Julie Dalton discovered her passion for wine while waiting tables in college at Texas A&M University. While holding a full-time job in the biotech industry, she continued to nurture this passion, moonlighting as a sommelier at Ranazul Tapas and Wine Bistro in Fulton, Maryland. In 2010, Dalton decided to follow her dreams and go into the wine business full time. After a year of working on the supplier side of the industry, she returned to hospitality as a sommelier at the new Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore. Michael Mina’s Wit & Wisdom is where you will currently find her happily creating synergy with Chef Zack Mills’ cuisine.
Dalton has earned sommelier certifications up to the Advanced level through the Court of Master Sommeliers, and she is a Certified Wine Educator through the Society of Wine Educators. She’s currently in the process of completing her Diploma in Wine and Spirits through the Wine and Spirits Education Trust and is working towards her Master Sommelier Diploma.
How did you get into your field?
JD: Well, I was waiting tables in college in Texas. I worked at Gaido’s in Galveston. It’s more than 100 years old, family owned. That’s when I fell in love with wine, really. And the more I knew about it, the more I could sell it. The higher the check, the more tips you’d make, so you know…selling a bottle over a glass. I read everything – even Wine for Dummies – I still refer to that sometimes. The restaurant had some wine professionals there and working there gave me the confidence to go into wine. It’s such a male-dominated industry.
What is Baltimore’s beverage scene like these days?
JD: Artisanal – or, well, craft – beers are getting really big. And cocktails are popular, of course. You know, cities follow trends and Baltimore is no different. Wine’s definitely becoming bigger – but wine is so old and will always have a captive audience. It’s important for people who work in wine like me to make wine more relatable, bring classicism down. Make it easier for people feel comfortable to explore and learn.
When you’re off the clock, where do you like to go to eat and grab a drink?
JD: Some of my favorites are Thames Street Oyster House and James Joyce Pub. I probably spend more time and money at Thames Street than any other place. I love getting oysters and Muscadet – it’s the perfect pairing! Also, James Joyce has really good fish and chips and burgers. Love getting a beer and a Caesar salad there. Like anyone else, I love to explore the city, but I often end up at my favorite places over and over.
Do you have an industry mentor? Anyone who really helped you find your way?
JD: Here in Baltimore, definitely Mitchell Pressman. He owned Chesapeake Wine Company and now, Arcadia Wine. When I moved here, I wanted a part-time job because I wanted to keep learning more about wine. He’s a big part of who I’ve become as a sommelier. Also I have to say, Kathy Morgan and John Wabeck. Kathy is a master sommelier in DC and is more of an educator now. John is at Spoon in Pittsburgh and is working to become an advanced sommelier. (Writer’s note: there are only 147 master sommeliers in the US, only 24 are women.)
What do you like about Baltimore?
JD: Approachability. And the market is not jaded like a bigger city might be. We’re still open-minded, curious, friendly. It’s so funny, in Baltimore even the snobby people are pretty nice! The culture of Baltimore is embracing and I love that.
What do you love about wine?
JD: I love that it’s a subject that touches all subjects – any conversation about wine can lead to tons of areas like history, science, religion, philosophy and more. You can talk to so many different kinds of people about wine and everyone can eventually relate to it through some subject or another. Also, there is a story behind every bottle and those stories resonate and make it memorable.
What’s the best advice you’d give someone just beginning to explore wine?
JD: Keep an open mind. Over half of wine sales right now are millennials and they are willing to try new things. That’s great. And, respect the classics! Like French wine, just like your elders, it deserves your respect. And, I’ve gotta say, it’s not all about red. So many people are red snobs and really wine professionals drink way more white – like, way more! White wine is not uncool!
What are some of your other favorite restaurants/bars in the City?
JD: Well, other than Thames Street Oyster House, I really like places that have half price wine nights like Cinghiale and Aggio. Aggio’s wine list is really great – and affordable. Also, Sunday nights at La Cuchara are fantastic – they have a great selection there. Oh, and I can’t forget Of Love & Regret in Brewer’s Hill. Their gin & tonic menu is amazing – it’s totally varied and they’re all pretty delicious. In fact, I’d say Of Love & Regret is a beer and wine geek’s paradise.
What do you want people to know about Baltimore?
JD: That we have a fantastic food and beverage scene – it’s not just crabs! I mean, they’re great, of course but there is so much more. We can stand shoulder to shoulder with some really prime markets. And, yeah, it’s not just The Wire.
Where would you take visiting beverage colleagues to have drinks in Baltimore?
JD: I’d say W.C. Harlan. I love their approach, it’s not snobby at all. Cocktails are fantastic at Fleet Street Kitchen and I love sending folks to see Eric Fooy at B&O Brasserie – he’s great. And, Jack’s Bistro is very good – and a little different, which is fun.
What’s your favorite wine to suggest right now? Of course, it’s seasonal – can you even choose?
JD: I mean, yes, it’s seasonal to a point. I love to suggest a glass of rosé or Riesling, of course. There are just so many great rosés around. Also, I tend to have ADD when it comes to producers – variety is the spice of life, try lots! I really love that dry Riesling is taking off right now. I love educating people, so great to open people’s minds and get them to try new things – see things differently.
How do you stay on top of the latest in the wine world?
JD: I subscribe to services like Wine Business and get daily emails with industry news. Also, Guildsomm.com, which is a service for sommeliers all over the world. They do a monthly podcast called “I’ll Drink to That.” Plus there’s real life service in the restaurant, so you pay attention to what your restaurant guests are requesting. That’s important.
Tell me more about being an advanced sommelier, what’s the test like?
JD: I first was accepted to sit for the exam in February of 2010 and in two months – while working full-time in biotech, plus running the wine program at Ranazul in Howard County and working a few shifts at Volt in Frederick. I was able to prepare myself and pass on the first try – I’m so proud of that. If anyone says they don’t have time, that’s just not true. My mentors Kathy and John helped me a lot, of course. For that level, you take all three portions (service, written and tasting) at once. It’s not easy, it really is a lot to cover in one sitting. There are a lot of certified sommeliers in Baltimore, but only a few advanced: myself, Chris Coker at Aggio, Greg Schwab at La Cuchara and I can’t not mention, the late Nelson Carey of Grand Cru.