For 10 years, Canlis Restaurant has secured “Grand Award” status in Wine Spectator‘s annual issue devoted to the world’s great wine lists. For six of those years, the restaurant’s head sommelier has been Shayn Bjornholm. At Canlis the position isn’t just the public face of the restaurant’s hyperambitious wine program; Bjornholm has also been in charge of buying and restocking the 4,000-bottle collection. As the top wine guy, running a top wine program at one of the top restaurants in the country, he’s as close to the top of his profession as anybody can be.
The sommelier of a free-standing establishment, however eminent, can make just so much money, and Bjornholm is at the point in his life trajectory when cruising the floor in a tux is no longer totally fulfilling, financially or personally. So Monday, Oct. 30, was Bjornholm’s last official day at Canlis. It would be no surprise if he were leaving to take over the wine side of the business for Jean-Georges Vongerichten or to make some serious bucks at one of Vegas’ gilded wine-and-beverage operations.
Instead, he’s taking a riskier course: going freelance, at least for the time being, taking time to travel and get a life while considering his options. With the rep he’s built through Canlis, he’s well positioned to act as a consultant for restaurants wanting to upgrade their wine programs or for wholesalers and importers attempting to craft product lineups that achieve the tricky balance between novelty, affordability, and consumer appeal.
In conversation, though, he sounds just as interested in fostering the next generation of wine guys and gals through teaching, lecturing, and tastings. Sommeliers these days earn the title through a series of grueling examinations conducted by their accreditation body, the Court of Master Sommeliers. But passing the tests doesn’t prepare anyone for the responsibility of managing a full-scale wine program. “I was incredibly lucky in having the full confidence of the Canlis family when I started running the operation,” Bjornholm told me. “I was even luckier they continued to have confidence after I managed to misplace about $4,000 worth of Ridge Montebello Cabernet.” (The wine turned up, in mislabeled cases, a few months later, or the story might not have ended so happily.)
Nelson Daquip, Bjornholm’s successor, has enjoyed a meteoric rise in status since he joined the Canlis team in 2002 as an apprentice. He passed his advanced sommelier exam only three years later—not bad for someone who graduated from the culinary program at Hawaii’s Kapi’olani Community College five years before. But Daquip has had the benefit of Bjornholm’s tutoring, just as Bjornholm learned the ropes from his predecessor, Rob Bigelow. In the world of wine, the word apprenticeship still means something.