Sussex County’s Crystal Springs defines “destination resort.” Its diversions encompass an 18-hole championship golf course, Kittatinny Mountains scenery, and Restaurant Latour, a mainstay of New Jersey Monthly‘s annual list of the 30 best restaurants in the state. While Restaurant Latour is a dining icon in the Garden State, worldwide renown distinguishes its 45,000-bottle wine cellar.
Crystal Springs’ wine program, from purchasing to pouring, is run by sommelier Susanne Wagner. She arrived in Hackensack from Germany in 1992. Since 2014, she has been Crystal Springs’ wine boss whose vision and skill have made her a first-name-only wine celebrity.
NJM: How far back does your interest in wine and hospitality go?
Susanne Wagner: My parents ran a restaurant, catering business and pork-products specialty. They loved feeding people. Even as a child I could see that they won regional and even national awards because of their hard work and their goal of pleasing their clients. In our family, food created happiness, and I wanted to have a career that created good feelings.
Did you get specialized training?
I got a diploma in hospitality management when I was 18. The aspect of the field that I enjoyed most was working with diners. So I sought out apprenticeships as a server in several Relais & Chateaux restaurants in Germany, then France and the UK.
So you’re trilingual.
I felt that to have a serious career in hospitality, I’d need to speak French and English. I studied and practiced. And sure enough, at every place I worked, I could converse with most of the customers. I’d start out busing tables and be promoted to server and even general manager at a restaurant in France. Next, I got some hotel experience working in Interlaken, a ski resort in Switzerland. I wanted a varied hospitality background, and in 1990 I took a job as guest services director on a small river ship cruising the Rhine.
How did you land in New Jersey?
An American passenger and I fell in love. Two years later I moved to Hackensack to be with him, and we got married. I went back to work as a hostess in the hotel in Parsippany that Route 80 drivers knew as “the castle.” I was promoted to assistant general manager. Then I took a two-year break to be an at-home mom to our baby son. Eventually I got a part-time job as a server at a fancy Swiss-owned restaurant in Warwick just over the New York-New Jersey state line.
When and how did you arrive at Latour?
The how is destiny! A manager at the Swiss restaurant was hired by the brand-new Crystal Springs Resort in 2003. The resort was planning to open a restaurant named for the legendary Bordeaux wine, Chateau Latour, and my ex-colleague asked me to join the team. Until Restaurant Latour opened, I worked in the resort’s more casual Tavern restaurant.
Did you help build Restaurant Latour’s wine cellar?
Not at this point. The wine program needed a lot of stocking up. Crystal Springs hired a well-known and respected New Jersey chef and sommelier, John Foy, to get the cellar ready for business. The cellar’s basis was the magnificent 2,000-bottle Bordeaux collection of the resort’s owner, Gene Mulvihill. It was plain to John that Restaurant Latour was going to become a wine destination. So he insisted that every Crystal Springs server learn about wine.
As in, by tasting?
Oh, yes. John would lead serious tastings for the team. He’d open world-class wines for us. We’d sip them and he’d explain what made them special, and how you could recognize their exceptional qualities. There’s definitely a learning curve. At first, I didn’t understand the Bordeaux–it was too complex for me.
And how do you feel about Bordeaux today?
(Laughs) Bordeaux is one of my absolute favorites. And John is the one who ignited my overall love of wine. To me, it’s exciting and magical on so many levels. The most thrilling thing about wine for me is that it appeals to all the senses. And that can’t help but reach your soul. Thanks to those exploratory wine tastings at Crystal Springs, I knew wine was my future. I took online courses from Wine Spectator and in time I achieved a high, though not ultimate, level of wine education. I became a credentialed sommelier.
Way to go! How did you clinch the title of Crystal Springs’ Wine Director?
John Foy left a couple of years after Restaurant Latour opened, and another wine director succeeded him, then another. Although I didn’t have the top spot yet, I was running the wine cellar and tastings, and I started buying the wine in 2008. Finally, I became Wine Director in 2014.
Since then, your cellar has become even more renowned and honored. What changes did you make?
John Foy had initiated a perfect wine cellar of stunning size, breadth and depth. It had an incredible range of wine regions, wineries and grape varietals, and within that, profound depth in vintages.
