Before Leslee Miller could legally drink, she was learning about wine.
After growing up in restaurants — her mother owned two in Wisconsin — she moved West to work and learn and is now using her experience and expertise as a certified sommelier at the new Salt Cellar on Cathedral Hill and as owner of wine-consulting firm Amusée.
Miller, talked with us about her journey back to the Midwest and, of course, wine.
How did you come to be a sommelier? My mother owned two restaurants in Medford, Wis. They were supper club/taverns, the kind that served fish fry on Fridays. I was an only child, so I was forced into the hospitality industry when I was young.
I went to school for a while at UW-Stout, but then I moved to Colorado and landed in Keystone. I started working for Keystone Resort in the restaurants. I was only 18, but I had a couple of great chefs and restaurant managers who mentored me. Before I was 19, I was managing one of the restaurants at the resorts.
I was younger than 21 and just learning about wine, and I was fascinated. I remember opening a 1975 Rothschild, a first-growth Bordeaux, for a table and being terrified.
Eventually, I went to the University of Colorado and finished up my undergrad degree. Then I managed a restaurant in Durango, Colo., for almost 10 years. I really cut my teeth on managing and operating not only a restaurant but also a wine list. The more I got into it, the more I got into wine.
I went to the International Sommelier Guild in Portland, Ore. It was a 22-month program. At the same time, I had taken on the director’s position for Archery Summit Winery in Willamette Valley in Oregon. It’s a premier pinot noir house.
But I wanted to make my way back to the Midwest, and I’ve always loved the Twin Cities. The food and wine scene here was coming on pretty strong, so I moved back 10 years ago. I started Amusée a year before I moved here.
Leslee is also certified through the Court of Master Sommeliers.
Tell me about Amusée and what you do. It’s a full wine-consulting firm. It started out as private and corporate events; we’d do everything from education to tastings. Then I started teaching a zillion classes across the Twin Cities, most of them for Cooks of Crocus Hill. We do a lot of wine and food pairing classes and straight-up wine classes. After I met so many chefs through teaching, the firm morphed into consultations. A lot of restaurants started asking me to help with their wine lists.
For the past five years, I’ve taken on spokeswoman, media positions. This will be my fourth year as spokeswoman for Aldi. It has a wine program, though not in Minnesota because of our liquor laws.
What’s different about the Salt Cellar wine list? Every wine on the list is a wine I know intimately or from a winemaker I know intimately. I also really know how the wines pair with chef Alan Bergo’s food. I wanted to make sure the wine list and menu flowed together. As the menu changes, so does the wine.
No one wants that old-school restaurant wine list that’s like a book. It’s not the trend anymore. It’s more about having something new on the list and have it move with your menu.
Alan is very passionate about where his ingredients come from, and I’m the exact same way with the wine. The producers are mostly very small producers.
We also use an iPad system to help people choose wines. My friend John Jordan, who owns Jordan Winery in Healdsburg, Calif., created this software four or five years ago. This system, from the upfront consumer side, is very user-friendly. You can click on a wine to get the food pairings or select the food and get wine pairings.
We have spent a ton of time training the staff. You can’t expect a staff to know all 220 of your wines when you first open. That’s another great thing about the iPad — it’s also a training tool for the servers.
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up? A professional ice skater. But I grew up in rural Wisconsin, and there was nothing fancy about skating there. No lessons, nothing.
What’s your first wine memory? Probably when I had to stand at that table and open that 1975 first-growth Bordeaux.
What’s your favorite wine at Salt Cellar right now? The Contino. It’s from Rioja, Spain. My boyfriend and I traveled to Spain and Portugal last year, and we spent the whole day with the winemaker. It’s Tempranillo based, and it’s a very small winery.
What’s your favorite restaurant? Corner Table in Minneapolis. Co-owner Nick Rancone does a great job with the wine list, but I also love how they change the menu often. I think the food is real, original and represents our community well.
What’s something few people know about you? Funyuns — a whole bag of Funyuns — are my No. 1 hangover cure. If someone were to play you in a movie, who should it be? Cameron Diaz. I’m clumsy and goofy, and I think she can play that.
What’s next? For Amusée, we are starting to lead some beer and wine tours internationally, which is very exciting. We have four tours in 2015. Beer writer and certified cicerone Michael Agnew and I will lead beer trips in Oregon and Germany, and I have wine trips planned to Italy and Croatia.
Salt Cellar: 173 Western Ave. N., St. Paul; saltcellarsaintpaul.com
Amusée consulting: amuseewine.com