Congratulations to Yannick Benjamin of Contento, the MICHELIN Guide New York 2023 Sommelier Award Winner, presented by Wine Access!
From his parents to uncles in the industry to his chef cousin hospitality and gastronomy is in Benjamin's blood. From there, Benjamin went on to work for Sirio Maccioni and at the eponymous Le Cirque, where he was introduced to the intricate layers of wine. It wasn't until he began reading Kevin Zraly's "Windows on The World", however, that he realized the world of wine was constantly changing and was filled with magic. Since then, the award winner's journey has been nothing short of captivating discoveries and fiery passion, resulting in Contento's wine list focused on biodiversity, regional pride, and social impact.
Below, the New York native what makes the world of wine so magical, and what he's learned from his journey through it. Cheers!
How were you introduced to the world of wine?
My career in the wine and hospitality industry is a direct result of my parents' influence. They immigrated from France to the United States with a shared dream of pursuing careers in the world of hospitality. My father's very first job in New York City was at La Grenouille, a legendary restaurant that continues to thrive today. On the other hand, my mother took on roles as a housekeeper and a coat check attendant.
Hospitality runs deep in my family. My uncles on my father's side built successful careers in the industry, and even my cousin excelled as a chef before retiring. It was clear from a young age that I, too, would commit myself to this profession.
It wasn't until I turned 18 that I stumbled upon the captivating world of wine and its intricate layers. I owe a debt of gratitude to Sirio Maccioni, the legendary owner of Le Cirque, who provided me with the opportunity to work at his esteemed restaurant. It was there that I crossed paths with Ralph Hersom, the wine director, who would become my mentor.
The pivotal moment in my journey was when I began reading Kevin Zraly's "Windows on The World". From that day forward, I never looked back. Each morning, I wake up with an overwhelming sense of fortune, being surrounded by countless incredible individuals who have shaped my path throughout this incredible journey.
How has your relationship with wine changed?
My relationship with the world of wine is a constant revolution, and it's what makes it so incredibly exciting. I always remind myself that what I know today will not be relevant tomorrow. It's absolutely imperative for me to keep reading and researching because the world of wine is constantly changing, and it's changing at a rapid pace.
I recently stumbled upon a quote by Dipen Parma that struck a chord with me: "The magic you're looking for is in the work you're avoiding." Every time I read this quote to myself, it blows my mind. It certainly applies to the world of wine because it's impossible to know everything. So, every time I open up a book on wine or uncork a bottle, I'm almost guaranteed to encounter something magical.
My love for the world of wine only grows as I get older. I couldn't imagine doing anything else. I've been to places I otherwise wouldn't have had the chance to explore, all thanks to Bacchus. Wine isn't just a profession for me; it's a deep and abiding passion. It's a journey that I'm committed to for a lifetime. Here's to many more adventures in the world of Bacchus!
What are you drinking these days?
My absolute favorite day of the week is Wednesdays when we do our Blind Tasting. It's a day that fills me with excitement like a child on Christmas morning, anticipating the thrill of unwrapping mystery gifts. This experience is not just a delightful pastime, it's also an essential part of my professional growth—it constantly keeps me on my toes and helps me uncover hidden gems among wine producers.
At home, my wine choices are a reflection of my travels and relationships that I have built. I find solace in sipping clean and crisp white wines, particularly savoring the likes of Chardonnay from Chablis, the intriguing Savagnin from the Jura, and the enchanting array of Italian white wines.
However, it's the world of red wines that truly captures my heart. The bold and distinctive flavors of Nerello Mascalese from the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily ignite my passion. And nothing quite compares to the sheer excitement I feel when enjoying a glass of Gamay from the granitic soils of Beaujolais.
On my day off, you'll often find me immersed in a captivating book, with a glass of Sherry in hand. In my eyes, Sherry is nothing short of a vinous masterpiece, one of the finest grape-based wines on this planet.
This journey through the world of wine is not just a pastime; it's a lifelong love affair, filled with discoveries, intrigue, and endless pleasure.
Favorite non-alcoholic drink?
I have two favorite non-alcoholic beverages, and my top choice is New York drinking water. I find it to be the most satisfying liquid to quench my thirst, and I have yet to find any other drinking water during my travels that can match the deliciousness of New York's tap water.
However, whenever I come across Vichy Catalan Sparkling Mineral Water, I always make sure to order it because it offers the perfect balance of minerality and a unique texture.
What’s your ideal meal and pairing?
My wife and I are proud owners of Beaupierre Wines & Spirits, a wine store located in the same building where I grew up. My mother still resides in the apartment above the store, and it's a delightful tradition when she comes down to bring me her homemade dishes (she has a special talent for preparing organ-based meals). One of her standout creations is a tripe stew, which she crafts using tripe from Esposito Meat Market. Her stew is a simple yet incredibly satisfying and comforting dish. I often pair it with a Syrah from Cote Rotie or a Gamay from Auvergne.
What’s the biggest misconception about being a sommelier, or wine in general?
The biggest misconception about being a sommelier, is that our expertise is limited to wine and that our sole responsibility is to serve and open wine in a restaurant. The role of a sommelier has transformed over the years, and I believe it should continue to evolve. Today, a sommelier should have knowledge that extends beyond wine. Sake, for instance, has made a significant impact on the hospitality industry, and it's imperative that we are well-versed in this area, along with cocktails, spirits, and non-alcoholic beverages.
Aspiring sommeliers should approach their career with an open mind and a willingness to learn about a broad range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages What sets a sommelier apart is the ability to find the right balance between artistry and having an entrepreneurial spirit. We play a vital role in curating and enhancing the overall dining and drinking experience for our patrons.
What’s your criteria for adding a new wine to your list?
A well-curated wine list can elevate the dining experience and tell a story, taking your patrons on a journey through the world of wine. This journey can include not only the celebrated wineries and classic vintages, but also the undiscovered gems, the hidden treasures that come from humble backgrounds, and offer delicious surprises.
Seek out wineries with compelling narratives, those that have not only mastered the craft of winemaking but have a unique tale to tell. Equally important in today's world is sustainability. Are they treating their staff fairly, providing them with a healthy work environment, and contributing positively to the communities they operate in? Wineries that go the extra mile to support the well-being of their workers and promote ethical labor practices should be given due recognition.
It's also crucial to strike a balance between quality and affordability. Customers appreciate a good deal, and unearthing a well-made wine that doesn't break the bank is often the true gratification for both the wine enthusiast and the establishment.
Finally, a wine list should not merely coexist with the cuisine; it should elevate the dining experience. Wines that harmonize with the flavors and ingredients of the dishes offered at your establishment will leave a lasting impression on your patrons. The right pairing can create a symphony of flavors, making the meal a memorable one.
Favorite wine-related film, book, magazine, etc?
"The Oxford Companion to Wine" by the legendary Jancis Robinson MW. It's one of the most treasured gifts I got from my father.I also hold a deep affection for "The Story of Wine" by Hugh Johnson. This book consistently imparts new insights about the history and culture of wine. These two books have been instrumental in nurturing my passion for wine, and they remain constant sources of both learning and delight.
Additionally, "Back to Burgundy" is one of my all-time favorite wine-related movies. This film does a remarkable job of portraying life in a small family domaine and adds another layer to my appreciation for the world of wine.
Hero image: Mikhail Lipyanskiy/Contento