Alpana Singh

Sommelier, Restaurateur

Chicago

As the youngest woman to achieve the rank of master sommelier when she passed the fourth and final exam in 2003, Alpana Singh has made quite a name for herself in the world of wine. Her love for the vine began when she was waiting tables in college at a restaurant with a pretty impressive wine program. Singh found that wine combined her passion for travel, history and food in a balanced manner, so she landed her first wine job as a sales clerk in Carmel, Calif., before becoming the sommelier of the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Chicago restaurant Everest at the ripe age of 23 as she worked her way toward the prestigious master sommelier title. Singh spent nearly 10 years as the host of Check, Please!, but moved on from TV in January 2013 when she opened her much-anticipated Chicago restaurant, The Boarding House.

  • On March 12, 2013
    Alpana Singh answered the question: Alpana Singh

    What are Alpana Singh’s favorite Chicago restaurants?

    Aside from Gibsons, I would have to definitely say GT Fish & Oyster. I’m a big oyster fan, and I believe they have the best oysters in the city. And there hasn’t been a time that I’ve been in that restaurant when I haven’t seen chef Giuseppe [Tentori]. Being an owner, there are times when you want to go home and want to be with your family; but you also have to be with your family at the restaurant. It’s just the sacrifice that it takes. Every time I’ve been in there, he’s been in there. He’s the face of the restaurant, and he’s the driving soul and the force. He really defines the restaurant, and he’s an extraordinary person — and no surprise, the restaurant is extraordinary. It has a great energy to it, too.
  • On March 12, 2013
    Alpana Singh answered the question: Alpana Singh

    What are Alpana Singh’s favorite restaurants?

    Now that I’ve had some time running a restaurant and I have a new appreciation for what it takes, I think that hallmark of a great restaurant is consistency. It’s that consistency over a long period of time. Gibsons — we went there once and the next time we returned, they remembered everything about our last visit. They remembered our name, the waiter remembered us, they remembered the wine that we had. We live across the street from Gibsons, so we pop our head in there every once in a while. They’ve been around for over 20 years, and it just keeps getting better. They do such high volume; to be able to have that consistency and remember those details, and hit such high volume and to make it extraordinary and special each time. For me, now that I know what it takes to run an operation, it’s just mind boggling; that’s just pure magic to me.

    I think when you run a trendy restaurant, you get the benefit of the press, everybody comes and it’s great and what have you. But I think, how are you going to be 20 years from now? Are you still going to be consistent? Are you still putting out a great product? Are you still delivering great service? Are you still there? So I think Gibsons should definitely be applauded for not only longevity, but not ever losing those standards.
  • On March 12, 2013
    Alpana Singh answered the question: Alpana Singh

    What are Alpana Singh’s favorite hotels?

    I really like the Kimpton [Hotels]. I like their quirky sense of décor. I like those little interesting, esoteric touches they have — whether it be leopard-print bathrobes or the amenities. Each one is different, yet there is consistency to them as well. Big fan of the Kimpton group.

    I also love the flagship Park Hyatts. They are located in these extraordinary historical buildings. The architecture is amazing, the service is just flawless, and I have had the opportunity to stay at a couple like Palacio Duhau in Buenos Aires. I also stayed at the one in Mendoza in Argentina. There’s just something really magnificent and majestic about staying [there]. When you’re going to stay at a hotel at the top level, you want to feel the grandness, and I think the Park Hyatt really delivers that grandness.

    I also think The Peninsula is another great benchmark. They go out of their way, extraordinary service. We have a fabulous Peninsula here in Chicago, and I stayed at the one in New York.  Again, it’s all of those little luxurious touches. When you’re spending that much money, you want to feel special and they really deliver on that as well.
  • On March 12, 2013
    Alpana Singh answered the question: Alpana Singh

    What are Alpana Singh’s favorite cities?

    I love New York. It’s a quick trip from Chicago. You can get a lot done in a very short amount of time. Because my time is limited these days, it’s great if I want to just take a quick trip and see what’s happening. New York is also a city that offers an interesting vantage point, in the sense that they can do so much with such little space. You have these restaurants that are very concentrated and extremely vibrant, and it’s amazing to see how they can do it within a 2,000-square-foot restaurant. You can go to three or four different places in a night and just get a sense of what the new trends are.

    I also really love San Francisco. I think San Francisco, bar none, has the greatest selection of restaurants in the mid price point — whether you’re going to do something that’s more ethnic based or do something more of a neighborhood restaurant. San Francisco, for me, offers and amazing collection of neighborhood restaurants that are a little bit more on the trendier edge as well. And you really can’t beat the produce in San Francisco because they’re so close to the Central Valley where they grow all of the produce. You get these mushrooms that you’ve never heard of and access to seafood, and everything is just so fresh. I also grew up in Monterey, so it’s always very nostalgic for me to go back to San Francisco.

