Denise Mueller Talks Curating a Wine List and What to Drink Right Now

Jan 14, 2020 at 6:04 am
Denise Mueller is owner of SommDee Consults and founder of Mid-American School of Wine. - ANDY PAULISSEN
Denise Mueller is owner of SommDee Consults and founder of Mid-American School of Wine.

Growing up in a self-described “farm family,” Denise Mueller was never around fine wine. In fact, the closest she came to it was the box of wine her family kept in the refrigerator. However, the moment she walked into a serving gig at Porter’s Steakhouse in Collinsville, Illinois, something clicked.

“There was this somm there, a serious, old-school guy named Jeff Callahan,” Mueller recalls. “He would conduct these wine classes, and I would sit in on them even though I knew nothing — I was just a well-trained server. One day he called on me as the new girl on the team, and I got all the answers right. He said, ‘Wow, you’re good!’ I became his A-plus student, and he really sparked my interest in wine. Sometimes all it takes is one person doing one thing on a particular day to completely change your life.”

For Mueller, now owner of SommDee Consults and founder of Mid-American School of Wine, her path in the service industry became clear at that very moment, even as she still pursued other options. At first, those opportunities were still related to the restaurant industry; following Porter’s, she was hired by the POS system, Aloha, as a programmer and traveled around helping new properties get their systems up and running.

After three years in that job, Mueller decided that she was ready to go in a different direction and enrolled in Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to study mass communications with a focus in advertising. The intention was to leave behind the restaurant industry, but, when wine again came calling, she knew she couldn't say no.

“I got a job as a wine bar manager, even though I really didn’t know a lot about wine — people kept reinforcing that I was really good at wine service,” Mueller explains. “Finally, I said, ‘Screw it, this is what I am going to do.’ I got my Level One [sommelier certification], then my Certified. That made me so much more confident in what I was doing.”

After the wine bar, Mueller got the job she describes as her big break in the industry: Working for Stanley Browne and Arlene Maminta Browne at Robust Wine Bar. Under Browne’s mentorship, Mueller felt herself grow as a wine professional and eventually was put in charge of the restaurant’s three locations (at the time in Webster Groves, downtown St. Louis and Edwardsville).

However, it was Mueller’s experience with Browne, who used to run a sommelier training program called the St. Louis Wine Clinic, that truly put her on her current path. After working for Robust for about a year, Mueller decided to begin a program of her own and founded the Mid-American School of Wine as a resource for up-and-coming sommeliers and wine enthusiasts alike.

With Browne’s support, Mueller worked for Robust while building her business, growing the program into a must-attend course for those looking to expand their wine knowledge. Eventually, Mueller left Robust to work for the Dark Room in Grand Center. However, a horrible car accident followed not long after by the tragic passing of a dear friend crippled her both physically and mentally.

As she worked to get back on her feet, she took some odd jobs around town and reassessed what was most important to her. During that time, she published her PreSomm course books and dove headfirst into her business. She would not be out of the dining room for long, however.

Once she felt strong enough to work the grueling hours required in the restaurant business, she got a job working for Grand Tavern as its opening beverage manager, followed by an impactful gig at the beloved but short-lived Oaked in Soulard. At Oaked, Mueller had the Herculean challenge of running a wine program that allowed guests to enjoy any wine from its extensive list by the glass. It was a thrilling, ambitious daily challenge that unfortunately ended a lot sooner than anyone saw coming.

“When Oaked closed [in October 2019], we were all shell-shocked,” Mueller recalls. “I really thought it was my forever home. In this industry people don’t want to hop around; they want to find a home with employers and managers who understand how to create a culture you want to work in. That was Oaked.”

Since Oaked’s closure, Mueller has been working what basically amounts to two full-time jobs: A day job in finance and her wine job, which includes both consulting and her Mid-American School of Wine. Though she admits it’s a lot to balance, she’s not only happy to do it — she feels like it’s her calling.

“I have a tattoo on my forearm that says Dionysus, and about three years ago, I found out that Denise is derived from Dionysus, the god of wine and viticulture,” Mueller says. “It really means a lot that the surprise turns in my life feel like they were meant to be.”

Mueller recently took a break from her PreSomm teaching duties to share her thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, the wine she’s drinking right now and why chicken nachos can be the perfect pairing for sparkling wine.

What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
One thing I wish I could spread the good word on is meditation. It is a huge thing in my life; I swear by the Calm app. It helps me sleep at night when so many of us hospitality pros have feelings of restlessness and anxiety. Our industry is fairly difficult to say the least, and late-night music along with beer and shot combos can only “help” us so much. In my most difficult personal times while opening restaurants and running multiple programs, meditation has been my go-to for balance and stability.

