Courtney Olson, 41, got into the world of restaurant service in her native Southern California for plenty of fine reasons: flexibility, decent pay, "you can stay on the beach all day and head into work." But her skills took her to higher levels at dining destinations like Grand Award winner Capo in Santa Monica and the now-closed Hatfield's in Los Angeles, where she began to indulge her wine curiosity with sommelier Peter Birmingham.
When Olson and her now-wife moved to New York, she became determined to get more involved in wine. It paid off as she leveled up from captain to sommelier at the Modern, owned by Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group. California beckoned again, however, and Olson spent a stint at San Francisco's Quince before getting her own list to manage at Coi, a Best of Award of Excellence winner.
Olson has since crafted a wine list and pairings that complement chef Matt Kirkley's seafood-only nine-course tasting menu. She spoke with assistant editor Emma Balter about her love for white wines, an eye-opening discovery while traveling in wine country, and why California bubbly deserves a spot at the table.
WS: How have you crafted the wine list around the food at Coi?
CO: I find [chef Matt Kirkley's] food very unique. It's so creative without being gimmicky. It's creative but it's also very comforting and approachable, and it's all seafood. I love white wines, so it gave me a list that I could focus on white wines with.
I've been there about a year now, and I've been slowly changing the cellar from a lot of red back toward white to balance the menu. We have a lot of Chablis and white Burgundy on the list. But also, as a destination restaurant, [we have] people coming from out of town who want to drink local. I like to have varieties that are outside of the spotlights, varieties that people might not know are being grown here in California, like Grüner or Riesling or Roussanne or any of those outstanding white grapes that get overshadowed by Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
WS: Do you have a favorite pairing right now?
CO: The chef's longest-running dish on the menu is this beautiful turbot from the North Sea. Turbot doesn't have scales, but he created some out of root vegetables, and it's just this stunning visual presentation as well as flavor. What I have paired with it right now is a California Chardonnay by Luc Morlet. He was at Peter Michael for a while, [and] at Staglin, [and] then he started his own winery. His wines are just beautiful. They have the sunshine and richness of California, but they're so perfumed and aromatic. It comes from Fort Ross-Seaview, so it has this bright acidity. It's fresh and weighty at the same time.
WS: What do you like to help guests discover?
CO: I'm excited about well-made wines from either regions in Burgundy that are lesser-known, or styles in California that are really excelling, like sparkling wine from the Sta. Rita Hills. I think that's a really exciting place for California sparkling wine. It's crisp, it's bright, and [it’s] more along the Côte des Blancs style of Champagne. Some other producers, like Wenzlau in Sta. Rita Hills, Under the Wire, up in Anderson Valley. The precision across the palate and the freshness is just great with the food, great at the table.
I have a lot of fun with sweet wines and fortified wines. It's something people overlook at the end of the meal that can be a great way to wrap it up. I have Port titled as "the royal muscle milk," just given the process of fortification and the history of Portugal and the British.
WS: You said you love to travel. Any recent highlights?
CO: Going to Bordeaux. It's one of those areas that I think somms—some somms, not all—maybe overlook. It's just a large region, and it produces a lot of wine. What I found over there was that it's much more diverse than I had maybe thought. A lot of people from other parts of Europe are making wine there. The diversity that's there was pretty eye-opening. The white wines of Bordeaux I think are outstanding. Now I bring those in quite a bit to put on the pairing; they work so well with the middle part of the menu.
WS: Is there anyone you've considered a personal mentor in wine, and what have they taught you?
CO: John Ragan [director of wine and restaurant operations at USHG] was my biggest influence. He taught me that the job is never done, and sending an email at 4 in the morning is normal. "Constant, gentle pressure." [An expression coined by Danny Meyer.] You constantly have to be pressing on something to get it to move forward, with yourself, with your team, with your knowledge. You have to constantly be leaning on it in order to keep it moving.