CVIndependent

Mon07062020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Christine Soto

Lisa Tussing, a Southern California native, got her start in wine while attending college in Arizona. She started out like many of us do—drinking wine from Trader Joe’s, where she worked during college. From there, she moved on to fine dining, at places like John Howie Steak in Bellevue, Wash., and the historic Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. In 2014, Tussing was the youngest woman in Arizona to hold a Level 2 sommelier certification. A chance meeting with La Quinta Resort and Club general manager John Healy at the Biltmore (which is owned by the same company as the La Quinta Resort) brought Tussing to the desert last year.

Tussing and I chatted in the dining room of Morgan’s over a bottle of Los Bermejos Malvasia Seco.

When did you first start getting into wine?

When I worked at Trader Joe’s. I got a job there when I was 22, and worked there for three years while I was going to Arizona State. I’m the biggest Trader Joe’s cheerleader: I had a great work experience. Everyone loves being there; they pay well; they feed you; they encourage you; they let you take ownership and make you feel empowered with your guests. I started working in the wine department a little bit, and my friends and I started to taste our way through the wine selection. By 23, I had drank my way through the wine program! From there, I kind of started taking it over. I started making the orders and became the go-to wine person. People would laugh at me and say, “You’re not even old enough to drink, are you?” After Trader Joe’s I got back into fine dining at luxury hotels.

What’s the best part of your job?

At Morgan’s, we do these “festivals” menus. Every two weeks, depending on what is in season and what’s local, we do a different three-course menu. We do this all summer. … We do wine pairings with the menus, too! It is really fun to work with my chef (Jimmy Schmidt); he gives me an idea of where to start, then we’ll sit down together and bring new wines in and make the perfect little pairing.

I also love it when guests bring in wine and share some with me. Some of the best wines I’ve ever had are wines guests bring in.

What are you loving on your list right now?

The Bonny Doon “(I Am Not Drinking Any) $%&*#!” Merlot is a fun, inexpensive wine. I love the name, and it has a really fun story behind it. Another of my favorites on the list is Trefethen Dragon’s Tooth. The Dragon’s Tooth is a malbec blend out of Napa Valley which Janet Trefethen makes that is a winery- and wine-club-only wine, but I managed to convince them to let me put it on the list. … I also like the Tamarack Cellars rosé that I pour by the glass. Last summer, I went wine-tasting in Walla Walla, and after a week of tasting syrahs and merlots and these giant cabs and Washington reds, my palate was blown, but we went to Tamarack last-minute because my chef’s friends said how amazing it was. I drank this rosé there, and it was like the wine gods were shining a light on me.

What’s your sommelier strategy?

It’s all about your guest and knowing what they’re looking for. My strategy is to approach a table and get a feel for them and what they’re trying to accomplish with their meal. I ask what they’re having for dinner, what they normally like to drink, and how much they want to spend. I also ask if they want to go more traditional or do something fun. With all that info, I can pick out the perfect bottle on my list for their occasion. My strategy is not limited to wine: I have no ego once service starts. I’ll bus your table; I’ll run food and seat people. Once service starts, it’s all about the guest and what they need to have the best experience possible.

How often do people want fun versus traditional?

A lot more than you’d think, actually! A lot of guests will come in here with their minds made up. They might say, “I really like The Prisoner,” and I’ll ask why, and they’ll say, “I really like the fruit and texture, and it is really mellow.” I’ll say, “If you really like that wine, definitely get it! But if you want to try something a little different tonight, go with this B Cellars Sangiovese out of Napa Valley.” It’s all about reading the table.

What are you drinking right now?

Vodka. (Laughs.) When I go out, I drink cosmos and beer, like hefeweizen and lager. When I’m at home, I drink bubbles. I also love any white that doesn’t touch oak: torrontés, vinho verde, albariño and New Zealand sauv blanc.

Your desert island wine?

Just one wine?

I’m not a monster. (Laughs.)

Well, I’d do a breakfast, a lunch and a dinner wine: Bollinger (Champagne) for breakfast, torrontés for lunch, and Jones Family Vineyards Cabernet for dinner. I remember the first time I had that wine. A guest brought it in, and I thought, “Why don’t all red wines taste like this?”

Favorite food pairing?

I love a good oyster/champagne combo, or oyster/rosé. I love our oysters here; they are one of the most refreshing things I’ve ever tasted—a raw oyster topped with tangerine and Eroica Riesling granita; poached ginger; and tangerine salsa. It’s one of the chef’s signature dishes.

Favorite wine book?

All the study books are good, like Windows on the World and The World Atlas of Wine, but I read a book one time that really inspired me: Cheryl Ladd’s Token Chick: A Woman's Guide to Golfing With the Boys. It’s about golf, but (I) kind of tied wine into it. She was the first woman on the celebrity pro-am. It’s not technically about wine, but it’s about being a woman in a man’s world, so I relate to her. 

