A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America’s prestigious Accelerated Wine and Beverage Program and a Certified Sommelier, Courtney Humiston has worked in viti- and vini-culture in Northern California, contributed to several well-respected publications including The World of Fine Wine, in addition to twice serving as a judge for the international competition, Concours Mondial. She is now the *GM and Wine Director at Petit Crenn in San Francisco, California.
*Since this interview was published Maryse Chevriere has taken over the wine program at Petit Crenn.
You opened Petit Crenn as the GM and Wine Director in August 2015. What has the experience been like for you both personally and professionally as a sommelier?
Yes, we opened in August of 2015. Taking on the role of a GM was new for me and it was challenging for sure. I have learned a lot, but it made so much sense as well because we aren’t a conventional restaurant: for example, we have no servers and there is no tipping. All of the service is executed by our chefs and sommeliers. I like to say Petit Crenn is like a dinner party thrown by chefs and somms, so it makes sense the GM is a sommelier that can do all of the other things, including staffing and scheduling and maintenance. I just had to learn how to do it!
Chef Crenn was recently honored as the ‘World’s Best Female Chef 2016’. How did you approach designing and building the wine list together? Collaborate on pairings?
Chef Crenn talked to me a lot about the importance of organic farming and sustainable sourcing in terms of her ingredients. We use all organic produce at Petit and we purchase most of it from the farmer’s market; and we rely on our fish purveyors to bring us fish that is either wild, line caught or farmed sustainably – so I take the same approach with the wines. The wines on our list are almost entirely made by the same people who farm the grapes. I think getting as close to the source as possible means that the wines are also made in a very natural way (very little sulfur, etc.) so the wines are actually healthier for you.
In terms of pairing, since our menu is exclusively seafood and vegetables (we never serve meat), there is an emphasis on sparkling, white and rosé. In fact, we have our own Petit Crenn rosé that Mike Lucia of Rootdown Wine Cellars and I collaborated on. It’s a rosé of Trousseau from an organically farmed vineyard in Amador County. The goal was to make a savory, textural wine using as little SO2 as possible and Lucia nailed it! We bottled it in magnums and pour it by the glass. Chef Crenn, who only drinks rosé, was really happy with it and it’s fun for our staff and our guests.
How does your list at Petit Crenn highlight the local wine industry?
We take a similar approach to our wines as Chef does with her food: a focus on organic farming, sustainability and getting as close to the source as possible: my wine list is dominated by grower-producers. I lean towards wines that are made naturally, and express the place they came from. My wine program is international in scope. Unlike produce, I see no reason to limit oneself geographically when it comes to wine. Wine is not like a truffle or a tomato, “fresh and local” are simply not indicative of quality, and I think it is important to support producers who are doing things around the world, especially in emerging regions.
What can you tell us about some up-and-coming international wine regions currently on your radar?
There is a young man named Andrew Yandell who started an import company called Trumpet Wines specializing in regions along the Catalan coast in Spain. I’m really excited about some of his wines. Like a lot of emerging wine regions, you are seeing young people making wine from their family’s vineyard the family has been farming for generations (usually organically) but were previously selling the grapes to a cooperative. It’s exciting to see these new, unique expressions of terroir.
Have you noticed any new trends emerging? What are customers asking for at the moment?
Natural wine for sure… I think the general population is beginning to realize there are wines that are mass produced and unhealthy and they are looking for alternatives. I also sell a lot of Champagne and sparkling wine and rosé as well. It could be because that is what I and my sommeliers love or because it works so well with our food, but I also think guests are realizing the deliciousness and versatility of these wines as opposed to heavy red wines, which, let’s be honest, can really weigh you down.
What’s one of your favorite offbeat or unexpected pairings?
I’ve learned form working with a menu that is entirely seafood and vegetable focused that even within that category, there is a lot of opportunity for diverse pairings. For example, when we have a dark-fleshed fish like a yellowtail amberjack that has been cooked over an open fire, there are a lot of opportunities with red wines, like Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, I typically would have paired with fattier meats. I’ve learned to pay attention to those nuances, especially because I’m pretty dismissive of red wines.
Is there a person/producer you particularly admire within the wine industry?
There are so many! I think it would be a mistake to pick just one. I’ve been very lucky to have so many mentors.
As a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America’s prestigious Accelerated Wine and Beverage Program and Certified Level 2 Sommelier, what are some of your future educational/career aspirations?
I really love working in restaurants and I really enjoy being a sommelier and wine buyer. It’s very rewarding to support winemakers who are doing good things and to share the fruits of their labor with my guests. I also love learning about food and cooking and the friendships and camaraderie that come with working in restaurants. The wine industry is also amazing because you get to travel and learn constantly. So I think I’ll keep being a sommelier for a while!
You’ve twice served as judge for the international competition Concours Mondial. What do you look forward to most about judging?
The Concours Mondial is a really amazing experience. You meet and taste with wine professionals from around the world, who are all bringing different perspectives, experiences and palates to the table. I always learn so much from judging and it makes me a more disciplined taster as well. I mean, judging can be hard! You really have to focus and pay attention to what is in the glass and be really honest about what you are experiencing.