    I love Amsterdam. I think Amsterdam is one of the best cities in the world. I’ve been to Amsterdam four times. I love Chicago — I can’t see myself living anywhere else but Chicago — but I’ve always said if there were another other city in this world that I could live in, it would be Amsterdam. The people are just so friendly, and there’s this laidback nature to the city. They have amazing bars, amazing museums, a great sort of sense of culture and just enjoying your life in Amsterdam. I think Amsterdam is absolutely fabulous.

    I love Buenos Aires. I think Buenos Aires is a fun city. I’ve been to Buenos Aires four times, and it’s very alive. The architecture there is just splendid. You know, they call it the “Paris of South America” for a reason. It’s quite extraordinary, and the people are very friendly.  There’s a sort of heightened European sense to South America in general, but definitely you feel that in Buenos Aires.

    If my husband and I are feeling like we need to celebrate each other and celebrate just romance in general, I think Paris. I mean how could you not love Paris? You can get lost in Paris. We go to Paris and we rediscover ourselves each time.
  • On March 12, 2013
    Alpana Singh answered the question: Alpana Singh

    What does Alpana Singh suggest for those new to wine?

    I would say don’t be afraid to try new things. I think wine, unfortunately, can be very intimidating. I think with today’s newer generation getting into wine, they ask a lot of questions, they try new things, they go out to wine shops, they have wine at parties, they talk about wine, etc. It’s about getting that conversation dialogue started. Don’t worry about if you’re going to mispronounce it; I mispronounce stuff all the time. It’s really about getting out there and trying new things and not being afraid to experiment.

    I mean there’s just a lot of wine out there, so I think you should experiment and try new things. I live in this condo building, and in my recycle bin, I see the same wine over and over and over again. I want to leave a note on my neighbor’s door that says, “Hey, here’s my list of recommendations! Get out of your rut!”
  • On March 12, 2013
    Alpana Singh answered the question: Alpana Singh

    What distinguishes a $10 bottle from a $100 bottle to Alpana Singh?

    When you start getting into pricier wines, it comes down to the exclusivity of the provenance — whether it be a vineyard that produces not a lot of fruit because of the age or the fact that it is a much-heralded vineyard, the fact that there is such tiny production or what have you. There is also the winemaking process itself that will add to the price point of the wine — that could be the use of oak barrels or if they’re aging it for an extended period of time.

    Whereas your $10 bottle of wine, less is done to produce that bottle. I would say that a $10 bottle can certainly be delicious, but it won’t have the complexity or intensity or richness of a more expensive selection.
  • On March 12, 2013
    Alpana Singh answered the question: Alpana Singh

    What is Alpana Singh’s favorite food-and-wine pairing?

    That’s hard to say just because the way we eat is so diverse. These days, you don’t tend to eat the same thing over and over and over again. Some of the more memorable ones — I love beets and pinot gris. There’s something about the earthiness and sweetness of beets that pairs very well with the unctuousness of a pinot gris, specifically from Alsace. I think you can’t get much better than a nice juicy steak — I mean we are in Chicago, and we are a steak town; so a juicy cabernet with a well-prepared steak. Sometimes it’s just as simple as that.
  • On March 12, 2013
    Alpana Singh answered the question: Alpana Singh

    How does Alpana Singh choose wines when pairing them with food?

    I look at the different elements on the dish. I tend to focus more on the preparation method and the sauce, and not necessarily the protein in itself. When I’m looking for a dish I’m thinking: What’s the profile? What’s the most significant feature of the dish? Is it the sauce? Is it the bright acidity? Is it the crunch factor? Is it a textural element? When I’m pairing a dish, say a poached salmon with a citrus sauce, I’m looking for something that is going to highlight the citrus sauce, so I might want to go with a wine with more of a citrus component to it. Or if the most significant element is the preparation method, then you reach for a wine that is going to highlight more of the method — be grilled or smoked or whatever it may be.
  • On March 12, 2013
    Alpana Singh answered the question: Alpana Singh

    What does Alpana Singh think of the screw top?

    I love screw tops. I have no issues with screw tops. Not only are they convenient as far as opening, but the wines stay fresher longer and you really eliminate any chance of the wine being spoiled. For ease of service, it’s definitely the bartender’s best friend; but even for the customer, just knowing that you’re going to get a sound bottle of wine is worth it. I guess what people don’t like about screw tops is the fact they’re not as sexy as a cork or what have you. I think people have moved well beyond that, and it’s become much accepted and welcomed way to enjoy wine because it takes the hassle out of getting it opened.
  • On March 12, 2013
    Alpana Singh answered the question: Alpana Singh

    Which wines does Alpana Singh always have at home?

