MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- She was 21 years old, when she wrote her first wine list. A decade later, Erin Rolek has been named one of the 10 Sommeliers of the Year by Food & Wine Magazine.
She is the first wine expert from Minnesota ever named to that list.
"I was shocked. 'Are you sure?' I was really surprised," said Rolek, the general manager and wine director for The Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis' North Loop neighborhood.
That aforementioned first list was at her first general manager job, working for French Meadow Bakery on Lyndale Avenue in Uptown Minneapolis.
"I was new to the drinking world, being freshly 21," Rolek said, then clarifying that she was "new to the legal drinking world."
Her 100-bottle, single double-sided page wine list is the opposite of the formal, leather-bound wine books you get at some restaurants.
"You can pick up the page, look at it, and we can guide you through it," she said.
It focuses on cold-climate wines, generally in the Northern Hemisphere. A couple Spanish wines have snuck on over the years, but it's largely wines from France, Germany, Austria, and the United States.
Many of the wines are under $100 a bottle, although "I you want to go crazy, here's a 1959 chardonnay from the Jura region" of France. That bottle is $400.
Rolek said she never intended to be a sommelier, but as part of being a general manager she had to create a wine list. Local wine sales reps taught her through blind tastings.
"They'd put a glass of chardonnay and a glass of sauvignon blanc next to me and have me pick out the differences," she said. Ultimately she went to classes to become a certified sommelier.
"It's a wine director or wine buyer of a restaurant. That's what a sommelier means," she said.
Rolek's wines at The Bachelor Farmer, its café and Marvel Bar are intended to be the perfect complement to James Beard award-winning chef Paul Berglund's food, which focuses on local products from family farms.
She's not using local wines, but she is seeking out small producers and "sustainable vineyard practices."
"The flavor profile is critical. It has to be a delicious wine at the end of the day. Interesting wine is cool, but do you want to drink it?" she said.
Part of the mission is to make wine less intimidating and encourage people to try wines and grapes they've never heard of.
"In our wine program we have a chalkboard in the middle of the dining room," said Rolek.
She credits managing director Nathan Rostance with the idea: The Bachelor Farmer lets people buy a half bottle of wine, and then the remaining two glasses go up for grabs on the chalkboard.
"It's a way to taste glasses of wine that aren't normally available, but it's constantly fluctuating so it's lots of fun," she said.
The goal is to get people to ask questions, to experiment, to take a chance on a glass that might just blow your mind.
"I would say be adventurous and curious and trust your server or wine director walking around the floor, because you'll discover things that way," she said.
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