The sommelier life doesn’t depart much from being a stage performer. Being the director of food and wine in a restaurant involves the evocation of emotions in people, just like a singer or dancer would during a performance. Jenelle Engleson is no stranger to the metaphor as she has glided in both pairs of shoes during the course of her adult life. Before coming to the Nashville wine scene, Jenelle had been a New York City Rockets. In her younger years, wine has always been a secondary job to her. Now, the tables have turned. Listen in as she tells us the giddying details of her journey in this conversation with Arianna Lyrist.
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Natural Wine, Life As A Rockette, Move To Nashville, And True Love
I’m here with Jenelle Engleson. We are drinking some Solar del Alma Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina 2016.
Nothing like a glass of wine and a coffee cup. I love the pyrazine element to it with the green nature, but it’s not some from a Malbec.
This one I’m featuring is biodynamic and organic from a company called Scout & Cellar. There’s a distributor in town. She’s new to Nashville who I went to a tasting, and she sold me this bottle of wine. I have wondered because I haven’t tasted a lot of biodynamic wines. If there’s a distinct difference with this Malbec versus another Malbec that you’ve had that isn’t biodynamic or isn’t organic, the process is not organic.
It’s such a fascinating conversation in the wine industry right now. The idea of the sustainable organic and biodynamic. I support all of those things. I support the care for the environment, the care for the crop. It’s like any other plant. The biggest thing about the differences is that it’s a little riskier for the winemaker essentially. If you were to taste two wines side-by-side, one being biodynamic and the other not, they are potentially different winemaking styles. If it was the same winemaker, let’s say one was biodynamic, the other was not, they would most likely taste the same. It’s just the biodynamic process would be a little more on the risky side due to some of the elements of the organic practices that go into biodynamics, being the herbicides, the pesticides and additional sulfites. Things that help preserve the wine that are added and help with that process, it’s up to the winemaker, but it helps with their process a little more because winemaking is an expensive endeavor. When you have tons and tons of fruit that you’re processing, the possibility of losing that is risky and costly. I support it 100%. A lot of the wines on my list happened to have to be organic, sustainable and biodynamic. There’s a mix of all the things.
What would you say is the biggest difference that you’ve noticed in tasting this Malbec versus one with the biggest contrast?
Malbecs tend to have red and black fruit, so it much has that nature to it. For me, it does have those pyrazine qualities of that green bell pepper. It’s more subtle and complex much like a Cabernet Franc from Sheehan would be more integrated as opposed to when you’re having a Cabernet from Chile, it’s overly in your face, bell peppers, it’s all you get. When it’s a young wine and you’re getting tertiary flavors first, it always makes you question the winemaking technique as opposed to what you should smell on the wine first, especially in a young wine should be the fruit. When you’re diving in to find those things, what’s going on with the environment, is it a little too hot? Have they done something in the winery to make adjustments to level that out? There are all these questions that can follow after that. It’s a delicious wine. It’s well balanced and integrated. I’m getting all of those red, black fruits. I’m getting the blackberry. I’m getting a little cassis. I’m getting redcurrant, a mix of that. There’s the black pepper or the green bell pepper as well. Tons of smokiness, almost like a jerky quality that I like that comes out that smoked meat, bacon. Readers are supposed to drink this wine.
You’re describing it well. I’m picking up on those tastes.
It’s interesting drinking out of it, a coffee mug too because you can’t see it. That’s another element when you’re going to taste wine. Sight, I’m using all of the senses, and when you take that away and you can’t even see the color, it adds another element of engaging the senses of the smell and palate. Something’s interesting I think about biodynamics, and in general too, it follows the cycles of the moon. To even reiterate that even more. It’s how farming was always done.
I don’t think a lot of people don’t even know what that term is.
What is biodynamic?
