Meet Belinda Chang and you’re clearly going to want to have a glass of wine with her — although she’ll probably pour you Champagne.
She’s warm and approachable and her infectious smile allows you to put your full faith in her.
- Moet Hennessy USA President's Team Award 2014
- James Beard Outstanding Wine Service Award 2011
- James Beard Outstanding Wine Service Nominee 2004
- Jean Banchet Sommelier of the Year Finalist 2007, 2006, 2005
- San Francisco Magazine Critic's Choice Wine Director of the Year 2004
Most recently she was a Champagne educator for Moet Hennessey USA, the wine and spirits division, of LVMH and while it was a “dream company to work for” (we’re pretty sure the Céline and Fendi sample sales didn’t hurt, either), “I really missed being in my own restaurant and moving the wine needle that way, one guest at a time. There is nothing like that energy,” says Chang.
So she returned to her hometown of Chicago and was part of the October 2015 opening of Maple & Ash. It was her 11th restaurant opening!
Read on to learn more about our Wine Pro and if you get to Chicago, make sure you stop by the restaurant and say,“Hello.” She’d want you to.
1. Weren’t you studying to be a doctor? What happened?!
I graduated from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois with the full intention of doing something science-related in college and beyond. While I was attending Rice University in Houston, I fell in love with a sous chef. And then I fell in love with the restaurant business, much to my parents’ dismay. I probably should have majored in French – it would have been much more useful in my wine career. But while I was working at the best restaurant in town, I saw the Wine Spectator magazine cover with Charlie Trotter’s [now closed Chicago-based restaurant] on it. The heading was “Best Restaurant in the World for Food and Wine”. I moved [to Chicago] to work there shortly after. (Trotter unfortunately died in 2013.)
2. How do you manage a 600 bottle wine cellar and have you tasted every bottle?
I was the last to join the opening team for Maple & Ash and only had two months to get everything together before we had to start training the staff. I did all of the tastings, thousands of wines, in the space of one week for the wine list and selected all 600 wines based on daily category tastings. So, yes, I have tasted every single wine on the list and they have my stamp of approval!
At this point, we have…650 bottles. The list is broad, global, classic, deep in just a few areas that I am passionate about and serves the 1000 guests that we serve every day. You should see the volume of wine deliveries that my team has to bin on a daily basis!
3. What is the most underrated grape/wine/region right now?
The Rhone Valley is my jam right now. I love to recommend Chateauneuf du Pape, Lirac, Gigondas, Rasteau to our guests, many of whom reflexively flip to the Napa Cabernet page the moment that they are given the wine list. We have a twelve-foot-long wood burning hearth so most of our dishes are kissed with smoke and char and the grill. The whites and reds of the Rhone embrace these flavors in a lovely way.
4. What do you drink after a long day?
There is always Champagne is my fridge. And not much else. And sometimes the champagne of beers is what the doctor orders.
5. What’s the worst customer experience you ever had?
The (looks me up and down) “actually we asked for the sommelier” wine geek guest who can’t believe that the sommelier for the restaurant is me (petite, Asian, woman, fill in the blank with any other minority descriptor that fits). That used to happen all of the time when I first started working the floor in the 90s. Doesn’t really happen anymore. Yay!
Tracy Byrnes, former FOX Business Network anchor and host of “Wine with Me” for Foxnews.com, is editor-in-chief and chief contributor of The Sip.