Then came his big break, wine-wise if not in acting: A group of gentlemen would hold monthly dinners at the restaurant, to which they brought their own rare, expensive wine. "No one wanted to work the group because they required a lot of extra time and the tip was rarely more than 15 percent of the food bill," Ellegood says. One evening, though, he drew the short straw among the wait-staff. That night he opened a collection of red Bordeaux, all from 1966, all of which the men insisted Ellegood taste. He was hooked.
Ellegood would go on to establish his chops at Spiaggia, where he learned from the legendary sommelier Henry Bishop how to listen to guests and make the pairing recommendations that would not only elevate their dining experience but also their knowledge and appreciation of wine. Now sommelier and wine director at the upscale restaurant TRU, Ellegood recently shared with Scene how he still loves bringing it all together into a memorable performance.
I still very much have an acting job. When I was in theatre at St. Ambrose, I enjoyed the period pieces the most because they require a lot of precision. (He played the title role in "Tartuffe," among others.) There are multiple aspects to serving guests, and a big part is the show the whole restaurant is putting on-especially when the average check at TRU can be $200 a person, more than most Broadway shows. I have lines to memorize-facts about the wines. And giving people the wine experience they want-whether it's serious and proper or being more convivial and joking-involves improvisation. Even the movement of presenting the wine, opening it, tasting it–that's all choreographed to create a memorable experience.
It definitely revolves around the kind of restaurant. At TRU, our focus is on wines from all over the world, with a deep foundation in the white and red wines of Burgundy. (The restaurant's wine list is 67 pages long, with 1,800 wines, and is one of 75 restaurant wine lists in the world to receive the Wine Spectators Grand Award.) We look for wines that tell a story or aren't readily available, that allow us to show guests something new and special, because TRU is a special occasion restaurant. Choices that are offered by the glass change to accompany the ever-evolving menu.
People are often shocked that I gravitate toward white wines. A white Burgundy can age beautifully over 20 to 30 years. When it's young you experience apples and pears, very fresh, and as it ages, all of those flavors roast, turning into hazelnut or even bacon. A wine that I get to drink a lot that's a surprise is German Riesling. It has an amazing ability to age. In their youth well-made Rieslings offer pure flavors with great balance of sweetness and acidity, but with more time in bottle those elements compound into an intense combination of flavors, yet that balance of sweetness and acidity remain. For me, one of the biggest draws of wine is that there's always something new to learn. When I meet wine experts, they almost always tell me something they've just learned or figured out.
My wife and I are wine drinkers, not collectors. I receive a lot of gifts from winemakers, and she has problems with me not labeling "very special" bottles. Once that led to her making a $200 pot roast!
If asked to be in a Scorsese movie, who wouldn't say yes! But going through the process of auditioning to be in one–no. I could see being in community theatre in the later years of my life. I do still critique acting, but then, I critique everything, especially at TRU. I'm constantly looking at how to get the wine to the table in the most beautiful way.