Where do you like to go out in the desert?

I stay in La Quinta a lot. There is a restaurant up the street called Casa Mendoza; I try to stop in there on my days off. (The restaurant has) killer margaritas, and the owner is always there; he’s really friendly. The food and service are great. I send a lot of people there.

Your favorite thing to do in the desert?

Golf at the Arnold Palmer Private Course at PGA West. Right now, the bighorn (sheep) are out on the course! It’s a sight to see. During the summer, I can golf about once a week. During the season, I don’t get to play at all. I don’t mind the heat. I don’t drink on the course—just water and Gatorade, so I sweat it out. It’s cleansing.

Palm Springs native Christine Soto is a co-owner of Dead or Alive wine bar in Palm Springs. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Whenever I head to the Los Angeles area, I always try to check out a new restaurant or eat at an old favorite—and when it comes to wine, two of my “old” favorites are Bar Covell and Augustine, both of which are among the most loved wine bars in Southern California. In fact, Sherman Oaks’ Augustine was recently named one of America’s Best New Wine Bars by Food and Wine.

Both wine bars are co-owned by Matthew Kaner, one of Los Angeles’ most respected sommeliers. Kaner’s involvement in wine doesn’t stop there; he regularly hosts wine events (he was recently tapped by the German wine industry to host a “Wines of Germany” event) and travels all over the world to learn about wine. On his schedule this summer: Oregon, Italy and Portugal. He’s writing a book about wine, and makes wine in partnership with winemakers in Santa Barbara under his AM/FM label. In other words, the man lives and breathes wine.

I met up with my fellow redhead while Kaner was recently visiting Palm Springs; we shared a bottle of Domaine Sylvain Bailly Sancerre Rosé, “La Louèe,” and chatted about all things wine.

How did you get into wine?

I got into wine first at 7 years old when I stole a glass of champagne at my mom’s friend’s wedding. This is not a joke. … I literally went over and stole a glass of champagne when someone went to the bathroom.

Was it actual champagne?

I don’t know. I never saw the bottle. I’ve always called it champagne. I could be wrong; it could have been Cremant de Loire. (Laughs.) So anyway, I stole a glass of champagne, or sparkling wine, from someone, and then I had to be taken home so I could vomit profusely for hours—as a 7-year-old! That’s how I got into wine first. I took about a 13- or 14-year break. … I’m from Santa Barbara, which is a wine-producing place, and a friend of mine in college … was really into wine through his dad. He didn’t really know much about it, but he was into the culture of it and going to dinners and cooking and things. His dad took a liking to me during my college years, and he inspired me to learn more about it. I actually quit my restaurant job of four years. I didn’t want to be a manager anymore, and I started working at a wine store called the Wine Cask, where I completely faked it ’til I made it.

What’s exciting to you about wine right now?

There’s so much access. There are so many people who wouldn’t have known things existed before, and now people are learning how to ask questions about it. One of the great parts of my job that I really appreciate and that I take very seriously, especially in the Internet age, is when you’re asked a question, you actually have to give the proper answer. There’s accountability now, because there is an iPhone in everyone’s hand.

What is the most exciting part of your job?

Wine is a conversation that never ends. … The narrative is always changing; the information is coming out more and more; things are being redefined; there are new winemakers. … There is a never-ending crop of talent which is really interesting. I’m a storyteller by nature: I write; I write songs; I’m writing a book. Wine, for me, is a synthesis of all my real loves, which are history, maps, geology and what things smell and taste like. The synthesis of all these things is really what’s in the glass. What excites me is that I get to tell these stories every day. I get to show people something they didn’t know about.

You’re writing a book?

I moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago to pursue music. I put a lot of time and effort in my life to do music. I quit college to pursue music, and it was what I thought my first path was really going to be. The perspective I’m taking in the book is how the pursuit of music led me to my career in wine. There is a synergy that I’ve felt with a lot of people in the wine industry … people who at one point were record producers, or a famous singer in a band, and then they throw it all away to go move on to a vineyard and make wine, or to start an import company.

Where is the most exciting wine region at the moment?

The Loire Valley (in Central France). For its biodiversity and the fact that (winemakers there) make every style of wine there is, the Loire Valley is a pretty special place.

What was your first wine love?

Burgundy.

Desert Island Wine?

Anything from (French winemaker) Thierry Allemand. It’s also the gentleman whose wine bottle was the impetus for my tattoo on my arm.

Favorite pairing?

Champagne and potato chips.

Your favorite wine book?

