Pennsylvania Tastemaker: Philadelphia sommelier Alexandra Cherniavsky

The Love, the latest spot from serial restauranteur, Stephen Starr, and farm-to-table guru, Aimee Olexy, opened last fall in a large spot off Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. The food is what you’d expect from the duo — approachable, seasonal, local — and the wine list carries on that theme, putting a focus on off-beat regions and varietals, and spotlighting Pennsylvania wines.

“Like food and farms and cheese, there are stories to share about wine and reasons to drink a particular wine beyond face value,” says Olexy. “I’m a locavore to the best degree my busy life permits.  That includes my beer and wine drinking habit — I’d eat a Pennsylvania mushroom risotto and drink Traminette any day of the week!

Her partner in putting together the beverage program is sommelier Alexandra Cherniavsky.

“I met Alex through a wine sales person,” recalls Olexy. “She embodied all my hopes for the beverage program leader. Our purpose is to simply get more people drinking – and learning – what makes them happy.”

The path to a career in wine was not always clear for Cherniavsky, who grew up in Chester County with parents who owned a restaurant.

“I spent a lot of my early years thinking, I absolutely don’t want to do this for my job,” she says.

That all changed when she left for college in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and needed work. Cherniavsky landed at Stage Left, a steakhouse with 900 bottles on its wine list.

“The owners showed me a side of restaurants that I’d never seen before,” she says. “I fell in love with wine, and worked my way up there to become a wine buyer.”

She eventually followed her husband to Philadelphia, working at legendary French restaurant Le Bec Fin and Jose Garces’ Amada, among others, before taking the job at The Love. Cherniavsky chatted with PA Wine Land Post about her new gig and introducing diners to Pennsylvania wines.

Tell us about a day-in-the-life of a sommelier.

I spend part of my day tasting, three or four days a week. Vendors bring me exciting new wines. I do all the purchasing for beer, wine, and liquor, so I also spend a lot of time organizing storage spaces and placing orders.

The fun part is that I get to work the floor, either during lunch or dinner (or both). I talk to guests, turn them on to really exciting wines, and watch them get really excited about the thing I’m excited about. So I put in all the work ahead of time, but then I get to share it with the guests. That’s the rewarding part.

How do you discover new wines? And Pennsylvania wines in particular?

I was lucky enough to be part of a tasting last year at Nectar Restaurant & Lounge [in Berwyn] where we tasted 111 different Pennsylvania wines, side-by-side blind. [This was PA Sommelier Judgement Day, an event hosted by the Pennsylvania Winery Association.] The best thing that came out of that was I discovered a bunch of new wines.

Previous to that, I asked friends of mine who were also in the industry, “What are the cool PA wines?” “Who’s doing great work?” “What should I look for?”

Also, we buy from WayVine Vineyard and Winery, and the Wilson Brothers actually went to high school with me. So we found each other that way — it’s a small world.

I look to taste Pennsylvania wines whenever I can. One day during lunch service a couple months ago, a local winemaker came in, had lunch, and said, “Hey, I happen to have brought my rosé wine. Do you want to try it?” Usually, for international producers, I want them to make appointments. But with PA wines, I’m so excited to taste them. I said, “Absolutely! I will find time to taste with you right now.”

How do you encourage diners to try something different, when they’re used to only ordering California or European vintages?

The easiest way that we get Pennsylvania wines in front of guests is that we pour two by the glass: the Galen Glen Grüner Veltliner and the WayVine Merlot. It opens up the conversation. People reach for that glass list, and they go, “OK…French…American…Pennsylvania!?” We give them a taste, and they say, “Wow, this is pretty special.”

Your wine list is organized in a slightly non-traditional way, including “Cult/Rare/Old Wines” and “Wines We Love: Wines to drink now, in this moment, in this place, with this food,” and “Our Friends and Neighbors: Absolutely delicious local wines from Pennsylvania and New York.” Can you tell us about that?

The wine list on a whole is organized to get people excited about things that taste good, and to make wine feel more comfortable. It’s not organized in that “white, rosés, red” kind of way. It gets people to start a conversation: What do you want to have with dinner? How do we want this experience to be? What is the feel we’re having tonight? Are we thinking local? Are we thinking something very spring-y? Are we thinking something from one of the other spotlight regions that are on the list?

At The Love, you emphasize seasonality not only on the menu, but on the wine list as well. Tell us what you expect for spring?

I actually just changed it for spring. Up until three or four weeks ago, we had a “Red Wine for Winter Weather” section. With this newest revamp, we added quite a few rosé wines — and there are even more to come.