Sommelier of the Month - Cassie Sakai
Between dominating Chicago's Somm Slam this year, chasing that green somm pin and running the wine program for just about the most popular restaurant in Chicago - Cassie Sakai still maintains a humble smile and has that drive that is going to make her a Chicago presence for years to come. We chatted with our Sommelier of the Month about that and more!
Second City Soil - So is it Cassie or Cassandra?
It’s Cassie. I know my email signature says Cassandra...I haven’t gotten around to changing that yet. My parents named me Cassandra knowing full well that they would call me Cassie.
SCS - What is your official title and how long have you held the position?
I am the Wine Director and Lead Sommelier for Girl and the Goat. I have been in the position for almost a year now--wow has it really been that long? I worked as the assistant sommelier before for about six months.
SCS - How did you get into wine? What was the moment or bottle for you that made you think this might be the path for you?
It’s sort of hilarious actually. I’ve been around wine my whole life. My dad collected wine for a long time before my brother and I were born. He was giving me tastes of wine before I could even talk. I joke with him all the time that it’s his fault I ended up in wine. But seriously, my dad’s side of the family has a serious bunch of collectors. I grew up drinking 80’s & ’90’s Chateau Montelena among many wines growing up. Our extended family loves Cabernet so theres always wine from Bordeaux or California at all family gatherings.
As far as the moment I thought this path might be right for me? I was working in a bunch of restaurants from the moment I got out of high school, but it wasn’t until I moved to Chicago that I started to consider this path. I lived on Armitage and California right next to Table, Donkey, & Stick and I remember they renovated and added the bar. They re-opened around the time I turned 21, so I used to go there all the time for cheese & charcuterie almost every night. I discovered a love for all things Alpine! That restaurant has given me a bunch of lifelong friends and a serious love of wine.
SCS - You are the Wine Director for one of Chicago’s hottest restaurants that has been that way since it opened - how does that popularity affect your wine list, how you approach the tables? How you approach your training?
The sheer amount of people sometimes amazes me, even after two years. When it comes to the wine list, I have to remember that not everyone is going to be a wine expert, and thats okay. We try to hit all the major varietals and make the menu easy to navigate. The list isn’t that big--only about 200 labels, but it’s about being able to offer a little bit of something for everyone.
When it comes to approaching tables, it is more about listening and asking a few questions. I also try and sense right away what price point the guest is looking for. Are you looking for Light, Medium, or Full bodied? Do you like Fruity or Earthy or right in the middle? What do you normally like and what price point is comfortable?
We train our servers this way too. Have a couple go-to wines in each section. Be able to tell me the difference between the wines that are in the same price point. Give me a fun fact should I ask. This is part of our training for each new server--they must pass a food, beer, cocktail, & wine mock service with Stephanie and the rest of the floor managers. Often times wine is the most difficult--theres always more to be learned. As far as education, it’s probably one of my favorite things about my job. I have the pleasure of being able to taste with the staff every day. When I’m not in, my Assistant Sommelier Ryan Arndt pulls bottles too. Sometimes we taste the wines blind and we also have weekly blind tasting class that is optional--sometimes even back of house joins along with people from the other Goat restaurants. Education is SO important to me. I don’t ever want an employee to leave because they feel like there is nothing more that can be learned or that they are not being challenged enough.
SCS - Chef Izard is known for some pretty unique and original flavor combinations? What are a couple pairings or wines that just make the food really sing?
We have a goat belly dish that comes with lobster and crab with a vanilla bourbon butter with a fennel puree and almost any neutral oaked chardonnay works well--a simple Bourgogne Blanc and if we’re getting fancy, a grand cru Chablis. People always say “Really? Even with the goat belly?” No red wine can do this. It’s counter intuitive since its one of the most decadent dishes on the menu so it usually comes towards the end of the meal. The acidity of the wine mixed with the bourbon butter and the minerality and the fennel--It’s a match made in heaven.
SCS - Chicago is a very unique town when it comes to wine, what would you say you have learned about how Chicagoans drink wine, approach a wine list?
I think in comparison to both coasts, Chicago as a wine-drinking city is very approachable. We have lots of younger people coming in, wanting to try something new along with the more experienced wine drinkers that know exactly what they want. It’s about finding a great middle ground for everyone. Have some well known labels, but also read the trends from the coast and the people will follow suit. I think people in Chicago are pretty open to suggestion especially at a place like Girl & the Goat. They are stepping outside the box with the food and usually that means they are down to do the same with wine. Besides, not everyone knows a good pairing for Pig Face or Duck Tongues--its easiest to ask!
SCS - What do you see your future in wine being? Your peers have certainly recognized you as an amazing up and coming sommelier in Chicago - where do you see that taking you?
As far as future...I haven’t given it too much thought. I know for a fact that I want to spend a lot more time in restaurants. Hospitality is one of the most important things to me. I started off as a server and the feeling of giving someone an experience of a lifetime was always something that was so fulfilling. I don’t necessarily see myself in a restaurant forever but I always want to be a part of guest experience. I would like to spend some time in fine dining and really polish my service, but I think thats a lot further down the line. I also need to work a harvest, thats on the bucket list.
SCS - What would you say is your philosophy when it comes to how you like to sell wine?
I think that ease of service is very important. Girl & the Goat is anything but pretentious and I think as long as the guest is comfortable, then I’m happy. When it comes to selling wine as a restaurant, I always go back to education. When you educate the servers and get them excited about wine, they translate that excitement to guests and sales follows suit. If a certain bottle isn't moving, we pour it at pre-shift and get the servers excited about the wine.
SCS - You recently won Chicago’s Somm Slam and took home that amazing sabre trophy - what was the first thing you did with it???
Ha! Well it’s been on my desk for a bit now, but I recently took a few bottles over to a friend’s house as a moving out present. We sabered a few bottles for fun--they told me if I broke any windows, I’d be in deep trouble. Otherwise, I need to find a good way to mount that awesome sword, and now I want to start a collection.
SCS - Anything else you think the public or wine drinking world should know about Cassie?
I’m unbelievably thankful to be a part of this awesome city and incredible industry community. I think Chicago’s restaurant scene rivals every major good food city and I’m incredibly lucky to be at the center of that. For the people that haven’t dined with us, please come visit. I love to show out-of-towners how we do it in Chicago and especially those in the industry. Come share a glass!