The first wine book that I read cover to cover was Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy by Joe Bastianich and David Lynch. It’s a very nice book; I learned a lot. … Italy is basically a country of, like, 20 different countries. I was able to learn about the culinary background and history, why certain grapes work with certain foods from different certain regions, and why they don’t make sense with other things. It had to do with a lot of family tradition and a lot of history. They really did an amazing job with that book.

When did you fall in love with Palm Springs?

The first time I came to Palm Springs was for a romantic getaway with my then-girlfriend. I fell in love with the landscape, the mountains, the weather. It’s hot; it’s dry. You go to a great pool, hang out by the pool, drink by the pool—everything is by the pool.

What’s your favorite thing to do in Palm Springs?

So far, my favorite thing to do in Palm Springs is go to Dead or Alive. (Laughs.) I’m really proud to have the AM/FM pinot noir available there. I’m also a huge fan of going to the Ace Hotel and having room service, and then being in a robe all day or night. I really like Tyler’s. I like the fact that they do what they do, and they do it right. I also like the Palm Springs airport. It’s awesome.

Palm Springs native Christine Soto is a co-owner of Dead or Alive wine bar in Palm Springs. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Andre de Carteret is the wine and spirits manager at Spencer’s Restaurant, home to one of the most expansive wine lists in the desert.

With 1,052 wines on the list, the Palm Springs restaurant is a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner. While the list has an emphasis on California cabernet and chardonnay (the “bread and butter,” as de Carteret puts it), every major wine-growing region is represented—and there are wines in the cellar that aren’t even on the list

“I’m always looking for room,” says de Carteret.

De Carteret hails from Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, under the authority of the British crown. At 16, he joined the British Armed Forces and trained in mountain and arctic warfare. From there, he taught and skied professionally—a career which brought him to the United States in 1982. He also worked in restaurants during his ski-racing career, and later started working in restaurants full-time. Before Spencer’s, he worked at restaurants in Reno, Lake Tahoe and elsewhere in the Coachella Valley, including La Spiga, Morgan’s in the Desert at the La Quinta Resort, and Fleming’s.

We sipped My Essential Rosé while we talked Spencer’s, wine and desert living.

When did you first become interested in wine?

Late in the 1980s, I was teaching skiing in Courchevel, France. I had a very, very, wealthy clientele who had incredible collections of Burgundy and Bordeaux. One of my clients would come back one week every month to ski with me, and we’d go to restaurants every night, and when he walked in, it seemed like everybody bowed down to him. He would buy all these incredible wines, and I started tasting them, and I would think, “Wow.” … In the ’80s, it was basically white, red and pink in restaurants. If you had six wines by the glass, that was a huge list. During that time, I drank all these incredible wines that I would never, ever, ever otherwise have a chance to touch: Hermitage, Romanée-Conti—you name it. That was my introduction.

What was your first wine love?

Burgundy.

What brought you to the desert?

I was a big tennis fan; I used to come for the tennis tournament. In 2007, I wanted a change, so I decided to move to Palm Springs.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

I get a kick out of turning people on to something they may never have tried. When somebody comes back and says, “I remember you. You sold us a bottle of wine; it was amazing! What else do you have?” I get a kick out of that. I also like it when people come back for different vintages of the same wines; we have a lot of customers like that. (I also like) showing people the gems on the list, the good-value wine.

What wines are you loving on your list right now?

My favorite wines probably at the moment, and some of the best values, are the interesting reds: Paso Robles, Central Coast, Santa Ynez, Santa Barbara. Some phenomenal values come out of that area. There is great value if you want to experiment with different varietals.

What are you drinking now?

Beer (laughs). Right now, I’m drinking A Tribute to Grace Grenache. Lovely. I also love the Gruet Sparkling Rosé, which we serve by the glass.

Your desert island wine?

Russian River pinot, probably Merry Edwards Pinot Noir. I like the Merry Edwards a lot.

Favorite Pairing?

I have so many favorite pairings: Sauternes and foie gras. Port and California artisanal cheese. Zinfandel and chocolate. Oysters and sauvignon blanc. Champagne and anything.

Your favorite wine book?

Windows on the World. That was probably the first wine book I picked up. And my go-to is The Wine Bible.

What’s your favorite thing about living in the desert?

The hot weather in August (laughs). No, really, I think it has to be the weather—and a location close to the beach when it gets hot here.

Palm Springs native Christine Soto is a co-owner of Dead or Alive wine bar in Palm Springs. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Kristin Olszewski is one of the Coachella Valley’s newest sommelier/wine directors. At 28, she’s also one of the youngest.

She joined F10 Creative (Mr. Lyons, Cheeky’s, Birba and Chi Chi at the Avalon) in December, moving to the valley from Massachusetts, where she was born and raised. After graduating from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she worked in restaurants in Boston and then San Francisco, including Saison and Sweet Woodruff; in fact, she helped open Sweet Woodruff and was the restaurant’s general manager.

