Sommelier Interview

From Mortgages to Merlot

From banking to booze, The Coast Guard House's sommelier made a tasty career change


After Sandy’s storm surge ravaged The Coast Guard House in Narragansett, Elisa Wybraniec left a 19-year career in banking to help her husband get the place back on its feet. It’s not quite water into wine, but flood waters into a career as wine director is an impressive second best, and that’s just what Elisa has accomplished. Dedicating herself to various courses of study and gaining certifications along the way, she made her passion go pro. Most recently, the Court of Master Sommeliers made her a certified sommelier, which I’d like to imagine involved a very elegant sword and a golden chalice, but instead meant classes and a test with a pretty big failure rate.

Winning Wine Spectator’s award of excellence proves Elisa’s hard work is paying off, but to confirm, check out one of their five-course paired wine dinners, on May 6 and June 9. Elisa uses these as an opportunity to tell a story about a particular varietal, or region, for instance on May 6, it’s all Aussie wines.

So banking to booze, how’d that go down?
It almost unfolded in a fashion that couldn’t have been better I was working full time in banking, and my husband happens to be one of the owners of the restaurant. When Sandy hit, the plate of everything that needed to get done to reopen was immense. Once we got into the part when they were ready to start launching menus, which was at least a year after Sandy, I actually asked for a leave of absence from work to help get his business back on its feet. Graciously, my employer said yes, we totally understand. And once I stepped away from that role every day working in banking, and was able to help him and concentrate on it, to me it just opened my eyes. Before I had to go back, I called them and said I’ve found a new niche, a level of comfort, I’m needed here, I’m enjoying it, thank you for being so kind to give me the time but I’m giving you my notice.

The certified sommelier examination you just passed has a significant failure rate and a blind taste test. What was that like?
It’s very humbling, that’s for sure. In the case of the February exam, you get two wines, a red and a white, and they have a specific format that you have to go through and answer certain questions based on what you are tasting and smelling and come to conclusions about what the varietal might be, and why, and from where. When I took the other one in June of 2014, you only sat in twos, and the girl next to me happened to spill her wine when we were starting, and that was very disruptive to me for my first three blinds, and I know I didn’t get those because I was so freaked out that she knocked it over and I had to concentrate on what I was doing even though she was getting all my papers wet.

What are you into right now in the world of wine?
I am enchanted with Loire wines, Champagne and sparkling wine right now. We were able to visit both regions in October. The visit happened to coincide with my last unit of study with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust Diploma (Unit 5 Sparkling Wine). They are very friendly wines that work well with a range of different foods. Sparkling and Champagne are just so fun; they are more than for just celebrating.

How would you characterize your wine list?
It’s California driven peppered with interesting New and Old World options. Part of the fun developing the list is providing customers with comfortable selections as well as an appellation/American Viticultural Areas (AVA) range for a varietal. I.e. we offer 16 different Chardonnays by the bottle, from areas in Rhode Island, Israel, France, Oregon, Italy and of course California, which range in their expression.

There’s some local focus written all over your drinks menu, from Sons of Liberty in the cocktails, to Newport Vineyards. Take the temperature of our little scene.

I think Rhode Island is an exciting place for locally crafted libations. There is great talent producing award-winning products, and Newport Vineyards, who produce our house Chardonnay, has a very impressive production facility. It has been exciting to take the staff on field trips to some of our local purveyors to get them excited about the localness of our menu and commitment to them.

The Coast Guard House
40 Ocean Road, Narragansett