Life is full of teachable moments that can occur at any given time, at any given place. It’s an adage that sommelier Brian Long lives by and incorporates in all his daily tasks — especially during those instances when he’s guiding customers through the wine list at the Michelin star, James Beard Award-winning, Italian restaurant, Marea, in New York City.
“I’m a child of teachers, and I kicked back against being a teacher for most of my life. I finally realized that’s part of what my passion is — not just with wine. I love knowledge, and I love how it can empower people. And my immediate path to do that is through wine,” says Long.
A love of education
Born in Missouri and raised in Alaska, Long’s foray into wine started when he worked in restaurants. He arrived in New York City as a music student with dreams of becoming an opera performer, and like many entertainers, he made a living working as a server in between auditions and gigs. Long eventually landed a position at the Hell’s Kitchen restaurant, Casellula, where his interest in wine began to flourish.
From there, Long started his journey to become a sommelier, and was thrust back into education as a student at the International Wine Center where he studied with the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. He is currently a diploma candidate.
In 2017, Long began working for the Altamarea Group, which owns 15 restaurants worldwide, many of which have received critical acclaim. “I joined the group as a captain and then a captain-sommelier at Ai Fiori, which was an amazing experience,” says Long.
Long makes it a habit to intertwine his love for learning and wine by helping guests better understand their bottle choices.
“I am a student, always,” he says. “I love language and I love culture. Sharing the stories behind wine is something that’s not only pulled at my heartstrings, but it’s activated a lot of my interests that I didn’t initially associate with the hospitality industry.”
Long’s efforts to help drinkers expand their understanding of wine doesn’t only shine through while he’s working the floor of a restaurant either. Scroll through Long’s informative Instagram and get a crash course on every beverage he tries, from glasses of Castiglion del Bosco Brunello di Montalcino paired with cheeseburgers to cups of black tea by Harney and Sons tea company. He also does guided tastings powered by Virtual With Us, a virtual and hybrid corporate events company.
In love with Italy
“My love for Italian wine brings me to a very grounded place, because so many experiences that I’ve had with Italian winemakers and the people that I know from Italy gives me this hands-in-the-earth, emotive experience,” he says. “I get a lot out of a lot of Italian wines.”
What he particularly loves is that every Italian region not only produces wine, but has its own unique varieties. Long says, “And there’s such a breadth at every single price point. You can find this in many other areas of the world as well, but I find that the lower end of Italian wines are rather accessible, friendly, and overall made at a higher quality.”
3 Italian wines to try:
A white grape widely planted in southern Italy, Fiano is one of Long’s favorite varieties of wine. Produced by Guido Marsella, one of the pioneers who revitalized Fiano, the grapes are grown in organic and sustainable vineyards within Campania’s Avelino appellation, known for its volcanic soils. “Guido Marsella does a really great job at showing a more refined smoke of that volcanic terroir,” says Long. The wine has a “really lovely high tone but cushy acidity, and ripe orchard fruits — a little bit of pear and yellow apple,” he continues. “It has great structure with the acidity. And that salinity, yum!” Long notes that this Fiano pairs exceptionally well with any type of seafood, but it also has the body to stand up to white meats and slightly heavier dishes.
Among the many wines produced by Feudo Montoni’s Fabio Sireci, Long is particularly impressed with the winemaker’s expressions of Nero d’Avola. “This is a wine you can have with short ribs. You can have it with steak. You can bring it to a barbecue. It’s got dark, savory fruits. It’s got a little coffee in there and balsamic, and it has nice, broader tannins and a little of that earthy soil to it.” Long is particularly fascinated with this wine’s history; Montoni sits in the heart of Sicily and its vines are pre-phylloxera, meaning they were never impacted by the plant louse that devastated much of Europe’s grapevines in the late 19th century. “This vineyard goes back to the late 16th century, and the winemakers there look at this as one of those mother plants and a part of wine history that they get to maintain.”
Here’s a blend of indigenous Italian grapes Ripoli, Ginestra, and Fenile produced by Cantine Marisa Cuomo on the Amalfi Coast. It’s a bottle the sommelier believes showcases the best of the region and proves that the white wines of Italy can be just as dynamic as a Premier or Grand Cru from Burgundy. “What I find insane about this wine is that you have all these fleshy, fruity qualities but the acidity and the structure really does a great job at holding things together. It’s so saline. You get all of that sea spray coming in because these vines are literally looking over the Furore sea,” he says, adding that this white blend is a knockout pairing with butter poached lobster and richer dishes with root vegetables.