Don’t be surprised if in the future, one of the Sommelier Standoff wine dinner events at Agua Restaurant & Lounge features Chris Thomas, a sommelier at Ave Restaurant at Kimpton Seafire Resort + Lounge, going up against Heather Branch, the sommelier at Blue by Eric Ripert at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman.
Don’t be surprised either, if at the end of this possible wine-pairing competition, Chris and Heather share a kiss. They may be competitors in the sense that they work for two different resorts, but Chris and Heather are united in a more important endeavour: their marriage.
Chris met Heather in his hometown of East Hampton, New York, while he was working as a server at Nick & Toni’s restaurant on his summer break from teaching chemistry and physics at a high school in Massachusetts. It was a familiar way to earn extra money during the summer.
“My dad’s a chef, my grandfather was a chef, so at an early age, I was exposed to all of that,” says Chris.
Heather, who is originally from wine country in Sonoma, California, had worked as a sommelier in a number of restaurants prior to taking the position at Nick & Toni’s.
“It’s about meeting people,” Heather says of her passion to work as a sommelier in restaurants. “When you’re doing your job right, it feels like you’re throwing a party for people. It’s fun and exciting.”
Chris and Heather met that summer and it was love at first glass.
LEARNING THE TRADE
Chris was smitten by more than Heather’s charms; he also adored her knowledge of wine.
Heather was attracted to Chris’s academically inclined personality — he was actually pursuing a doctorate degree when they met — and the fact that he could talk about things other than wine.
Chris talked about science and with an extensive chemistry background, he was able to explain certain things about wines that Heather didn’t know.
“He was my encyclopedia,” she says. Still, when they dined or drank together, Chris asked so many questions about wine, it eventually became too much for Heather.
“I finally said to him, ‘Let’s develop another side of our relationship and not talk about beverages all the time,’” she says. “We found a good balance.” However, Chris was fascinated by wine and wanted to learn.
“I made a point to keep the learning from our relationship,” he says, adding that he ultimately learned his trade from accruing knowledge through reading and experience, rather than being part
of one of the wine education governing bodies.
LOVE OF WINE
For about the first three years of their relationship, Chris deferred to Heather when they ordered wine at a restaurant. However, after Chris learned more about wine, Heather eventually gave him his chance.
“I had the wine menu in front of me one night and I just closed it, pushed it to him and said, ‘You order the wine.’”
Since then, they take turns ordering the wine, sometimes playing a little game.
“We’ll open the wine menu to a page and he’ll tell me to pick three wines and not tell him,” Heather says. “After I do that, he’ll look at the page and say, ‘You chose this one, this one and this one.’” He’ll usually be right about at least two of the three and then we’ll order one of those.”
Both Heather and Chris understand how wines pair with foods, so they order their meals and wines with pairing in mind.
“We usually order with the expectation that we’ll be sharing the dishes,” says Chris. “I’d say we share 80 per cent of our meals. We get to experience more that way.”
Often, they choose classic wines that aren’t “too geeky or commercial,” as Chris puts it, and that offer excellent price-quality ratios, which Heather likes. They used to have a good collection of wines at home, but not anymore.
“When we left New York, we had a big party and our friends came over and drank all of our wine,” says Chris. “We haven’t re-amassed a collection since then.”
Chris actually started working on Grand Cayman before Heather, who continued to make trips abroad working for a wine distributor after their move here. However, late last year when she saw The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, was advertising for a new sommelier at Blue by Eric Ripert restaurant, she applied.
“It was blind luck that I saw the job listing,” she says.
The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, whose head sommelier had moved on to another opportunity, was happy to hire someone with Heather’s knowledge and experience.
Working in competing resorts hasn’t been difficult for Chris and Heather.
“We’re lucky that the environment is more collaborative than competing,” says Heather. “Each wine programme is so unique.”
Heather says it has already been suggested that she and Chris compete against each other in Agua’s Sommelier Standoff. If that matchup comes to pass, any collaboration will have to wait until they get home together at the end of the night.