November 20, 2014
Working in Wine: Jennifer Ziskin
An unforgettable backpacking trip. A tiny village in Italy. Endless trips to Vietti.
In continuation of our series, "Working in Wine," I talked to Jennifer Ziskin, co-owner and Wine Director at La Morra, a Northern Italian restaurant in Brookline, Massachusetts, about the events that ignited her passion for wine.
Jen began working in the restaurant industry when she was 15, busing tables before moving up through the ranks. When she graduated from college she wasn’t quite sure where she wanted to take her career and decided to first take a waitressing job – something she already had plenty of experience with.
But at the restaurant she applied to, Jennifer was told that while they weren’t looking for any servers, she was more than qualified to be the assistant manager of the restaurant. She thought, as any post-graduate, liberal arts student would, “that sounds like something that could be fun,” and became the assistant manager. There was a steep learning curve, as she knew “nothing about fine dining, and nothing about wine.” Jen set her mind to digging into the restaurant’s (predominantly French) wine list.
After some time as the restaurant’s general manager, she changed careers completely, got her masters and became a history teacher. Even when she was studying for her masters, though, she worked at Chez Henri in Cambridge as a bartender, and “always kind of had my foot in the restaurant.”
La Morra, Italy
Two days after getting married, Jen and her husband Josh set off on the adventure of a lifetime. Their original plan was to start in Spain and backpack over to Italy, where they would stay for six months to a year – Josh would work in different regions, and learn about Italian cuisine first hand (his dream was to open a restaurant of his own). But plans change. They landed in Piedmont in a little village called La Morra and fell in love with it.
They soon became a revolving door of friends and family “visiting Jen and Josh in Italy.” She was constantly taking visitors to vineyards, one in particular, Vietti, in Castiglione Falletto (Piedmont).
The first time Jen and Josh visited Vietti they had needed transportation from where they were staying in Alba. The job of driving them back and forth fell to now-winemaker Luca Currado, Luciana Vietti’s son. “Mamma,” he said. “I’m going back to Alba later, I don’t want to have to drive them back, come back for lunch, then go back again.” So Jen and Josh got an invite to stay for lunch with the entire family – which marked the beginning of a long relationship between the families. Every time Jen returned with visiting family or friends, she learned more and more about wine, the wine making process, and fell further in love.
La Morra, Brookline
When they returned to the US and decided to open their own restaurant, it was Josh’s project. Jen was not going to be involved, but was going to continue teaching while Josh worked on his dream of building a restaurant. Of course, as she said herself, she “always had one foot in the restaurant,” and couldn’t stay away. She became the “sort of General Manager” about a year and a half after opening.
She found herself getting more involved with the wine list, her “favorite part of the job.” Having always worked closely with the bar manager to develop the wine list, she completed her second level certification at Boston University, which gave her education on a “world view” of wine.” After that, she decided she wanted her focus to be on Italian wines, so she just became a certified Italian Wine Specialist. Jen has been to Italy at least every other year since 2006 and all of the wines on her list are from producers she’s met in Italy or on their visits here.
A Comprehensive Wine Program
Nothing goes on the list that unless Jen and her bar manager Bernie, have tasted it and agree that it’s a good fit for the restaurant. Most of the wines on the list are from producers they have personal connections with -- something that Jennifer is very proud of: “I feel like they’re real artists, the winemakers. I call them ‘rock stars’ because when you’re with them you just feel like they’re so cool – I just think they’re so skilled in what they do, so I really look up to them, and they’re like rock starts to me.”
When I asked, “what’s the best part of your job?” she answered “the wine” with a laugh, but no hesitation. More specifically, though, she told me about the wine dinners that she organizes at La Morra. About every other month, they host wine dinners with visiting producers or importers. Jen, Bernie, Josh, and his chef de cuisine all meet the importer or producer and taste the wines. Jen and Bernie will then choose the specific wines they’ll serve at the dinner (and likely incorporate into La Morra’s regular wine list), and Josh will create the menu around them. It’s a comprehensive process that they’ve honed over the last several years that utilizes everyone’s skill set to create successful wine dinners.
So what’s next? Expanding her knowledge past Italy – she’s recently gotten some invitations to French and Californian wine seminars, so will be starting there. Who knows? A few more immersive backpacking trips may be in order.
The lineup of Wine by Coravin when I visited La Morra in September.
Working in Wine is a semi-regular series on the Coravin blog. On Working in Wine, we feature interesting personalities of the wine industry, and a variety of different job or career functionalities of the industry. Check every few weeks to meet a new person who works in wine!