After her stint in San Francisco, she decided to make a drastic career change: She moved back to Boston to enter the post-baccalaureate premedical program at Harvard. She then applied to medical school and was accepted. At the time, she was working at Spoke, a popular wine bar in Somerville, Mass. Her love of wine took hold, and instead of medical school, she is now pursuing a career as a sommelier. Before her move to Palm Springs, she was working at Straight Wharf in Nantucket, to which she’ll return in May.

On Thursday, March 10 and 24, Olszewski will be holding special wine dinners at Mr. Lyons; call the restaurant 760-327-1551 for more information.

Over a casual brunch and bottle of Hild Elbling Sekt at Kristin’s apartment, we talked wine.

When did you first start getting into wine?

I didn’t like wine for a really long time, but I was working in restaurants in San Francisco and tasting a lot. My ex-boyfriend was really into wine and had a great palate; we would drink a lot of wine together. One of my friends was the sommelier at Sons and Daughters, and she was the one who really exposed me to wine. I hadn’t thought about wine in the way she thought about it. That was the start. I was really lucky; I worked with great people in San Francisco who knew a lot about wine and were always willing to share.

What was your first wine love?

Cremant du Jura Rosé. I just remember being so amazed that wine could be that bright and mineral-driven. And then I was obsessed with the Jura, and I wanted to try everything I could.

What brought you to Palm Springs?

F10 was looking for a wine director for the season, and my boss in Nantucket mentioned me to Greg Rowan (the general manager at Mr. Lyons)—they used to work together in San Francisco. I needed something to do in the winter: either travel through Europe learning and wine-tasting, or work as a sommelier. So I met with Greg and Tara (Lazar, F10’s owner) one Nantucket morning over black coffee and bacon, casually talking about wine and everything, and it just worked out.

What surprised you most about Southern California?

How much people drink French wine here. (Laughs.)

You had the impression we only drink California wine?

Well, that is what everyone told me. I was thinking Palm Springs, resort town, steakhouse …

What are you loving on your list at Mr. Lyons right now?

I’m loving the 2013 Domaine de la Meuliere 1er Cru Chablis. I’m also really loving the 2012 Cultivar St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon. I cannot believe that I like this fruity California wine so much, but it’s so amazing; I really love it. I like fruit … who would have thought? I get so snobby sometimes that I forget how great fruit is. 

What’s the best part of your job?

I really love my job because I work for people who allow me so much freedom, and trust. And I get to be very playful with my wine lists. I’m really lucky that I got this opportunity. I’ve learned so much more than I even thought I would. When I was re-doing the wine list at Birba, (I was) kind of conceptualizing: What slots do I want to fill? Do I want light-bodied, mineral-driven and acidic? Light-bodied with fruit? What am I filling? I hadn’t really thought about wine in that way, so that was really great.

What’s your sommelier strategy?

I’m basically a hawk, circling the room for people looking at the wine list. I try to find people while they’re looking. The most important thing is listening: I listen to people, first and foremost. A lot of sommeliers get caught up in the ego. I think that’s a benefit of me not having a ton of experience: I really put the time in to listen to what people want, and I try to guide them. I know most people don’t have the vocabulary to describe what they like, even though they know what they like, so I try to help them suss it out. Also, price point is very important. I try to give people three options at different price points so they can choose what they want to spend. I have aggressively priced the wine on my list. I want to sell the wine.

What are you drinking now?

Everything from the Loire Valley (in France). Domaine Philippe Tessier Cour-Cheverny. It’s so good. Always Burgundy. (Laughs.) I wish I didn’t love Burgundy so much, but I do. And I’m getting really into Rhône right now—a lot of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

What’s exciting about wine to you right now?

That more people are drinking good wine, and so many people our age (late 20s) are really into wine and have developed wine palates and want a great bottle of wine when they go out to eat. It’s not just people in the industry who drink great wine.

What made wine more approachable?

I think it’s this whole foodie culture. It’s the next step: People got really into food, and now they’re into wine, cocktails and beer. There are so many affordably priced wines on the market right now; you don’t have to spend a lot to drink great wine.

Your desert island wine?

The 2008 Maison Alex Gambal Puligny-Montrachet.

Favorite food pairing?

Riesling and cheese. (Laughs.) Délice de Bourgogne and riesling.

Favorite wine book?

The Wine Bible, for the organization and cleanliness of the information, but most especially because Karen MacNeil describes syrah as a cowboy in a tuxedo.

Favorite thing to do in the desert?

Go hiking! Hiking here is the best, and you can’t really get that lost. Hiking and thrifting, too. I’m really in love with (Palm Canyon Drive vintage store) Iconic Atomic at the moment.

Palm Springs native Christine Soto is a co-owner of Dead or Alive wine bar in Palm Springs. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Page 2 of 2