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Know Your Sommeliers: Jeffrey Van Ham

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25/09/2023 Sommelier Jeffrey Van Ham: Elevating Wine Culture with Expertise and Passion

Jeffrey Van Ham is a sommelier who has dedicated his career to the art of wine. With a background spanning various cities and experiences, Jeffrey brings a unique perspective to the world of wine and hospitality. Currently serving at The Oakville Grill & Cellar, Jeffrey's journey is a testament to his passion for both the craft of sommeliers and the joy of introducing others to the enchanting world of wines.

The below conversation promises to be an enlightening experience into the world of wine, guided by the expertise of Jeffrey Van Ham.

Your current place of work.

The Oakville Grill & Cellar

Tell us about yourself.

I’m originally from Chicago, Illinois but raised by my grandparents I have also lived in Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona, Las Vegas, Nevada, and Portland, Oregon. I returned home to Chicago in 2019 where I live in the north suburb of Evanston with my wife Danielle and 2 dogs Tripod and Penny. I graduated from UNLV with a bachelor's in Business Management and started my restaurant career as a busser at age 19 in a steakhouse at the JW Marriott in Las Vegas. In addition to working every position in front of the house throughout my career, I also worked as a sales rep for Southern Wine and Spirits. Most of my day outside of work consists of working out and walking my dogs. My wife and I also have been making our way through the Caribbean for vacations visiting 7 of the islands so far.

Why did you want to become a sommelier?

I originally only wanted to get my Introductory level Sommelier to add to my resume for job hunting. But soon after I felt it wasn’t enough, I really wanted the Certified level pin to add to that knowledge. Wine was such a foreign concept to me when I first started in this industry but it was explained to me and I was then able to see the beauty of the wine. Master Sommelier Laura Maniec once told me the more you know about wine the more you will like it. At the time that made no sense to me that knowledge would affect my tastes but it couldn’t be more true. That made me want to be the one who imparted the knowledge to others and turned them into the wine lovers they didn’t know they were.

Questions you would ask a customer who doesn't know anything about wine?

I always first ask what they like to drink. This does not have to be wine, I want to know their flavor profile. I will ask what wines they have tried and what they liked and disliked about them. My goal is to take them from what they know they like and do a slight side step into something new but still very similar to what they have had before. I want to find their safe space and sort just slightly out into something more adventurous.

What are some of the most important skills for a sommelier?

Always remember you are a member of the support staff and to be hospitable to the guests. Guests have an impression that as a Sommelier you are going to talk over their heads and sell them on something super expensive. They need to feel comfortable with you.

How I would train my new staff member in their first 7 days of them joining.

I focus on the basics of wine first. My training is also very realistic to what guests ask. While technical data is cool no one cares about exact residual sugar levels, types of fermentation, etc. The guest wants to know how it tastes that’s it. If my staff can accurately express that to the guests without hesitation I can answer difficult questions about the wine.

What methods do you use to grow wine sales - top line? Please explain with examples.

A solid approachable BTG list with upsells along with a knowledgeable staff. Having a unique by-the-bottle list and price points that match the venue.

How do you self-learn and improve your skills?

I attend as many wine tastings as I can to keep my palette fresh and learn about new products. I also subscribe to several beverage emails for current events in the beverage world.

What's the best part of your job?

I love turning someone on to a new favorite wine. Nothing is better than a guest falling in love with a bottle they never would have tried on their own.

How do you elevate the guest experience? Please give 4-5 examples and insights here.

I love to talk to the guests about either the winery or the region where the wine comes from in a way that educates them but doesn’t come off as I am showing off. It’s a simple conversation where hopefully they can learn something while getting a cool story. Often I will explain how the varietal-specific glassware will help them smell and taste better through the design. Having an open bottle from a previous tasting is also a great way to elevate their experience by swinging by and pouring a taste of something different. No matter the price of the bottle putting on a show for the guest makes them feel important and validates their choice.

Your favourite TV show right now?

Currently, I am loving “Mayor of Kingstown” starring Jeremy Renner.

An unforgettable wine experience for you - tell us the whole story!

I was working in Vegas at the Cosmopolitan when we came in to work a lunch event. Someone from the previous night had ordered a bottle of 1982 Chateau Lafite but only drank half of the bottle. It was left for us in the morning to drink as a present. This was one of the few days in Vegas when the weather was perfect. My coworker had stopped at the grocery store to buy cinnamon rolls as a treat for us in the morning. When we discovered the wine we all took a moment to sit on the patio overlooking Las Vegas Blvd. 3 stories up and enjoy a good 2-ounce pour of the beautiful wine along with these cinnamon rolls. No one will ever convince me that the wine and food pairing we had was not perfect at that moment on such a beautiful day. The memory still sticks to me and that is the most beautiful wine I have ever tasted.

What are the biggest faux pas that customers tend to make when ordering and drinking wine?

Looking for sweet red wines. I realize there is a whole section in the grocery store dedicated to the products and they make money that pays for cooler higher-end products, but too many customers believe this is how wine is. They don’t understand actual sugar was added to artificially make the wine sweet. Now they are looking for a Pinot Noir or Zinfandel and expect it to have a sugar level of an Auslese Riesling.

Any favourite food and wine pairing suggestions for drinks enthusiasts?

I’m a fan of dessert wines. I feel they are often overlooked and most people do not like them because they have not experienced one they like. I like to also pair them outside of traditional dessert items like more savory foie gras and Sauternes or nuts with different styles of ports. Even a good charcuterie board can go with a sweeter Sherry.

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What's your personal career goal? And how are you investing or planning to get there?

I would eventually love to work for a wine group as a brand ambassador traveling to taste and educate people about the brand. I simply work hard every day to better myself and maintain a great working relationship with my suppliers and producers.

How can suppliers work with you to drive sales?

Staff training is very important. We spend so much of our time working the floor and administrative work that helping to educate and taste the staff goes a long way and provides a different point of view to them.

Can you share with us an example of a solid wine program?

Anyone who is doing the basics like proper storage, temperature, glassware, service, and well-trained staff is the most important thing. The level of respect given to the wine program is paramount no matter how big or small your operation is.

What are the four main things you focus on daily?

To learn something myself. To teach someone something. To blow a guest away with wine. And to sharpen my skills.

What are the points you look at when selecting a new wine for your wine program?

Does it fit my overall program, is the price point one I need, and does this wine fit into or replace something I need?

According to you, what makes a good sommelier, and what qualities do you look for when hiring a sommelier?

A good sommelier must remember they are a part of the support staff there to assist the server. You must also be humble and approachable. We are there to sell but not to take the guests to prices they can not afford. We need to remain neutral about our own opinions and do what is best for the guest.

What do you look for when you have to evaluate the effectiveness of the wine program?

Does it make sense to paring the cuisine and price point of the establishment? And does it make a profit to the level we need it to be at.

Note: Header and Index image source: Sid Patel, CEO, Beverage Trade Network.

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