Whether you define the term as someone who has spent hundreds of dollars over many months to get a degree, or as just some guy who helps you pick your wine at a restaurant, there are very few sommeliers in Charlottesville. Actually, if you go by the first definition there are none at all. But if you go by the latter, it’s hard to deny that the big sommelier on campus is Keswick Hall’s Richard Hewitt. As the man who creates and maintains the 700-800 bottle wine list at one of the state’s premier resort hotels, it’s safe to say that Hewitt has a great deal of influence over what we drink.
Hewitt now maintains an award-winning list that exceeds 700 wines for Fossett’s, but when he first got into the business 26 years ago, he had no taste for wine whatsoever.
Funny to think that his career almost wasn’t. Hired in 1983 to run the wine cellar at Blantyre, a luxury resort in the Berkshires, the then 32-year-old Hewitt had no prior experience with wine and was basically a teetotaler. His new boss told him to get to know the wine list by opening a bottle of each of the 40 or so wines and trying them. “So I opened up all 40 and hated them all,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t like wine!” By the time he left 12 years later, the list had expanded to over 700 wines and a sommelier had been born.
And now Hewitt’s in charge of the wine list at Keswick’s Fossett’s Restaurant, a Wine Spectator award-winner for 10 years running that has advanced to the second tier of W.S. awards under his watch. It’s a great list, with interesting touches like symbols denoting wineries largely operated by women, and perhaps the largest Virginia selection of any restaurant in the world. “Seventy-five percent of the people who come in want to talk about what wine they’re going to order,” Hewitt says, and he makes it his mission to introduce them to new things. “I rarely give anybody what they want,” he declares. “I give them something they haven’t had before!”
Despite the fact that he’s been a sommelier for more than 20 years, there’s more to Hewitt than just wine geekery. In the midst of his 12 years at Blantyre, he moved with his wife to Portugal for two years, eventually writing a book, A Cottage in Portugal, about the experience. “I had three things that I wanted to accomplish before I turned 50, and I actually did all three,” Hewitt says. “Have a book published, pass the Foreign Service exam, which I did a few years ago, and the third I can’t really talk about.”
Hewitt is not an intimidating presence —I’d call him a cool customer, overall—and that’s what makes him so good at his job. He doesn’t overawe you with his vast knowledge. “I tend to see wine as an agricultural product,” he says, “although a very exciting and intriguing one with a great history.”