One good look at Walnut Street Cafe’s 250-bottle wine list and it’s clear that head sommelier Kaitlyn Caruke is eager to share her joy for France. While wines from Oregon, New Mexico, Spain, Germany, and Australia make solid appearances, she makes it easy for guests to oblige her understandable bias: sparkling Vouvray, crisp Aligoté, juicy Gamay — and for super fans, king Cornas — are all on offer.
It’s been barely five years since the 29-year-old was introduced to Muscadet while working as a server’s assistant at New York’s Pearl & Ash. The Plymouth, Massachusetts, native had moved to the city after graduating from the University of Vermont with a bachelor’s in nutrition and food science. She’d had no meaningful wine experience before this job but l’esprit has stuck ever since.
Caruke was so taken by the Loire Valley varietal that she dove deep into wine study. Her enthusiasm grew into budding expertise. When Pearl & Ash owners opened Rebelle, she earned a position as floor sommelier, working alongside industry talents like Patrick Cappiello and Kim Prokoshyn. And then when they opened Walnut Street Cafe in Philadelphia, Caruke took the top somm spot, bringing an eye for wines that can satisfy pros and newcomers alike.
In addition to managing inventory, a key part of Caruke’s job is to train staff and contribute to service, from talking with tables to running food and polishing glasses. Like most sommeliers, she loves it when guests come in with a curious palate. “I enjoy when people are open to trying new things,” she said. The tricky part is that often, folks want to be nudged into saying they want recommendations. Especially when, either out of habit or trepidation, guests order their go-to glass of Malbec without glancing at the wine list. “Sometimes the hardest part is opening the door to have a conversation.”
Caruke loves that wine has introduced her to so many new people and experiences. Once a month in New York, she meets with industry colleagues to share bottles. The group talks about wines from Germany, Austria, Northern Italy. And of course, France. “We get together, we share with each other. We probably try to one-up each other a little bit,” she said laughing. One day, Caruke hopes to open a place of her own. No specifics on what that could look like just yet, but in the meantime she’s got her hands plenty full — and a lot more traveling and drinking to do.
Kaitlyn Caruke is the head sommelier at Walnut Street Cafe in Philadelphia.
Osayi Endolyn is a James Beard Award-winning writer whose work often focuses on food, culture, place, and identity.