Hai Tran was working as a part-time fine dining server in North Carolina when he experienced the ah-ha moment that would essentially serve as the launch pad for his career as a sommelier.
At the time, Tran, a first-generation Vietnamese American from Florida, with an undergraduate degree in biology from Duke University, was working at a lab. But while at a trade tasting on an off-day, Tran — who gained a reputation for being the spiky-haired Asian kid that asked a lot of great wine questions amongst the local wine crowd in his community — tried a Pinot Noir from California that changed his life. Not long after, he was offered an opportunity to work for a fine wine distributor in North Carolina in 2007.
Tran has studied and worked in wine ever since and has earned plenty of recognition for his work as a sommelier at prestigious North Carolina restaurants, including an New World Vietnamese Cuisine and Umstead Hotel and Spa, before he uprooted himself and went to The Rittenhouse Hotel in Pennsylvania. Before the pandemic, Tran worked as the beverage director for Starr Restaurant Group’s luxury steakhouse, Barclay Prime, in Philadelphia.
Amid the COVID-19 crisis and the onslaught of racial justice protests that took place across the U.S. in 2020, Tran began contributing to the sommelier collective, Sommation, and used the position to push for more diversity, inclusion, and BIPOC representation across the wine industry, in hopes of amplifying the stories and people in wine that deserved to be heard.
“Coming from a smaller, tertiary market, I was always big on the belief that a rising tide raises all boats. So if I can use my voice to highlight the work of my peers who are doing great things in their respective programs, I will do it,” Tran says.
Tran’s promotions of the unheard and overlooked in the wine industry doesn’t just extend to his colleagues. He also feels it’s important to use his platform and position to expose the splendor of wines and bottles from underrated regions of the world like South Africa, Chile, and Austria among others.
“I want to get more folks excited about what is going on in these viticultural regions,” Tran says.
He recommends three wines consumers should consider when they want something beyond the traditional wine-growing regions of France, Italy, and Spain.
Comprised of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes grown along the Breede River Valley in Robertson — not too far from Cape Town — this sparkling rosé is produced in the Méthode Cap Classique style by a family that’s operated the estate since 1983. It’s a prime example of the quality and elegance of bubbly coming from the region. “There is a precision to the sparkling wine with a complexity of flavor that will appease any wine enthusiast,” Tran says. “It’s amazing value and a wine that I always highly recommend to anyone who wants something that over-delivers at its price point.”
White wines from Austria may be more well-known among drinkers, but what winemaker Markus Altenburger is doing with Blaufränkisch — a native Austrian red grape that’s a cross between Blauer Zimmettraube and Weißer Heunisch — is something that Tran says shouldn’t be overlooked. “This wine is an amazing value that is a beautiful introduction to all that this variety has to offer — vibrant and juicy red and black fruits, black pepper spice, floral tones, firm but not aggressive tannic structure, and ample acidity,” Tran says, noting that this bottle works particularly well with a wide variety of foods. “If I am bringing a red to a cookout, you better believe it will be a Blaufränkisch,” he adds.
This is a wine that Tran likes to serve because “no one ever thinks of Chile as a country capable of producing a Chardonnay with such a balance between the ripeness of the fruit with the structure that Chardonnay grown in the right soils and climate can exhibit.” The vineyards of Viña Aquitania — the lovechild of winemakers Felipe de Solminihac, Château Cos d’Estournel’s former owner Bruno Prats, former head of the Bollinger Champagne house Ghislain de Montgolfier, and the late Paul Pontallier of Chateau Margaux — is located in the southern region of Chile’s Malleco Valley. The red clay and sandy soil of the area are baked with lots of sunshine during the day followed by cool nights, which results in superior fruit. “Whenever I drink this Chardonnay, I can’t help but to wear a smile on my face as I think about how folks who have written off New World Chardonnay have been drinking the wrong examples,” Tran says.