Photo by Laura Hayes

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Nadine Brown can talk to anyone. And she does in her role as wine director for Charlie Palmer Steak, whose backdrop is the U.S. Capitol and where customer names fill the pages of Politico. On Feb. 9 alone, Brown was gliding across the floor pouring nips of this and that while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and Sen. Marco Rubio were among the diners in the reservation book.

“I’ve had conversations with Kathleen Sebelius about the ACA,” she says. “I talked to Reince Priebus during the campaign. And I remember teasing the CEO of AstraZeneca about the purple pill. I shoot the shit with Paul Ryan all of the time.”

But at work, Brown has to put politics aside. When she calls Ryan a “nice guy” because he remembers to ask about her kids, people ask if she’s read his policies. “I’m like, ‘Well, he makes eye contact, and he’s nice to bussers.’” She likes to say that, just like there’s bad wine made in France and good wine made in New York, Democrats and Republicans are equal opportunity jerks.

“Most of the time, my inclination is tell them my story,” she says, citing a tough time when she lost access to healthcare because of a pre-existing condition. Indeed, Brown’s road to becoming one of the city’s top sommeliers has had its highs and lows.

Brown was born in Falmouth, Jamaica, and grew up in Kingston before moving to Puerto Rico at age 12, where she completed junior high and high school. “I loved the people, the pork, the pork, the pork, the food, and the music,” she jokes.

At an early age, Brown knew what she wanted to study. “For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a child psychiatrist,” she says. “My mom was really compassionate. She would take us to an orphanage when I was around 10 years old. One day she took one of the orphans home.” Brown produces a photo of her mom holding a too-tiny infant. “It comes from that.”

So it was on to Wheelock College in Boston in 1991, where Brown studied social work. After graduation, she worked first at a group home called the New England Home for Little Wanderers and later at an alternative high school for kids coming out of lock-up.

A bad break-up prompted Brown to move to D.C. where her parents were living. She tried to secure work in her field. “But D.C. was very different in 1996,” she says. “Everyone wanted to pay me $12 an hour for a caseload of 40 families.” To stay afloat, Brown picked up odd jobs at places like Moto Photo in Tenleytown.

Then she saw it—an advertisement for a hostess gig at a new French restaurant readying to open near Union Station. “The restaurant was Bistro Bis, and I was part of the opening crew.” She quickly asked for more responsibility and even wrote owner/Chef Jeffrey Buben and late employee Herb Kaplan a letter in the hopes of becoming a manager. “I said I know I don’t know a lot, but this is where I’d like to go, and they gave me a chance.”

During her time at Bistro Bis, Brown befriended wine distributors and collectors like Danny Haas and Jim Arseneault, who taught her about Grand Crus from Burgundy. But she was learning not just about quaffable French luxuries at the power dining spot but also about hospitality.

Sallie Buben taught me about service, about treating everyone as if they were coming to your house,” Brown says. “People don’t buy things. They buy experiences. There are a lot of multi-billion-dollar businesses in this town. People aren’t eating out because they’re hungry.”

That lesson became her thesis as she left Bistro Bis in 2001 and worked at other restaurants before finding her home at Charlie Palmer Steak. The hospitality aspect of the sommelier role, she says, is just as important as getting geeky about grapes.

For example, Knightsbridge Restaurant Group founder Ashok Bajaj was another one of Brown’s mentors when she worked at 701 Restaurant. “I learned the way he works the floor,” she says. “He knows a lot of the regulars and makes eye contact.”

When someone tipped her off in 2000 that Chef Charlie Palmer was opening a restaurant in D.C., Brown felt called to work for him. A scouting trip to his New York restaurant Aureole only confirmed her desire. “I remember bringing my resume to the construction site,” she says. “He met me. I think he showed me the bathrooms. He was very happy about the bathrooms, and he said he’d pass my resume along.”

The restaurant opened in 2003 with Brown as a lead server known as a captain. Keith Goldston was the opening wine director, but once again Brown didn’t miss a chance to soak up knowledge. “I volunteered, helped the wine team build the shelves, put the wine away,” she says. “You’re not working for free, but you’re learning for free,” she says.

“I remember Nadine when she was hired as a server and she was working her way into the sommelier scene,” says Kathy Morgan, who is now in New York but has poured wine in big-time D.C. dining rooms. “She had her books with her all of the time. She studied during her lunches. She took things very seriously, but she never took herself too seriously,” Morgan continues.

Both Goldston and Morgan are Master Sommeliers, meaning they’ve achieved the highest level of wine certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers. (The documentary Somm, which follows a group of stressed-out men as they prepare to take the brutal exam, offers interesting insight). The master level is the gold standard, but there are intermediate levels, including introductory, certified, and advanced.

But chasing certificates wasn’t for Brown. “I wanted to be the first Jamaican MS MW [Master Sommelier, Master of Wine]. That was my naïve goal, but I have two kids and a mortgage,” she says. She took the advanced exam in 2005 but didn’t pass. That was the same year her mother lost her battle with lung cancer.

“I remember studying German sugar levels at the hospital, and now I regret it,” she says. “But I don’t know if I’m telling myself this to make myself feel better about never getting back on the horse.”

Even Morgan, who has dedicated much of her career to the Court of Master Sommeliers, says it’s not the only way to excel. And in fact, most working sommeliers don’t hold official credentials. “There are a lot of great wine professionals in D.C. and the country who never even started—it’s only one measure of success and dedication.”

The year did have a bright spot—2005 was when Brown took over as wine director at Charlie Palmer Steak. She inherited an all-American wine list and ran with it—even earning a Rising Star Sommelier nod from StarChefs in 2006. Her command of the role also positioned her to serve as the sommelier chair of Taste of the Nation, an annual charity event benefitting No Kid Hungry.  

The wine list at Charlie Palmer Steak boasts 4,000 bottles, and Brown loves playing matchmaker. “It’s not like social work at all,” she says in jest. “It’s not matching you with resources, but what you drink.” Palmer noticed her demeanor on the floor. “It has a big impact on our guests,” he says. “She immediately puts people at ease.”

With all the patience in the world, Brown helps diners articulate what kind of wine they like and leads them through mini-tastings until they land on something perfect. “I love that part of the job. You get instant gratification.” She’s never snobbish and only has one rule: Drink what you like.

Cesar Varela, who was working at Charlie Palmer Steak in 2005 when Brown took over the wine director job, remembers working with her. “The humbleness I find she has in her approach to wine, she was always like that,” he says. “She’s been curating one of the top wine lists in the city—her knowledge of American wine is very strong—but she’s very approachable and always wants to listen.”

Varela, who was born in Peru, has reason to find Brown’s story inspiring. He started as a busser and a floor runner at Charlie Palmer Steak before graduating to server when he started to learn more about wine. Varela has gone on to be a sommelier at restaurants with impressive wine programs like Osteria Morini, Del Campo, Fiola, and Fiola Mare.

If Brown has one hope, it’s that restaurants become more flexible for working mothers, especially because she’s seen pictures of the current classes of sommeliers studying for their advanced exam. “Out of 70 people, 50 of them are women,” she says.

At age 44, Brown has two young children with her husband Danny Fisher—the chef at Society Fair. Though Charlie Palmer Steak has been accommodating, she says she might have to let go when both of her children reach school age. 

Brown’s optimistic about the diversity of her profession in the future, even though it feels like the majority of sommeliers are still white men. She also says she’s rarely faced friction as a black woman in the business.

“Sometimes you have to convince a table or a particular host that you know what you’re talking about, but it usually only takes two sentences,” she says. “More often I get a silent ‘you go,’ especially from black women.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com