When Fri 10/13, 7 PM
Where 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th
When Wed 10/18, 7 PM
Where Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln
Seven o'clock on a Thursday night and Women & Children First is packed with women without children. In the kids' section of the Andersonville bookstore, the guest of honor sits beneath a five-foot blowup of the cover of her book, and even in the back of the crowd the enthusiasm for her presence is a little frightening. At anything she says--"I'm going to talk about the language of wine," say, "because it's very suggestive"--a thirtysomething man grins maniacally. To his left a woman murmurs, at intervals of approximately a minute, "That's so great!" The folks at the public television show Alpana Singh hosts have a term for this kind of mania: the "Check, Please! effect" is the sudden appearance of a large number of people at a restaurant after it's been featured on the program. Apparently it works for the host as well.
Singh, the director of everything enological for the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant chain, has just published her first book, the elaborately titled Alpana Pours: About Being a Woman, Loving Wine & Having Great Relationships. Published by Academy Chicago, it's intended as a primer on everything the wine-phobic woman needs to know. Including this, from the chapter "Pairings: Wine, Hooking Up, and Dating": "Looking super hot in a really expensive dress can be immediately undermined if you order a diet cola."
"It has a little bit of that Harlequin spin to it," says Singh. It's not that surprising a slant--there are now low-carb and low-alcohol wines with cutesy names marketed specifically to women--but its author is. Twenty-nine and an Indian-American prodigy in the white-male dominated world of wine, Singh here is lowbrow and downright naughty. Alpana Pours is probably the only wine book out there that could be excerpted in Cosmo.
At 26, Singh was the youngest woman ever to become a master sommelier, a title that may sound bogus but is anything but. Awarded by the London-based Court of Master Sommeliers after a multiyear maze of exams, it's the highest honor a wine professional can attain; only 4 percent of all applicants pass. She's an anomaly in her chosen field: the wrong age, the wrong gender, the wrong ethnicity. But she's as ambitious as Alpana Pours isn't. The book includes a wine horoscope and advice on color coordinating wine with dessert, and though you can't see the label, the bottle she's pouring on the cover cost $3 at Trader Joe's. It's totally fine to drink cheap, cute-animal-branded Australian Shiraz, she says, and if you like your wine so cold you can't taste it, well, then that's what you like.
Asked at the bookstore about her favorite wine lists in the city, she flails. A week later, she admits, "Right now, I still cannot tell you whose wine list I like because I don't spend a lot of time looking at it." She takes in the irony of this: for her job, she writes wine lists. "I think people are sometimes really shocked by my answers," she says.
Just six years after arriving from California cold and anonymous, Singh's a local celebrity who's stopped by strangers daily. While she was waiting on a bench on Devon last week for her visiting mother to finish shopping, a man crossing the street cocked his head, pointed, and then slowly and silently gave her a thumbs-up. "Once I was on the Gold Coast," she says, "when this guy drove past us and then backed up and said, 'Best-dressed television personality in Chicago!' And then he drove off."
She moved to town in 2000 with four boxes of wine books and two boxes of clothes to take the sommelier's position at Everest, chef Jean Joho's famed Alsatian restaurant on the 40th floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange. She was 23, and had been turned down for a half-dozen other jobs when Joho took a chance on her. Few would have guessed that in a few short years her celebrity would eclipse his.
In 2003, after years of cultivating the sophisticated, authoritative persona of a sommelier--a challenge for a girl who still looked underage--Singh replaced Amanda Puck as the host of WTTW's Check, Please! Soon, she discovered, Everest diners didn't want her to be sophisticated. They wanted the Alpana from TV: casual and fun and chatty. "They're like, 'So tell us about your show.' And I'd say, 'Well, this isn't really the environment.'" A table of people who'd read a Tribune article about her passing the MS exam insisted she pick a bottle for them without any guidance. "I don't do that," Singh says. "It never works out." Afterward Joho got an angry letter with the Tribune article enclosed and any positive sentences highlighted. "They'd cc'd the Tribune writer, the president of the Court of Master Sommeliers, and Joho," she remembers. "They wanted people to know that what the Tribune had written was definitely far from the truth." Though she says Joho was always supportive, she left the restaurant in 2005. "It's not the Alpana Singh show. It's Jean Joho's restaurant. I felt very uncomfortable taking that spotlight away from him."
