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Hai Tran - Hai Tran worked as the beverage director for Starr Restaurant Group's luxury steakhouse.

How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.

I’ve been in the wine business since 2007 when I was presented with an opportunity to work for a fine wine distributor in NC after gaining a reputation amongst the local wine shops for being that “spikey haired Asian kid that asked a lot of great wine questions”. I would spend a year there before meeting the chef that would take a flyer on me. We connected due to our shared Vietnamese culture combined with my persistence and passion for beverage. The restaurant was a fine dining Southeast Asian fusion restaurant called an New World Cuisine and my experience there would open many doors for me in the community. I would move on to work at one of the most prestigious food and beverage programs in the Triangle region of NC (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) in the form of the Umstead Hotel & Spa, that would shape my understanding of how creating experiences for our guests is the x factor that makes a truly memorable experience combined with stunning food and an excellent beverage program. I would collectively spend eight years of my career at these two locations. I had an opportunity to expand my experience in a larger city and market through The Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia. Before the pandemic shut things down, I had been working as the beverage director for Starr Restaurant Group’s luxury steakhouse, Barclay Prime. During the pandemic, I took the opportunity to spend as much time as possible raising my son who was born only a few months prior to the shutdown. In addition, I was introduced to and welcomed to a sommelier collective called Sommation, who is working to promote the wine industry while keeping in mind inclusivity, wellness, and diversity.

Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?

The moment that sealed it for me that wine was something I wanted to learn more about and eventually growing into a passion happened during a trade tasting that I was invited to attend as a server. This being my first time ever attending a trade tasting, I suddenly felt out of my element surrounded by mostly older white males dressed in suits and using words that I had never heard of before. I kept fairly quiet during this tasting and kept to myself. Thankfully since it was my first tasting, I didn’t know what a spittoon was and partaked in some liquid courage that opened me up early on in the tasting. I found my way to a table filled with about 20 different bottles and when asked what I was interested in tasting, I pointed at a bottle with a distinctive triangle label. I drank the wine and was surprised by how delicious it was. The wine was silky on the palate but was bursting with flavor. I asked the person who was pouring to tell me more about the wine. He would say if I liked that Pinot Noir, I should try this one as well. Before I knew it I would taste an additional three Pinot Noir but that first one had caught my attention. I asked why these wines all tasted different despite being from California and being made from the same grape. He would go on to talk about the concept of terroir, winemaking, and vintage. I quickly realized that wine was bottled history, capturing a moment in time. I was hooked and immediately set off to learn as much as I could. Being able to tell these stories and get others excited to this day still brings me the greatest joy.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

The most rewarding part of being a sommelier is being able to share your passion with another. By doing so, your passion becomes contagious and seeing a new fire lit in someone is an amazing thing. To see your staff go from “not getting it” to being excited about the beverages in your program, or to see a guest leave with a new appreciation for a wine region, grape variety, and/or new producer makes all the other obstacles we face well worth it.

Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry?

Early on in my career due to my age, look (I was sporting a faux hawk for the first four years of my career as a beverage director), and working in a Southeast Asian fusion restaurant, I faced a number of incidents where representatives (local and national) felt they needed to talk in a condescending manner to me, explain what was wrong with my wine program, or tell me how I should taste while simply stating I just don’t understand what is in the bottle. These incidents were all things I knew were unacceptable during my time as a sales representative, but being new in the business I kept my head down and avoided controversy. There would be a few times where I had to go over the sales representatives head to talk to their supervisor to request a new one if they wanted to continue to do business with me. Once I gained confidence and experience, while proving that I belonged in that space, those incidents would subside. The one thing that would never subside though would be the micro-aggressions I faced on the regular from guests and my sales representatives. Comments like, “Where are you from? No where are you really from? No you know what I mean!” or “You speak English so well! Where did you learn?” or “You are Vietnamese? I love pho!” or “You are Vietnamese? My father fought in the war!” or “This wine goes great with Asian food!”

When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by advocating for diversity and inclusion?

The world of wine has a certain stigma to it. Wine was never meant to be exclusionary, but yet, here we are. By working towards diversity and inclusion in our community, we not only remove that stigma but we welcome new perspectives, new tastes, and new enthusiasts to our community. This can only lead to growth as community and new paths to explore together.

What changes do you hope to see in the wine industry in the next five years?

Superficially, I would love to see myself and the BIPOC community represented. This can be either in advertisements, social media, or in whose voices are being utilized to tell the stories of the industry. On a deeper level, I hope to see wineries, restaurants, retailers, and distributors putting in the work to address issues preventing diversity, inclusion and equity in our industry. I would love to see the continued focus on helping those in marginalized communities get into the wine industry, while also addressing the importance of taking care of the heart of the wine industry through education and health benefits to the laborers in the vineyards.

What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?

Equality in the wine industry means making sure that there is equal distribution of resources (certifications, education opportunities, job opportunities, internships, etc) to all regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, and financial status. Although this sounds amazing, I would like to see more equity in the wine industry, where we take a deeper look at how we can bring in different communities and help them succeed in our industry. Being put on equal footing without realizing that all might not have the proper tools to succeed can result in failure.

In what ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?

With my restaurant staff that I’ve had the honor to work with, beverage education has always been open to anyone in the restaurant regardless of position. I’ve had hosts, line cooks, and support staff join the service staff in such trainings. It’s always surprising the perspectives that are brought to the discussion through opening up such opportunities. Outside of the restaurant, I have provided mentorship to anyone in my community that I’ve seen pursuing certifications or looking to get into the wine industry. Lastly, as part of my “small town Somm” mentality, I’ve always believed in the success of one is the success of all. As a result, I’ve always believed in hyping up the accomplishments and voices of all in the community.

What message do you have for anyone now entering the wine profession?

There are going to be things you don’t know and that is ok. Keep learning everyday and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Remember why you got into the profession in the first place and be sure to share that passion!

What other industry heroes do you admire and why?

Yannick Benjamin for his tireless advocacy for the industry as well as for the disabled community. I don’t know anyone with the strength and resolve that Yannick has. Tahiirah Habibi for her realness and her work with The Hue Society in creating inclusive and diverse spaces within the beverage industry. She embodies the spirit of if it doesn’t exist, build it. Elaine Arnaqiaq Chukan Brown for her beautiful spirit and her work as an accomplice in so many different movements. The power of her words always commands the attention of those that are fortunate to be in the vicinity to read or hear them. I could keep going but I wanted to keep it at three…
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