Interview Exclusive | Jim Santangelo

by Tillie Eze

From summers working a hot dog stand to Beverage Director of LaSalle Trio Restaurant Group, Jim Santangelo wouldn’t be described as your stereotypical sommelier. There’s no sense of arrogance when discussing the wines, no pretentiousness when responding to the basic of basic questions, and no holier than though attitude if you prefer wine on tap. He’s like that bartender of the local dive bar who everyone adores. He’s smart, witty, charming and the keen capabilities to converse with people of all walks of life.

Recently we dined at his restaurant Current Fish & Oyster in Salt Lake City (which we’ll talk more about on Sunday) where we got to see Jim in his element, delve into his wine academy, and learn about passions outside of the industry.

Can you give us a brief history on your training?
My wine career started at a hot dog stand. I worked the grill during the humid summers in Western New York rolling dogs over charcoal. I greeted customer as they arrived, shouting, “Whatcha want? Whatcha got? – and the banter between the ‘grill man’ and customers began. I traded the grill in for fine dining when I moved to Salt Lake City. I love the fast-paced environment on the floors of Utah’s top-rated restaurants, and made the decision to continue my training, as I found I was especially motivated by the power of wine to enhance the dining experience for both the guests and myself. This passion has been greatly enhanced by my decision to become a certified Sommelier, and then an Educator with an internationally recognized program. My banter I found behind the grill has transformed from “How many dogs?” into “How about a little splishy splash to get you started…”

Tell us about that aha moment of when you knew the food and wine industry was for you.
That ‘aha’ moment when I realized the food and wine industry was for me…It was when I understood that I’m a part of people’s experiences, each and every night. A restaurant is like being in a live Broadway show, you never know what’s going to happen. You studied the lines, performed your act, and set the stage, but you just never know what’s going to happen out there and the show must always go on. I have had the opportunity to witness the joys and sorrows of life, from marriage proposals to breakups, from women going into labor to, yes, held a collapsed guest in my arms as the ambulance arrived. The restaurant is life, and if I can impact the dining experience of a few people during those moments, then that’s totally amazing to me.

You have a school, why did you start it?
The Wine Academy of Utah is an approved program provider of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust and was created to meet the demand for both wine enthusiasts and hospitality professionals alike.

Enthusiasts love learning about wine, and I enjoy the ‘educational-entertainment’ part of making wine approachable and fun. The enthusiast wine classes range from the Olfactory Tasting Class to the Executive Wine Series for the business professional, and these classes provide the community with approachable and fun ways to learn about wine.

As for the hospitality professional other than to self-study, there was generally no source to continue their professional knowledge. The Wine Academy of Utah provides the services of certified wine & spirit classes, allowing for the professional server, manager, line cook or chef to continue their education and advance their careers.

Have any students passed through your door that you knew were exceptional from the get?
A rewarding part of the Wine Academy has been to help service staff who want more out of the restaurant industry and helping guide them into career moves, networking them into the right positions to become wine brokers, relocate out of state to that dream job, or just be there for my colleagues.

Is there a vetting process for entry?
What I really love about the Wine Academy of Utah educational program is that in order to attend all you need is the willingness to learn. The various levels of education range from 9 hours to 16 hours class room time (this is where I make you taste wine, I know, tough stuff) and some additional outside classroom time is necessary to reading. Other than that, wanting to be there is enough! All my programs are even designed for the non-drinker, for whatever reason.

Jim Santangelo Red wine

How do you select the wines for the menus as they often change?
Selecting wines for a beverage program is my favorite part of my career. It’s like writing a playbook, “Okay, Sauvignon Blanc you go left and I’ll pass you the oysters, Pinot Noir make a down and in and I’ll hit you with smoked salmon.”

What guides the choice of selecting wines to place on a menu are a few factors; wines must match the food pairings, ambiance of the restaurant, and price point so as not to under or over price wines offered. I’ve always felt that the mark of a successful by the glass program is that each of the wines matches perfectly with at least one dish on the menu.

Are there some that are house favorites, kept year round?
House Favorites: There are some favorite wines that we like to ‘special order’ that the state of Utah doesn’t carry. One in particular we like to keep on hand is the Badenhorst ‘Secateurs’ Chenin Blanc from South Africa, just great with the Palancha ala Octopus on the menu.

During dinner, you mentioned wine on tap. Can you talk about that a little because some would turn their nose up at such a thought?
Wine on Tap is a great new format to offer guests premium wine by the glass…I like to say, ‘let’s save the environment one glass at a time.’ Each keg holds up to 26.4 bottles of wine, thereby, eliminating the production and recycling of glass bottles, printed labels, manufactured corks or stelvin tops, and weight of shipping and fuel costs. As operators, we are enabled to offer a guest a premium glass of wine without fear of spoilage. Wine on tap remains constant and fresh from the first ounce to the last and served at the perfect temperature each and every time.

Your success is truly boundless, are there other things outside of wine and food you enjoy? Or any ventures we should look out for?
What’s on the horizon…I’m moving towards the format of showing the passion we bring to the floor every night to a larger audience, either online or television, where I host segments focusing on what it takes to bring guests the dining experience they have each and every night. To do that, would be my closing curtain…


Photo credit: Adam Finkle Photography

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