Essentially it follows organic practices, but it follows the cycles of the moon. It can get extensive as well. However, it stays true to nature and following what’s going on in it, because you’re getting more of a pulse of what’s going on day to day. Vineyard managers are so worried about the weather. If you’re ever hanging out with them, they’re always constantly checking the weather because the crop is important and what they need to do to protect it. What is essential is it keeps the pulse on the plant. We think about what grows best in the areas that we live in, like Nashville for instance, avocados will not grow. Citrus does not grow here. You have to think of what grows best and what the outcome and quality is going to be based on that.
Back in the day, farming was always done following the sun and the moon cycles. What time of day we’re going to harvest. Now, constantly, the weather is changing, and harvest is even getting earlier and earlier, which is fascinating if you ever get a chance to have a winemaker on the show. It’s interesting to follow that conversation. The moon cycle is the biggest difference between that and generic organics. The certification is a huge expense for the brand or the winery. A lot of folks will practice sustainably, but then to get the organic certification and be Demeter certified. It’s like any other food. It’s thousands and thousands of dollars to declare that you’re organic. Maybe they’re practicing sustainably or growing their grapes organically, but maybe doing a few other things in the winery.The wine industry is constantly changing. As a sommelier, you need to be humble and open to that change. Click To Tweet
It’s a great conversation to have, more and more with the green movement and the care for levels of the environment, like recycling and what we’re putting in our body. People engaged in this conversation, and it’s going to go as far as everything beverage. It’s going to go to the sodas, the juices, what additional is being added to these things that can potentially be. I’ll go down a rabbit hole about products that can be cancer-causing, but I won’t go there. It’s a huge conversation right now. That’s what’s so wonderful about it.
I wanted to go into and talk about your background because you have an interesting, unique journey to arriving with wine. Can you tell us a little bit about where you started and where you are now?
I am in love with my story. I wouldn’t change a thing about it. I love to celebrate the transitions in life, and that’s exactly how this wound up for me in the world of wine. At the age of seventeen, I moved to New York City and I had a job with the Radio City Rockettes. I was thrilled, scared and excited. I was the youngest. I had my mom sign my form as my parent or guardian at the age of seventeen for the audition, which is so amazing and exciting. I then moved to New York right after high school, I took the job and was there with them for about ten years while I lived in New York. I was into everything that I could get my hands on.
At the time, you have to be a triple threat. You have to sing, dance and act. I threw all of my money into those other pieces of the pie that I needed to become marketable on Broadway. That was my goal, which was challenging for me because I was always 100% a dancer. Adding those other elements in was challenging, but I loved it. It wasn’t something that came natural to me. I’ve always functioned that way, where I do love that challenge. I dove into all of that, I traveled and toured a bunch with all the things, Summer Stock, Broadway tours, and all the while keeping with Rockettes and being in the restaurant industry.
That was how that all went down was that I’ve worked in many facets of the restaurant industry, but it was always my secondary job. It was always the supplement to what I was doing which my focus was dancing and being on stage. I decided to move after that to LA. I was there for four and a half years. At that point I was focusing on more on film, TV and commercial cassette, acting and still dancing. I dove into that and I was lucky enough to work on multiple projects that allowed me to survive out there. I feel excited about that.
I dove into all of that and again, still continuing to tour, but there was this underlying sense of, what next? What do I do if I break my leg? What do I do if I break my foot, if I can’t dance? The question was always in the back of my brain. With dancers, it’s a short career breaching into even age 25, I don’t even want to say your clock starts ticking for not being able to dance any longer, but it does because all of a sudden, our bodies deteriorate. That’s the facts of life. It always was in the back of my brain. What am I going to do with my life when I have to stop, and I can’t make money to survive doing this thing anymore? I had been in the restaurant industry and I loved it. It’s how I’ve met all my best friends and it’s an amazing place to be. You’re in the thick of it together and you bond, there’s that level.
You were getting more to acting. Do you ever think of going more that route instead of dancing?
I did, but it was a deep, innate thing that it didn’t call to me like dancing always did, I had connected. It was not only something that made me money, but it was an outlet for me that served me in a different way than acting ever did. It wasn’t something that I felt as connected to, even though that would have been an option that was available as well. I decided to move from LA. I had been on tour with the Rockettes. We sat down here at the Grand Ole Opry, and I was here doing the show for three years. Long story short, I fell in love. I met somebody who lived here in Nashville and I decided to move to Nashville and hang up my shoes. All the while, throughout the restaurant industry business, I had gotten a little bit more into wine every single day.
