Ramona Founder Jordan Salcito on How She Created a Cult-Fave Wine Spritzer
RAMONA wines have been on our radar for a minute. A crisp, modern big sister to those syrupy sweet wine coolers of the 1980s, RAMONA pairs fresh citrus juice with organic grapes for a bubbly wine spritz that’s trés drinkable. But when we heard that the woman behind the cute can with a cult following is Jordan Salcito — the very same lady responsible for Momofuku’s award-winning wine program, a James Beard Foundation semi-finalist, and one of Wine Enthusiast’s “40 Under 40” — we were even more intrigued. We caught up with the busy wine entrepreneur, somm, and mom to get her tips on turning lemons into wine, following your instincts, and taking advantage of opportunities. Read on for her wine-soaked insights.
Brit + Co: We’ve read that you majored in English Lit while in college but as a kid, you were charmed by the wine world after hearing stories of your Italian-American grandfather making wine in his basement. How did you find your way back to the wine world as an adult?
Jordan Salcito: For me, there has always been a sense of stability in goal setting. Fortunately, I learned early in my career that it’s also useful to approach life with humility. What I thought I wanted as a 20-year-old had been limited in scope by what I’d seen or understood to be possible up to that point. Initially, I wanted to move to New York to write about food for The New York Times. After college, I put myself through culinary school and then cooked in the kitchen at Restaurant Daniel so that I could understand food, restaurants, and culinary tradition to have an informed point of view [as a food writer]. While working at Daniel, my eyes opened to a world of possibility that I’d not imagined, as well as a community of colleagues I didn’t want to leave. For me, taking time to reflect and make intentional decisions about next steps has always proved useful.
B+C: Can you tell us about your time working at the famed wd~50 in New York? What a learning experience that must have been!
JS: I applied to work at wd~50 before the restaurant opened its doors. Wd~50 was unlike any restaurant in the US at that time in that it was a restaurant designed to experiment, explore, test boundaries, create, and share. Wylie [wd~50 founder Wylie Dufresne] valued curiosity and work ethic, and he approached everything at wd~50 with fierce intellect and intention. That experience opened my eyes to the possibility of a career in the food industry, and I applied to culinary school with the intention of learning as much as possible about food so that I could share that knowledge in print.
B+C: And then you found your way to Momofuku?
JS: Yes, fast-forward a bit to working at Daniel (first kitchen, then dining room), then harvest in Burgundy (which changed my perspective and then my life), then working on the wine team at Eleven Madison Park, where John Ragan — the wine director at the time — encouraged me to begin taking sommelier exams through the Court of Master Sommeliers.
When I accepted the job as Beverage Director at Momofuku in 2013, I’d actually decided to shift away from restaurants and wanted to focus on winemaking. But overseeing Momofuku’s beverage program seemed a creative opportunity too compelling to pass up, and Dave’s [Momofuku restaurant group founder David Chang] mandate to me — try things, pivot, build an interesting program — was refreshing.
B+C: While at Momofuku, you were studying to take the Master Sommelier exam, but that experience didn’t exactly go to plan — and that’s how RAMONA was born. What’s the story?
JS: When we began to reopen Momofuku Ko in 2014, our goal was to create a world-class wine program and put Momofuku’s wine identity on the map as a global fine wine destination. I was also studying for the Master Sommelier exam at the time. We received a James Beard semi-finalist nomination for Outstanding Wine Program, and then I flew to Aspen to take the Master Sommelier exam. There are three parts to the exam — I passed two of them (blind tasting and theory, a one-hour oral exam), but I failed service by a few points on a single table. A few days later, I learned I was pregnant. At that moment, I felt as though we’d built what we set out to do with Momofuku’s wine program, and I realized I had the opportunity for a firm reset. Parenthood, a great unknown, was impending, and I felt that I had a few months to pause, reflect on what I wanted to do, and then go for it. RAMONA is named after my littlest sister’s childhood alter ego and represented my alter ego to a decade in fine wine.
B+C: Your career path feels organic (just like your wine!). You’ve allowed yourself room to grow, change, try new things, and be brave in your choices. It’s inspiring, and we’d love to hear your feelings about it.
JS: From a young age, my parents encouraged my sisters and me to pursue careers that we loved. Of course, I had a couple of less-than-inspiring jobs early on in my career, but those only opened my eyes to how much I value a healthy work culture and the opportunity to learn and grow. The early years of my career, which I can see now, were useful for acquiring skills and being part of a team. I encountered plenty of crossroads and moments when I wasn’t sure which direction to take, but I also know that I can feel in my gut when I’ve made the right decision. I also have a strong network of friends and family who were critical sounding boards in those early years when I was still honing my sense of intuition.
B+C: RAMONA has been such a hit. What is it about RAMONA (and spritzes in general) that you think is striking a chord with people right now?
JS: Thank you! We have always prioritized deliciousness at RAMONA, so hopefully, that is part of it. I think people also appreciate the intention behind every decision we make with both the product and the brand, from the Constructivist-inspired label (that movement rejected the notion that fine art belonged only in elite circles in the way RAMONA rejects that about wine), organically grown grapes, small family-owned winery partners, low alcohol content, and all-natural ingredients. And re: spritzes, I’m perhaps biased, but they are just so easy to love! They’re sessionable, refreshing, and generally happy.
What’s your bravest professional moment? Tweet us @BritandCo to tell us about your biggest leap of faith!
(Photos via Daniel Krieger)