While master sommelier Sabato Sagaria had significantly less screen time in the original SOMM film than the other cast members, he’s made up for it in the subsequent films and on SOMM TV. From Blind Tasting Sessions to episodes of Tasting Notes to appearances on the SOMM TV Podcast (he’s been a guest six times so far) – Sagaria is a valuable member of the SOMM team.
Sagaria’s journey to becoming a master sommelier spanned a decade, obtaining the coveted pin in 2012. Since then, he’s been an integral part of restaurant expansion. As president of bartaco, he helped grow the company from 13 to 22 restaurants. And as chief restaurant officer of Union Square Hospitality Group, he oversaw nine new concepts and operations of 17 restaurants.
Of course, we can’t talk about the recent past without mentioning the global pandemic and its effect on the restaurant industry. With Sagaria’s extensive experience, he pivoted his insights to launch Apres Cru, a hospitality support system helping small restaurant brands with operations, marketing, and other infrastructure.
We recently connected to discuss the last couple of years, finding opportunity in launching a company during the pandemic, and what he likes to do in his spare time.
Let’s start by traveling back in time a bit. How did you become involved with the original SOMM film?
I met Dustin (Wilson) and Brian (McClintic) as food and beverage director at The Little Nell. I had hired them both, and we were all studying together for the MS exam. They abandoned me, moved to San Francisco, and started filming there.
When it came time to sit for the MS exam in Napa, Dustin and I decided to room together in an effort to stay focused. After the exam (we all failed on theory), we went out to karaoke night. We shut down Ana’s Cantina and needed a ride. Jason (Wise) ended up being our “Uber” driver and shuttled us back to where Ian (Cauble) was staying. There, I seduced him with my culinary skills and a mind-blowing grilled cheese sandwich at 3 am. It was at that moment that he said, ‘I want you to be in every SOMM film I make just so you can cook for the crew’.
What do you remember about having cameras follow you in the lead up to the MS exam?
The first time I was around, the cameras were in Dallas for the following MS exam. Again, Dustin and I were staying together, so we were a bit out of the fray. I remember sitting there as the cameras were rolling during a 12-hour marathon cram session in our room. I thought it would be the most boring movie of all time. Looking back, I feel fortunate that they captured part of my journey so my family could see the process and what it took to pass.
Have you ever imagined the trajectory of your career without the SOMM films? Do you think it would be any different?
That’s hard for me to answer. I’m not really someone that looks back and asks, “what if?”. However, what has become evident over the years is how many people saw the movie and connected with it. They found a passion, a path, a new pursuit, or a career in the industry because of it. I think that has had a much greater impact than any of us can realize. It’s something that I would never have imagined.
Looking back at the controversy surrounding the Court, and the monumental amount of work it requires to pass, is the MS exam and credential something you’d keep as part of your history? I guess, in short, would you do it again?
It took me ten years from start to finish. I don’t regret any of it and would do it again in a heartbeat. The friendships, the learning about wine and myself as a result of the pursuit, the doors it opened, and the people I have been able to teach and mentor are some of the greatest rewards of my career.
You and Dustin are co-founders of Apres Cru. He talked with us a bit about that earlier this year. Can you tell us how it came to be for you?
At the start of the pandemic, I was on ‘sab-attical’, and Dustin introduced me to our friend, Eric Engler, now our third partner. We talked a couple of times a week about what the industry might look like on the other side and how we could put our collective talents together to start a new aged hospitality company. It was a winding road, as I’m sure it is for many companies trying to figure out what they want to be. Through conversations with friends and industry colleagues, we developed our thesis, wanting to invest in and partner with like-minded operators to provide them with strategic, operational support to fortify their current businesses and grow. It’s hard to believe it’s two years since we started. I’m proud of what we have been able to accomplish with our partners in such a short and tumultuous time.
What does your day-to-day look like with Apres Cru? How has it grown and evolved in the last six months?
A lot! The first year was about getting to know our partners. We were building trust and putting systems in place that are essential for running a successful business and growing it. Lately, we have focused on defining Apres Cru’s culture and developing our managers. We now have a full team to support our restaurants and are opening One Fifth with our partner Marc Forgione in August. We also have another exciting yet-to-be-announced project on the left coast that should come to fruition next month as well.
How did the pandemic play into the company’s launch?
I was not working at the time, so I was in a unique position, just starting to ask myself what I should do next. I didn’t have to make the tough decisions of what restaurants to close or who to lay off, so I was trying to sift through all the devastation and see what new opportunities might exist when the dust settled. It framed the question to us as we were starting, ‘based on what our industry is going through, how can we add value to our partners?’.
I think what became most apparent was not the need for capital but the need for the operation resources, infrastructure, and strategic support. I have been fortunate to have access to that throughout my career, but many smaller independent operators have not.
Based off that, of the original SOMM film cast, you and Dustin still seem to have a firm footing in hospitality. DLynn (Proctor), for example, works more in philanthropy and directly with Fantesca. And Ian and Brian have both launched wine subscription services. Tell us a bit about your philosophy around hospitality and why it’s important to you.
It’s the only industry I have ever worked in. I continue to be enamored with how it truly is a team sport and one that welcomes all. Great hospitality is truly the sum of its parts. It is about connecting with people, unlocking potential, and ensuring they leave better than when they came. The beauty of that is that it applies to both employees and guests. The opportunity is right there in front of us every day. It’s like an incredible no-look pass on a fast break. The real magic is being able to see it and selflessly and effortlessly make it a reality.
It really takes a certain quality to make that magic happen for guests. Speaking of talents, are you still blind tasting? And do you have an Achilles heel, something you always slip up on?
Unfortunately, I don’t blind taste as often as I would like to. I drink what I like, so the things I don’t usually drink tend to catch me off guard. There are also wines like Torrontes that are like that first run-in with tequila. You may not have had it in a while, but as soon as you stick your nose in the glass, the hair on the back of your neck stands up as a not-so-gentle reminder.
Let’s say that you’ve arrived home at the end of a long day and reach for a drink. But it can’t be wine. What is it?
During quarantine, I started depleting my bar cart in a (responsible) and creative way. I would try to make different cocktails with spirits that had just been gathering dust. But for maximum efficiency and gratification, I’ll pull a bottled Negroni or Boulevardier out of the freezer and pour that over a big ol’ rock.
We’ve seen you a lot on SOMM TV and in the SOMM films, but that’s ‘wine all the time’. What’s something that wine enthusiasts might be surprised to find out about you?
I really do have an amazing head of hair when I want to; I just choose to shave it before every shoot so that people will think I’m Dustin. I also love to snowboard, surf, and golf. Three things that are very hard to do in NYC, but I try to do as often as I can.