An equine enthusiast from childhood, Alisha Blackwell-Calvert thought she wanted to work with horses and even went to college to study Equestrian Science and Biology. But her passions took an interesting tack when she began waiting tables at a fine dining restaurant, where her love for wine blossomed. From fine dining she moved into wine sales, earning her certification as a sommelier, then went back into restaurants, winning a host of awards and honors along the way...including being named one of Wine Enthusiast Magazine's "Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers" and being inducted into Les Dames d'Escoffier.
Last year, Alisha earned her Advanced Sommelier title from The Court of Master Sommeliers and joined the beverage team at Cinder House at Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis. Now, in honor of Black History Month and a salute to her own heritage, Alisha has created a special “by the glass” tasting menu that exclusively features Black-owned wineries and labels at Cinder House.
Alisha shares herstory and why she's excited to see more Black people getting into wines and winemaking.
What an interesting background you have, you studied horses and now you're a sommelier...it seems the horse came before the cart (of wine)! What inspired your love of horses and wines?
I was always infatuated with horses. It started with wanting a pony like most little girls, but college took it one step too far! While planning college choices in high school, I received mail from William Woods University, an equestrian school in Fulton, Missouri. I was intrigued by the horses on the flyer and had to arrange a visit. Once I stepped foot on campus, I knew it was the school for me. I could have fun riding horses and prep for what I thought was a career heading to veterinarian studies. A detour from college and WWU’s equestrian program was taken to come back home to St. Louis. Waiting tables during that break was when I was first introduced to quality wine.
When did you decide to become a sommelier?
After just shy of a decade waiting tables in fine dining, I finally began taking serious steps towards focusing on wine because of inspiration from industry leaders in the community; names like Andrey Ivanov, Patricia Wamhoff, Matt Dulle…I admired their depth of knowledge and commitment to hospitality. Leaving behind serving, I started working for an importer/distributor in 2012. A CMS (Court of Master Sommeliers) Introductory Sommelier pass in 2014 led me to sit the Certified Sommelier exam in 2015. It would be another 2 years before I returned to the restaurant floor.
Since then, you have received quite a few awards - 2021 “Sommelier of the Year” Wine Enthusiast Magazine Wine Star Award nominee, Wine Enthusiast "Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers;" and a Feast Magazine “Rising Star” in 2018. You also received the 2015 Walter Clore Certified Sommelier Scholarship for the top score and attained the Certified Specialist of Wine certification through the Society of Wine Educators with a 99% score the same year. Are you a perfectionist?
It’s funny because I’m only a perfectionist in certain aspects of my life. Career and tableside service, I’m an absolute perfectionist. I take my job and study very seriously, potentially to a fault. I think my drive for success translates to appearing as perfection-focused. Tying in detailed, graceful service that’s technically sound with an approachable personality is what I believe sets me apart from others on the restaurant floor. I want to give my guests the experience I’d expect if I were dining out. Being a perfectionist leads to having higher standards and expectations for yourself.
What steps did you take in your career that brought you to the Four Seasons?
Taking a break from restaurants in 2020 to work at Louis Vuitton spoiled me with a luxurious atmosphere. I did find that by being a sommelier, I had hospitality skills that translated easily in high-end settings, so it was a great fit! Passing the Certified Master Sommelier (CMS) Advanced Theory Exam in the spring of 2022 forced me to reevaluate being away from restaurants, considering it would be more difficult to pass the service and tasting portions of the remainder of the exam without daily exposure. The Four Seasons seemed a natural progression, so when the opportunity opened up, I had to consider it.
What is your favorite part of being a sommelier?
My favorite part of being a sommelier is the look of surprise on a guest when I introduce them to an unexpected bottle of wine or an unusual pairing and they love it. I try to make recommendations from experience, but sometimes you have to use pairing theory and make an educated guess of how wine and food will react together. Always rewarding when you get it right for the guest!
What advice would you give to other women interested in pursuing a career in wine?
Opportunities in wine are not limited to being a sommelier. There’s growth for women in wine writing, vineyard management, retail, distribution and importing, and many other aspects of the industry. Take your time and explore a path that speaks to you.
