Lisa Tussing, a Southern California native, got her start in wine while attending college in Arizona. She started out like many of us do—drinking wine from Trader Joe’s, where she worked during college. From there, she moved on to fine dining, at places like John Howie Steak in Bellevue, Wash., and the historic Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. In 2014, Tussing was the youngest woman in Arizona to hold a Level 2 sommelier certification. A chance meeting with La Quinta Resort and Club general manager John Healy at the Biltmore (which is owned by the same company as the La Quinta Resort) brought Tussing to the desert last year.
Tussing and I chatted in the dining room of Morgan’s over a bottle of Los Bermejos Malvasia Seco.
When did you first start getting into wine?
When I worked at Trader Joe’s. I got a job there when I was 22, and worked there for three years while I was going to Arizona State. I’m the biggest Trader Joe’s cheerleader: I had a great work experience. Everyone loves being there; they pay well; they feed you; they encourage you; they let you take ownership and make you feel empowered with your guests. I started working in the wine department a little bit, and my friends and I started to taste our way through the wine selection. By 23, I had drank my way through the wine program! From there, I kind of started taking it over. I started making the orders and became the go-to wine person. People would laugh at me and say, “You’re not even old enough to drink, are you?” After Trader Joe’s I got back into fine dining at luxury hotels.
What’s the best part of your job?
At Morgan’s, we do these “festivals” menus. Every two weeks, depending on what is in season and what’s local, we do a different three-course menu. We do this all summer. … We do wine pairings with the menus, too! It is really fun to work with my chef (Jimmy Schmidt); he gives me an idea of where to start, then we’ll sit down together and bring new wines in and make the perfect little pairing.
I also love it when guests bring in wine and share some with me. Some of the best wines I’ve ever had are wines guests bring in.
What are you loving on your list right now?
The Bonny Doon “(I Am Not Drinking Any) $%&*#!” Merlot is a fun, inexpensive wine. I love the name, and it has a really fun story behind it. Another of my favorites on the list is Trefethen Dragon’s Tooth. The Dragon’s Tooth is a malbec blend out of Napa Valley which Janet Trefethen makes that is a winery- and wine-club-only wine, but I managed to convince them to let me put it on the list. … I also like the Tamarack Cellars rosé that I pour by the glass. Last summer, I went wine-tasting in Walla Walla, and after a week of tasting syrahs and merlots and these giant cabs and Washington reds, my palate was blown, but we went to Tamarack last-minute because my chef’s friends said how amazing it was. I drank this rosé there, and it was like the wine gods were shining a light on me.
What’s your sommelier strategy?
It’s all about your guest and knowing what they’re looking for. My strategy is to approach a table and get a feel for them and what they’re trying to accomplish with their meal. I ask what they’re having for dinner, what they normally like to drink, and how much they want to spend. I also ask if they want to go more traditional or do something fun. With all that info, I can pick out the perfect bottle on my list for their occasion. My strategy is not limited to wine: I have no ego once service starts. I’ll bus your table; I’ll run food and seat people. Once service starts, it’s all about the guest and what they need to have the best experience possible.
How often do people want fun versus traditional?
A lot more than you’d think, actually! A lot of guests will come in here with their minds made up. They might say, “I really like The Prisoner,” and I’ll ask why, and they’ll say, “I really like the fruit and texture, and it is really mellow.” I’ll say, “If you really like that wine, definitely get it! But if you want to try something a little different tonight, go with this B Cellars Sangiovese out of Napa Valley.” It’s all about reading the table.
What are you drinking right now?
Vodka. (Laughs.) When I go out, I drink cosmos and beer, like hefeweizen and lager. When I’m at home, I drink bubbles. I also love any white that doesn’t touch oak: torrontés, vinho verde, albariño and New Zealand sauv blanc.
Your desert island wine?
Just one wine?
I’m not a monster. (Laughs.)
Well, I’d do a breakfast, a lunch and a dinner wine: Bollinger (Champagne) for breakfast, torrontés for lunch, and Jones Family Vineyards Cabernet for dinner. I remember the first time I had that wine. A guest brought it in, and I thought, “Why don’t all red wines taste like this?”
Favorite food pairing?
I love a good oyster/champagne combo, or oyster/rosé. I love our oysters here; they are one of the most refreshing things I’ve ever tasted—a raw oyster topped with tangerine and Eroica Riesling granita; poached ginger; and tangerine salsa. It’s one of the chef’s signature dishes.
Favorite wine book?
All the study books are good, like Windows on the World and The World Atlas of Wine, but I read a book one time that really inspired me: Cheryl Ladd’s Token Chick: A Woman’s Guide to Golfing With the Boys. It’s about golf, but (I) kind of tied wine into it. She was the first woman on the celebrity pro-am. It’s not technically about wine, but it’s about being a woman in a man’s world, so I relate to her.
Where do you like to go out in the desert?
I stay in La Quinta a lot. There is a restaurant up the street called Casa Mendoza; I try to stop in there on my days off. (The restaurant has) killer margaritas, and the owner is always there; he’s really friendly. The food and service are great. I send a lot of people there.
Your favorite thing to do in the desert?
Golf at the Arnold Palmer Private Course at PGA West. Right now, the bighorn (sheep) are out on the course! It’s a sight to see. During the summer, I can golf about once a week. During the season, I don’t get to play at all. I don’t mind the heat. I don’t drink on the course—just water and Gatorade, so I sweat it out. It’s cleansing.
Palm Springs native Christine Soto is a co-owner of Dead or Alive wine bar in Palm Springs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.