SOMM LIKE IT HOT Featuring Ariete Miami’s Adrian Lopez

We already know Miami is a hot zone for craft cocktails and beer. Know what else is happening? The wine scene! Follow along as I continue this SOMM LIKE IT HOT blog section and begin a podcast crossover featuring some of South Florida’s buzziest swirlers, sniffers, and tasters.

Meet Adrian Lopez of the Ariete Hospitality Group: wine director for Coconut Grove’s Ariete and Nave and also managing partner of the upcoming The Allocation Room.

Listen in as we candidly discuss all things WINE: certifications, pet peeves, myths, corks, cans, Miami scene, trends,  Florida’s Michelin Guide arrival, and more!

**Blog interview transcript has been edited for clarity and condensed for brevity. 

Listen to the FULL EPISODE on the link provided below or on all major podcast platforms***

On this new podcast with me today is Adrian Lopez of the Ariete Hospitality Group. Welcome! I see Uvaggio, Zuma, Valentino, Los Fuegos, Hakkasan, Ariete, and now The Allocation Room. We have a lot to talk about! Adrian, tell me your current position here. Currently, I am wine director for Ariete Hospitality Group and also the managing partner for The Allocation Room, soon to be opening.

How long have you been at this with the group? I’ve been with the group for about nine months. I first started off working as a floor sommelier and then to the current role that I have now, wine director.

Where were you born? Let’s do a little bit of background. I was born in Jersey. Not a lot of people know that. Funny enough, I’ve actually never gone back to New Jersey. My parents came to Miami when I was one. I tell people that’s a long story, but I’m from Miami. I’m 3 0 5 all day.

And what area did you grow up in? I grew up a little bit of everywhere. We moved a lot when we were younger: Little Havana, Coral Gables, Kendall. I think a lot of the majority of my childhood, I remember good memories in the Coral Gables area.

How did you get started in wine? When I got my first job at Zuma. I was working as a food runner, and I did that position for about a year; obviously, no experience in hospitality or anything like that. Prior to that, I was working at Party City for about four years, filling up balloons and whatnot. My best friend was working there at the time as a barback. And he said, I had the potential to make good money at Zuma. I should come on board with him and my girlfriend at the time (my wife now, we were expecting our first). Obviously, it was going to be a big jump as far as pay scale. So I told myself, I’m going to make that jump, and we’re going to go to Zuma. We took a beautiful two-week vacation, came back to Miami, and interviewed at that job at Zuma. I think she was a floor manager at the time when I interviewed with her. She told me she was kind of not taking any more recommendations or referrals from my buddy, because all of his referrals have kind of not worked out. So she said she would take one last referral from him (a leap of faith) and brought me on board. I said thank you, and I’m not going to prove you wrong. I got the job, and I started off as a food runner for about a year. And then I see these guys walking around the restaurant in suits, smelling wine, drinking wine. I wanted a better position in the restaurant. I started looking around, and I saw these guys doing these wonderful things. I wanted to be part of that team. I asked for a transfer of department, and we made it happen after a year. I became a wine runner, a cellar rat practically. I was just helping with inventory, restocking…

Explain what a cellar rat is Polishing glassware, dropping off glasses to the table, Bordeaux and Burgundy glasses, Champagne, just heavy lifting, and all that kind of stuff that you need to do to learn the biz. After a year, I became a sommelier. I stayed with the company on board for about five years and a half.

What happened that gave you the change to become a sommelier? The certification. I got my intro level, and then I got my certification. I became finally a salesman and a sommelier on the floor, right when I was certified. What’s really crazy is that I remember at the end of that month, one of my VIPs, he and I had already connected; I sold him a bottle of Pétrus after my first month of being an official sommelier on the floor, which was amazing. It was a 1996 Pétrus for $ 5,200, which I won’t forget. That was special.

Did he give you a taste? He did. It was really fun. It was a great night. They were doing competitions between him and his other friends. So it was really cool.

Have you had another night like that since? One of my most memorable ones happened on one of my last nights at Hakassan. One of my VIPs came in and spent a lot of money on wine. Just in wine, it was about $13,000. His total check was about $15,000. Three people. I remember it clearly because Carbone had gotten a Saturday night fire, and he had reservations. He called us up last minute. He came in, splurged, amazing. Thank you, Carbone.

