According to Wikipedia, a sommelier is a knowledgeable professional who specializes in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food matching. But for Rafael Tenjo, Managing Partner at Hometown Wine and Spirits in Delavan and Sommelier/Beverage Manager for the neighboring Harvest Cafe, it’s that and a whole lot more. Rafael’s focus is on ensuring that his customers get the best out of their food and drink by helping them find the ideal combinations.
In high school, Rafael started at the bottom of the restaurant business in Florida. His first job was at Pizzaria Uno as a host and dishwasher. After working his way up through a variety of restaurants, he arrived at his first fine food and wine restaurant at the Columbia Restaurant in Celebration, Florida. It was there that the owner took him under his wing and began educating him in the fine points of wines and foods.
Over the next few years, Rafael worked in a variety of restaurants and in a various positions including server, bartender and management. Eventually, he felt burnt out due to the long hours and late evenings, and left restaurants behind in order to start his own construction and remodeling business. But, his love and admiration for fine wines was firmly ingrained and never left.
Fortunately for Central Illinois, he and his family relocated to the Bloomington area about five years ago. Having left his construction business behind, Rafael went back to the restaurant business. There he rediscovered his true love for wine, food, and the people who enjoy them.
Rafael’s main focus is helping customers find the right wine for their food. If someone says they’re having pork for dinner, he then asks what kind of pork, and what kind of seasoning? “For instance, a braised pork shoulder with Brussels sprouts would pair best with one type of wine where a pork chop with a cherry glaze would pair best with an entirely different type of wine.” The best pairings provide the diner with a “symphony of flavors” as opposed to simply “I’m eating something and I’m drinking something.”
And, it’s not just wines. Rafael has also become an expert at pairing foods with craft beers and spirits, such as bourbons and whiskies. The role of a sommelier is no longer just wines, but the wider spectrum of drinks that might be paired with foods.
Rafael has now hung up his tool belt for good. The restaurant business has always pulled him back, and it’s the interaction with the customer that he finds most rewarding. As he said, “It’s satisfying to complete a construction job, and see the finished result. But nothing compares to interaction with the guests, and the experience when they’ve had a wonderful night, had a great dinner, and that bottle of wine was part of that. That’s what really does it for me!”
“It’s taken me to the next level in my life, and it feels great!”
Hometown Wine and Spirits features fine wines, craft beers and spirits as well as a selection of fine cigars. It is located at 315 Locust Street in historic downtown Delavan, Illinois and is open Tuesday through Thursday from noon to 8:00 PM and Friday and Saturday from noon to 9:00 PM. The Harvest Cafe is open Wednesday through Sunday.
Editor’s note: A big thank you to the Mackinaw Valley Vineyard for providing the perfect setting for Rafael’s photo.