Master Sommelier Q & A: Getting to know Virginia Philip

Master Sommelier Q & A: Getting to know Virginia Philip Slideshow
Master Sommelier Virginia Philip

Master Sommelier Virginia Philip - Photo courtesy LILA PHOTO

Wineshop Academy

Virginia Philip Wineshop & Academy

Sommelier name: Virginia Philip
Title: Master Sommelier/Wine Director/CEO VPWSA
Hometown: Kent & New Milford, CT areas
Favorite hidden gem in The Palm Beaches: The Mandel Public Library in West Palm Beach – there is something for everyone there.  You can take out a book and go read it down by the waterfront.
Favorite band/musician: It changes from time to time, varying from Genesis, Eric Clapton, Cold Play, Nothin’ But Thieves, Eros, Budda Bar  

Current restaurant/resort: Virginia Philip Wine Shop & Academy / Wine Director – The Breakers Palm Beach
Brief description about your wine shop:
Wine, beer and sake retail shop with educational services.  We are unique because we have a classroom built into the store.
Hours of operation: Monday thru Saturday: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., closed on Sundays
Address: 101 N Clematis Street, Suite 150, West Palm Beach, Florida, 33401
Brief description about The Breakers: Landmark luxury hotel with eight restaurants and bars, Performance Art Center and Golf Course
Hours of operation: Open 365 days per year, and varies from restaurant to restaurant
Address: One South County Road, Palm Beach, Florida 33480    
Tell us about yourself. How did you shape your sommelier career?
I was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Connecticut.  I went to college for 4 years at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.  I was always interested in wine and took a course in college on wine.  I was hooked.  As soon as I turned 21, I started traveling to the vineyards.  In fact, one summer I even worked in a winery part time while in college.  I pruned vines, drove the tractor and did some other manual labor.  After college, I turned down all of my job offers and moved out west to Aspen, Colorado.  I began working part time in a wine shop which I absolutely loved.  I learned so much there.  Sitting on your hands and knees, unpacking boxes, you learn very quickly that Puligny-Montrachet and Pouilly-Fuissé are Chardonnays and go in the Chardonnay section.  After a few months, I went into management at The Little Nell.  I met the sommelier working there, Mark Pape, and my love for wine was further sealed.  I studied and worked with wine as often as I could.  I began taking the sommelier exams in 1998 and passed my Master Sommelier Diploma exam in November of 2002.  Three weeks later, I won the competition for Best Sommelier United States – a title I retained until 2006.  In 2012, The James Beard Foundation honored me with a nominee for Wine & Spirits Professional.  In 2015, I was honored with an Honorary Masters Degree in Oenology from my alma mater, Johnson & Wales.  

Who was your greatest influence in choosing the sommelier career path?
My Father was Italian and gave us small sips of wine mixed with water on holidays and occasional Sunday dinners.  I was quite young – around 5 or 6 years old.  I knew at the age of 13 that I wanted to make food and wine my career.  I drank wine all thru college and the rest is history.  

What is your favorite type of wine?
All wine of course! I do generally drift towards wines from France, Italy and Spain however.  

Tell us about your wine shop in Downtown West Palm Beach. What was the inspiration behind both the store and the wines you feature?
The shop was an inspiration I had from working at that wine shop in Aspen.  I loved it!   I promised myself that “one of these days, I will own my own”.   I also wanted to create an atmosphere and environment where wine is fun and approachable for clients with all sorts of wine knowledge. Why not create a shop where education is a primary focus offering classes with some of the top wine makers from around the world?  I wanted my clients to find our classes enjoyable and educational – without having to travel to New York City, Napa, Chicago or Europe to find it.  We have over 650 selections from 17 countries starting from $10 to $1000+.  We also do cellar management and source wines for our clients from all over the globe.  Stand out vintages vary depending upon availability, but you can find Bordeaux from 1995, 1996, 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2010 vintages.  California cult wines are also available, although quite frankly, they do not last on the shelves for long.  

What is your wine-drinking "philosophy," and how are you expressing that at your store, as well as The Breakers Palm Beach?
My Philosophy is to drink what you like and enjoy it!  Our classes at the shop focus on everything from Rosé From Around the Globe, Old World versus New World wines, Sake class paired with food, Blind Tasting 101 and Wine 101, and food and wine pairing classes.  

When dining at The Breakers Palm Beach, what type of guest experience do you hope to evoke with the wine selections you choose?
In a word – “Comfortable”.  The Breakers is a gorgeous place with historical ties going back to the late 1800’s.  Our guests will find that our wine by the glass programs are different in each outlet.  The goal is to give our guests who are staying over a longer time frame, a varied and unique experience in each restaurant.  There will be labels they will recognize, but many they do not.  We encourage trying new wines and styles from countries and regions they may have never tried before- without necessarily committing to the entire bottle.  

If a fellow sommelier visited your shop or The Breakers Palm Beach, what’s your idea of the perfect wine to recommend to him/her?
They do visit us in both locations all the time.  They find the perfect wine either by ordering it by the glass in our restaurants.  At the shop, depending on their knowledge or what they are looking for, we may offer them a coveted gem not available in their market, a half bottle of a gem of a wine that may be out of reach in a 750 ml or a unique wine from Slovenia, Israel or even Italy.  

Why is your shop a “must-see” spot for visitors of The Palm Beaches?
First of all, the store is beautiful.  We are one street off of Flagler Drive, with water views of yachts, the water and the downtown scenario.  Our interior is unique with hand crafted wooden wine racks and cork balls.  Our selections are amazing and our classes educational.  Our $10 rack is considered a hidden gem to our local clientele.  We have between 10 to 12 wines featured daily.   To make it onto the rack considers approval from my team and me.  

How is the wine scene across The Palm Beaches thriving? Do you think the wines offered across The Palm Beaches have a collective identity? 
Yes, the wine scene is thriving.  That is the major reason I wanted to open the shop.  Our demographics were ready for a fine wine shop with education.  Florida is one of the top four states in the USA with purchasing power.  Restaurants are popping up all over the place with extremely talented Chefs and sommeliers.  As for a collective identity, I do think we sell more European wine than many other states.  However, if you go to Miami, the wine selections can change dramatically.  

What are some of your favorite restaurants in The Palm Beaches?
Pistache, Echo, Café Sapori, Bice, Trevini, Imoto, Table 26.

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