Sommelier Sabrina Schatz grew up on family-style, homemade wine in Bulgaria. Now she’s the wine director of Bobby Flay Steak at the Borgata in Atlantic City. Last week, Schatz competed in the 9th Annual StarChefs Somm Slam in New York, a competition that pits sommeliers against each other in real time. We caught up with Schatz to talk about her experience, and what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry.
Table Hopping: How did you get into wine?
Sabrina Schatz: Wine kind of picks you. I’m Bulgarian. My family used to make wine, and I was fascinated with the process back then. I used to love tasting with my father and grandfather. We used to do harvesting, the whole family. [It] was definitely a chore, but we did it. Wine to me is more about the people behind it, the stories.
TH: How did you make the leap to the pros?
SS: I went to school for hospitality management and started working at the Borgata 11 years ago. I was a server at the [now closed] Michael Mina SeaBlue (in Las Vegas). The sommelier at the time was Jimmy Santangelo. He was very passionate, he organized a wine course for [staff] and I was hooked. I started at Bobby Flay Steak six years ago. The wine director at the time really attracted me—Angelina Griffen-Holst. She guided me.
TH: What’s your list like? Can you play around at all within traditional steakhouse expectations?
SS: It’s around 600 labels. It’s a steakhouse, so the focus is mainly on cabernet [sauvignon], Napa cabernet in particular. But we have quite a large selection of Italian wines, French as well.
A lot of times, people are looking for Napa cabernet. For example, we have one dish, a 14-ounce veal chop, center cut, glazed with balsamic and topped with hot peppers. I’ve paired it with sangiovese. Soft tannins, light, and bright acidity. People don’t usually expect it.
TH: Any unexpected region or variety?
SS: We used to have a wine from New Jersey on the list. Right now I have wine from the Canary Islands. It’s a red wine, Listán Negro, from a small producer. If you go to the Canary Islands, there used to be a volcano there, so you get smoky and ashy notes. It’s not a heavy wine. I describe it as pinot noir and syrah, with a touch of smoke.
TH: The sommelier and steakhouse worlds were traditionally masculine, though that’s changing. How do you see yourself in it?
SS: I feel stronger being a woman. I feel in charge. We have two steakhouses at the Borgata and both have female sommeliers. Though in the beginning, we had guests asking for the sommelier—when I was there! It became frustrating. I [would] tell them if they have any wine questions or requests, I’m the person to ask. I did it with a smile and confidence. Now they ask for me by name.
TH: How’d the Somm Slam competition go?
SS: The first day we had blind tasting, theory questions and food pairing. My competitors were 12 sommeliers, including many I look up to. I had a bit of stage fright at first, but when I saw my group had to pair steak, I definitely felt more comfortable. I do this every day at Bobby Flay Steak. I picked a gran reserva Rioja [for the] coffee-rubbed flank steak over cauliflower purée and crispy kale. Rioja is one of my favorite wines to pair with red meat. Apparently, the judges loved it, too, because I moved on to the second round.
Day two started with two blind wines. No one got the white wine and I was the only one to exactly identify the red, so that was good, but then I got eliminated after the rapid-fire wine questions.
TH: Regardless of outcome, what do you take away from competing?
SS: The experience. The new friends I met, the old friends I got to see. Meeting with peers from all over the world. Exchanging ideas, sharing wines, stories. People in the wine business are generous with their time, quirky and easygoing. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.
Bobby Flay Steak is located inside the Borgata Hotel and Casino at 1 Borgata Way, Atlantic City; 609-317-1000.Click here to leave a comment