Switching gears a bit, love that you are spotlighting winemakers of color for Black History Month. Before we get into that, tell us about Cinder House and the restaurant's wine cellar.
Cinder House, located within the Four Seasons Hotel in St. Louis, is a South American concept by James Beard Award-winning Chef Gerard Craft. There is a strong influence from Brazil, dedicated to Chef Craft’s nanny as a young boy, “Dia”. The Cinder House cellar leans into the South American concept with a focus on wines from the region but balanced with classic world regions. Advanced Sommelier Anthony Geary, the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis wine director, has expertly curated an award-winning list.
How did you select the wines you've picked to feature for Black History Month?
My first criteria is that the wine has to taste great. It has to be something I personally like which is one of the joys of having control of a project. Being limited to three wines, I wanted to show a range of styles, regions, and flavor profiles. Lastly, I wanted to be thoughtful about the producers that I chose to highlight.
André Hueston Mack of Maison Noir Wines has served as a continuous source of inspiration. He is a trailblazer in the sommelier community and deserves high recognition for his achievements.
Chris Christensen, winemaker and co-owner of Bodkin Wines, grabbed my attention for his interest in aromatic white wine varieties and producing America’s first sparkling Sauvignon Blanc. His skills for storytelling and approachable personality made him an easy choice for inclusion.
I grew up with my parents playing Mary J. Blige’s music in the household and she is still an icon. Showcasing her wine is a nod to my childhood.
I had no idea Mary J Blige was in the wine biz! I saw her play at Radio City years ago, she's amazing. What is her wine like?
The Sun Goddess Pinot Grigio Ramato has a focus on fresh stone fruits of nectarine, white peach, Granny Smith apple, lemon pith, and subtle yellow flower petals. Ramato is a traditional technique in Fruili, Italy, allowing the Pinot Grigio grape juice to remain with the greyish grape skins and produce a wine with brassy color, noticeable tannin in the texture, and earthy aromatics. Lovely, bright acidity balances the wine to make it a crowd-pleaser.
Have you tried B Stuyvesant champagne? We featured CEO Marvina Robinson and she's amazing!
No, I have not had the opportunity to try the B. Stuyvesant wines yet, but they have been on my radar!
Do you see a trend in more people of color getting into the wine industry?
Yes, I do see a trend with more people of color stepping into the wine business. I think it’s beneficial for influential figures, like athletes for instance, to get into the wine business and make the image of POC enjoying fine wine more mainstream. There has been a long misconception that black people don’t drink wine at all, and if we do it’s sweet.
What is your favorite wine to serve?
My favorite wine to serve is one that I get to tell the story behind. I love pouring a wine where I’ve met the winemaker, or visited the vineyard, or maybe an unexpected variety like Xinomavro that needs an explanation. I love engaging in interactions with guests over a bottle.
What is your favorite wine to drink?
Bubbles fanatic here! I’m the girl that always brings a bottle of sparkling to the party. Champagne is my absolute favorite, but as long as it’s the traditional method I’m indulging!
What would be an unexpected pairing that you might suggest?
Salt and vinegar potato chips with (or without) caviar and Champagne. Perfect for when you’re craving something salty!
What makes your eyes roll when people order wine?
I try to refrain from judgment, but it’s slightly frustrating when a guest doesn’t trust their own palate. I’ve had guests perfectly describe what they’re in the mood to drink, I’d make some solid suggestions, then they’ll go into left field and order a completely different wine because they’ve “heard of it before,” just to end up not enjoying it.
As a woman in hospitality—and particularly in the beverage sector—what are some of the obstacles you have been able to overcome on your career path?
One of the major obstacles I have overcome in my career has been mental. Even at this moment, I’m training myself to let go of situations where guests appear to look surprised when they ask for the sommelier and I approach the table. Luckily, in the last couple of years, more guests are giving a welcoming, if not refreshed reaction to a non-white male sommelier servicing their table. My next goal is to not allow others’ negativity and insecurities to project on my goals and focus.