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Inside the Careers of America’s Top French Sommeliers

Céline Bossart By Céline Bossart, Journalist - Editor 01.04.2023
Inside the Careers of America’s Top French Sommeliers

When it comes to iconic French sommeliers around the globe, Pascaline Lepeltier’s name will always top the list, no matter who you ask—as the crème de la crème of the New York City wine scene, the Loire Valley native has been making waves in the international wine world for the past two decades. And while it’s nearly impossible to sum up all of her successes in a single story, we can—perhaps most importantly of all—credit her as a true pioneer for fellow women and members of the queer community working in wine as the industry slowly but surely inches toward a more inclusive landscape. 

Pascaline Lepeltier
  • ©Pascaline Lepeltier

    Of course, Lepeltier’s rise to cult status didn’t happen overnight. She got her start in hospitality in 1998 waiting tables and slinging drinks in La Rochelle until 2003, and from there, she worked at restaurants in Paris and Brittany, first earning the title of sommelier in 2006 and becoming beverage director at Rouge Tomate in Brussels the following year. Over the course of the next ten years, she also went on to work for Rouge Tomate and George V in Paris before moving to the United States. There, she reunited with the Rouge Tomate team to run the beverage program at its beloved New York City location until 2017, all the while steadily gaining traction and esteem despite the challenges that come with establishing a life and career in a brand new country. In 2018, Lepeltier was not only named managing partner of TriBeCa wine hotspot Racines, but also won both the Meilleur Ouvrier de France and the Best Sommelier of France titles that same year, making history as the first woman in history to earn either of the two recognitions.

    Lepeltier is a prime example of what it takes to make a name for oneself in wine, especially as an expat. Today, she’s still running the show at the newest iteration of Racines, now known as Chambers, in addition to lecturing, writing, and working on a natural wine project in New York State’s Finger Lakes Region—needless to say, she’s in high demand and was unavailable to comment on this story, but it’s important to recognize her trajectory and accomplishments as having paved the way for the new wave of French sommeliers in America.

    What Is Natural Wine?

    What Is Natural Wine?

    For Matthieu Yamoum, the journey to the United States was quite different from Lepeltier’s: “My journey started in 2008 when I moved from Reims in Champagne to Saint Martin in the French Caribbean—I spent a few years there before heading to New York City, where I worked in a few French restaurants, and this is when I really started focusing more on wine,” he shares. It was a 2011 vacation to the city that originally inspired Yamoum to make the move to the States, which he did after finding a Manhattan restaurant job that would lay the foundation for what became an illustrious career in one of the most cutthroat hospitality scenes in the world. 

    At the time, Bagatelle in the Meatpacking District being the place to see and be seen, so it’s no surprise that Yamoum rose through the industry’s ranks after working as a manager there before managing now-closed West Village hotspot Barrio 47 and ultimately landing at the ultra-high end Baccarat Hotel as wine director. When the Baccarat opened, its air of exclusivity was undeniable, but Yamoum’s warm, friendly smile was a disarming mainstay over the course of his five-year tenure there, which recently came to an end. Now, Yamoum is making a new home for himself and his family in Miami, where he’ll soon be opening his very own wine shop, Maison MURA

    It was his role at the Baccarat, says Yamoum, that solidified his professional and personal dedication to the world of wine. And over the past decade as a French expat in the United States, his life here is somewhat cemented as well. “​​I don’t think I’ll ever move back to France,” Yamoum tells Taste France Magazine. “I love being there, of course, and my job allows me to travel there very regularly, [but I love] my lifestyle here and the way you can run a business in the U.S. compared to France is much easier.” Plus, he adds, being French in the wine industry in an English-speaking country is a huge advantage. 

    And truthfully, Yamoum is perhaps too humble. In the eyes of those around him, his entrepreneurial spirit and French background, in combination with his Champenois provenance and role at Baccarat, have earned him a place as one of the industry’s top voices when it comes to Champagne. What’s also so lovable about his style is that he’s managed to take one of the most intimidating French wine categories and make it approachable while maintaining an air of exclusivity for the aficionado. In late 2020 (a feat in and of itself), he launched a limited bottling with the iconic Champagne house Piper-Heidsieck as well as his own Champagne, HRLM, in 2021, which is currently available on ReserveBar. That summer, Yamoum also debuted a wine consultancy for private clients with business partner and former Louis XIII ambassador Philippe Vasilescu. 

    Just up the street from Chambers, at the brand-new Fouquet’s New York—a breathtaking luxury hotel from Groupe Barrière—is where you’ll find Clément Jafet, Director of F&B Operations for the company’s U.S. portfolio. Here, Jafet is at the helm of a very French wine program, given the brand’s provenance, though it’s also very New York. “I was born and raised in Paris, [but] I've always been very career-driven, and had dreamt of living in NYC ever since I was a teenager,” says Jafet. After moving to New York from Paris in 2005, Jafet continued his work in luxury hospitality, taking on leadership roles at other high-end addresses like Bouley, The Mark, and Masa. Fouquet’s has been one of the city’s most exciting openings of 2022, and Jafet’s selections are already drawing French wine lovers to Greenwich Street from far and wide. 

    The wine program at Fouquet’s is French-influenced with lots of vintage Bordeaux and Côtes du Rhône—it's all classic to match the Brasserie menu and selection,” Jafet notes. “We developed another wine list for Par Ici restaurant, our farm-to-table concept using fresh ingredients. [This] list is California-based with a biodynamic wine selection.” The blending of worlds is not unlike what Jafet, Yamoum, and Lepeltier live on a daily basis, and though challenges come with the territory, it’ll keep you on your toes, according to Jafet: “There is such a difference between working in New York as compared to Paris. New York is much more business-oriented, with a very intense environment. It keeps me motivated to always go above and beyond in reaching new goals in life.” 

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