Singh's mastery of her field has freed her to enjoy it her own way. "What's wrong with laughing and having a good time?" she says. "At the end of the day, I still know my stuff. If I have to be serious, I'll be serious, but I don't like it--it reminds me of the people I didn't like when I was coming up. I've never forgotten what it was like to be 21 in this business. I felt very awkward and out of place."
"She's probably the least wine-snobbish person I know," says Belinda Chang, her friend and professional twin--also a young, Asian-American, female sommelier, she's currently working with Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand on their new restaurant complex in Wheeling. "When she worked at Everest and I was at Charlie Trotter's, we had the same days off and we'd go out and drink cheap sparkling wine and go drunk shoe shopping. And the great thing about drunk shoe shopping is: You want it in brown and you get it in brown! You want it in black and you get it in black!" She laughs. "You meet a lot of really crazy, hard-core, successful businesswomen who have been very successful by adopting a lot of masculine characteristics. Alpana isn't like that. She's really a girly girl."
Nowhere is that more evident than in Alpana Pours--described on the jacket as "a unique lifestyle book with wine as the centerpiece." There are sections titled "Having Him...to Dinner" and "What Wines Go With Bingeing?" (Champagne with potato chips, zinfandel with pizza.) In the pop culture firmament, the book may actually be a few years too late. It could have inspired an episode of Sex and the City, especially given passages like this: "Okay, foreplay's over. No more looking at or sniffing the wine. It's finally time to go all the way and put it in your mouth."
Singh devotes a lot of ink to the differences between how men and women approach wine. She says this comes from what she learned at Everest. "Time and time again when I was explaining the wine to the woman, I'd find myself telling more of like the People magazine story--the gossip behind it," she says. "And with the guy, I would describe more of the structure and the boldness and the richness--the prestige of the product." She pauses. "And I don't know if that was just me talking to a girl.
"You have a female CEO running Pepsi now," she continues. "She goes out to dinner, she entertains clients--do you think she's going to hand over the wine list to a guy and tell him to pick? No. But where does she get this information that's not snobby or condescending?"
You could argue it's condescending to use gossip to talk to women about wine. But Singh doesn't agree. The pop-psych heart of Alpana Pours is her belief that not only do men and women want different things from wine, but the way they order directly reflects their personalities and the state of their relationships. She's well armed with anecdotes, like the one about the guy whose Mercedes broke down outside Everest on the night he proposed to his girlfriend. "He orders a bottle of wine and doesn't even look at her. He orders a bottle of champagne and she doesn't even drink champagne." Then, after the proposal, "she's sitting there admiring her ring and he gets a call and takes off to deal with the car."
That relationship was doomed by the champagne alone, she says. "He does not take into account what she wants. It's automatically what he wants. It's like, god." Pause. "And it wasn't even a nice ring."
From the get-go the idea of someone like Singh becoming a sommelier was preposterous. Her father and mother, born in Fiji, emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-70s just before she was born. As it turned out, her mother's papers weren't valid, so she returned with her baby to Fiji for three years before the family finally settled in northern California. Singh's parents, who worked as a waitress and a cook and never drank wine, were very traditional. "When I read Jhumpa Lahiri's books, I almost cried," says Singh. "Trying to explain to your parents things that happened to you in the Western world--you really do live a double life. You go to school and you're talking about New Kids on the Block--'Oh my god, Jordan is so cute!'--and then you come home and sit down for Indian prayer and learn how to cook and clean, how to be a proper bride. I think that's where a lot of my push back comes from: I'm not going to do what you guys think I'm going to do. This is not me; this is crap."
When she became interested in wine, those thoughts--this is not what proper Indian women do--rang in her head. "I thought, 'No. This is what I want to do. I'm staying right here.'"
At 18 she applied for a job as a server at a high-end restaurant in Monterey and was rejected for her lack of wine knowledge (it came from grapes was all she could come up with). She went home that weekend, memorized Wine for Dummies, and was hired the following Monday. Still, she struggled through the staff wine training. "Someone would say, 'Oh my god, blueberries all day,' and I didn't know what the heck they're talking about with those blueberries. Thankfully, life is a lot easier when you don't have an ego and you have no shame. So I'd ask questions like, 'Do they put blueberries in the wine? Where do you get the blueberries from? I don't understand. I don't get the blueberries--I just taste nasty alcohol.' So I just kept trying and trying and one day I got pear out of a wine." She even remembers what it was: a Norman Vineyards Paso Robles chardonnay.
