By Greg Johnson
The first thing you need to know about Heath Porter is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. In a field crowded with wannabe experts, he’s reluctant to admit that he’s a real one. The Greenbrier’s Director of Wine has an aw-shucks attitude about the awards, medals and pins he has garnered in his career as a sommelier, preferring to keep them tucked out of sight, not hanging on his office wall or pinned to his lapel. He lets his knowledge speak for itself.
With a self-deprecating sense of humor worthy of Rodney Dangerfield, Porter likes to point out that he grew up in a teetotaling Southern Baptist family in Cullman, Alabama, deep in the heart of Dixie. “Rednecks don’t usually grow up to become sommeliers,” he sees a certain irony in his professional journey. “Especially ones from dry counties.”
But beyond the humility and humor, when it comes to wine, Heath Porter knows his stuff. Since arriving at The Greenbrier in 2009 he has purposefully assembled a collection of 1200 labels, dividing them into various lists to complement the cuisine in restaurants ranging from Italian (The Forum) to Asian (In-Fusion) to steaks (Prime 44) to classic American and French-inspired fare (the Main Dining Room).
“The bottles we have right now run from $40 to $3600,” he underscores the breadth of his offerings. “We can accommodate just about anybody. What I really enjoy is showing our guests different wines than the ones they drink at home, and turning them on to something new.”
Porter’s road to West Virginia was a winding one, leading first to Hawaii, then Georgia. “My teen years were non-triumphant,” he readily admits. “I didn’t care much for school. I tried going to college for one day and I fell asleep in the first class. When I woke up I asked myself why I was there. My older sister was living in Hawaii, so I moved to the islands.”
He found work as a waiter and bartender on Oahu, and it was there he accidentally discovered his calling. “I noticed that the servers who knew about the wines got better shifts and better tips. The California wine boom was just starting, and in a matter of weeks our wine list grew from 50 bottles to 350. Suddenly the guys who’d seemed so knowledgeable were struggling. I saw an opportunity, so I started reading up on wine and going to tastings. Pretty soon I was the one everybody was consulting. Basically I became the wine program. I left to go to work as a wine steward for a well-known chef who was opening a flagship restaurant. Then I worked helping the Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain with their wines. I spent 14 years in Hawaii. The last four I served as the Director of Wine at the W Hotel.”
The Alabama boy who didn’t care for school left Hawaii with an impressive resume that included winning regional and national sommelier competitions. More importantly, he left with a wife, Cristi, who works as Tennis Coordinator at The Greenbrier. “Cristi grew up in Miami,” he shares a bit of her background. “The family joke is that she went all the way to Hawaii to marry a redneck from Alabama.”
Porter returned to the mainland as a sommelier at the Sea Island resort in Georgia, and their luxury 5-Star hotel, The Cloister. He was promoted to Director of Wine and Spirits, and over a five-year period he built the resort’s collection to 1400 labels and 18,000 bottles.
When Jim Justice purchased The Greenbrier in 2009, his management team knew about Porter and offered him the opportunity to serve as Director of Wine. He’d never been to the Mountain State and he was initially hesitant, but when he visited and he was offered the chance to build a world-class wine program, he changed his mind. “I didn’t know anything about West Virginia, but when I came up and looked around The Greenbrier, it seemed like an awesome place and an awesome opportunity. Plus, I like challenges.”
He found the existing wine lists basic, with predictable labels and classic New World styles. He quickly discovered why. “West Virginia is a difficult place to buy and source wine, and those were the labels the distributors were making available to my predecessors. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with importers and distributors outside the state to bring in wines that are a better fit for our profile.”
His approach mixes creativity with common sense. “We don’t really need 100 labels on the In-Fusion wine list. We need 20 or 30 that are ideal with salty, fresh, spicy Asian preparations. We’re not saying, ‘Don’t drink Napa cabernet with sushi’ (even though you shouldn’t!), but an off-dry Chenin blanc from the Loire Valley or a juicy new world pinot noir work much better.”
He takes a completely different approach at The Forum. “At The Forum we have a 250-bottle list that’s 90% Italian. When guests look at it and tell us they don’t know anything about Italian wines, someone from our team gets to step in and help them. It would be easy to fill the list with popular labels, but we want to respect the cuisine. Our chefs work endless hours to make balanced, perfect cuisine, and it’s really disrespectful of us not to promote the wines that are right for the food.”
Porter’s duties at the hotel include working with three sommeliers and the wine and service captains, doing wine training with the staff, and conducting tastings for guests. When asked about his approach to staff training, his irrepressible humor rears its head. “I find constant belittling to be the best coach!” he insists with an unconvincing grin. “Written tests, lots of yelling and screaming.” It’s pretty obvious this Southern boy knows you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar, even if he won’t admit it.
When it comes to wine, he has little patience with people who put on airs. “Usually they’re guys who’ve read a magazine article and want to show off for their friends. I don’t know if it’s insecurity or a defense mechanism, but they seem to be afraid that people are going to find out that they don’t know as much as they’re pretending, so they make a big scene. Wine is intimidating as it is, so why add to all the nonsense? It’s something to drink and be enjoyed, not something to use to boost your ego and try to impress people.”
He cites travel as the best way to discover lesser-known wines. “I love going to Europe and asking people what the local winemakers like to drink when they come in. They start pulling out special bottles, and pretty soon I’m talking with an importer about how to get them.”
Although he leans toward red Burgundies from the Old World, his current U.S. favorites are pinot noirs from Oregon’s Willamette Valley and California’s Sonoma Valley. He recently worked with the St. Innocent Winery in Oregon to produce a private label pinot noir for The Greenbrier, overseeing the process and testing, and doing the blending himself. “I love the Penner-Ash Winery and Ken Wright Cellars,” he mentions two other Willamette Valley producers. “McCrone Vineyard is my favorite of the Ken Wright wines. I’ve been there twice, and I just ordered the 2011 for the hotel today.” Moving down the West Coast to Sonoma, he likes Merry Edwards (“the Queen of Pinot”) and Peay Vineyards, and he’s enthusiastic about the Iron Horse Winery. “They’ve changed their winemaking style over the last 10 years,” he points out. “They only do sparkling wine, pinot and chardonnay now. They’ve really refined what they do.”
Like all wine drinkers, Porter has his likes and dislikes. He’s a fan of Syrah, and he enjoys promoting it. “I think Syrah is the most misunderstood and under-utilized grape in the world right now. If one person wants pinot and the other wants cabernet, it’s a perfect combination of both in one bottle, full-bodied and velvety, but not as tannic as Cabernet.”
He sees Virginia as an up-and-coming wine region. “They’re where Oregon was 30 or 40 years ago, but they have the advantage of being able to learn from California and Oregon. Viognier grapes do especially well there.”
Asked about his most memorable wine experience, he doesn’t hesitate. “On our wedding day we had a vintage 1988 Krug, a champagne from France, with lamb on a spit. In my humble opinion, it’s the greatest champagne in the world.”
Porter has been called the Rebel Sommelier, partly because of his Southern roots, but largely because of his down-to-earth approach to a subject sometimes associated with snobbery. He readily accepts the label. In fact, if someone ever presents him with an official-looking certificate that says Heath Porter, Rebel Sommelier, it just might be the only one he hangs in his office.