What are some of your industry pet peeves? One that really annoys me is when guests assume to know everything on the wine list. That really grinds my gears. Then secondly, it’s that one person that comes into the restaurant and always says, “Oh, you don’t have Caymus?” They’ll throw any name. We’re trying to build something special and unique here.

You said you had a certification. Who with? The Court of Master Sommeliers. In my Zuma days, I had a great mentorship. The guys we were working with there were certified through the Court. That’s all I really knew. I wanted to become like them, so I went that route right before the Somm movie came out. It was a great timing for me. I also have a Sake Navigator Certification through the SSI (Sake Service Institute).

What did it take to learn how to taste wine properly? It was hard at first. When I made that jump from a food runner to a wine runner, I was learning. I didn’t know anything about wine. I remember when I first took my first sip of wine, I actually did not like it at a friend’s house. I would ask the guys all the time, how do you catch this? How do you catch that? What they would recommend me to do is go to the market. At Zuma, we had one of these aroma kits, which was super helpful. They’re very expensive. They are 16 or 18 little vials. And each one contains different aromas: black pepper, licorice, cherry, raspberry, blackberry, etc. I took it to the house. And I would just smell through it daily to the point where I would blind some of these kits. I’d have to take a little break, maybe smell some coffee and then go back into the aroma kits, but that’s a good way. And honestly just tasting a lot of wine. If you taste a lot of wine, that’ll eventually get your palate going. Surround yourself with people that have good descriptors. A lot of tasting, a lot of spitting. That’s important.

What is a common wine myth you would like dispelled? Well, the sulfites and the headaches. That’s a huge one. I’ve had guests come into the restaurant with these little Amazon tea bag-looking things that you put into the glass, and it removes these sulfites. That was the craziest thing that I’ve seen. In my opinion, I think people that get headaches, it’s because they’re having bad wine. Or you’re drinking too much.

Do you feel strongly about natural corks? I don’t really have an opinion on that. I like screw caps. If you’re going to have a fresh wine, if it’s maybe from 2017 to the current vintage. I’ve had older red wines in screw cap, and I haven’t been a fan of how they age; they don’t age the same. I think personally, from my experience and taste them out of these wines. I think cork is my go-to for older wines for sure. And then leave the screw tops, in my opinion, for younger wines.

Where would you steer a person wanting to learn more about wine? The Allocation Room.

Let’s talk about The Allocation Room It’s going to be retail driven. Mostly we’re going to have a wine bar. The hours of retail will be from 11:30 AM to about 6:00 PM. There’s going to be a bar top that can probably fit about eight to ten people. We are going to do masterclasses. For example, I can have a producer come in, and we can taste their wines. We can charge anything along the lines of $30 to $50 per person. Small bites, charcuterie, cheese platters, and we just hang out. It’s a good way to spread knowledge. You can stop by any time in the day and just have a glass of wine. I’m going to be changing the wines by the glass weekly. Other than that, if people want more knowledge, what helped me out a lot was my favorite book: Windows of the World by Kevin Zraly.

And a good starter wine? I’d go for something richer in style. I once saw this documentary on Netflix where they gave lab rats some water with sugar and water with cocaine. These lab rats ended up liking more water and sugar. So I think something richer in style is a good way to kind of introduce somebody. If you introduce somebody to a wine that’s a little more acid-driven, more citric-driven, it’s a little off-putting. I think having that riper red fruit or riper white fruit. Anything along the lines of like Cabernet or a Chardonnay with oak people would like. It has more richness in the mid palate. Those were the kinds of wines that I started liking. I loved Shafer Chardonnay starting up. I liked that rich vanilla, oaky, buttery quality to it. Now I’m drinking Chablis or anything old world. You’ve got to start somewhere.

You said Windows of the World. Are there other books, movies, or documentaries, you would recommend? My favorite movie that I’ve seen is Bottle Shock. Really cool. I think Somm part one is really good as well. Part two and part three are a little too much.