It was this organic thing where I was moving to Nashville, the visual art opportunity here in Nashville is still growing. It’s not an established genre of art yet. It was a natural progression for me to lean more towards the wine industry than try and make a career for myself here dancing. I then dove right into my sommelier certification. I took a job as a sommelier and then wound up running beverage programs. I am now doing that full-time and supplementing with dance classes on the side. That’s how that all came to fruition, but it’s a long-winded story.
When did you move to Nashville?
It’s been several years.
When you moved to town, where did you start working? Talk about that more once you moved to Nashville and your progression in the restaurant industry and with wine.
I moved to town and I instantly needed a job. At that time, I had any certifications under my belt, so I jumped right into serving and bartending. One of the places that allowed me to hone that craft was Miel. Seema was a mentor of mine and we connected on a level. She has also a passion for dance and has many connections in her life that have led her to be well connected in that industry. We bonded and then she helped mentor me and help me hone my craft with that. I was bartending and serving there, and then I bopped around and bartended at a little dive bar in town, then I found my way to city winery, which is where I was one of the sommeliers, wine captains for two and a half years. I put my time in and focused on getting my certification. During that time, I got my level 2 sommelier certification through the Court of Master, which has been an incredible journey. It was stressful but beautiful at the same time. Now I’m at The 404 Kitchen, running the beverage program there. I’m loving it. I headed into my next level, level 3, which is a ginormous jump of a gap between 2 and 3. The focus on that has taken priority in my life.
Where’s your end goal as far as the certifications with the Court of Master Sommeliers or WSET. Talk about that a little bit. It would be interesting, the difference between what you found between the Court of Master Sommeliers versus the WSET, and your experience with both and why they’re valuable to you.
Both are great. I’ve been through both of them. I’ve gone through and gotten my level 3 through the WSET. With the Court of Master, the main differences for those that are looking for advice or looking to get a certification in wine, the WSET is less service-based. If you’re someone that’s looking to go into distribution or looking to go into sales of some nature, someone that is not involved in restaurants, a blanket statement, the WSET is the way to go. They focus on viticulture and viniculture, and geography and tasting, as opposed to with the Court of Master, there’s a heavy emphasis on service standards and how that happens in the restaurant, carrying a tray properly, pouring for X amount of guests properly, answering questions on the fly when it comes to cocktails, aperitifs, what wine is going to go best with this portion of my meal. Both programs are great, and I happened to connect more with the Court of Master because I am in the restaurant industry. For anybody who needs advice on it, that would be my instant directive as to where both of them lead. They’re both great. There are tons of other certifying bodies out there, but those are the main two that paved the way.
What have you found to be most challenging in your artist’s career as a dancer and actor, triple threat, and now with wine?
You mean the transition?
A personal struggle that you’ve had, or maybe in general, in the course of your journey.
I love the inspiration behind this show with artists transitioning into the wine industry, because one of the things that artists have are passion, discipline and they are humble for the most part. You are coming into the wine industry being humble and also knowing that things change. The wine industry is ever-changing, as does new AVA pop-up every single day. There are new climates happening and there’s this evolution. You have to be on your feet and ready for any law to change and any new AVA to pop up, which is interesting. The biggest struggle for me maybe was deciding to give up the dancing, which led me to needing to find that similar passion in wine and how I was going to make that happen.
Did you know it was wine or were you just ready, at that point, to let go of dancing and move into a new career?
