How the mentor, manager, and marketer has set a new standard for wine events

Belinda Chang, who lives in Chicago, was in Manhattan recently to throw a party. That makes sense. You’d expect a James Beard Award–winning sommelier who does marketing work with brands like the Fladgate Partnership to throw parties. But not like this one. Held at a salon, the party was called Port Toes, and attendees got mani-pedis in the colors of the ports Chang was serving.

“We all get invited to sit-down tastings in beautiful places, but I’m tired of that,” Chang told me when we met on the terrace at The Modern, the restaurant where, in 2011, she won the Beard award for Outstanding Wine Service. “I want people to be more creative. This is experiential retail. This is the game—so let’s go.”

“Belinda knows how to bring a party. Let’s just start there,” says Ryan Arnold, a sommelier and partner at Chicago’s behemoth restaurant company Lettuce Entertain You, where he started in 2004 working for Chang, who was running the all-Italian list at Osteria Via Stato. “But she backs it up with selling wine. Her understanding of hospitality is treating everybody like they’re the most important person on the planet, giving them the comfort and confidence that makes them want to spend money.”

As dining room manager at the fine dining Tru, a Lettuce Entertain You sister concept, Wielgopolan took note: “Belinda showed that lists can be written in an approachable way.”

Chang infected her young staff with a love of wine. “We had three wine classes a week, for busboys all the way up to managers,” she recalls. “We’d play Wine Jeopardy and make it fun. The kids were so geeked out.”

Ryan Arnold was one of those kids. “[Of] the restaurants I’ve been in, she’s for sure the best educator,” he says. “You learn without knowing that you’re learning.”