“New York’s Best Sommelier” Works at The Rittenhouse Hotel

A few years ago, Justin Timsit worked in fashion. Now the wine director at Lacroix is winning awards and going for his master sommelier certification.

Justin Timsit - Wine director of Lacroix restaurant at the Rittenhouse hotel

Justin Timsit, wine director at Lacroix. (Photo courtesy of The Rittenhouse)

The Austrian Wine Marketing Board held a little contest earlier this month that aimed to crown a person with an impressive title: “New York’s Best Sommelier.” About 70 sommeliers were quizzed in a written test and a blind tasting. The top three did a service test for a panel of judges, who acted as diners. Turns out no one in New York was worthy of such a title.

That’s because a guy from Philly won it.

Justin Timsit, the wine director of Lacroix restaurant at The Rittenhouse hotel, took a train up to New York to compete in the contest and walked away with the prize. He gets a trip to Austria as part of the prize.

“To be able to compete in that type of audience — all really talented sommeliers, all dedicated towards hospitality and learning and pushing the bar — I think for me was very exciting,” he says.

It has been a swift rise in the wine world for Timsit, who was just a hobbyist wine collector until a few years ago. That’s when he took a class from The Court of Master Sommeliers, which certifies wine stewards of different levels. Now he’s in a new career in the service industry, and on the verge of being certified as a master sommelier, an elite level that only 147 people have achieved.

Timsit worked in the fashion industry, his family’s business, but says wine has been a part of his life since he was a child in Los Angeles. “My father was a pretty avid collector of wine,” he says. “It was always part of a dinner discussion. The major topic of conversation was: What bottle of wine are we drinking, why is it special, how is it made. And this was when I was 10 years old, 12 years old.” (Around that time, Timsit also played Young Billy on Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.)

He nailed a perfect score on the introductory level test at the Court. He just achieved the rank of advanced sommelier in August. The Rittenhouse called it “one of the fastest known progressions to the Court of Master Sommeliers’ advanced level.” And he’s already passed the first part of the master sommelier test, a written exam. His service exam and blind tasting are next month.

Timsit was working — for free — at a friend’s restaurant in Beverly Hills when he spotted a job listing for the Lacroix job. Despite having never served as a sommelier before, the Rittenhouse hired him to be its wine director. He started in early 2014. The unconventional move paid off: Lacroix won Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence for 2015.

The Rittenhouse says it stocks 1,250 wines, with 40 to 50 percent of them not available at any other restaurant in the state. “I love our program because we have the most depth of any cellar I’ve seen in the state and knowledgeable guests who want high end products, but at the same time we can also cater to guests who’d like a casual experience,” Timsit says. “We have great versatility at our restaurant Lacroix, and each bottle of wine has a story to share.”

The test to be New York’s best sommelier was similar to the exams one might face from the Court of Master Sommeliers. The contestants had to take a “ridiculously short” timed test, which included an open-ended written portion and a blind tasting. As the exam was sponsored by the country’s wine marketing board, all the questions were about Austrian wines.

He advanced into the final three, where he did a mock service for the judges. Timsit and his fellow two finalists had to pair Austrian wines with a complex five-course meal, using wine made with grapes from different regions for each course. One of his fellow finalists was Robin Pohlman, the wine director of Austrian restaurant Café Katja. Timsit said he couldn’t match her knowledge of Austrian wine, but the sommeliers are not just judged on that — there are style points for general comportment, product knowledge, mechanical skills and salesmanship. He won the prize. “At this point, I think I’ve spent more on train tickets to New York than I have on rent in Philadelphia,” he told the Wall Street Journal when asked if he’d move to Manhattan.

For now, studying for the master sommelier exam remains his sole focus besides Lacroix. He says his staff has taken on extra duties — “Everyone has now gathered behind me in this,” he says — in order to give himself more time to study. He shared with Philadelphia magazine his recent study habits: “I’ve been to blind tastings as early as 9:30 in the morning and as late as 1 a.m. in the morning,” he says. “Right now it’s just a full blitz to the finish line. When you’re that close, there’s a lot of mental blocks that can come. I’m really focusing on my mental state. I want to head into that exam in a really, really good state.”

As for the big question one wants to ask a wine director working in Pennsylvania — what’s it like to work with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board? — he says it’s actually pretty good.

“It’s actually a lot of fun for me,” Timsit says. “It’s a challenge because we don’t have access to the same product that a lot of other states do. So it forces us to work that much harder to find better wine for our program. And, to me, that’s what a good wine program is all about: It’s not ‘What does the distributor have that day?’ or ‘What’s on special?’ It’s always about going out, finding the wines you want to represent, and then figuring out a way to get them into your program.”

Lacroix [Foobooz]