Virginia Philip: Master Sommelier
A Sensory Delight
Pour a glass of wine, white or red, and assess its color. If white, is the hue closer to that of pure water, or is it more golden honey? If red, does its shade lean more brown or ruby? Swirl your glass and hold it up to the light of your iPhone and look again. Can you see through the wine? Write down your opinions on the card under ‘Visual.’
Now, put your nose through the rim of your stemware. Come on, get down in there. What scents are prominent? Are they cinnamon, oak, coconut, pineapple, vanilla, spice, tobacco, mushroom, mocha, coffee, or some combination therein? Swirl your glass and try again. Whatever comes to mind, write it down on your card under ‘Nose.’
Now, take your first sip of the wine (pretend you’ve held out this long). What flavors do you taste? Are they tart and sour, or rich with fruit? Do you taste the earth? If so, is it mineral, rock, gravel, tar, or maybe forest? If you taste fruit, is it citrus, apple, apricot, pear, honeydew melon or berries? Swirl vigorously and taste again. Write down your opinions on the card under ‘Palate.’
Why should you swirl wine in stemware? Can you smell or taste alcohol content? Is the grape’s derivation from a cooler or warmer climate? What’s the difference between acids and tannins? What is the significance of a long finish? Which breads, cheeses and meats go best with which wines, and why? Taste and take notes. How did you feel about the entire experience? Record under ‘Final Conclusion.’
Welcome to a scrumptiously fun evening of ‘Wine 101’ education at the Virginia Philip Wine Shop & Academy in Palm Beach, Florida. Relax, taste, learn, and above all, enjoy. If only college could have been like this.
In the 1970s and 80s, fine wine was generally an ‘Old World’ fascination. But that was changing as surprisingly good vintages from Napa Valley were firmly announcing America’s arrival on the scene. Because of the influence of her Italian father, Philip was captivated with food and wine from an early age. The family patriarch passed on a taste of his heritage by serving his young children sips of watered-down wine at Sunday and holiday dinners. Along with the diluted potion came his foundational stories meant to contextualize its rich traditions, which included an appreciation of the countryside’s lush produce and an enduring love for family, friends, food and wine.
As certain of her path as a young person can be, Philip attended Johnson & Wales University, notable for their culinary and hospitality management degrees. Not coincidentally, this same school produced another of our upcoming features, chef John Moeller, so J&W is clearly grooming the finest in their New England kitchen.
Before a bottle of 90Bordeaux could properly aerate, Philip was traversing vineyards, getting close to the earth and grape, studying the craft, taking notes, preparing. After graduation, she turned down a stream of local job offers to move to Aspen, Colorado, the resort playground of the upper crust. She took a job in a wine shop and thoroughly enjoyed learning the trade. With uncanny prescience, the young lady had discovered her element.
In the 1990s, the domestic wine business, from farmers to buyers to marketers, was dominated by men. That didn’t dissuade Philip from spending long, tireless hours preparing to leave her undeniable impression on an entire industry. After taking a management position at a world-class resort hotel, she began chatting up its sommelier, taking notes, studying the craft, preparing. Steadily moving up the chain, in the late 90s she boosted her credibility by earning a sommelier degree.
Philip describes what happened next. “I had two early mentors,” she says, “Frank Todaro from the Aspen wine shop, and Andrew Bell, who cofounded the American Sommelier Association.” When living in San Antonio, Philip met with Bell and Roger Dagorn, a Master Sommelier and owner of acclaimed New York restaurant Chanterelle (and others). “They asked me if I’d ever considered becoming a Master Sommelier,” said Philip, “which of course, I hadn’t.” At the time, less than one hundred human beings had earned the lofty accreditation, including about ten women. Never shy about taking on an enormous challenge, Philip dug in, further honed her relevant senses, and went after the nearly impossible.
Meanwhile, at the turn of the century, Philip had occasion to travel east to visit the tony island of Palm Beach and The Breakers, ‘Gilded Age’ pioneer Henry Flagler’s grand resort hotel. While in town, she decided to interview for the position of sommelier at the resort’s fine dining venue, L’Escalier. They were duly impressed and South Florida had procured its latest pioneer.
