Ten years and countless bottles of wine later, Patricia Lee is a seasoned pro in the wine world.
I sat down with the Hallmann & Klee beverage director to find out her thoughts on the wine industry and what keeps her motivated to stay sober in a world where the wine flows.
As she embarks on a personal growth stint of no alcohol, Patricia challenges what it means to work in wine. No more blurry evenings and unmanageable hangovers. Patricia is an anomaly – a beverage director who doesn’t drink. She’s still every bit the professional, tasting and spitting to hone in on the perfect pairing. After the 6 months of sobriety, Lee will check in with herself and decide if it’s something worth continuing. But for now, Patricia is enjoying her journey of abstinence and the newfound purpose it’s given her.
“I didn’t want wine to be my only focus. I didn’t want it to be the sole reason for my socialization and personal relationships with people. I didn’t want it to be centered around wine or alcohol. I wanted to find more meaning in things.”
Ask any person who’s fallen in love with wine. Nearly everyone has that bottle.
The bottle that changed their outlook and transformed them from a person who saw wine as merely a drink to someone who saw endless possibilities within a bottle. For Patricia that bottle was Radikon Slatnik 2011.
In 2015 Patricia, then a server at a restaurant in San Francisco, won a bottle of this skin-contact wine from a winemaker in Friuli, Italy. Patricia knew how to order wine by region and grape variety. But upon tasting this wine, everything changed. This wasn’t just any bottle of wine. Radikon helped to show the world that wines that had been left on the skins, altering the wine’s color and texture, were capable of achieving complexity and depth.
“I still remember it. I took it to dinner at a BYOB place – I was having Yakitori with friends. I’d had wine pairings before, but that was the first time I thought ‘Wow, that flavor combination is blowing my mind’. It had these bright, ripe stone fruit elements with a bit of salinity at the end.”
After enrolling in an educational wine program at the restaurant group and passing an exam with the notorious Court of Masters Sommelier, Patricia was all in.
“I’m a New York City girl from Queens, who lived in Brooklyn. I avoided office jobs because I never wanted to wear a suit.”
But to listen to her explain wine, it’s clear she was drawn to more than just the lifestyle.
Since visiting Berlin in 2013, Patricia knew the city would one day be her home, but it wasn’t until 2018 when she was in town for the natural wine fair RAW, that she saw firsthand how the city’s gastronomy industry had transformed into something thrilling. She shot off emails to several wine bars, restaurants, and shops around the city, before getting an internship offer from natural wine shop Viniculture. But gastronomy beckoned and it was hard to ignore.
“I wanted to have more interaction with guests and see their eyes light up when they tasted the wine. It’s different from selling someone a bottle versus watching them take that first sip.“
After a quick stint at the now-shuttered Palsta, Patricia started at Hallmann & Klee in February 2020. “It was the first time I got to have full control over all pairings and the beverage program.” And when allowed to truly, for the first time in her career, soar, that’s exactly what she did.
“Hallmann & Klee became a place where I was able to spread my wings and experiment and push myself. I have free reign to do what I want and I’m especially thankful to [Hallmann und Klee co-owner] Sarah Hallmann for giving me that opportunity. We’re constantly talking about how to reinvent ourselves and how to push ourselves to be better.” This level of dedication has propelled Hallmann & Klee from a neighborhood brunch spot to a casual fine-dining bright spot in the Berlin gastronomy scene.
And that experience trickles out to the entire Hallmann & Klee team and thus to the guests.
Patricia was always enthusiastic about tasting and describing wine, but the last few years of overseeing Hallmann & Klee’s beverage program has instilled in her a newfound sense of confidence. “Of course, self-doubt happens, but at this point, I can say I trust my palate. I know what I taste. I know what I’m smelling. I know what I’m tasting.”
The perception of natural wine is evolving…gone are the days when natural wine is synonymous with bottles that pros would consider flawed. And for Patricia, that’s one of the many formidable changes happening in the wine industry. She’s also noticed more women and increased accountability in the industry, as well as guests and other gastronomy professionals observing healthier drinking patterns – less drinking and more enthusiasm over alcohol-free pairing options. But the main change is that sommeliers are more aware of climate change than ever; they’re asking winemakers questions to determine their sustainability level while climate change is making it more difficult to predict what a wine might be like.
“If it’s a hot summer, they have to harvest those grapes mid-August so they don’t get too ripe. But if a grape ripens too fast, there’s still a greenness to it. So it also means the winemakers have to guess. Instead of having a norm, a set standard, they’re like, If you harvest early, then maybe the acidity has not had time or the sweetness has not had time, or the tannins, or the fact that some things are off balance.
Taking a step back from drinking has allowed Patricia to be even more discerning at tastings and think about the wine world with a critical lens. If Patricia had it her way, we’d focus on remarkable wine, instead of worshiping certain producers and over applauded regions. “It makes me sad that we can’t just close our eyes and not think about where the wine comes from. We should just taste the wine itself and really respect it for what it is versus where it came from.”
Those opting for temperance, whether for the evening or long term, can choose Hallman & Klee’s alcohol-free pairing, which is maintained by restaurant manager, Janine Woltaire. Abstaining, after all, isn’t about giving up, but gaining. “It was a personal choice. It’s something I had been thinking about. I’m not one to preach to anyone about the benefits of not drinking. Anyone can Google that, but I feel great. And now that feeling of being buzzed is something I don’t need to socialize.”
And for Patricia, the opportunity to continue doing what she loves, while feeling better is a bonafide boon. Her philosophy, that wine should be approachable, not scary, and is best served with good food and great friends, is one she stands by.
It’s just fermented grape juice, after all.
- HALLMANN UND KLEE
- Böhmische Str. 13
- 12047 Berlin – Neukölln