When Etinosa Emokpae started her career in hospitality in New York City almost a decade ago, wine was simply a supporting character to the food that she was serving. She was working at Shake Shack on the Upper West Side and noticed that many guests would surprisingly order wine alongside their burgers, corn dogs, and crinkle-cut fries.
“It was so fascinating to me that people were coming in and ordering a half bottle of Opus One that we were selling for 80 bucks,” she says. As she moved through restaurants within the Union Square Hospitality Group’s ecosystem, it wasn’t until she joined Maialino, an Italian restaurant in The Gramercy Hotel, that she began to understand how wine makes sense in the culinary experience.
That’s what excites her the most about being a sommelier — connecting with people over a bottle of wine and helping them gain a better understanding of how it can enhance their experience.
In 2016, she moved to Philadelphia, working in various beverage director roles for beloved Philly spots like a.Kitchen, Walnut Street Café, and most recently, Friday Saturday Sunday. Emokpae had been interested in wine distribution for a while, and the onset of the pandemic accelerated her timeline for transitioning out of working for a restaurant.
Emokpae is now a sales support representative for wine importer and distributor Skurnik Wines. In August, she stepped back onto a restaurant floor for the first time in over a year, serving the company’s wines to guests during a four-course meal. “I had a little bit of the shakes in the beginning,” she recalls, “but once the first course had been served? It was like riding a bike.”
The move to wine sales was also necessitated by understanding “wine sales on a more macro level as opposed to just selling wine on the restaurant floor.” Emokpae has not only grown professionally in Philly, but in community with other wine enthusiasts and business owners who contribute to the city’s dining and beverage scene. They lean on one another and thrive under pressure and in adversity.
“I think Philadelphia has a better wine scene because of people like [Emokpae],” says D’Onna Stubblefield, wine director at Sally. “The warmth that has been gifted to this city by someone like her can’t ever be replaced. Her attitude toward wine is so special because it’s so approachable.”
When she was wine director of Friday Saturday Sunday, Emokpae’s philosophy was to make her wine program as digestible as possible for guests, strategically curating a selection of wines that were also reasonably priced. “The time she takes to just make people feel even slightly at ease makes the entire wine world feel like it’s something you want to invest in,” says Stubblefield.
While old-world styles are often revered on a traditional restaurant wine list, Emokpae’s approach to wine is thoughtful. To her, people who step out of their comfort zone are often rewarded for being adventurous with their palates.
“The pandemic really forced a lot of people to explore what we have right in our backyard, and there is more excitement over domestic wines than ever before,” Emokpae says. “[New York’s] Finger Lakes are moving beyond just being known for riesling and making some of the most delicious expressions of cool climate reds. Red Newt, Ravines, Hermann J. Wiemer, and Bloomer Creek are some of my favorites from that region.”
When it comes to pairing wines with food, Emokpae embraces flexibility, recognizing that guests might not want to indulge too much when enjoying a meal. By adding lower ABV (alcohol by volume) selections to her past wine lists, she felt that the wines worked in tandem with the food instead of overshadowing it. “Wine is more than just a beverage — it encompasses culture, history, and so many other facets that make it noteworthy.”
While she may not be pouring from the bottle as much in her new role, Emokpae’s job is still front-facing, and she’s able to share recommendations when asked. After almost 10 years in the business, Emokpae still feels electric by wine — and that electricity continues to enhance her multilayered approach as she blazes her trail in this industry.