The Breakers, the magnificent Italian Renaissance masterpiece which would be Philip’s new place of employ, was built in 1926 after Flagler’s first two wood-frame structures burned to the ground in 1903, and again in 1925. At its origin, when guests would continually ask for rooms “out on the breakers,” the ‘Palm Beach Inn’ was expanded and renamed ‘The Breakers’ (1901). So in essence, Philip began the Florida leg of her career during the resort’s centennial year celebration.
Philip didn’t waste any time. The following twelve months were certainly the most remarkable of her entire ground-breaking career. In early November of 2002, after four years of arduous preparation, she traveled to London to become the eleventh woman in history awarded with the ‘Master Sommelier’ diploma. Three weeks later, in New York City, she was named ‘Best Sommelier in the United States,’ an award she held through 2006. Soon after returning home, she earned a promotion to ‘wine director’ of The Breakers. I imagine this historic achievement is equivalent to winning Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown.
With a laugh and an emphatic, “No,” Philip says, “my job isn’t to sit around all day tasting wine. That’s a ridiculous misconception.” In fact, her teeming daily menu includes managing and training a team of sommeliers, overseeing beverage inventory and costs, and running the wine programs for the resort’s eight dining venues and fourteen wine lists, including award-winning ‘HMF’ (formerly L’Escalier) and Flagler Steakhouse. Over the years, she has built the world-class list at HMF to over 2000 selections, with strengths in Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Italy and California. All the while she’s been a stellar ambassador for the resort.
Taking a cue from her predecessor, Philip thinks decades into the future. “We’re patient in adding wines to our list,” she notes. “With wines as great as these, we’re not in any hurry.” To hammer down her point, two bottles of the most collectible French Burgundy on earth, Joseph Drouhin’s 1945 “Romanee-Conti,” direct from brother Robert Drouhin’s cellar, recently sold at auction for a cool million dollars. One can only hope they aren’t corked.
An Early Dream Realized
How would Philip ever rival her exceptional ‘Triple Crown’ year? It may have been in 2011 when she opened the Virginia Philip Wine Shop & Academy, finally making manifest a dream laying down in her cellar since that first wine store job in Aspen. In 2018, she upgraded the shop’s location to the beautiful Royal Poinciana Plaza, just a short walk from The Breakers.
In discussing her retail and training business, Philip says, “I wanted my clients to have access to world-class wine and food education without having to travel to New York City, Napa, Chicago or Europe to find it. We offer weekly classes and special events with notable chefs and some of the world’s top winemakers in an environment where wine is fun and approachable for all clients, from beginners to those building a cellar.” [click here to visit her online store].
In addition to teaching her craft to both novices and aspiring professionals, Philip is keen on mentoring. As Todaro, Bell and Dagorn once did for her, Philip has encouraged the careers of several sommeliers. Under her tutelage, L’Escalier’s Andrew McNamara and Juan Gomez did the hard work necessary to earn their Master Sommelier diplomas.
“Being a mentor to other sommeliers is incredibly important,” she says. “Andrew and Juan both earned their MS degrees in 2007. Andrew has since moved on while Juan has remained with me for fifteen years. He is the first and only person from Mexico to have passed the exam and has been an example for others to follow. For me, there is nothing more satisfying than to be able to take my experience and share it with the incredible people on my team.”
In passing on some wine advice to we relative novices, Philip says this, “My philosophy is to know what you like to drink and why you like it. Visit wine country, put your hands in the soil, touch the vines, there’s nothing like it. Taste wine often, try new things, keep notes. Then, drink what you like and enjoy it. There are delicious wines available from all over the world at every price point. We have a $10 rack in our store that has been wildly popular.”
With the early influence of her father and a lifetime of grit and resilience, Virginia Philip developed her extraordinary skills to become an seminal figure in the wine industry. Following in the footsteps of Palm Beach’s founding father, Henry M. Flagler, literally, Philip is a true pioneer and a model for other entrepreneurs to study and follow. If she has one regret, it’s that her own ‘founding father’ isn’t here to enjoy her success, having passed away from cancer over a decade ago.
As we raise our glasses in tribute to Ms. Philip (after a purposeful swirl, of course), we close with a quote from author Paulo Coelho: Accept what life offers you and try to drink from every cup. All wines should be tasted; some should only be sipped, but with others, drink the whole bottle.
We are confident that any bottle recommended by Virginia Philip will be of the “drink the whole bottle” variety. To our pioneering Master Sommelier, we offer our hearty congratulations and best wishes for continued prosperity.