So then, going into SOMM, as you’ve mentioned several times, how do you feel about the SOMM series driving up interest in certifications? Like you said, you did it in good timing before that mad rush. Yeah. I did it in good timing. And then right now, currently the court was going through its ups and downs. You know, they had their allegations and whatnot. A lot of people still ask me to this day. I have a lot of my staff asking wanting to do level one. And I think it’s good. I think level one is good for a lot of people in the industry, it’s good for their resume. The Court of Master Sommeliers is more service-driven, whereas WSET is a lot more theory-driven. Prices have gone up on the CMS aspect of things. What I do like about the CMS is that they’ve gone more remotely for level one, at least you can do it online. For an optional fee, they’ll send you the wines home for you to practice. I think it’s cool. A lot of people will want to do things remotely. I don’t know if I will get to the master level, but I’ll still keep pushing. I mean, I failed it once but I’m not a quitter, right? So I’m going to keep going at it. I respect the people that don’t want to be involved with the Court of Master Sommeliers anymore. But it’s for me, I’m still gonna be pushing.

How do you feel about the current Miami wine scene nowadays overall? Mixed feelings. I love the OGs. I love the people that I came up with. I haven’t been a fan of places opening up with this whole natural wine movement. I respect natural wines, but just that word…”Clean” just actually came up on the TTB where they are deciding to remove that word came from wines. It drives people one way. I respect natural wine. I’ve had natural wine before it became a thing before. Many of these new natural wines are starting to use that as a branding term. I love the people that I came up with. They’ve built great programs. And a lot of ’em that I came up with are actually no longer working on the floor. At the end of the day, as we get older and we can’t be working the floor forever. There are only a few of us that actually still work the floor. Everything is so trendy now. I feel like a lot of people are judging a wine by the label. But is the wine really good? I don’t know.

What do you wish every diner knew when ordering wine at a restaurant? We’re here to help you with your gamble. I think it’d be awesome just to let us know what your price point is, and then we’ll work with you. If every table came up to me with a budget, it would be amazing.

How do you feel about corkage fees at restaurants? I like it. All the restaurants that I’ve worked at, for the most part, had it. When I was working at Zuma, they were very strict with the corkage policy. As a business owner, obviously, you’d want people to come in and purchase a bottle of wine. If someone has a very memorable bottle of wine at home that they’ve kept for years, they want to celebrate their wedding anniversary and it’s special to them…allow it. Most of the restaurants, I would say that I worked at had it. If you’re going to bring in something that is respectable and it’s a great wine, then I’m all for it. But if you’re going to bring in something that’s like, cheap wine and my corkage is going to be more expensive than the wine, then don’t bring it.

Do you have any wine trend predictions for the rest of the year, besides the whole natural thing? Or do you think this is still going strong? I think it’s still going strong because of the generations. Maybe more canned wines. I do see that too. With all these spritzes going out and canned cocktails. I think that’ll be a lot more of a thing. I think down the road, CBD-infused wines or something like that. There are a few wineries that are starting to do it in California. I think that’ll eventually be a thing. If weed becomes legal in Miami, eventually you can do CBD things.

Where do you see yourself in five years? Hopefully, The Allocation Room does well and we can open up a second one at a different location.

What would customers be surprised to learn about you? That’s a tough one. Every time people meet me, people are like, wow, you’re just humble, very respectable. Having a sommelier title, people automatically assume pretentiousness in any sommelier. But when people meet me at the table, it’s different, you know?

Anything else you think is important to add? I mean, I got to mention it is the Michelin thing. We can talk about it. I feel like Ariete is at a great place. We’re ready for it on the wine side of things. And I know chef has been doing an incredible job on the food side. Everyone’s doing a great job. I’m very happy with where we are at and what I’ve helped my business partners with on the wine list side of things. When I took over the wine list we had about 120 wine selections. We’re sitting at a little bit over 200 right now. Obviously, we always want more. the list is beautiful, a very selective wine list. It’s pretty. We applied for the Wine Spectator Award as well. What we’re doing here is special. When Michelin comes, I feel really good about Ariete’s chances.

Thank you so much for sharing all this and thank you for joining me today and being so candid with all my questions. Thanks for having me. I appreciate being on the podcast with so many of my peers and great somms in the city. I’m in good company. I’ve seen the people that you’ve interviewed. When you asked me it was a no-brainer.

Past Features

Juan Carlos Santana

Cynthia Betancourt

Daniel Bishop

Alessandra Esteves

Amanda Fraga

Bianca Sanon

Jacqueline Coleman

Luis Martinez

Rachel B. Coddington

Daniel Toral

Natascha Patterer

Jacqueline Pirolo

Micah Winecoff