What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
The start to my day involves an egg sandwich, an Americano and scrolling CNN and The New York Times apps and listening to upbeat music, most likely from the 1990s and 2000s. If I get up early enough, a little light yoga also helps to wake me up and energize my day.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
To travel anywhere in an instant. In our industry, it can be hard to get to some place far away for more than three or four days, and if you do get a week off, to truly “vacate” is almost impossible. My “trip wish list” is getting too long — and this last year I have decided that life-balance and travel will be a priority in 2020.

What is the most positive trend in food, beer, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
While I can’t focus on something new from the last year, one thing I would like to credit here is the enormous amount of love that our industry gives to each other, whether online or in-store. It is terribly important to support your industry brethren, as well as anyone taking the risks to keep elevating both St. Louis and Midwest food and beverage culture. Secondly, I love seeing all the variations of classes available, whether cheese and wine pairings, wine service training, cocktail techniques, beer-making, vegan cooking courses, the list goes on. It is a wonderful opportunity for both the hospitality industry as well as enthusiasts.

What is one thing missing or that you’d like to see in the local food and beverage scene?
Late-night food that is not fried at more places. I know it is hard to manage and handle HR needs, but I wish it were the case!

Who is your St. Louis food or drink crush?
While I love so many somms, bar managers, cocktail creators, chefs, restaurateurs, etc., two of my favorite people in this city are Charlie and Christine Guthrie of We Eat Stuff. I met them about five years ago when they were already branded as We Eat Stuff but still relatively new. They are so kind and inquisitive, yet at the same time professional, efficient and respect their demand. They are really responsive when I reach out for a new opening or an event and turn around gorgeous photos in under two days. My connection with the team grew when they were my PreSomm wine course media sponsor. What a great time, and Charlie did really well on his exams!

Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis food and beverage scene?
I am very impressed with both Bob Brazell and Tai Davis. Bob made waves in the city this fall when the casual-concept king broke the news that he was going to be one of the new owner/operators for the refreshed the Tenderloin Room, and the team did a wonderful job in record time! Tyler “Tai” Davis is really wowing me right now as a pastry chef, a baker, a consultant, a pop-up chef, a painter (beautiful work) and now a published author. The list goes on!

Which wine is most representative of your personality?
This is as hard as someone asking, “What is your favorite wine?” to a sommelier. I will say my favorite wines of the moment right now are chenin blancs from Loire. While there is a classic flavor profile through most of these truly balanced white wines, each key sub-region has its own flair — delicious!

If someone asked you to describe the current state of St. Louis’ food and beverage climate, what would you say?
To be honest, while I think we are still elevating our styles and education every year, I think we are in a state of renewal as well. 2018 and 2019 were years where we saw many, many iconic restaurants and bars closing in neighborhoods we never thought would go through so much change so quickly. I think the current state of our food and beverage climate is smartly moving toward progressive, smaller concepts that are willing to engage the delivery and late-night sectors when possible.

If you were not in the wine business, what would you be doing?
While I do have a communications/advertising degree and would have been pleased to fall into that industry as well, something I would like to do “in retirement” is run some kind of shop with all AOP/DOP level cheeses, oils, wines, etc., but maybe in a different city (or even country). I really want to retire in northern Italy or a charming part of France. Swoon. I think once you are in the hospitality business for long enough, it is hard to ever relinquish your need to take care of people. Your customer service skills will always be heightened, no matter the industry. And you will always yell “corner!” even when no one is there.

Name an ingredient never allowed behind your bar or a wine never allowed on your list.
To be honest, my “never” answer is a wine list or cocktail list that is only my taste, and one that will not best serve the clients or the concept. It is a gentle balance between showing your style as a beverage director without making it all about your taste or about following the trend that year. The list needs to reflect some of the demands as well as your flair, and the sales will reflect that you created something special and your clients agree.

What is your after-work hangout?
While my schedule has changed slightly, my go-to happy hour/evening haunts will always be Olio, Sasha’s on Shaw, 33 Wine Bar and Taste. My late-night spots are CBGB and Mangia on South Grand, the Gramophone in the Grove, Thurman’s in Shaw or BB’s [Jazz, Blues and Soups] for live music. Live music post-shift is a huge win! Clearly there is quite the dichotomy in my social life and palate — and that is something I cherish.

What’s your edible or quaffable guilty pleasure?
Chicken nachos or fries with sparkling wine. I can (unfortunately) eat those two things every day. I am also known to have the “shift drink” — a concoction created with my somm friend Cherie. After a long shift it was sauvignon blanc and a neat rye whiskey. People would ask “isn’t that whiskey ruining your palate for the wine?” “Sure is (drinks whiskey), but it is just what we need, and refreshing! (drinks wine).”

What would be your last meal on Earth (including drinks, of course)?
As a celiac, I’d say my last meal would be full of gluten. Give me croissants flown in from France with the most fattening spreadable triple cream cheese, some Bolognese from Italy for lunch and a cheese and charcuterie spread with an epic baguette served with a Barolo for dinner. Last person standing style.

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