Meet Liz Nicholson, Beverage Director of Maialino in New York City. We were introduced via email by a wine colleague way back in 2009 when both of us were crisscrossing Italy for months on end. We never did get to meet up, but it’s so nice to hear about how she’s living now and how it all began for her. Have a read!
How did you become a sommelier?
I often wonder had I not come to New York City if I would have ended up in this industry. I cannot, after all, say that I would have never ended up in the restaurant industry, which is certainly the leaping off point for the place I find myself today, but the determinant has really been some inspirational people I met along the way.
I came to New York to work in fashion. I did a rapid 1 year program at FIT that got me an Assosciates degree on top of the BS I had just received in Textile & Apparel design from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. My first job was as an assistant designer for a new label launch for Nicole Miller. It seemed like everything was lining up, except that I wasn’t that happy. So, when the line got cancelled and I found myself without a job I turned to restaurants to fill the immediate void until the “right job in fashion” revealed itself. Well, needless to say, that job never appeared, but by 2 years into the restaurant business I was pretty much done looking. By then I had already been bitten by the beverage bug while working for the BR Guest group where I met the first influential person in my current world of wine, Laura Maniec. I loved her passion and her teaching methods, but I was most in awe by her knowledge. She was the first person to make me realize that there was even this career path.
However, even more influential were the years that followed working for the ‘inoteca group, and specifically with Francesco Grosso. I came to ‘inoteca after coming in as a guest and falling in love with the all Italian wine list. I had no idea what 90% of the wines were and I was dead-set on learning them. It was a big list, but it was a great mix of esoteric, bargain, and baller – the perfect textbook! It was while working at ‘inoteca that I quit my “day job” (as an associate sweater designer) and ultimately made the leap from server to Assistant Wine Director… then Wine Director… then Beverage Director. And here I am today!
What’s your daily uniform for work?
I really embrace color and having my own style. As such I’ve never owned a suit… though I may have to bite the bullet real soon here. I came to New York to work in fashion, so my heart is in the small details of things – the hand of fabrics, well tailored looks, fabulous prints, and my personal favorite – interesting knits. I am lucky that in the last three years at Maialino I have been granted the personal freedom to wear pretty much what I want, but whenever I push it too far I end up feeling awkward and self conscious all night. You have to remember that you are presenting yourself to guests as one with the wisdom to the list, and if your ensemble is too whimsical guests may not take you seriously. Granted, I do rock oversized vintage frames dating back to the 70’s. I call them “Geek Chic”. Everyone trusts a girl in glasses.
My hair is almost always down, curls rolling over my shoulders, and I wear very little jewelry. Due to my glasses I often feel earrings compete, and I wear one of three relatively simple gold necklaces only when the neckline wants for something. The only piece I wear daily is my Italian grandmothers wedding/engagement band, which I would be lost without.
For shoes I am all over the place, though my go-to brand tends to be Stuart Weitzman. I have a pair of black suede wedge booties that are so comfortable and have held up through my entire tenure at Maialino (though the soles are ready for a re-work), and a pair of tall brown boots that I love and wear equally as much. I have the token pair of Dansko’s which I wear only when absolutely necessary (mind you, they are metallic scarlet in color), and some Nike/Cole Haan flats that always seem like they are going to be more comfortable than you really feel eight hours in.
Do you transition your outfit from daytime duties to nighttime floor action?
I really don’t though I often think about the day ahead when selecting my outfit for the day. If I know I have a lot of wine coming in or will spend time in the cellar I like to wear comfortable clothes – a sweater and jeans or a durable fabric. Inventory days I am always sure to bring an extra layer for counting in the cellar and walk-in. However, without fail, whenever I dress down for an office day that’s the day we end up with several VIPs and I’m on the floor doing their wine service feeling like a scrub!
What are the three things you can’t leave home without when heading to the restaurant?
1. Well, one of those would be my make-up bag except that during my work week it pretty much lives at Maialino. In fact, more often than not I find myself having to detour to the restaurant on my days off because I left it behind on Friday!
2. My cell phone, as most would understand.
3. Probably my “notebook of life” as I call it, but it’s really just a pile of to-do lists. It can be amusing to flip to the front and think back to what was shaping my days a few months back.
Three things a somm should never do or wear?
1. I have a sweater that I love, but I’ve found the hard way that its loose, open sleeves (almost belled) are a disaster on the floor, so no large cuffs or arm openings!
2. Clothes without any pockets always have me searching all over the floor for my belongings by nights end (basically a scavenger hunt while recalling the nights activities.)
3. Tight fitting wovens are problematic. Working in restaurants requires a lot of movement and sometimes flexibility. If you have to schlep a few cases at nights end the last thing I want to worry about is tearing a tight fitting blouse or skirt.
What do you usually drink and/or eat at the end of a shift?
Well, I was on a serious aperol spritz kick for a long while there. In fact, I’m drinking one right now. Refreshing and so Italian! Otherwise I usually drink bubbles or a glass of white at the end of the night. I rarely allow myself to order pasta and instead try to get protein and a vegetable. Now, often times that is one of our cicchetti items, which is two small pieces of fried baccala…but it’s protein nonetheless and great with bubbles!