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Steal This Job: A wine director who sources from around the world

Maria Bastasch, wine director at Compass Rose and Maydan, first started sipping wine at the age of 10, with her parents' permission. (Jen Chase)
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Our monthly Steal This Job column shares the story of a person in an intriguing line of work, and offers a roadmap for following in their footsteps.

Name: Maria Bastasch, 33

Position: Wine director

What she does

Maria Bastasch still remembers sipping her first glass of wine — when she was a child.

Her parents hosted dinners for their family in the backyard of their Southern California home. Bastasch had her first sip of wine during one of these parties, at around 10 years old.

“They weren’t so focused on the type of wine — they were more focused on the fact that it was a family dinner and we were coming together as a family to celebrate,” Bastasch says.

As wine director of the D.C. restaurants Compass Rose and Maydan, Bastasch’s job goes beyond recommending wines to customers.

She sources and orders wines from all over the world, getting to know winemakers’ backstories and gauge availability. At both restaurants, Bastasch devises the wine lists and educates her staff about them during weekly, hourlong wine classes.

Compass Rose carries roughly 30 wines, while Maydan offers more than 50.

At Compass Rose, you’ll only find two wines each from Italy and Spain and none from France. Those three countries are widely known as the three traditional pillars of “good wine,” Bastasch says. Instead, she spotlights wine from places like Mexico, Tunisia, Armenia, Lebanon, Slovenia and, soon, Pantelleria, an island between Sicily and Tunisia.

“You can get amazing French wine at any restaurant on 14th Street,” Bastasch says. “We want to be a beacon for wines that you can’t get on 14th Street.”

Since landing the wine director gig, Bastasch has visited Georgia, Lebanon, Turkey and Mexico to find new wines.

She has to ensure each wine complements the cuisine. Compass Rose specializes in international street food from more than a dozen countries. Someone could order shrimp and tofu from Malaysia, khachapuri bread from Georgia and a beef kebab from Pakistan — all at once.

“I’m constantly thinking of wines that can dance with all of those flavors,” Bastasch says.

If someone asks for a cabernet or sauvignon blanc, Bastasch explains the restaurant doesn’t carry those and recommends something similar from other countries. She gets a kick out of connecting flavors that don’t seem like they’d go together.

“When people are surprised by something, they don’t forget that experience,” Bastasch says.

How she got the job

When Bastasch moved to D.C. nearly six years ago, she planned on working in the nonprofit public health sector, but soon realized those jobs wouldn’t help her pay rent. She was also going through a divorce.

A few weeks after Compass Rose opened in 2014, one of Bastasch’s friends started working there as a server, so Bastasch walked in and introduced herself to the owner, Rose Previte. They instantly bonded over being older sisters in large Catholic families.

“There was a lot of familiarity even though we had just met,” Bastasch says.

Previte hired Bastasch as a server and bartender at Compass Rose. She quickly decided to make her career there, and Previte promoted her to general manager within six months.

[Three lunches, a hotel bar and late night snacks: How restaurateur Rose Previte would spend a perfect day in D.C.]

With Previte’s support, Bastasch started studying wine and secured her sommelier certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers and the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. She began tasting wine with distributors to learn more about the business.

“While I had always had an interest in wine, it was Rose that really supported me … studying wine seriously,” Bastasch says.

Previte hired Bastasch as Compass Rose’s wine director in 2015. She also continued as general manager until 2016, when she transitioned to consulting for that role.

In 2017, Bastasch also helped Previte open Maydan, an acclaimed Middle Eastern restaurant known for its giant hearth. Bastasch’s consulting duties there involved training servers and helping organize the events system. Later that year, Previte promoted her to wine director at Maydan as well.

Bastasch’s recent certifications didn’t represent her introduction to studying wine, though. At 21, she started attending weekly tastings of French, German and Californian wines. Those experiences set Bastasch toward learning about other wines.

Who would want this job

You have to love to multitask and accept not sleeping a lot, Bastasch says. She says she works between 50 and 60 hours a week.

Being hungry to break convention helps. Bastasch says she gained knowledge by questioning norms — like, why pick wine from a catalog instead of importing from all over the world?

Doing this job involves wearing many hats. Bastasch’s gig involves event planning, teaching and accounting for wine costs.

Strong skills in communication, creative problem-solving and empathy are also important, and a healthy appreciation for wine ties everything else together, she says.

Possessing a background in wine helps, but she’s hesitant to say it’s required.

“I want to temper that term ‘wine expert’ because I don’t ever want someone to feel like they can’t be a part of this,” Bastasch says. “Anyone can do this — they just have to work really hard and study.”

How you can get the job

Even after you secure certification, that’s not enough to be a wine director.

Bastasch’s self-education continues daily by scouring outlets like Bon Appétit, Food & Wine magazine, Wine Enthusiast magazine, the BBC and Al Jazeera for industry trends, news about countries where she sources her wine, and ideas for wine producers to showcase. Smaller wine-makers pop up on Instagram.

She also turns to VinePair, a booze news site, and importers’ blogs, academic studies and journal entries.

One study she found showed that wine from Bolivia has 10 times more of the antioxidant resveratrol than conventional wines. For Bastasch, that’s another selling point for customers, who care about where wine comes from.

Without a background in wine, hospitality or culinary courses to learn the basics might help, she says. Beverage management experience is useful to understanding laying out costs, training staff and tracking inventory.

“It’s more than just knowing about the wine,” Bastasch says. “You have to be able to do the accounting and communicate the information. And you have to know all of the wines on your menus inside and out.”