Photos by Garrick Ramirez
Meet Alyssa Twelker, one of a growing number of young individuals energizing the Santa Cruz wine scene. An early food and drink enthusiast, the Sunnyvale native went to work as private chef straight out of high school and celebrated her 21st birthday with a sommelier certification. Weeks later, she was in Santa Cruz working at Soif where she eventually became wine director. After tasting-and surfing-her way through Europe, she’s back in town behind the bar at the gorgeous new tasting room for Birichino. We recently sat down with Alyssa to chat wine and get answers to burning questions such as “Do we really need to sniff the cork?” and “What Star Wars character would make the best somm?”
How would you explain the role of a sommelier to a wine novice?
A sommelier is simply a fancy name for a wine steward, or a person who recommends and serves wine in a restaurant. They are knowledgeable about wines from around the world, food and wine pairings, and wine service.
For certification, did you stay up all night studying flashcards like they did in the movie “Somm?”
Yes, it was just like the movie; I was super stressed! After culinary school, I enrolled in a three-month wine course, but didn’t realize I would be applying to become a sommelier upon completion. On the first day of class, they said that they were going to turn us into wine snobs. I was skeptical, but soon I was caught up in wine’s rich history, culture, and attributes such as terroir. I love learning, and wine is great for that.
Who in the Star Wars galaxy would make the best somm?
Probably Princess Leia because, as a woman, she has more taste buds. Or Yoda. He’d kill at a blind tasting!
What’s the proper way to taste wine without looking like a pompous dork? Do we really need to sniff the cork?
You sniff the cork to check if the wine has been tainted. You want to make sure it doesn’t smell like wet cardboard. If you have a knowledgeable server, you can ask them to do it. To taste, start by swirling the wine to coat the glass and release the aromatics. Then, sniff, take a sip, swish it gently in your mouth, swallow, and just let it sit with you. You should take a moment to appreciate it.
Screw top or cork?
There is great tradition and service associated with a cork. But, since one bottle in every case might be corked, I say screw top. It’s more along the lines of Santa Cruz’s laid-back style anyway!
Tell us something you appreciate about Santa Cruz wines or the local wine scene.
The Santa Cruz Mountain AVA is one of the first to be elevation-based. It has a strong connection with its place, and you can taste it in the wines. Others have started to recognize the potential of the area, such as winemakers from Sonoma who have started buying local fruit. Plus, we’re starting to see a new movement of young Santa Cruz winemakers, such as Ryan Stirm and Megan Bell, who are doing cool things with lesser-known varietals and vineyards.
Where do you take your wine friends when they’re in town?
The wines and setting at Ridge Vineyards are amazing. You can see all the way to Oakland. An older vintage of their Monte Bello is the best California wine I’ve ever tasted. I also love Beauregard Vineyards, which is set in the redwoods within a former, historic saloon once owned by the guy who invented the pet rock. It has such good vibes, you could hang out all afternoon. I’d also pop into Bonny Doon in Davenport, which has fun wines and atmosphere. In South County, there are great places like Windy Oaks and Alfaro Family Vineyards. I love that Richard Alfaro is still experimenting with varietals such as his recent Grüner Veltliner. In downtown Santa Cruz, Birichino and Soif are my go-to places.
Okay, now your friends are wine’d out. Where do you go to show them your fave Santa Cruz spots?
I have a longboard and love surfing Cowells Beach or Pleasure Point. For non-surfers, it doesn’t get any better than a bike ride along West Cliff Drive. Afterward, we’d do Cat & Cloud for coffee, and Mutari for chocolate. For dinner, La Posta is my absolute favorite. I love chef Katherine Stern’s bright, seasonal dishes. The menu changes every week, but if the squid pasta is on the menu, definitely try it!
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)