Somm Like it Hot: Featuring Cynthia Betancourt

Born and raised in New Jersey, Cynthia Betancourt found her way to South Florida in 1998. While she attended the Culinary Arts program at The Art Institute, a job at Wine Watch kicked off her passion for wine. Now, she rocks the wine scene like no other in West Broward (yes, THAT West Broward) at Ishilima, her Pembroke Pines restaurant. This talented #SOMMmomofPines is not holding back.

Previous Notable Positions Wine Director at the Mandarin Oriental, Sommelier for the Biltmore hotel, Fine Wine Manager for Artisanal & Augustan Wine.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?  A customer leaves feeling utterly satisfied with their experience and pleasantly surprised that it happened in Broward… let alone West Broward.

Industry pet peeves There are a few! 1. Not being open-minded, trying a grape varietal, region/ producer, and completely dismissing it for good.  2. Know it alls: in the wine world, there is always something to learn, taste, and discover. Sky’s the limit when it comes to wine knowledge!

What sparked your interest in wine? I was working at a restaurant called Armadillo Café as their pantry b*tch. Servers took a liking to my sassy ways with the line cooks (all men) in the kitchen. It was a fairly busy restaurant and for wine too. The GM there would get super excited when a collector brought a highly sought-after wine or if something fabulous sold. He would come by and give us a taste. The servers were also quite wine-savvy too. It brought this healthy competitive energy in learning about wine to make that sale or get a chance to taste it. 

What certification/education do you have as a sommelier? Advanced Sommelier- Court of Master Sommeliers, WSET Level 3, Certified Sake Level 1- Sake Education Trust, FIU Alumni from the School of Hospitality, and Culinary Arts from Art Institute.

Briefly walk us through, in your experience, what it took to learn to sniff and taste wine properly. We would meet with other wine professionals, usually moderated by a Master Sommelier.  Then I would ask a mentor to pick varietals for me to taste blind at home. In addition, if we were having difficulty with certain types of wines, we would do workshops. For example, non-aromatic whites are tough or the ambiguously tough trio – Sangiovese/Tempranillo/ Southern Rhone.

What is a common wine myth you’d like dispelled? Wines give you headaches because of all the sulfites. Really? So I guess you can’t have fries, dried apricots, and a whole laundry list of food items.

Do you feel strongly about natural corks? Do synthetic and screw caps merit the same respect? I love natural corks, but also new corks like the diam are doing great things reducing the amount of corked/ tainted wines. Screw caps are cool, for fresh young wines. However, there is evidence that wines do age stable with screw caps. I did this cool seminar with Chehalem in Oregon, and we tasted 20-yr-old wines with screw caps. They were awesome! Synthetic not a fan, you can’t Coravin a wine bottle, and most of the time, it ruins your wine key.

Where would you steer a person wanting to learn more about wine? Be humble, read, taste, be humble again, ask several mentors for guidance. Each one can offer a different type of advice. There are many different roads you can take in this industry. 

What is a good starter wine? For white, I would suggest an off-dry Riesling, easy-going, not too sweet like a Kabinett. For red, Southern Rhone red. It has all the subtle elements of red wine but nothing too over the top.

List your top favorite wine books, movies, and documentaries, and which do you recommend for beginners? For beginners:  Wine and War, Judgement of Paris, and all the encyclopedias: Oxford, Hugh Johnson, Clive Coates, and The Wine Bible. My favorite books are currently Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch, The New Wine Rules by Jon Bonné, Richard Olney – Reflexions. I love all the mini-docs on SommTV. That is a quiet night for me with some good food and wine on my TV tray.

How do you feel about documentaries such as the Somm series driving up the interest in certifications? It’s great! At least people are getting to know what a somm does and that we just don’t drink wine all day. There is so much more to the job.

How do you feel about the current Miami wine scene overall? With the exception of several somm driven restaurants, we need to step it up. It’s tough because some restaurant owners don’t see their wine program as a dynamic, creative thing that can make you money or entice guests. It’s like being in high school – we all want to be different yet be acceptable to everyone? If you have Italian food, then hone in on that! If it is seafood, make a small section on the wine with coastal vibrant wines that work well. Be Bold!  Or take a section at a time to show perhaps your boss and your customer this can make guests interested and make money. I think it’s a balance of the two.

What do you wish every diner knew when ordering wine at a restaurant? Give us details – likes/dislikes, budget. We are your wine friends. It’s our pleasure to make sure your experience is stellar!

How do you feel about corkage fees at restaurants? I get it totally. You pay for the ambiance too. If I am in a casual spot, I would expect a reasonable corkage fee. At the restaurant, we have a $10 corkage fee, and we, at times don’t enforce too much. Now, if you bring multiple bottles, ask for different glassware, ice, and have my server running around, for sure, corkage it is.

What is an upcoming wine trend prediction? People are drinking better at home since the pandemic. Consumers are looking for a premium version of their favorite varietal and/or region.

How do you feel about orange wine? I personally like them; it has a time and place. You can’t just come over your BFF’s house with a bottle of orange wine and expect them to love it. But pairing with some awesome dishes that normally call for red wine and geeking out with some wine buddies can be fun. I have some on the wine list. I have introduced to some newbies; I describe it, then serve it with some dishes, and it grows on them slowly.

How does Miami as a whole fare in wine knowledge when compared to other cities such as New York, Chicago, or San Francisco? We are definitely getting there. Pre-pandemic, there were some cool seminars out there that a lot of organizations hosted. There are some really great distributors like Artisanal constantly pushing the envelope to enhance the wine knowledge, meeting producers, or getting really in-depth with a certain country/region.

Where do you see yourself in five years? I see our restaurant becoming a restaurant group.  Growing our restaurant into a bigger establishment (slightly) with a bar, retail side, and maybe a wine room for my classes. In addition, having a couple of more restaurants with different concepts. 

What would customers be surprised to learn about you? When I moved in 1997, it was because my family won a house with Univision. It was a sweepstake called Casa de sus Sueños.

Anything else you feel is important to add? Come to wine tasting Thursdays!  Keep me company, and we can taste some really fun stuff!  

All photography by The Whet Palette

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