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Gotham Gigs: A former Rockette lands in second position as a sommelier

By HILARY POTKEWITZ

THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS: Lewis developed a taste for wine in her mid-20s. Now people pay for her expertise.

Sabra Lewis is living many a wine-lover’s dream: She retired from her dance career at age 30 and relaunched herself as a certified sommelier. Now she gets paid to taste and talk about wine. But that’s not as easy as it might sound.

“You can’t just sit around and drink all day and pontificate,” she said. “You have to do a lot of studying: farming, viticulture, the economics of wine—pricing is huge—historical context, wine laws in each country. I love it, but it’s exhausting.”

Lewis works up to five nights a week at Terroir Tribeca, the downtown wine bar owned by James Beard Award–winning sommelier Paul Grieco. She also runs her own consulting business, Wine by Lewis & Co. Her clients include the International Business and Wine Society and the new restaurant Icelandic Fish & Chips.

Her job at Terroir involves recommending and serving wine and being able to answer any questions about the restaurant’s extensive wine list. “Each table is a little bubble in the palm of my hand,” Lewis said. “It’s up to me to give them the best experience at whatever budget they have.”

Lewis takes a few wine trips a year, usually on her own dime. She recently returned from a week of sherry tasting in Southern Spain. She’ll visit about three wine producers per day and taste anywhere from six to 10 wines at each vineyard, taking detailed notes throughout.

“Ultimately, I’m the translator between the winemaker and the guest who will be drinking it,” she said.

Like many Americans, Lewis discovered wine in her mid-20s. She had trained to be a ballet dancer and at age 20 moved to New York and became a Rockette. She went on to perform in the Broadway musicals Phantom of the Opera, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Spamalot.

During a 2004 vacation to Tuscany, she fell in love with wine culture. “There’s always a jug of wine on the 
table,” she said. “The tomatoes, the wine, the pasta all had the same level of importance. I’d 
never experienced that before.”

Back home Lewis enrolled in wine classes by day and performed on Broadway at night. Thanks to years of side gigs in restaurants, she was able to land bartending jobs at eateries known for their wine lists.

Lewis believes being a good sommelier is all about “the art of reading a table.” Some people want to learn, and the sommelier can be the star, she said. “But if you can tell it’s a business dinner, it’s about being a ninja: getting in and out of the table without anyone noticing.”

 

SABRA LEWIS

AGE: 37 BORN: Plano, Texas RESIDES: Battery Park City EDUCATION: International Wine Center, WSET Advanced program RARE VINTAGE: Lewis found a mentor in master sommelier Laura Williamson. “Most sommeliers in New York are men,” Lewis said. “She’s a unicorn in the wine world.” NEW ACQUISITIONS: Lewis recently started collecting wine, primarily champagne, Burgundy and Riesling. She keeps about 100 bottles in a EuroCave wine fridge in her apartment and another 300 in storage. GETTING THE VIBE: “If I can tell it’s a Tinder date, I get out of there as quickly as possible,” she said. “People are already intimidated and uncomfortable; no need to make it worse.”

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