Grape Expectations: Somm Alisha Blackwell-Calvert Raises the Bar High

One sommelier’s journey to becoming an industry trailblazer.

In August of this year, Wine Enthusiast magazine released its annual Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers list, introducing ‘the trailblazers who are shaping the future of wine, spirits, beer and cider in America.’ Alisha Blackwell-Calvert, CSW, certified sommelier and beverage director at Reeds American Table in Maplewood, Mo., was one of only five Black tastemakers included in the list and one of only two females among the five.

Sommelier Alisha Blackwell-Calvert
Photo credit: Scott McDermott

The 34-year-old St. Louis native was taken by surprise when she first laid eyes on the email congratulating her on the honor. “The reason I am most proud of this accomplishment is because this is not something you sign up for or pay a dollar amount toward,” she says. “I had heard of the recognition before and thought it would be awesome if that could be me one day, but I knew nothing about the inclusion.”

To be recognized for her passion and effort is one of her greatest achievements. “I definitely cried happy tears as I shared the moment with my husband,” she adds. Considering she studied Equestrian Science and Biology at William Woods University in Fulton, Mo., wines might seem a far cry, but Blackwell-Calvert insists it is a pretty scientific field. “Wine encompasses a lot of the sciences; it keeps my scientific mind spinning.”

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Her interest in wines started while waiting tables at the seafood restaurant, Oceano Bistro in Clayton, Mo. “The best part of working there was that the sommelier would open up something from his cellar on Fridays and Saturdays for staff to taste and would talk about the food and wine pairings.” The fact that the same grape, when grown in different places, could produce different flavors piqued her curiosity and provided the impetus to pursue a deeper knowledge of all things wine.

The Road to Trailblazing

She is now headed for her Advanced Sommelier exams next year, one she is confident about taking but admits is pretty difficult to attempt – it involves timed tests, including blind tastings, a theory portion and a service practical. “It is intense and mentally taxing,” she shares.

Not stopping there, Blackwell-Calvert also has her sights on reaching an even more significant milestone in her career, becoming a Master Sommelier. With less than 300 in the world holding this prestigious title, she says, “I love that personal push, I like to challenge myself. Master sommeliers are the best in the business, that’s where I want to see myself.”  Furthermore, she says, “When you do that, your work is not over, you are just starting again at that point. You become a mentor and a leader in the wine community; you are an example of hospitality and class. On a personal level though, it is important for me to have that validation, especially being a Black female.”

In February 2019, Blackwell-Calvert will have been at Reeds for two years. Her position at the restaurant as beverage director means her primary responsibility is to maintain the cellar and the wine budget, taste and purchase wine for the wine list, teach staff about new wines and sell wines to guests as well. She works with local distributors in St. Louis to ensure the wine list is fresh and up-to-date with anything trending.

Sommelier Alisha Blackwell-Calvert
Photo credit: Judd Demaline

In what is still a white male-dominated industry, Blackwell-Calvert has unfortunately experienced rude comments along her professional journey, with people making assumptions based on societal stereotypes as to her knowledge, or lack thereof, of wines. “On the outside, people don’t take me seriously, they don’t think I know what I am doing,” she points out. “Whether it is because I am Black or female or a combination of the two. It is important for me to wear that pin and say I know what I am doing. I want to be the best at what I do, and that is the level of professionalism I strive for. I hope people see that as well.”

We had no problem asking her for a few recommendations for upcoming holiday festivities and she gave us these five below that will take us into the new year.

  1. Bubbles are a versatile option to imbibe at holiday feasts and gift to others. My current favorite is Laurent-Perrier La Cuvee Brut from Champagne, France.
  2. In whites, Truchard Vineyards Roussanne from Carneros is a great substitute for Napa chardonnay. Another is Morgan Winery Cotes du Crow from Monterey, a blend of Grenache and Syrah, juicy and perfect for a variety of meats.
  3. Red blends are another option. Argentina’s Lamadrid Winery in Mendoza has an Agrelo single vineyard cabernet franc 2016 vintage, which is on the Reeds wine list at the moment.
  4. There is also a growing interest in fortified wines with people inquiring about sherry and Madeira. The Henriques & Henriques 10-year Verdelho is perfect for dessert and cheeses and also currently available at Reeds.
  5. Portuguese wines get overlooked often; their dry reds and dry whites pair well with food. Dry riesling doesn’t get enough play either. Conversely, a saturated category is the overtly oaked buttery chardonnays.

For more wine tips and trends, follow Blackwell-Calvert on her wine adventures on Instagram and stop by to dine with her at Reeds American Table is located at 7322 Manchester Road.  Visit on www.reedsamericantable.com for reservations.

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Ruksana Hussain is an editor, writer, foodie and travel enthusiast who revels in experiences near and far. Born in India, raised in Oman and now calling the United States home, she enjoys sharing the many stories of people she meets and places she visits as a journalist and features writer. Learn more on travelerandtourist.com.