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Local Chatter: Sommelier Elisa Wybraniec of The Coast Guard House

By January 30, 2017Rhode Island, Top News

A Mid-Career Switch Proves Fruitful for Coast Guard House Sommelier

By Lauren Daley

Elisa Wybraniec, Sommelier, Coast Guard House.

Elisa Wybraniec, Sommelier,/Wine Director, Coast Guard House Restaurant.

In listening to her talk wine, it’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, Court of Master Sommeliers Certified Sommelier Elisa Wybraniec was a mortgage account executive.

After Hurricane Sandy destroyed much of Narragansett’s coastline, including landmark destination venue Coast Guard House, in 2012, Wybraniec left her 19-year career in banking to focus on rebuilding the business with her husband, Coast Guard House co-owner, Bob Leonard.

Now the Wine Director at the Coast Guard House Restaurant — and a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner — Wybraniec’s sophisticated palette is evidenced by the Coast Guard House’s extensive and impeccably curated wine list of some 175 bottles —from a 2014 Txacoli white from Luzia de Ripa in Arabako Txakolina, Spain to a 2013 Pinotage red from Bosman Family Vineyards in Wellington, South Africa and a spectrum of terroirs and appellations in between.

The New Jersey native and 1990 University of Rhode Island alum is also now adjunct faculty at Johnson & Wales University.

The Beverage Journal: First off, why did you want to leave banking for wine?

Wybraniec: I was in banking for 19 years, but I’d been interested in wine for a long time … Then [Hurricane] Sandy gave me the opportunity. My bank said I could take three months off to [help rebuild the business] but … I decided I wasn’t going to go back. I called them and said, “Listen, I need to do something else for me, personally” …and they were so great; they were terrific and understanding.

TBJ: And what was your wine education like?

Wybraniec: At Johnson & Wales, I obtained levels 1, 2 and 3 for WSET [Wine and Spirit Education Trust]. I also obtained Certified Specialist of Wine through the Society of Wine Educators at Johnson & Wales. For my WSET Level 4 Diploma, I did that in Boston with Adam Chase [director of] The Grape Experience. I was certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2016. Overall, it’s a 3- to 5-year commitment, depending on how frequently you want to take the exams…

Ed Korry at Johnson & Wales is brilliant. To be able to have his knowledge and expertise available here in [the] state of Rhode Island is a luxury … Adam in Boston was a fantastic educator … Having great educators was part of what made me more and more intrigued by the subject. There’s so much to know about wine, you’ll never know it all. It’s a continuing education as well as camaraderie, especially as I proceeded to the highest level, the diploma level, where nobody else knows how difficult and grueling it is, so you develop friendships with these people in your class…

Wybraniec's carefully curated selections have earned a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence

Wybraniec’s carefully curated selections have earned a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence

TBJ: What do you love most about wine?

Wybraniec: It’s something that embodies happy times with family and friends; it’s a complement to your whole dining experience. In college, we did a lot of cooking at our house dorm in URI, and we’d cook and have friends over, and it was part of the social culture. I also love the whole process of cultivating a grape vine into a Pinot Noir.

TBJ: What wines do you like right now?

Wybraniec: It changes … My big one is sparkling, and my biggest is Champagne, which I know is cliché, but so much goes into that bottle. We went to Champagne recently … The British are also making quality sparklings right now…

For Pinot Noir, I’d love to buy more Burgundy … Italian wines are some of my favorites. I like the fact they don’t use a lot of oak on their whites; I’m not huge on oaked whites. I’m not huge on California Chardonnays…

TBJ: How would you characterize the Coast Guard House wine list?

Wybraniec: I aim to keep to the familiar, so I’ll try for popular wines, like Cabernets, but from a different area than people are used to. So for Chardonnay, I’ll offer a Napa, but also offer one from Santa Barbara. I like cabs from Chiles Valley — all these little cabs that exist between Napa and Sonoma; you can taste the terroir…

We update the list semi-annually, which gives me time to play around. The word-of-the day is white blends, so I ended up going with three white blends by the glass … I’m also an advocate for lower alcohol wine … For the winter, we brought on an intense Chilean Pinot Noir and another from Los Carneros, because I didn’t have a Carneros appellation.

TBJ: What’s fun or different on your list now?

Wybraniec: We have a wine called Txakoli from the coast of Spain; it’s a very crisp, refreshing white, a super accompaniment to shellfish. For reds, we have Sagrantino di Montefalco, an Italian wine with a lot of guts to it … For an oddball pick, a Chardonnay from Jura, France, which has nutty tones to it, which can make people think the bottle is flawed, but that’s the way it’s made.

TBJ: What’s popular with customers right now?

Wybraniec: By the bottle, Pinot Noir, cab whites, Chardonnays. By the glass, its Pinot Grigio, hand over fist. For reds, I do see people more interested in Merlots than when we first opened the restaurant.

TBJ: What’s a suggested pairing?

Wybraniec: By the glass, we offer a rich-style Chardonnay, from Livermore Valley, not Napa, which is an appellation people don’t think of — it’s buttery, which goes with lobster pot pie and lobster ravioli just wonderfully.

TBJ: With all your focus on education, do you feel it’s important to teach your staff?

Wybraniec: Oh, yes. We try and do field trips once a month to local vineyards and brewers and distillers … because it’s important for our staff to know how a beverage was made, and the people behind it.

I’ve also taught a “How to Analyze Wine” class, where they can taste and describe it … We’ll sit in tasting sessions, so for example, for a Chardonnay, I’ll collect all the different flavors and aromas — caramel, toast, butterscotch, butter, green apples, chalk, rocks … and I put 20 things out on a platter, and I’ll say: “All these flavors can be in that glass. What do you taste?” Visual learning can be so effective.

TBJ: That’s fascinating. What wines do you drink at home to relax?

Wybraniec: Depends on the time of year. This summer was definitely all about rosé. Right now, in the winter, more towards reds — there’s a Pinot Noir I like now from Oregon, Big Table Farm. And La Voix, a California Pinot Noir, which is just pure, vivacious, complex.

TBJ: Anything else you’d like to add?

Wybraniec: One of the educators I had said, “Don’t over stress about wine. It’s just wine; it’s supposed to be fun.” And because banking was so serious, that made an impression on me. I get to freestyle it. I love it.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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