Sommelier Jordan Culler manages all things wine at Beach Shop & Grill while ever-furthering his education.
Wine can be an acquired taste for many people and enjoying a glass often requires the perfect combination of knowledge, personal preference and a great selection from which to choose.
For Jordan Culler, wine represents a way to bring happiness and satisfaction to every guest he serves at Beach Shop & Grill on Topsail Beach. As the restaurant’s Certified Court of Master Sommelier (CMS), Culler shares his expertise and deep appreciation of wine and its many complexities with all who gather around his tables.
It wasn’t until Culler served and bartended while attending college at UNCW that he became interested in a career in the food and beverage industry. He remembers initially struggling to work around foods he’d never heard of, since his family back home in High Point cooked simple meals with basic ingredients such as canned vegetables, Hamburger Helper and boxed macaroni and cheese.
“I found myself having to walk to the kitchen to get answers for guests’ questions about a dish or ingredient far too often, so I began studying,” Culler says. “I found a small selection of wine books in the library in downtown Wilmington and that was it, because once I realized the depth of the subject, I was hooked. You have religion and law on one side, chemistry and biology on the other and everything in between.”
During his studies, Culler learned about the Court of Master Sommeliers, an educational organization established in England in 1977 and known for setting the global standard of excellence for beverage service within the hospitality industry. The court’s four stages of certification exams grow in depth and complexity with each level: Introductory, Certified, Advanced and Master.
Culler discovered that with only 269 Master Sommeliers currently alive in the world, earning this elusive final title is extremely difficult and requires great dedication and motivation.
Undeterred, he set out in 2019 to begin the journey, starting with taking and passing the CMS Introductory level 1 exam. In 2022 Culler went on to pass the certified level 2 exam, one of four people in his group of 20 to do so.
In between those exams, Culler prepped for the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) exam proctored by the Society of Wine Educators. This in-depth test covers the world of wine on a more academic level rather than on a service and hospitality one. According to Culler, the major difference between the two is that the CMS requires proficiency in blind tasting and service, whereas the CSW is a written exam.
“I don’t necessarily think certifications and awards are what makes a sommelier who they are professionally, as there are plenty of brilliant people in the wine industry who’ve never taken an exam and that’s totally fine. But this is the path I’m choosing,” Culler says. “I’ve seen the level of trust that guests have in my recommendations grow since I began wearing my lapel pin representing the CMS, so to me it’s worth it.”
According to Culler, a good sommelier fills every role in a restaurant and doing so requires a great deal of knowledge of the entire world of food, beverage and hospitality. His role at Beach Shop & Grill is making guests happy while also educating staff about a constantly fluxing industry. With a wine list just shy of 600 selections, Culler wants every server to feel confident sharing suggestions of some of their favorite wines with guests and explaining why those choices pair best with certain menu offerings. Wine can be an overwhelming subject for both diners and staff, making the role of sommelier incredibly valuable.
“It’s like an iceberg, where you see about 20 percent of what we do, such as decanting old reds, silently pulling corks out of Champagne and making guests comfortable and confident in their dining choices,” Culler says. “The other 80 percent is done behind the scenes — building spreadsheets, managing inventory, writing menus, communicating with distributors, hauling cases of wine and, most of all, reading, studying and trying to stay on top of current industry trends.”
For Cheryl Price, owner of Beach Shop & Grill, having a sommelier at the restaurant adds a level of elegance to the dining experience. She believes sommeliers can help relieve guests’ anxiety when encountering a large wine list such as the one at Beach Shop & Grill.
“Sommeliers are dedicated and passionate professionals, and without explicitly saying it, they’re effectively letting guests know that we’re serious about what we do and the choices we make,” Price says. “It’s all about creating a dining experience above just having another meal.”
Price explains that guests who dine at Beach Shop & Grill should expect professional yet casual service, as sommeliers aren’t the “stuffy, uptight snobs often portrayed in films.” She feels confident Culler will guide diners to the right bottle of wine for their meal, all while speaking to each guest as if they’re a valued friend.
“Jordan listens to you and learns your preferences,” Price says. “When tasting new wines for a potential placement on the list, he’ll often think of a particular regular and say, ‘This would be right up their alley!’”
Culler loves what he does and considers himself lucky to be working at Beach Shop & Grill, and he credits Price for much of the extensive wine collection available at the restaurant.
He was recently chosen for one of the few available seats for this year’s Advanced Sommelier Course in Dallas, a recognition he considers to be a great honor.
His fiancée, Natalie, also recently passed the CMS intro exam, and Culler is excited to now have the opportunity to share his passion with her. He acknowledges that being a sommelier is a lifelong pursuit, and he looks forward to using his hard-earned skills to the fullest every day.
“I wake up each morning with a new challenge and a new puzzle to solve,” Culler says. “It’s a lot of work, but at the end of the day it’s all about hospitality and making sure your guests leave happier than when they came in, and hopefully with plans to return. Will I ever become a Master Sommelier? I don’t know, but I’m going to go down this brutally difficult path as far as my brain and palate can take me.”
Photography by City to Sea Media