Jennifer Knowles' first encounter with wine wasn't the rosy epiphany that one might expect, for an oenophile who has risen to such heights in her profession. It involved a dispenser of Chablis that resembled a water container and with a quick twist of the nozzle, the water turned out to be wine. This one mistaken childhood taste from the family’s refrigerator was enough to keep her away: "Let's just say it was years before I was interested in trying wine again…" she recalls.
At a retreat for the Jesuit priests from local universities, a young teenaged Knowles embarked on a summer job on Boston's south shore that would be uncannily predicative of her career in wine and spirits. As jack-of-all-trades, her duties involved prepping in the kitchen for a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, as well as the daily routine of setting the display bar of spirits before dinner service.
"Once the priests started debating the intricacies of Scotch versus Canadian whiskies, I was hooked, a sponge for any knowledge they would offer. They were what I came to learn were 'oenophiles' and 'foodies,' my first exposure to people who cared so deeply about what they ate and drank."
Just shy of 18, and still working days with the priests, Knowles began serving at a restaurant that solidified her growing awareness that wine was a primary focus in fine dining. Her wonder at how such remarkable aromas and flavors were present in a simple glass of wine brought out her natural inquisitiveness and gave her the confidence to start asking questions when wine reps would bring bottles for the staff to sample. “I was allowed to taste, but was told I had to spit, which would sound insane to any 18-year-old who is getting permission to drink, and at work, no less!" she recalls.
Knowles was awarded a scholarship to study Chemistry at Syracuse University, not yet connecting her major and her extra-curricular hobby. After three years balancing courses and tending bar, she returned home to focus on expanding her knowledge of wine, which was proving to be her true passion. Reading and researching deeply, she began to build the vocabulary that would define her personal and professional life.
Learning about an Oenology program at UC Davis motivated Knowles to move to San Francisco, where she began bartending at fine dining restaurants and was introduced to common sommelier practices like blind tasting and the all-important monthly inventory. Knowles met Karla Kilgore, who offered her an initial position as sommelier. Following in her first mentor’s footsteps, Knowles took a shot at the introductory exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers [CMS,] tying for the highest score out of 100 students. Then, much to the surprise of all, in a career move of extreme drive and foresight, Knowles traded her position as wine director for a server position to gain access to a most influential mentor, Master Sommelier Larry Stone at Rubicon. Under his tutelage and guidance, she was named StarChefs' New World Rising Star Sommelier, the first year for the sommelier category. She went on to pass the Advanced portion of the CMS.
Knowles wish to return to the East Coast was answered by an opening at The Inn at Little Washington. She was hired as wine director, a proficient position she held with distinction for three-and-a-half years, from 2010-2014. While there, she was named “Best Sommelier” by the International Academy of Gastronomy and received the 2013 Golden Goblet Award by the Association of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs.
When it was time to step-up her growth and exploration, Knowles chose to return to an urban environment in July 2014 to becoming wine director of The Jefferson, DC with its award-winning restaurant, Plume. Then in December 2016, she was tapped to develop the wine program and help train and mentor a new staff at Mirabelle, located steps from the White House.
In September 2017, Knowles was asked to lead Michael Isabella’s Requin at The Wharf as the general manager and wine director. She delivered a successful opening with exceptional reviews while building the 450-selection wine list.
However, restaurateur Hakan Ilhan needed her expertise and asked her to return to Mirabelle in June 2018. Here she is leading the restaurant in a reorganization for a relaunch in August 2018, securing a new executive chef and reuniting a talented staff who had worked under her directive for the landmark restaurant’s grand opening in March 2017.
At Mirabelle, Knowles will maintain the level of service she has created from her experiences working with some of the best front-of-the-house professionals in the country. Her focus with training is led by her belief that for the staff to anticipate the guest’s needs and to be fully immersed in their goal to exceed the guest’s expectations, they must be kind, caring, attentive and confident. Her goal is to bring as much of a focus on continuing education as possible and to empower everyone with the tools they need to be as successful as they can be. Knowles is so proud and honored to be able to return to Mirabelle to continue with this philosophy and ensure it is part of the ethos of the entire restaurant.