This was the blueprint I followed, and I kept building within this framework of variety and quality. I purchased thousands of high-end, rare collector’s items. But I also acquired many more affordable wines. I call them “value wines” because they deliver extreme quality for the money. Our diners love them. We also expanded our wine list’s selection of half-bottle wines, which means either half the alcohol for one half-bottle, or twice the choice if you order two different wines.
You’re often described as a sommelier who respects tradition but is also attuned to wine innovations.
A wine cellar is balanced, like a good individual wine. While honoring and maintaining the DNA of our perfect wine cellar, I wanted to expand to keep current with all the progress in winemaking. And I wanted Crystal Springs guests to explore wine outside of dinner, so we developed more ways for resort guests and visitors to experience our cellar.
You mean wine opportunities beyond your monumental wine list?
The more, the better. During the pandemic, we opened a retail shop called the Curator right in the wine cellar. It’s a fun place to browse or to sip in. The Curator’s customized tasting bar for up to four has proved very popular with Crystal Springs guests, Latour diners, and wine lovers who drop in. The Curator also sells bottles from our cellar at a discount and all sorts of wine accessories, gifts and grape-friendly treats including chocolate.
What kinds of changes are happening in wine?
People’s tastes change continually, including winemakers and wine drinkers. Grape-growing climates are shifting too. So much is happening in wine, it’s shaking up a traditional field with a lot of classifications and rules. And Crystal Springs’ cellar is moving into the future with the rest of the wine industry.
These days there’s always buzz about cool new wine regions like Mexico or the country of Georgia.
“Emerging” wine regions are exciting, even if some of them are actually the world’s oldest. Some of the emerging regions are places that couldn’t grow grapes until global warming changed their climates. Other regions had wineries but no export trade.
Does the public’s interest in cleaner, greener food extend to wine?
Organic or biodynamic winemaking is no longer a niche. It’s a movement. Wine consumers are also interested in small producers. Whether you call them boutique wineries, small-batch or indie, they have their own ideas about winemaking.
Does the new diversity in winemaking result in new styles of wine?
Yes. The new crop of winemakers are not afraid to ask “why not?” And they can be fearless about things like grape blends. This is an eye-opening time to be a sommelier!
Are your wine-loving Restaurant Latour diners and Crystal Springs guests as excited as you are?
Oh, yes. Many diners have visited wineries and vacationed in wine regions. They have personal connections to certain wines and are curious about others. And not just the wines but the wineries and winemakers.
For me, this aspect of wine is fascinating. A wine’s unique journey makes it special for me. I always want to learn the history behind the wine, the winery, the winemaker. I want to know how someone decides to make wine their life.
Susanne, that’s what I’ve been asking you!
(Laughs) That’s true. But always, the stories surrounding the wine bring it to life before I even taste it. When I work with Latour diners, helping choose the right wine for their meal, I try to convey a wine’s history. I also make sure that my sommeliers know these stories, because wine is life in a bottle. And when these “aha” moments happen in Restaurant Latour or in wine tastings, I am certain that I have the world’s best job.
Susanne gives her pro pointers for having a career in hospitality:
- Have a “hospitality personality”: This is something you’re born with. You’re an extrovert who’s always smiling. You thrive on being around people without hogging the spotlight, because you’re honestly interested in others. Without these qualities, you’ll find customer-facing jobs challenging, and everyone will sense it.
- Be innately interested in food and beverage: Whether or not there are great cooks or hospitality pros in your family, you’re passionate about food and drink, and able to convey your enthusiasm.
- Be energetic and robust: Service jobs are physically demanding. The hours can be long, and you’re on your feet much or most of the time, and often racing to get everything done.
- Never stop learning: Study everything about food, wine and hospitality management, and stay on top of trends. Be the employee who knows the most. You should never have to say “I don’t know” to a guest, whether it’s about the menu, the cooking, or anything going on in your restaurant or hotel. If you make a mistake, learn from it.
- Seek a mentor: A mentor will show you what you can be and do. I wouldn’t have had my career without the mentorship of Crystal Springs’ first wine director, John Foy. He had so much to give and I was open to it. It’s very satisfying to me that I’ve gone on to mentor young aspirants myself.
- And network! Go to industry events. Absorb new ideas, meet people in your field, connect with those who seemed nice or are associated with businesses you admire. Then follow up. Don’t feel you’re “only” a student or server. Everyone in hospitality has the same goal: a good customer experience.
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