It was natural for it to happen here in Nashville, but I wasn’t super ready for it to be hung up. It happened organically and it happened for a reason because I was able to only wear one hat as opposed to juggling and trying to be great at two things and now, I can focus on this. It was something that I always wanted to do. Whenever someone asks me, “Why did you get into wine?” It’s the one question that folks at tables are always asking me because they think it’s this amazing job, they’re like, “I wish I could do that. All you’re doing is drinking all day.” That’s what they’re thinking. There’s so much more that goes into that. I read this article that sommeliers in New York had run some stats on how much a sommelier runs around a restaurant, actual steps in paces. It happened to be more at the time than a postal worker and these other levels of folks that you would think that would be walking a lot more. Pacing stairs of a restaurant, the cellar could be all the way downstairs in the basement and you’re instantly having to, under less than three minutes, grab that bottle, run back up, still have ten other bottles to open for the tables that have been waiting for you.
It’s a constant juggling act and a constant balancing act, but I lost my train of thought of my sidebar there. When someone always asks me why I got into wine, the natural transition for me was the people, that being on stage was always about satisfying people and giving them a feeling. That was what connected me, and that’s what I was loved about being on stage, was that you’re evoking an emotion in people. You’re making them smile, cry and laugh. When you’re drinking wine, it’s a start of a conversation. Whether it be a celebration, happiness, sadness, it’s evoking an emotion in somebody, and you’re contributing to that experience by giving them something that is a living organism grow in a conversation as their conversation is happening. Geeky thing, but that is the connection is evoking emotion and celebrating something that I found to be similar to what I was transitioning.
What is it about dancing that has influenced or helped you in your career in wine?
The discipline and the dedication, and also constantly being around people. With the Rockettes, for instance, I had been through intense media training because we were always having to be in front of the media. There were always interviews happening. You can’t get on a live television program and for them to ask you how much you make, for instance. Something where you’re like, “How do I respond to this?” “Are you single?” I had intense levels of media training where I needed to develop these people skills, which allowed me to be on the floor in restaurants easily. I knew how to redirect things naturally. It came with that.
The small talk, which is a part of it too. That was something that helped in the process, being able to engage with people naturally, make them feel happy, make them feel excited and comfortable, and this is their home. Media training for me, and not everybody gets that in their journey in art, but that was something for me that I was always having to put on a face and say, “This is the best thing ever. Do you want to come to this show? This is why.” That’s an interesting level. Now I can engage and continue on a conversation. Even sitting here with you, it’s a natural thing for me to keep the conversation going.
Ultimately, what does success to you look like in the wine industry, and what are your next goals?Small wine producers need to be supported. You will never get the same amount quality with mass-produced wines. Click To Tweet
It’s evolving every day. One minute I’m like, “I love the restaurant industry. I want to be in it forever.” The next second, I’m on the floor and I’ve reached the 70th hour on the end of the week. My feet are hurting. I’m done listening to customer complaints about why this was not vegan, or this is not gluten-free, we didn’t have options. Those are thoughts that popped into my brain. Every now and again, I’m like, “I have to get out of the restaurant industry.” It’s a balance, and it changes every single day because there are days that I love it and there are days that I hate it, but end goal would probably be some facet to have some travel involved. To be traveling, tasting and educating, continuing what is the phase of wine right now with this “Millennial” thing, which is trying to make wine accessible to everybody for it to not be this thing that it was when it first came to be, which was for the rich. It was for high society and for the royal folks. That has continued. Like champagne for instance, it’s got this high dollar and there’s this attachment and this stigma attached to it that it’s the middle-class, the blue-collar folks, the working class can’t afford it. There are people that are trying to drive this thing home where they’re bringing accessible price points into it and starting a conversation. It’s that energy.
Canned wine, all the different vessels.
I have a good canned wine. Maybe I haven’t tried enough of it.
I couldn’t say I’ve done a comparative tasting on canned wine, but I still have to do a tasting of canned wine.
That’s another podcast, let’s compare and taste the same varietal in a box, a can and another bottle.
Bottle, can, and box. That would be fun.
That’ll be a cool one to have. Let me know. I’ll sit in the background and I’ll taste. There’s that environmental thing coming into it, that is a fascinating new journey in winemaking. Even the vessels that they use to age things in like concrete glass, there’s a bajillion conversation to be had about the story of what this grape is when it evolves and gets to the bottle.
Is that what inspires you most about wine?
