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Castle Sojourn Leads to Wine Career for Darden Sommelier

February 17, 2017

By: Darden Restaurants, Editor

Castle Sojourn Leads to Wine Career for Darden Sommelier

Brian Phillips, Director of Wine Strategy at Darden, discovers new wines in California’s Napa Valley.

Photo Credit: Mike Gluckman

Perhaps it’s not surprising that spending a month at a medieval German castle, working in its wine cellar and vineyard, with unlimited wine at dinner, might lead to an epiphany. For Brian Phillips, who arrived in the Rhine Valley as a typical, beer-drinking college student, it led to his life’s calling. 

Now Director of Wine Strategy at Darden, Brian changed his major from journalism to hotel and restaurant management upon his return to Northern Arizona University. “I got into wine at just the right time,” he said, “because there was a cultural shift in America toward drinking wine and learning everything about it.”

After earning his degree in 2000, he served as wine director at The Driskill Hotel in Austin, TX, learning all he could about wine with his eye on earning prestigious certifications. He moved to Eddie V’s in 2013, advancing to managing partner and becoming an Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator. In May 2016, he took on the role of wine expert at Darden’s Restaurant Support Center in Orlando.

“My greatest responsibilities are to help The Capital Grille, Seasons 52 and Eddie V’s stay ahead of the curve and relevant with their wines,” he said. He also plays key roles in wine training and promotions, marketing and securing the best wine prices. “If I can shave off a dollar or two from the price of every bottle of Pinot Noir or Prosecco, that can add up to millions of dollars in savings.”

Going Straight to the Vineyard Source

Brian travels much of the time, most recently to California’s Napa Valley, where he tasted probably 500 wines. “To discover new wines, I need to get away from the office and emails and go straight to the vineyard sources.”

He said the biggest misconception about wine in the United States, which celebrates National Drink Wine Day on Feb. 18 and is the world’s No. 1 consumer of wine, is that “wine is what you drink to kill your day. Wine should be part of the meal, accentuating the food and bringing the family together. In most cultures, wine is treated like food, and it’s as important as the bread and the butter.”

Great Wine Can Be Easy on Your Budget

Expensive doesn’t necessarily equate with excellence in the wine world. The most Brian has paid for a bottle was $250 for a 1958 Barca Velha, a red table wine from Portugal. “I don’t think there’s any reason to ever pay more than $500,” he said. The most expensive wine he has sampled was an $18,000 bottle of Domaine de la Romanee-Contee La Tache. “It was a brilliant wine,” he said, “but it wasn’t worth more than $250. It wasn’t worth the price of a car – not even close.”

Many of his favorite wines are gentle on the budget. “Cava, sparkling wine from Spain, is made the same way as French Champagne, and for only $12 to $20 a bottle, it’s a great option,” he said.

He’s also fond of light-bodied reds such as Pinot Noir and Beaujolais, “easy-drinking wines that are great in hot climates like Florida and Texas.” These lighter wines also align with his healthful diet. Once a ranked tennis player, Brian remains athletic and wields a mean racket. “Like good wine, health is all about balance.”

Grueling Master Sommelier Test Ahead

This summer and fall, Brian will take the formidable, three-part Master Sommelier exam in pursuit of the highest distinction a professional can attain in the fine wine and beverage industry. Forbes magazine has suggested it is “the world’s toughest test.” He takes it all in stride. “Any person has a less than 3 percent chance of passing. You really can’t master wine. It’s so complex and still such a mystery.”

Only 211 people have earned the Master Sommelier title worldwide since the first test in 1969, but in a sense, sommeliers have been around since the 14th century. “They tasted the food and wine of royalty and wealthy people to make sure it hadn’t been poisoned. The sommelier would be the first person to die,” Brian said. 

Today, a sommelier’s job is far safer, to call out a wine for how it tastes, “seeing through the smoke and mirrors of the label and bringing those special bottles to the guest.” Wine is a great way to connect with guests, and promotions such as The Generous Pour at The Capital Grille introduce them to wines before they become famous, he said.

His philosophy toward the Master Sommelier test mirrors his philosophy on life, which he has passed on to his 4-year-old daughter: “The only time you fail is when you don’t try. 

“Besides, the best part about taking the test is representing yourself and your company and surrounding yourself with like-minded, committed people. It’s all about enjoying the journey.”

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