Jessica Norris, 37, remembers exactly which table at Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House she was serving when a special bottle of Pinot Noir opened her eyes to wine’s allure. Hooked, she took classes through the American Sommelier Association and the Court of Master Sommeliers, and after a year and a half as a server at the Manhattan restaurant, she left to become a sommelier for now-shuttered wine mecca Veritas. Norris had been working there for all of one week when Del Frisco's called: A spot had opened up on the wine team, and they wanted her back.
After rising through the ranks to lead the New York program, Norris took on a new national position created for her in 2016: director of wine education. "I got to build my job. How many people get to do that? Education is super close to my heart and important to me," Norris says. During her time in that position, she revolutionized the way staff discussed wine at pre-shift with what she calls the 3-2-1 method: "Three words to describe the wine, two food pairings and a fun fact."
However, starting in 2017, the steak house group needed her for the top job: national beverage director. Now relocating to HQ in Dallas to command 50 Wine Spectator Restaurant Award–winning wine programs at the Double Eagles, Del Frisco's Grilles and Sullivan's Steakhouses, Norris found time while packing boxes to speak with assistant editor Emma Balter about her transition to overseeing an entire chain's wine program, her love for Chenin Blanc and the parallels between opera—her former calling—and wine.
Wine Spectator: How did you get into wine?
Jessica Norris: I moved to New York in 2004 to attend grad school for opera, got into Manhattan School of Music and, as any good musician or theater performer, fell into restaurants, because the schedule is flexible. I started at Del Frisco's as a server. Their wine list is a bible and filled with things I had no knowledge about whatsoever. We tasted at pre-shift every day. The wine culture is ingrained in just bringing their servers into the world of food and wine, so we had a lot of education.
One evening, I was a server downstairs on table 30, and one of the sommeliers sold a bottle of Marcassin Blue Slide Pinot Noir 2004, and it smelled better than anything I'd ever smelled in my life. I hadn't made the connection between why wine was so adored and loved by guests and sought after, and that was that aha moment for me. It's not just about food and wine pairing, or learning about what grapes grow where, but it's climate, history, geology, really passionate stories about families. I fell hard.
WS: Do you see any parallels between opera and wine?
JN: In opera and in wine, there's so much that goes on behind the scenes to make that performance or that bottle of wine what it is. It's a culmination; it's a journey, really: how the wine got in that bottle, or what the opera singer had to learn what to do in order to take on that role. They had to tweak and practice one little thing to make it shine. Learning the intricacies of the inflection of a word or a dynamic on a note, and how to make it sing. I think wine is exactly the same. It's more than it's cracked up to be. It's in-depth and really philosophical.
WS: The Del Frisco's Restaurant Group has restaurants of different tiers nationwide. How do you approach the diverse wine programs?
JN: We are trying to solidify what each of our brands is [and] matching the wine program to that identity. [Within the] organization, every wine director kind of has an outline for how the program was built. We have a great selection of California Cabernet in all of our restaurants, whether it's Heitz or Montelena or even Colgin or Bryant or Screaming Eagle. But I feel like we also have made a really huge commitment to embracing the boutique wines in California, and that's where the lists are different. Those wines are not available in every market; there are not a lot of those wines made.
Each wine director has a passion project too, so there's quite a few hand-sells on each list that are different just based on who the wine director is. I have an exquisite love for Chenin Blanc from the Loire. It's not like, “Yay, steak house, Chenin Blanc from the Loire!” But when I ran the New York program, I sold a lot of Chenin because I loved it. We had a lot of Joly, Huët on the menu.
The Grille is fun, funky and eclectic. We just put a wine on there called "Sexy Beast" by Two Hands. This is what we're featuring on Valentine's Day. Who doesn't want to drink Sexy Beast on Valentine's Day, eat an oyster and go home?
WS: So far, how has the transition been from being in charge of one restaurant's wine program to overseeing an entire restaurant group? What are some of your challenges?
JN: I think most surprising is the number of things that I don't know, the vastness on all levels. It's technology—running a report for the entire organization with three concepts. It's beer, it's wine and it's liquor. It's a little bit daunting to figure out how I'm going to make this vision of the job in my head match what I'm actually able to produce. I have this vision of being able to communicate with my wine directors in the field and keep a finger on what's going on in the restaurant. I don't want to completely pull out of operations [and] be stuck in an office managing wine from this top position. I still really want to have a touch in the restaurant.
The wine culture in this restaurant group has always been really strong. I want to hold onto that heritage and continue to push that forward. The daunting part is, how do I figure out how to do that while I'm doing all this? My e-mail box is about ready to eat me.