Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 30 – Berlin’s best Somm(elier), the amazing Billy Wagner

My apologies for the long silence, but illness left me running to hit deadlines. Then I had to fly to Frankfurt yesterday evening to present Billy Wagner of the Rutz wine bar in Berlin (pictured above at the WineVibes parts in Berlin) with the Metternich prize for the best Riesling wine list in Germany. I was just about in good enough shape to go, but almost nothing is more important to me than helping young colleagues. Billy is just 31 years old, but since he arrived at Rutz in the summer of 2008 he has won just about every prize a somm in this part of the world can pick up, and not without good reason.

As I said in my short speech, anybody can sit down with a pile of wine magazines and/or the annually published guides to German wines and put together a great list on paper. The next hurdle is actually obtaining all of those wines, which requires backers (in this case Anja and Carsten Schmidt of Weinladen Schmidt in Berlin) and these days you also have to move fast in order not to miss the most sought-after wines. However, that is all really just first base. The real challenge is to be communicate the list properly to the customers without overloading them with choices or turning them off with recommendation that are too off the wall. This is what Billy really got the prize for.

On top of that he’s also redefined the role of the somm in as radical a way as Paul Grieco has in New York (which Billy recently visited – the picture shows him in Momofuku Ssäm on Second Avenue). He did that not only by introducing the range of ‘Rutz Rebell’ wines in whose making he took a hand, but also through a remarkable combination of openness and respect for tradition, patience and élan, fantasy and always keeping one foot firmly on the ground. One half of that lot in a young somm isn’t so unusual, but both sides welded seamlessly together in one person is really something. Congratulations Billy! Sadly, I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it over to Rutz before I head back to New York on March 4th…

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