Sommelier Spotlight: Heath Porter, The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia

Sommelier Journal, January 2013

An Alabama native lands in West Virginia by way of Hawaii.

In 2000, when Krug debuted its 1988, ’89, and ’90 Champagnes at a tasting in Honolulu, Heath Porter was serving as a wine steward at Sunset Grill in the Kahala Mandarin (now the Kahala Hotel & Resort). Caroline Krug didn’t have to fly out until the next day; serendipitously, Porter was off work during the hours before her departure. The two sat poolside, sipping the remaining bubbly while gazing out at the Pacific Ocean. “I remember thinking how awesome it would be if I could get paid to do this,” Porter recalls. “When I was young, my mom told me to find something that I loved to do and make a living doing it. I love to eat and I love to drink, but who in the world, I wondered, is going to pay me to eat and drink?”

The quick-witted sommelier—now director of wine at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia—banters easily, his charming Southern drawl embellishing his lively tales. Asked where he grew up, Porter describes a dry county in North Alabama: “I was surrounded by Southern Baptists, and it literally drove me to drink for a living.” He started working in the food-and-beverage industry at the tender age of 15, he jokes, to pay off fines accumulated through brushes with local law enforcement. After graduating from high school, Porter left Alabama for the sun-soaked beaches of Hawaii.

At the time of the Krug tasting, he was diligently working his way up the hotel’s employment ladder. Coveting the better-paying night shifts in the restaurant world, he realized wine knowledge was the key, so “I went to every tasting I could get to and read everything I could about wine,” he says. Those efforts paid off. In 2004, Porter won the Pacific regional Best Young Sommelier competition and went on to compete as a finalist in the Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs Young Sommelier Competition in Sonoma, Calif. His 14-year career in Honolulu reached a crescendo when he signed on as general manager and wine director of the Diamond Head Grill at the W Hotel.

Through resort-industry networks, Porter was wooed away in 2006 to the luxury Sea Island resort in Georgia. During his four-plus years as director of the beverage program, he built and maintained an award-winning wine list of more than 1,400 listings and 18,000 bottles; in 2008, Sea Island became the only resort in the world to obtain 20 Mobil/Forbes Travel Guide stars for three consecutive years (five stars each for four venues). In 2009, Porter passed the Advanced examination of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

A year later, he was recruited by The Greenbrier, the oldest resort in North America. The opportunity to transform a wine program for 13 on-site restaurants, cafes, and lounges was enticing enough for Porter to move with his wife Cristi to the quiet hamlet of White Sulphur Springs just as the resort was kicking into high gear—it opened three of its dining rooms and a 100,000-square-foot casino with multiple bars while hosting its first PGA tour event within two months of his arrival. “I just hit the floor running like mad,” he says.

In addition to restructuring the wine inventory, Porter was charged with developing educational protocols for the entire food-and-beverage staff; he currently leads weekly and monthly tastings for as many as 300 attendees. He also taught a first-year sommelier course for 20 employees, all of whom passed the introductory-level exam of the Court of Master Sommeliers and five of whom became Certified Sommeliers. Mentoring is crucial at The Greenbrier, since recruits from outside the area face a significant lifestyle change upon reporting to work at a world-famous resort in a sleepy mountain town.

That remote location created a major obstacle for Porter as well: lack of access to the portfolios of prestigious European wineries and emerging boutique producers. One of his most significant accomplishments has been working directly with importers and collectors all over the world to acquire wines that hadn’t previously been available in the state. “If you had told me we could bring these bottles to the middle of West Virginia and actually sell them, I’d have thought you were crazy,” he says, “but that’s what we are doing.”

Porter tackled the restaurant lists one by one. His first success story was The Forum, an Italian eatery whose program he started revamping prior to his first day on the job; today, 90% of its 300 selections are from Italy. Prime 44 West was next in line.

The list of 600 wines was weighted heavily toward big-name Napa Cabernets—perfect for the signature steaks, but with “no integrity, no fun, nothing from France, Spain, or Italy,” says Porter. He expanded the list to spotlight off-the-beaten-path producers while adding Brunellos, Burgundies, and Bordeaux; he also integrated more regional wines into his cellar. “That’s one thing I’m really excited about,” he says. “I’m two hours away from some of the best producers in Virginia wine country.”

The largest wine list on the premises, featuring more than 1,200 labels, is found in the Main Dining Room, where it’s paired with Southern- and French-inspired cuisine. “We sell a lot of Burgundies up there, a lot of bubblies, and really have fun with it,” says Porter.

The Main Dining Room also represents the heart and soul of The Greenbrier. “You can walk in and see a 20-top table that spans five generations,” he observes, “from the 1-year-old sitting in a high chair to the great-great-grandpa celebrating his 95th birthday.” What wine would you pair with a 95th birthday? Krug, of course.

The Greenbrier
300 W. Main St.
White Sulphur Springs, WV 24986
(855) 453-4858