**Editor’s Note: Shortly after this interview Ben was injured in a swimming pool accident that fractured several vertebrae, injured his spinal cord, and left him paralyzed below the chest. Ben has been a friend of Rock City since arriving in Little Rock, and after talking with him we decided to run ahead with the story. Ben is an amazingly talented guy, his knowledge and wine experience is second to none in Little Rock which is why we originally decided to kick off this series with him. More than that, Ben is a great person. So we wish him a speedy recovery not only to see him back curating wine menus, but also just to have him around encouraging the local community.
Ben has a long road to recovery and will soon be transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta for specialized treatment. With that comes quite a bit of out of pocket expense above and beyond what insurance will cover. If you feel compelled, consider donating to his medical fund.
We talk a lot about beer and cocktails around here, but the level of experience and talent needed to reach the top of the wine world is second to none. A great sommelier is often times as important as a chef in a fine dining restaurant. Our new Wine Insider series focuses on some of the top wine professionals impacting the state. First up is Ben Edwards with Capital Hotel.
If you’ve never had the opportunity to sit down with a Sommelier, a.k.a. “The wine guy,” it’s an experience you won’t soon forget. With a breadth of knowledge and an eagerness to explore, learn and share his experiences, Ben Edwards is an approachable guy who’s accessible right here in the heart of the Rock. He’s the guy you’ll want to request a wine recommendation the next time you’re dining at the Capital Hotel.
Edwards’ vocational journey began in Carmel Valley, California. At the age of 16, an interest in cars connected him to a friend who’s father was Ben Pon, designer of the Volkswagen Bus and a significant investor and owner in Porsche. Pon built a 75 million dollar resort which notably housed annual travelers attending the Monterey Historic Car Races and Car Auctions. Pon also owned a winery called Bernardus, which is where Edwards got his start.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wanted to travel the world and teach troubled youth to rock climb,” Edwards recounts. “I told my chef — I was still a valet — ‘I really want to go to culinary school.’ He said, ‘Don’t do that,’ and pulled me into the kitchen; had me do room service and prep. All day long I’d sit there peeling vegetables and waiting for the phone to ring.”
“I realized very quickly that being a chef only seems kind of glamorous,” Edwards remarks.
“There was this guy over in the corner in a suit, polishing glasses, tasting wine and looking happy all the time. I asked him, ‘What do you do?’ and he said, ‘I’m the sommelier,’” Edwards recalls.
At the age of 19, Edwards started collecting wine. By 21, he was in Business school. Feeling unfocused, Edwards took the summer off to work for a winery. He explains, “I just landed in the right place with the right people. Kept getting one great mentor after another and ended up not going back and finishing school.”
“I took my college fund that my grandparents had for me and cashed it all out and bought wines in the 2003 to 2007 era,” Edwards says. “I had access to some really good wholesale priced wines. I could buy three bottles, sell one, and keep two for free and make my money back. That’s how I traveled the world for seven years. I would sell wine and go to Europe for a month.”
A personal relationship took Edwards to New York where he completely removed himself from the wine business. After severing ties, he returned to California. “Every single day I thought about going back to New York,” Edwards remembers.
He recalls telling friend, Dustin Wilson, ‘If you ever have a spot at Eleven Madison Park — that’s the best meal I’ve ever had — I want to go work there one day.”
While in Burgundy, France, Edwards received an email from Wilson. The email stated, “‘I’ve got this opportunity for you. It’s not Eleven Madison Park but it’s something you want to be apart of.’” Edwards recalls, “So, I came home from dinner, and Skyped with Will Guidara and Dustin, did an interview, went home, and eight days later I was in New York to plan the NoMad.”
Preparation for the opening of the NoMad was a bit of a thrill ride. Edwards says, “I was on the opening team of it. We ordered all the wines. We built the cellar.”
Edwards recounts, “We didn’t get the racking for the cellar until three days before; our liquor license hadn’t come in; we had stuff sitting in this warehouse in Bond; three days before we opened we built out an entire room with this aluminum, kind of Erector Set wine cellar; brought in 24,000 bottles; stickered every single one of them … did a full inventory; printed out the wine list; then opened up for business with six hours of sleep over 72 hours.”
“It was awesome,” he beams.
After a year at the NoMad, Edwards made his way back to his roots in California to regain touch with family. But he still felt the pull to be apart of Michelin-starred restaurants.
Edwards found himself at the Pebble Beach Food and Wine Festival with one of its’ founding members, Gary Obligacion, Director of Operations of The Alinea Group in Chicago.
“We were having drinks,” Edwards explains. “He told me he had a spot for me at Alinea if I wanted to come Somm there. And I said, ‘Totally, I want to go back to Michelin 3-star.’”
Before his transition to Chicago, Edwards came to Little Rock for a month to visit his nephews and sister after her husband deployed. “I remembered noticing such a difference in the food and beverage scene here,” Edwards recounts.
His sister persisted, “You should live here. Why are you moving to Chicago where you don’t know people again? You keep moving to these big cities just for work. You should live near family.”
“One day I said, ‘You know what? You’re right. I’m moving to Little Rock,’” Edwards states.
After networking in Little Rock, Edwards landed an opportunity at the Capital Hotel, which seemed the perfect fit for Edwards.
Initially, the Capital Hotel didn’t have a Sommelier position available. Edwards explains, “So, I started as a server and they made me Assistant Manager of [Capital Bar & Grill], and then the Manager of [Capital Bar & Grill], and all within 6 months I went from a server to running both restaurants and the beverage program.”
Edwards quickly rose to become the Food Outlets and Beverage Leader, a duty that involves running the front of the house, Capital Bar & Grill, One Eleven, the Bobby Bar and all things beverage for the hotel. His involvement only excludes private dining. It is a role that Edwards has used to continue to introduce good wine to the city and showcase the best of what Little Rock has to offer to the numerous high profile guests that come through the hotel.
“My goal is to have something for everybody on the list. To make sure I’ve got different varietal types … but not going away from what the food needs,” Edwards says.
“If a guests is ever willing to trust me, I’ll take them down a safe path and maybe give them something very similar, that they’ve never heard of that’s a great deal. Gain their trust. The next time they come in they might say, ‘well what else might I like?’ And It might be something from another continent, another great varietal, but in that profile that they’re comfortable with,” Edwards says. “I think that’s what this market has been missing is people who have enough knowledge of obscurities, and different flavors and different regions that are willing to take the time to earn trust of guests and clientele in order to get them back over and over again, to where you can take them out and experience the really cool fun world of wine.”
The Little Rock wine scene continues to grow, but still faces a lot of hurdles. The availability of obscure wine is something Edwards says he struggles with a lot in this market versus New York and California. Still the challenge of moving the market forward is one of the things he loves the most about the position he is in.