples that have saved for three years to come here. Just serving somebody who has worked to give themselves just one moment of heaven, that is the best."

Everest is at 440 S. LaSalle, 312-663-8920.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.

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