    I always have a bottle of sparkling something, whether it be prosecco, cava or champagne — you never know who might pop in. I always recommend keeping a bottle of something sparkling in the refrigerator. But, in general, when I come home from work and I feel like enjoying something, or even if I’m at the restaurant and I want to polish off the night with a glass of something, it’s usually something white with really high acid that’s refreshing and clean. I do enjoy red wine, but for me, red wines are best enjoyed with a meal unless it’s something like gamay, cabernet franc, rosé or what have you. My refrigerator tends to always have sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, pinot gris or riesling — something just high acid and refreshing.
  • On March 12, 2013
    Alpana Singh answered the question: Alpana Singh

    What’s the best wine Alpana Singh has ever had?

    I think that the best wine that you’ve had is really dependent on the surroundings in which you enjoyed it. I think the memory of wine is not necessarily the flavor in and of itself, but it’s the situations and surroundings of how you had it. It’s the circumstances of the evening or the moment, or the time frame, the people you enjoyed it with. I would say the most memorable bottles of wine are almost more about the moment in which you enjoyed it.
  • On March 12, 2013
    Alpana Singh answered the question: Alpana Singh

    How does Alpana Singh define the role of a sommelier?

    I think our job as sommeliers is to be — I don’t want to say “geeky” because that is kind of a bad word — but when we taste a wine and put it on our wine list, we stand by it. We say that this is very typical for the region; this presents an excellent value price-point-wise, whether it be $30 on a wine list or $3,000 on a wine list. It’s very much an endorsement of what you’re looking for flavorwise, regionwise. This is a bottle that is going to deliver based on what you’re looking for.

    Overall, what I think makes a good bottle of wine a great bottle of wine is certainly that balance. It’s that purity of fruit. You’re not tasting too much acid; you’re not tasting too much oak; you’re not tasting too much alcohol. I think it’s also the story of the person who makes it because we do share the history of the winemaker; we share the history of the region; we talk about how we discovered the wine ourselves; or how we met the winemaker. I think in many ways it’s obviously the flavor, but you’re also translating a lot of that experience of what it would be like to visit the region, to meet the person, to discover it for the first time for the customer as well.
  • On March 12, 2013
    Alpana Singh answered the question: Alpana Singh

    What are Alpana Singh’s favorite up-and-coming wine labels?

    I would probably say Rajat Parr, who’s a fellow sommelier, he’s sort of transitioning from sommelier to making his own wine — and still working as a sommelier. His wine, Sandhi, specifically, has extremely impressed me. He’s a big burgundy fan, his palate is honed on burgundy and all of his wine lists focus on burgundy. I’ve known him for almost half my life, and I’ve been really proud of what he’s been able to put in a bottle.

    It’s from a sommelier’s perspective, where you look for balance and you look for purity of fruit. Even though he’s not working with fruit from Burgundy per se, he’s hitting the nail on the head as far as properly paying homage to his favorite wine. I think as extraordinary and gifted as he is as a sommelier, I think his future is extremely bright. I think he’s going to become one of the great winemakers of our generation.
  • On March 12, 2013
    Alpana Singh answered the question: Alpana Singh

    What are Alpana Singh’s favorite wineries?

    I would definitely put Weinbach at the top of my list or Trimbach. I’m a big fan of Hubert Trimbach. He was good friends with the chef and came to Everest all the time. Over the years, getting to know him, he’s a very charming man and produces probably my favorite wine ever, the Clos Ste. Hune Riesling from Alsace. It’s an extraordinary bottle of wine.

    And the ladies from Weinbach — the winery is owned by three women, the Fallers [Madame Faller and her daughters, Laurence and Catherine]. It’s a female-run business, and the wines are just extraordinary.
  • On March 12, 2013
    Alpana Singh answered the question: Alpana Singh

    What is Alpana Singh’s favorite wine region?

    I would say because I worked at Everest and the chef was from Alsace, we focused on a very large selection of wine from Alsace; and having the opportunity to work with such a large selection of wines from the region, and working with the food, and having visited, I would say Alsace is pretty much at the top of my list, specifically, the riesling grape variety. 

    I also really enjoy the rieslings from Germany. It’s one of those grapes that defies conventional wisdom. For a lot of people, when they hear a sommelier say that riesling is their favorite grape, they didn’t think that it was very sophisticated because it is typically a sweet wine. However, there are a lot of elements to riesling. It ages extraordinarily well.  You can get a 25-year-old bottle of Riesling, and it tastes so impeccably fresh.

    The food-pairing options for riesling are great. It’s a very adaptable grape when it comes to food-and-wine pairings. The ability of riesling to translate the flavor of the soil and the provenance of where it’s grown, it’s a very pure grape. You really can’t hide a lot of flaws in riesling. It really speaks the truth of the land that it comes from.

    The other thing is just the growing regions for riesling. These are extremely inhospitable regions, cold climates, and you have to grow them on steep hillsides. It’s very much a labor of love with winemakers who decide to go forth and produce an excellent bottle of riesling.  With all that, you feel very privileged to enjoy this bottle of wine.