It’s the people for me. There’s something that I love talking to people about wine. I love selling wine. I love talking about the story of the people that make the wine. I can talk about soil, geography and climate. That’s all fine to have the theory and the background on it, but you’re telling the story of the farmer. You’re telling the story of the family that’s been there for generations and the history. What people now are wanting to connect with more is a story. I want to support that family that is doing this cool thing and trying to create a great product and celebrate them. What I love is telling the story of those people. At the end of the day, I love to drink wine. This is my go-to thing. It’s my nightcap. It’s what I have every single night, a glass of wine and I’m happy.
Cheers to that. Drink some more wine to that. I can’t think of anyone that doesn’t like wine or enjoys a glass of wine. That doesn’t happen.
My parents didn’t drink a lot when I was growing up. I also didn’t drink until I was 21 because my older sister also didn’t drink. I was like, “I don’t care.” I turned 21 and then started drinking wine more. I was like, “My parents never did this. My sister never did. This is like a whole world. This is awesome.” None of my family, except for maybe my grandma who drinks wine. I’m the only one. It’s so weird to me. My dad came into town for Thanksgiving and I like to go to a fancy steakhouse, I was like, “We’re going to have wine.” He was like, “I’m going to drink a Bud Light.” I was like, “Nevermind.”
What inspires you most about wine?
It sparks a conversation that brings some emotion to the table. It’s the experiences that you have around it too. The experience around the line.
If you break it down, the spirits, wine and beer into actual alcohol levels, you go through this crazy phase when you’re in college and you’re like, “Vodka.” Whatever your spirit of choice was. You get burned out on it and you realize that you’re drinking something in the 80, 90 proof category, and then you get older and you’re like, “This is not going to be great for my longevity.” The hangover is so much worse. You wake up the next day and you’re like, “Why did I have all these whiskeys?” With wine, you can have a wine hangover if you drink too much, which I’ve totally had, but you’re looking at maybe max 16% alcohol. It’s a good maintainer. With beer, it’s even lower than that. It’s that middle of the road. I don’t want a hard martini, but I’ll have a glass of wine and still allow myself to relax.
Relaxed and wake up the next day and not regret it. That’s usually some of the push with the biodynamic. You’re back to full circle. It’s not as harsh on your body with being organic and biodynamic practices. That’s part of the sell.
It is huge because you’re looking at when there are the herbicides, the pesticides in the vineyard, as well as sulfur being added to the wine, the biggest time when that is utilized is when you’re making wine in mass production. If I could impart a story to the readers, that’s why I spend more money to support small producers. That’s why I do that, because when you are producing wine in mass quantities, and I’m not saying that you can’t find great wine and people that care about it, but the more you make, the less control you have. Either you’re using machines that cannot see the grapes, that cannot sort out the bad ones from the good ones, they don’t have the eye and the care. This thing with the mass production, you have to control it by using those things like herbicides and pesticides because there are going to be bugs, animals and things that happen.
We all grow. We have gardens in our backyards. We all know how that can go. In a small garden, how hard that is to control. If you think about acres and acres of land that are producing crop, how can you keep control of that? Only by using these things which are preventing all of the bacteria, like with sulfur. You add sulfur because you’re trying to preserve the wine. It’s one of those things where if it’s a small production and you’re supporting something that’s well handcrafted, and there’s been care and heart put into it. That’s my little soapbox.
You want to support that.
I’d rather be drinking something different every day than attaching myself to one wine that I love, which is what I notice in a lot of people, they’ll be like, “I love this Apothic Red. I love this Meiomi brand.” I hate to say these names out loud, but people attach them to it, and they become less open-minded and just drink that every day or every week. I’d rather drink something different every day, knowing that maybe only 500 cases were made of it. “It was special, and there’s a story and, I can’t wait for the next vintage to come out next year.” As opposed to, “I have to have this thing. I have to have this Oaked Chardonnay from Kendall-Jackson that is always going to be my tried and true.” It’s a true testament to the folks that go out to eat and are like, “I’m on a one-track mind to always have my steak medium well.”
