Emmeline Zhao

Coolstuff Team
September 1, 2023

Meet Emmeline, a managing partner and the sommelier of Silver Apricot, the New-American-Chinese restaurant in the West Village. The beverage program at Silver Apricot reflects Emmeline’s Chinese-American heritage (Emmeline grew up in North Carolina and Shanghai, and also spent time in Tokyo and Sweden), and years working in award-winning restaurants like Wylie Dufresne’s Alder. Emmeline’s beverage program celebrates domestic producers of wine, sake, and beer – with a focus on women and immigrant-owned businesses.

What led you to your career as a sommelier?

It was a bit of a winding road, but fundamentally an irrepressible curiosity and quenchless thirst for knowledge. I grew up with Franzia and Carlo Rossi, box and gallon, respectively, in the house — as those were my dad's go-to wines because they were the most affordable wine options in the grocery store. When I got to college, Franzia was the ubiquitous "party wine," and other labels I'd never seen before — like Barefoot, Cupcake, Kim Crawford, and Kendall Jackson — started popping up at happy hours and dinner parties. I started to discover that each bottle was distinct, even if made from the same grape variety or from the same place, which I found fascinating. It was then that I started to read about wine to answer all of the "hows" and "whys" I had in my head. When I moved to New York and started dining out, wine programs were always at the forefront of service — and even more so when I started working in restaurants here. 

Wine is one of the most opaque elements of dining — and food & beverage consumerism, for that matter — and yet it's also the one thing diners are most afraid to ask about. I really wanted to pull back that curtain, not only for myself, but for my diners as well. I also just loved meeting the bevy of interesting characters that came through restaurants, and wine was often a point of relation. Being able to answer questions intelligently, and to speak about wines and tell their stories in an informed way allowed me to connect more genuinely with guests. I continued to work in roles that allowed me even more proximity and exposure to wine, and, finally at the behest of my chef-partner Simone Tong, went on to pursue my certifications through the Court of Master Sommeliers. I was admittedly reluctant at the time, but am retrospectively thankful for her encouragement.

Do you have a favorite wine right now?

I'm crazy about Wild Arc Farm's "Concord!" right now. I think summer wine should be light and flirty, and Wild Arc is clearly having fun with this whole-cluster fizzy — made from Concord grapes — packaged in a bright purple can. If you pour it into a glass first (which, I think you should), the first thing that hits you is the aroma. The nostalgia of Welch's leaps out of the glass, and you think you're about to dive head-first into a juice box. But the palate will surprise you. It's fermented dry, but maintains all the fruit you'd expect from Concord while striking a deft balance. The entire experience with this wine is tantalizing and just too much fun.

What’s your favorite part about the New York creative community? 

I love that it is truly a community, and that there's no expectation to be someone that you're not, or to create something that doesn't resonate with you purely for the sake of pandering to a trend. Every time I've opened a new restaurant, or even just started a new initiative or event with an existing restaurant, the restaurant and other creative communities have shown up to support us — and we reciprocate (at least, we try to). When people hear that I operate restaurants in the city, they often mention how tough competition is here in this industry. But few of us really see it that way, because we are a city built on the backs of community restaurants — quite literally and figuratively — and I do think that our restaurant community truly believes that a rising tide lifts all boats in this industry. 

What’s your favorite place in NYC?

The answer to this question changes a lot, but most of the time it's Smør and Smør Bakery in the East Village. What Sebastian Perez and Sebastian Bangsgaard are doing there is frankly in the same vein as what we're doing at Silver Apricot — they're bringing their Danish roots to the professional dining room, through their lens of being raised in the States (we're doing that with our Chinese roots). And they're just having so much fun doing it, and sharing the food that they love. My mom worked for a Swedish company for decades, so I spent a lot of childhood summers in Sweden while she was there for work. Because of that, I'll often get nostalgic cravings for common Nordic items like Toast Skagen and Kalles Kaviar (of which I have two tubes in my fridge), and Smør always hits the spot and gives me the warm fuzzies. Plus — their new bread and pastry program at Smør Bakery is absolutely killer.

What’s inspiring you right now?

I know that this question asks "what," not "who," but I feel like I'd be remiss not to mention "who" is perhaps most inspiring to me now. I've never been one to have celebrity idols or heroes, but I'm so impressed by what Blake Lively has accomplished — personally and professionally. I started my career as a journalist (and it's still my primary role), and then walked my way into this industry that I had no business being in at the time. But I continued chipping away at it because I wanted to learn more, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to be able to create new spaces and new cultures from within. I still continue to have big ideas for how to bring new and improved products and concepts to market — based on my own frustrations with a lack of optimal products in certain spaces — but again in industries I have no business or experience stepping into. But seeing what Blake was able to achieve with Betty Buzz, and now, Betty Booze, despite all status quo warnings that she didn't have the experience to succeed in that space, offers such hope and inspiration that there really is enough room for opportunity for all of us who have big ideas to effect change, no matter how grassroots the level. It's a total kick in the butt to stop using not having enough time as the excuse to punt passion projects — the woman has three kids, for crying out loud!

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