Singh had done well in high school, but her parents couldn't afford college. She'd almost joined the air force but after a last-minute change of heart ended up at a local junior college. She didn't know how to study, though, and did poorly in almost all her courses. Once she discovered wine, all was lost. "I was in my chemistry class with my chemistry book wrapped around a wine journal," she says.
Because she was underage, for the most part she could do little more than read about her new obsession. "I read about sauvignon blanc and the flavors and the structure and what you should expect before ever trying sauvignon blanc," she says. "I built up the theoretical knowledge before ever tasting the product. Wine has always been a thing for analysis, not something that you just drink."
Her mentor was a master sommelier in training who'd taken an interest in her. "He just thought I was hilarious," she says. "It was like a little wine doll: 'Go memorize Grand Cru!' 'OK!' Then I'd come back and say, 'What's next?'"
Then, more than a year after she started at the restaurant, she had a glass of wine made by Australian vintner Charles Melton. "I remember tasting the different layers, the complexity. To this day, I remember everything I tasted in the wine," she says.
This is when her story starts sounding theological, a conversion narrative worthy of Augustine. She told her mentor she wanted to devote herself to learning about wine, dropped out of school, and showed up the next morning at a local wine store demanding a job. It worked. At 21, after a lot of illegal glasses ("we'll just say I spit"), she passed the penultimate stage of the master sommelier exam and began looking for a full-time gig. Two years later, she was still looking. Then, late at night at the Masters of Food and Wine, an annual gourmet event in Carmel, she met Jean Joho.
After a miscommunication with a friend, Singh found herself standing awkward and alone beside a table of the most famous French chefs in America: Joho, Daniel Boulud, Michel Richard, the late Jean-Louis Palladin. "Palladin had a very young woman sitting next to him," remembers Singh. "She couldn't have been more than 19 or 20 years old--she could have doubled for Christina Aguilera. I said to Chef Joho, 'Is that Jean-Louis Palladin's daughter? I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed his course today.' And Joho said"--here Singh waggles her eyebrows and drops her voice an octave--"'That's his daughter all right. Tell him--they look alike, don't they?'"
Singh did. The girl wasn't. "[Palladin's] calling me every name in the book, screaming my name, cussing at me." The table was in hysterics; Singh was mortified, but she pulled it out: "The first thing that came out of my mouth was, 'Gee, chef, if that's your girlfriend, your foie gras must really be good.' Now they're laughing even more--even he's laughing."
She was invited to sit down, and Joho soon discovered she was looking for a job. "He says, 'When are you coming to Chicago?' I say, 'I don't know. I've never been to Chicago. It's cold there.' Mind you, this is two in the morning. He says, 'Here's my card. Give me a call Monday morning.'" She flew out that Friday and moved a month later. "She had the will to learn," says Joho, reflecting on the evening. "She was somebody who was eager, who wanted to succeed."
"What's funny," says Singh, "is if I had gone home that night, instead of looking for debauchery, none of this would have ever happened. It was late, I was tired, I had a long drive. I often wonder, if I didn't make that decision..."
Belinda Chang says of her friend, "She gets to her success by being smarter than everyone else but not attacking people with it." At Women & Children First, Singh presents herself as the oenophile next door--a teenage affection for wine coolers, three years on the breakfast shift at Baker's Square--and when asked about the importance of a wine's price, she says, "Well, the cheaper it is, the more likely I am to buy it." She's happily irreverent, so loose that the Q and A yields celebrity-mag questions like "What wines did you serve at your wedding?" (Singh recently eloped with writer Charles Blackstone. Who controls the corkscrew? "He drinks whatever I give him. He's not picky.")
Singh seems to be positioning herself for non-PBS celebrity, but she claims she's being cautious. Asked to audition to be the new host of Bravo's Top Chef, she said no. (The job went to another young Indian woman--Salman Rushdie's wife, Padma Lakshmi.) "Where would my credibility go?" she says. "I can see the blogs going, 'What a waste of wine talent.' You only get one shot or you become a national joke."
Singh's also been approached about doing a TV show on wine, but she's not convinced that the subject is telegenic enough. Given the story of her own underage seduction by the grape, that seems a perverse attitude, but she means it. "It's just all very dry and it's not entertaining," she says. "You've seen one winery, you've seen them all.
"Now, if there was Smell-o-Vision..."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.