Written by Kaitlin Hill | Photo by Shannon Ayres
At just 23, Zak Robbins is already making waves in the wine world right here in Middleburg. “I just achieved level two, which is where you can call yourself a certified sommelier,” Robbins shares. He adds, “I always knew I wanted to learn more about wine chemistry, culture, and history. This wraps it all up into one.”
Robbins, who you can find serving wine at Tremolo Bar most weekends, attributes his early interest in part to his parents and a childhood spent in Charlottesville, Virginia. “My parents always made me smell the wine that was in their glass. I had no interest in drinking it, but they would ask me to pick out a couple of fruits or spices that I could smell… They had a little bit of wine education and instilled a curiosity in me,” Robbins explains.
As a teen, he took that interest into his own hands. “Once I was a teenager, I had done a little reading online about French wine, so I just wanted to try my luck. I was sixteen with a car for the first time. I drove to the wine shop and asked for a Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” he says. He continues with a laugh, “They did not card me for a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It cost me $50. That’s quite a lot of summer savings for a 16-year-old, but it is a great place to start because you don’t have to try all the nasty grocery store stuff.”
From there, Robbins expanded his interests with the help of wine world friends. “I had some friends going for their Master’s of Wine and they had me try world-class Champagnes, some white Burgundy. There’s no going back from that.”
The next step in his wine education was linking up with a Level Four or Master Sommelier. “There are only 250-odd on earth of those level fours. And Jarad, the owner of Tremolo, is one of them.” He continues, “At the time, there were only two in Virginia and Jarad was by far the closest to me. So, I just came to his wine shop over and over, barely legal to drink and probably tried everything at Knead Wine.”
Call it persistence or an investment, but Robbins’ frequent visits to Knead Wine earned him a job with Jarad Slipp at the wine shop. Robbins shares, “At one point he was like, ‘You’ve tried every wine in the shop and you’re always curious; do you want to work a couple of days here?’” He laughs, “I probably spent $10,000 at his shop before I made a dime.”
Later, Robbins made the move to Tremolo, Slipp’s second Middleburg project. Robbins says, “I had been pestering him to open a nice restaurant from the get-go. It’s what I had always wanted to work in, but there was nothing quite like Tremolo in the area.”
Of Slipp he says, “Being around someone so driven is motivating.”
With a new job and mentor in place, Robbins moved to Middleburg in 2022, and is now looking for roommates. He mentions, “I am in downtown Middleburg, a block away from Tremolo. I have two spare rooms.”
When asked what the future holds, in addition to new apartment mates, Robbins seems to approach life one day at a time. “I’m working harvest at RdV tomorrow morning. I’ll get a little insight into the winemaking process. I was at Willow Creek a few weeks ago watching the bottling process.” As for the next level of education, he says, “I may go back to school for organic chemistry or some such adjacent field and just see how it links up, but for now, here’s where I’m at.”
What’s next for this rising star in the wine world? We’ll have to wait and see, but it is safe to say that he’s just getting started. As for those interested in breaking into the industry, or just learning more about wine, Robbins says, “Be open to trying new wines and find a wine shop that you trust. You can do yourself a lot of favors if you just get one or two people who know your taste and can find something fun for you.” ML
Published in the October 2023 issue of Middleburg Life.