Alisha Blackwell makes wine accessible at Reeds American Table.
Alisha Blackwell, the sommelier at Reeds American Table (7322 Manchester Road, Maplewood; 314-899-9821)
, remembers the second she was hooked by wine. "I was a server at Oceano Bistro, and they were very big on wine education," she recalls. "One Friday, they opened a bottle of red Bordeaux and the next week, they opened a merlot from Napa Valley. I was shocked, and didn't understand how it was possible for the same grape to taste so differently in two different areas. From that day on, I started buying wine books and learning as much as possible."
Blackwell started her career in the restaurant industry as a way to make money after college. A biologist by training, she quickly realized that she wasn't going to be an anesthesiologist straight out of the gate. She got a job waiting tables at PF Chang's and then Lumiere Place before landing at Oceano. There, she fell in love with the service side of the business and realized that she was at her best when interacting with guests about wine.
"My favorite thing was when people would come in and ask for wine recommendations," Blackwell explains. "I just took so much pleasure in finding a bottle for someone that wasn't what they would normally get, but then they'd love it. That's where I shine."
Though she enjoyed waiting tables, Blackwell decided to pursue the wine side of the business full-time as a representative for a distributor. Her new employer focused on Italian wines, and though she didn't know much about them, she picked up a copy of Italian Wine for Dummies
and set out to become an expert. "Italian wine can be intimidating, so a lot of people shy away from it," Blackwell says. "But I took it on as a challenge, and thrived as a result."
Blackwell passed her Certified Sommelier test with the top grade and her Certified Specialist of Wine exam with a near-perfect score — a difficult feat that earned her recognition in the local wine community. One person taking notice was Andrey Ivanov, the beverage director at Reeds American Table, who reached out to her with a job offer.
At first, Blackwell was not sure that she wanted to get back into the restaurant side of the industry, but she realized that it will help her achieve her ultimate professional goal: to one day become a master sommelier. "You can become a master sommelier working for a distributor, but it's much harder," explains Blackwell. "The test is a service examination, and it's hard to get that experience outside of a restaurant setting. I'm going to do whatever it takes to get there, or I will die trying."
Blackwell has been enjoying her time at Reeds, where she has become the restaurant's Italian wine guru. She still thrives at selecting the unexpected for her guests. Her secret, she confides, is building trust before she even begins to suggest something. "If people trust me, it makes it easier," she says. "And then I can pick out something that is totally unexpected and make them happy. That's what makes me happy."
Blackwell took a break from wine pairing to share her thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, her dream bottle of wine, and why she's like a bottle of red Burgundy.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I spend my Saturdays working with draft horses.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
I have to watch Judge Judy
when I can.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I would love the ability to fly. I'd visit all the best vineyards.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
I've noticed the willingness to collaborate with other chefs and restaurants in the area.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
I'd like to see more exploration with fortified wines. There are many fine Marsala, sherry and Madeira in the market.
Who is your St. Louis food or beverage crush?
I'm in love with the staff at the Libertine: owner Nick Luedde, chef Wil Pelly, bartenders Ben Bauer and Naomi Beth Roquet.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis food and beverage scene?
Patrick Olds of Louie's Wine Dive in Clayton. He has a great palate and will go far in the sommelier community.
Which wine is most representative of your personality?
Red Burgundy — classy and ages gracefully.
If you weren’t working in the industry, what would you be doing?
I'd be a large animal veterinarian.
Name a wine never allowed on your list.
I stay away from overly buttery, oaky wines. The imbalances make those wines difficult to pair with food.
What is your after-work hangout?
OB Clark's in Brentwood.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Food: a White Castle cheeseburger. I know! Beverage: Malort tastes terrible by itself, but I love using it in cocktails.
What would be your last meal on earth?
An Olive + Oak cheeseburger, with roasted cauliflower from Reeds' chef Matt Daughaday. Pair that with a bottle of Jacquesson's Ay-Vauzelle Terme 2005.
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