todd philippsIt’s been just three months since Todd Phillips arrived in Miami as wine director for the prestigious Mandarin Oriental , but already the North Carolinian is starting to find his groove. By focusing on the restaurant Azul’s by-the-glass program, Phillips hopes to help his guests discover new flavors from less expected names around the world.

“We’ve got wines from almost every region in the world,” he said. “For our by-the-glass program we’re trying to shift more toward small production, boutique wineries that people may not have heard of because they’re not written about all the time, but are absolutely incredible.”

Phillips, who grew up in Ashville, North Carolina and studied music at a local community college, maintains his laid-back, small-town charm. And his love of small production wines is probably as much about the people who make them as it is about the wines themselves. On recent trips to visit family in Washington State, Phillips set some time aside to visit local wineries.

“We stumbled upon a business park that actually had seven different wineries, and it was just guys walking around in jeans and t-shirts and it was really just country boys making really good wine out of what was basically like a garage,” he said. “These are people who used to work in a restaurant and just decided one day that they were going to go buy some grapes and make wine.”

Phillips worked his way through college as a server at the famous Grove Park Inn, a Four-Diamond resort in Asheville, NC.  What started out as a way to pay for music school took him all the way up to general manager.  Along the way, Phillips was exposed to many wines, opening his eyes to a new possible career.

“We had over 1100 wines at Grove Park, and I had the opportunity to taste burgundies going back to 1976, and that really opened my eyes to the world of wines,” he said. “In 2006, I tasted the iconic 1996 Quintessa, Rutherford from Napa Valley.  Just thinking about what was happening in 1996, and what I was doing, or even going back and looking at what the climate was like that year and how it affected the wine, and how this wine had evolved over the ten years in the bottle, and what it tastes like now – to me that whole process is kind of magical.”

Phillips still plays his piano every day and enjoys composing his own songs more than playing someone else’s.  But wine has become his main focus and at Azul he’s found a different outlet for his creativity: helping guests select the perfect wine pairing, and experimenting with new cocktails at the bar.

“Getting to play around with different things, trying a different mix of herbs, or trying a drink that’s maybe missing something and adding an egg white to it and finding that the texture was the one thing that was missing… I think that’s where I really get to be creative,” he said.

Azul’s Head Chef, Jacob Anaya, loves working with Phillips.  “Being from the south, Todd is very down to Earth and his sense of hospitality is totally genuine,” he said. “He’s always very welcoming and warm with our guests, and he’s just been very helpful.  On average, we’ll make changes to the menu about twice a week and he can sit down and talk to us about pairings for the menu and he just has so much knowledge.”

Anaya sees a bright future for Phillips at Azul.  In the short time he’s been there, he’s already made significant changes.  “I think if you come back a year from now, you’re going to see the wine list going in a whole different direction,” he predicted.

Inspired by Miami’s eclectic culture and warm climate, Phillips says he wants to create a wine list that makes sense for South Florida. He anticipates a growing demand for white wines in the coming months as spring gives way to a hot and humid Miami summer.

One of Phillips’ favorites on the list is a Lioco Chardonnay, a stainless-steel, naturally-fermented Chardonnay from different growers in California that stands out for its refreshing acidity.  Another recommendation:  Trimbach Pinot Gris (Alsace, France)  with the Tuna Poke —one Chef Anaya’s signature appetizers.

Azul is located at Mandarin Oriental, Miami, 500 Brickell Key Drive.  Dinner is served from 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and Azul Bar is open from 6:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.  Reservations: (305) 913 8358.   www.mandarinoriental.com.

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Ashlyn Toledo is a free-lance journalist, graduate of FIU School of Journalism. (ashlyn.toledo@gmail.com)

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