Jill Roberts at The Marrow
Over the past couple of weeks, we spent some time talking with Jill Roberts of The Marrow, learning what inspires and whets the palate of one of NYC's brightest somms.
You've had some pretty amazing gigs in the city, serving as the Beverage Director at The Harrison, The Modern and now at The Marrow. Can you tell us a bit about how you got here?
I moved to New York as a child actress, and I was fortunate as a performer. I made a living. Auditions were in New York, so I moved to New York, had a day job as a waitress. I had worked for Lettuce Entertain You in Chicago, and they lined up an interview [for me] with the Danny Meyer group, as they were opening Eleven Madison. As the Captain of the opening team, I was there for four years. They expected a lot, but they let me go for six to eight months when I had a show. I was so intrigued by wine that I started taking classes, studying wine while on the road, visiting restaurants with great wine lists. I started studying with the American Sommelier Association for fun; doing blind tastings. And then people started offering me jobs, but I still had acting. After a long trip with 11 months on the road, The Harrison offered me a job [as Wine Director] and that was it. I was already a part of the fabric.
I never said I was leaving my other career. I still pay my actor's dues. I stayed at The Harrison for three years, then at The Modern for a very short time. I then realized that I needed a break, so I took a job with Valckenberg, who hired me to work for them in the city. It was an amazing opportunity. It was the first time I realized how passionate I was about German wine, especially Riesling.
Moët-Hennessy was courting me. I wasn't interested in big corporate, but then realized it'd be good to know this side of the business. I decided to stay for one year and stayed five, and discovered my other love, Champagne. But then I missed hospitality. Harold [Dieterle] and Alicia [Nosenzo] approached me; they wanted me to work together with Alicia to create a list of German and Italian wines. They were great about working with me and my schedule. I left Moet-Hennessy to open The Marrow.
Have you had any mentors along the way?
Karen King of the Union Square Café is a very strong woman who was making a difference in the wine world. People looked up to and respected her. I was a part of this group called the Vino Vixens (with Annie Torso then of Per Se, now at The Mandarin Oriental; Cynthia Goddeau of Lure and Claire Papparazzo who was at Blue Hill). There is a great support system of women in wine in New York City, being supportive while trying to hold our own in a sea of men. I still think there's a disparity. A discrepancy in pay I wish we could expose. At some point, I hope that changes.
Jill tasting with Greg Reeves, our Italian/German Portfolio Director, in Studio 206
What are some of your most favorite aspects of the job? The most challenging?
I'm addicted to hospitality. I love, love, love throwing a party every night, talking to people, making sure they have a good time. I love the energy of hospitality, making people feel great. I love the educational aspect of my job. [These are] the main reasons why I skip to work.
In this city, being a hot restaurant, you're hot for a year. The climate, dealing with the weather. We closed for a day [this past winter], deliveries weren't made. Managing the finances can be frustrating. Keeping the restaurant staff and list energized. I'm not only a beverage director, but also a manager.
Do you have any experiences that can speak to the women in the industry, most especially any new comers to the field?
The one thing I like to tell women coming to the field is be yourself. Don't be afraid to be a woman. We're strong as individuals. Be true to yourself and the strongest position you can take in the industry. You don't want to lose the beautiful things about women--warmth, generosity, compassion, listening. We technically have a better palate, but we can think we need to be this, that and the other to be taken seriously.
What most inspires you to get behind a producer, a region or a wine?
When I meet with a winemaker and connect with them personally, it's much easier. But it has so much to do with the quality of the wine. Balance is important-technically and spiritually. I love high acid, energy, balance, but I can be inspired by a winemaker's story or history. I love wines that are true to varietal, location and terroir. When I really connect with a wine, I have a feeling that I'd really love that winemaker and want to be friends with them.
Beyond the basics, the wines I select have to be great with our foods.
What do you seek when creating a wine list? How do you strike a balance that will appeal to a range of customers?
I like to stretch people a little bit, but I don't want people to feel lost, so I like to ground the list a bit. I'll have a Barbera by the glass but also a Spätburgunder or a Blaufränkish. I like to allow conversation. It's a part of my educational process, with my group too, to allow for a new experience. Not weird varietals for varietal's sake, but to stretch. I love to have people step out of their comfort space. In the same sense, at The Marrow, I list bottles by region and price point because it's something that's on people's minds now. And because the list is German white and Italian red driven, I like to make it as friendly as possible.
What are some of your personal favorite regions?
Germany. I don't know if I can pick a favorite region. Riesling is a super hero grape. I love the acidity, the balance, the energy of the varietal. I love the Mosel. I love the Loire and Champagne. All for the same reasons--vibrancy, acid, fruit. They're very specific to where they're from.
Where are your favorite spots to drink in NYC?