Those companies are marketing themselves well, and they’re shoving their brand down people’s faces and the artists in there. That’s what they see when they walk into the liquor store and like, “I’ll take that.” It’s what’s recommended to them, or they don’t have any other educational resource, or they don’t take the time to look up to try something different and they might be into that.
When we got wine in grocery stores here, I’m like, “No.” It took away the awesome love and care from those small boutique wine shops that when you walk in and you see the wine associate, you’re like, “Tell me what is good. Guide me.”
I always do that. I walk in and they’re like, “What are you looking for?” I’m like, “You tell me. What is your favorite thing and I’ll take it home and drink it?”
That’s being open-minded.
I also work at a wine bar, so I’m going to probably drink it anyway.
The question is, how do you get someone who can come across as being more closed-minded? How do you get them to, all of a sudden, become this person that is like, “Try this exotic fish with this weird indigenous Rydal coming from Slovenia that sounds crazy?” They’re spending their money and they want to have a good experience, but how do you get them to trigger that like, “This is not what I normally have, but this is good?” I don’t know. I’m still looking for the answer.
I feel like a lot of the time, specifically when I bartend and people are like, “I just want pinot noir.” I’m like, “Why don’t you try this grape from Spain?” Specifically, like a Guarnaccia, something on the lighter side, whatever that’s still light and has that fruit to it, but not being upfront like, “This is not a pinot noir grape.” I’m being like, “I’m going to have you try this, let me know what you think.” I’ll have them be like, “I love this.” I’m like, “That’s not pinot noir. You learned something that you like today.”It’s better to drink different wines every day than get attached to one wine and deprive yourself of the joy of experiencing something new. Click To Tweet
Telling them in a nice way, being like, “Try this. If you don’t like it.” I know you can’t always do that though because of the rules of the restaurant, but if you had the ability to have some flexibility, maybe with that particular bottle or BTG.
I always say to a lot of people, I’m like, “If you don’t like it, tell me. You’re not hurting my feelings. I’m just trying to help you learn something else. I don’t care.” It’s not like I’m going to be like, “You don’t like this? I know that we have this wine and it tastes like this. If you don’t like it, just tell me. Don’t be afraid.”
I know you can’t always make it. They’ll try and order that one the next time.
The hope is that they try it again or they come back or they’re like, “Not this time, but next time, I’m going to try that.” You’ve got a return customer return that connection.
It’s a great experience at the restaurant or bar.
One of my favorite wine bars in LA, you walk up to the counter and the bartender is like, “Red or white?” You say, “What are you looking for?” Rosé, sparkling. They go through the other gamut of questions, “Do you want light, medium, or full?” That narrows some things down and they’re like, “Do you like fruity? Do you like earthy?” That narrows things down even more. They’re left with maybe six wines to choose from. They pick 1 or 2, they pour a little taste for you and then you decide from there. They can continue to keep tasting if they don’t find something that they like. There was this conversation that was started, and they were like, “It was like you were at the doctor’s office.” They were like, “Do you have a runny nose? Do you have a sore throat?” They’re like, “You’ve got strep.” This is like a diagnosis that all of a sudden, you’re going to like this wine based on what you said.
It’s this fascinating conversation that should happen more.
We’ll keep the conversation going.
This is a great outlet for that.
Thank you for coming and talking to us. We’ll have you in the future again. I’d love to have you back and see where you’re at and what you’ve accomplished from now to then.
I would love to.
Let me know when you do the canned, box, bottle. We’ll have to have a new group tasting event for that, for sure.
I’ll be here. Thank you so much for having me.
About Jenelle Engleson
Passionate, results-oriented, respected Sommelier, and educator. With a proven track record of organizational leadership; event planning; and strategic management of award-winning wine programs.
Detouring from a career as a professional dancer on Broadway, attention to detail, interpersonal skills, and creativity are at the core of her success. Continually recognized for increasing revenue and profitability while developing and training team members, managing events, and creating niche wine lists. Throughout, known for performing all duties with exceptional grace, authenticity, charisma, and camaraderie.