Justin Amick, the general manager and sommelier of the Spence in Midtown, remembers when, as a child, he ate in a different restaurant every night and stubbornly stuck to well-done hamburgers. They were cooked especially for him by the chefs working for his father, Robert Amick, a cofounder of the defunct Peasant Restaurants group that included the Pleasant Peasant and Mick’s. As a little boy with a loud voice and a fierce competitive streak (I first met him on the playground at the Paideia School, which my children also attended), the middle kid in the Amick family dreamed only of basketball, a sport that won him a full scholarship at Tulane. But after just two seasons as a point guard, he quit. “I discovered good food and good wine in New Orleans,” he told me, discussing his transition from athletics to the restaurant business by way of a short, unhappy stint in advertising on Wall Street. Love was an agent of change too: He married his college sweetheart, with whom he now has a toddler.
In 2004 Amick joined the management trainee program with Tom Colicchio’s organization in New York, and in 2007 he spent a year learning winemaking at the Trinchero Family Estates vineyard in Napa Valley. Only when Amick felt certain that he had found his professional metier did his father invite him to join the family business, Concentrics Restaurants—first as an assistant manager at Two Urban Licks and then as general manager of Parish. (The company’s other restaurants include One Midtown Kitchen and Tap.)
People who ask to speak to the sommelier at the Spence, which opened last May as a vehicle for Richard Blais, may be shocked to see someone who looks like a teenager approach their table. At thirty-one, Amick has the kind of boyish face that still gets him carded in bars. (He attributes his youthful looks to his Filipino mother, Rowina, who supervises the floral arrangements for her husband’s restaurants.) His wine list champions underdogs. He favors obscure wine regions and what he describes as “the bastard wine children of the world,” such as Pinot Noirs from Germany and tangy, gently spicy Blaufränkisch reds from Austria. He has yet to travel to France or Italy, but his passionate rhetoric at the Spence about a Regaleali Sicilian rosé—juicy yet minerally—or an almost-bitter Crémant du Jura made in the French Alps is both convincing and spot-on. Amick also restructures wine programs as part of Concentrics’ consulting arm; for example, at La Pietra Cucina (rebranded in September as LPC), he simplified the choices, rearranged the varietals by geography, and added undervalued beauties like an apple-scented Greco di Tufo to the options by the glass.
In 2011 he placed first in his group after five days of testing for the advanced exam held by the Court of Master Sommeliers, which includes practical, oral theory, and written evaluations as well as identification of wines through a blind tasting. He is currently studying for his Master Sommelier certification, the highest accreditation possible for wine pros. “There are only 200 past and present in the world,” he says with a fanatical gleam in his eyes. It’s clear he’s channeled his competitiveness into a new arena.
Photograph by Troy Stains. This article originally appeared in our January 2013 issue.