Alumni Spotlight: International Culinary Center®
Justin Lee graduated from the Intensive Sommelier Program at ICC® in 2012 and obtained his Certified Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers. His insatiable quest of “beverage” knowledge has led him to subsequently pass the Certified Specialist of Wine, Certified Sake Sommelier, and is well on his way to finish up his WSET Diploma as well as his Certified Wine Educator Diploma.
Justin Lee has worked in many establishments in New York City such as Morrell Wine and Company, Lupa Osteria Romana, and Zuma. He has worked Harvest in Paso Robles on the Old Bailey Vineyard, and also traveled to Japan to learn about Sake production in award winning breweries such as Hakkaisan and Nanbubijin. Justin also runs a boutique consulting firm that focuses on Auction Advisory, Cellar Management and Seminars. In 5 years, he hopes to be tackling his MS and MW programs, and working in more fine establishments in New York City. “There are few things in life better than eating and drinking right. As a sommelier, finding that perfect combination of wine and food, and watching the fireworks go off as the guests eyes light up is the most rewarding feeling ever.”
Could you please share with our readers a little about yourself and your history in the wine industry?
I’m a Californian transplant based in New York City. I started my career on Wall Street working as an analyst for a hedge fund. Slowly but surely I grew dissatisfied with my lifestyle, and wanted a major change. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to travel the world, and I enjoyed wine, so I enrolled in the French Culinary Institute; now known as the International Culinary Center®. I was enrolled in the first Intensive Sommelier Training class, taught by the legendary Master Sommelier, Scott Carney. After 10 weeks of intensive study, I graduated at the top of my class from the wine program, and went on to pass my introduction and Certified Sommelier exam.
Subsequently, I joined Morrell Wine and Company as a Sales Associate, then left to take the head sommelier role at Lupa. The wine program at Lupa was massive, and a brilliant way for me to dive head first into the vast world of Vino Italiano! In 2012 I started a boutique beverage consulting firm that focuses on Auction Advisory, Cellar Management and Seminars. For auction advisory I deal with clients who want to buy from auction market such as Wally’s, Zachys, Sotheby’s and Christies, and give them advice on auction arbitrage spread, shipping, consolidation, and fraud deterrent. For cellar management, I deal with clients who already have an extensive wine cellar. I assist in their events, acquisition, or liquidation of their assets. Over the years, I built quite a few relationships with winery and one in particular in Paso Robles who was gracious enough to invite me over for harvest over the years. Being there on the vineyard enhances the wine tasting experiences, because now I can connect the dots of wine making. While I was doing all this, I thought it would be fun to try to quench my insatiable quest of “beverage” knowledge.
Over the years I’ve subsequently passed the Certified Specialist of Wine, Certified Sake Sommelier, finished my WEST Advanced in 5 days and am well on my way to finish the WSET Diploma as well as the Certified Wine Educator Diploma. I also traveled to Japan to learn about Sake production in award winning breweries such as Hakkaisan and Nanbubijin. Due to my unique knowledge in both the wine and sake world, I was asked to be part of the opening team at Zuma, the largest Japanese restaurant in New York City.
What was your motivation for becoming a sommelier?
My father had a passion for wine, and it rubbed off on me. I enjoyed wine, but didn’t know much about it at first. Enrolling in the ICC® really gave me confidence to find my true passion, which is hospitality. There are few things in life better than eating and drinking right and, as a sommelier, finding that perfect combination of wine and food, while watching the fireworks go off as the guests eyes light up is the most rewarding feeling.
What specifically attracted you to the Intensive Sommelier Training program at the International Culinary Center®?
I was attracted to the Intensive Sommelier Training program at the International Culinary Center® because the classes were taught by world renowned Master Sommeliers and they work in concert with the Court of Masters Sommeliers to ensure the success of their students. The ICC® is also diligent in helping graduates find jobs that best match their goals and aspiration.
What was the most beneficial aspect of the Intensive Sommelier Training program?
The training was so intense; it gave a jump start in my career. If I didn’t take the program, it would take me at least an extra 5 to 10 years to get to where I am today in terms of beverage knowledge, service skills, and the art of hospitality.
What are the most common characteristics of a successful sommelier?
I would say the most common characteristics of being a successful sommelier is being hospitable, engaging, and confident yet having humility at the same time.
How was ICC able to help you succeed in the wine industry and further your career?
ICC® not only gave me the foundational knowledge of wine and service, but also the access to its large alumni network. Without guidance to this spider web network of sommeliers, wine directors, distributors, and suppliers, I would be completely lost in my tracks.
How long have you been working with Zuma?
I open Zuma with a team of sommeliers in September 2014, and have been there for about a year and a half.
How long have you been with Old Bailey Vineyard?
I starting heading out to Paso Robles for harvest four seasons ago in 2012, and have been heading out there consecutively until 2015 when I started working on the floor as a sommelier again.
What have you been able to learn from the hands on experience from Old Bailey vineyard?
The hands on experience I got from Old Bailey vineyard made me appreciate the hard work that goes into making a beautiful bottle of wine. The winemaker needs to check if he or she is picking at the right time, too early, you don’t get enough ripeness from the grape. Even after you get ripeness from the grape, you have to wait for phenolic ripeness. There are so many things that can go wrong in growing your vines, from hail storms, to rain, to rot, to disease, and wild animals eating your grapes. Making wines aren’t easy either, since you’ll need years of experience to know exactly what is going on and if anything is going wrong. After learning about the whole process of wine making, I felt like I’ve become a better Sommelier by representing the winemaker that gave their blood, sweat, and tears for wines they make.
What has the response been like for JCL Wine Consulting?
JCL Consulting is a boutique advisory which focuses on Auction Advisory, Cellar Management, and Seminars. The response has been better than expected, serving both domestic and international clientele.
Favorite wine type/region/year?
Pinot Noir, Burgundy, 1971
What advice would you give to someone looking to pursue a career in wine?
First thing is first, take the Intensive Sommelier Training program at the International Culinary Center® for you to have a sound foundation. This program can really help jumpstart your wine career and help you find the perfect wine job. After you finish the program at ICC®, you realize you can do anything from being a wine blogger, to working in distribution, to catering, and if you dare, even become a Sommelier.
To learn more about the International Culinary Center®‘s Intensive Sommelier Training program, please visit their website.