If you live somewhere in southeast Michigan, there’s a good chance you say you’re “from Detroit” when talking to someone from outside the area. For some, it’s a point of pride; for others, it’s simply a way to save the conversational step of having to detail precisely how many miles from the city you actually live or point to your palm as you explain Michigan’s anthropomorphic topography.
It’s quite a stretch, both geographically and culturally, to consider Lansing’s northern neighbor DeWitt as part of the Motor City. But last month, GuildSomm, the publication for international wine organization Guild of Sommeliers, did just that when it featured certified sommelier Justin King — co-owner/operator of Bridge Street Social in DeWitt, as well as a City Pulse contributor — in a spotlight feature talking about Detroit’s wine scene.
“I was floored to be included with the other people they talked to for that story,” King said. “Top level wine professionals from around the world read this. To be noticed was such an honor. It puts us on the map.”
Guild of Sommeliers is a nonprofit that promotes wine education in the service industry while “maintaining the chief values of the sommelier profession: integrity, humility and hospitality.” It also serves as a networking tool, helping industry professionals increase their general beverage knowledge and learn about the latest business trends. The other subjects interviewed for the piece were Gerry Baker, beverage director at the Mulefoot Gastropub in Imlay City; Kathleen Hawkins, general manager at Wright & Company in Detroit; Joseph Allerton, wine director and general manager at Roast in Detroit; Rachel Van Til, wine director and manager at Mabel Gray in Hazel Park; and Michael Descamps, wine director at Red Wagon Shoppe in Rochester Hills.
“These people have been working hard to develop a local reputation for quality in the industry,” King said. “We all know each other — they’re some of my best friends, and I had been recommended by one of them for the story. This is a tight network of colleagues I study with for the exams, often on Google Hangouts until 2 or 3 a.m.”
There are four levels to the sommelier hierarchy: introductory, certified, advanced and master. This fall, King will take the advanced exam in St. Louis; it’s a test he’s already attempted once.
“There’s nothing special per se about being a certified sommelier, but there are only like four advanced somms in Michigan,” King said. “I sat for the advanced exam last year, but I didn’t pass. It’s an extended service exam, with a six-wine blind tasting and an (extensive) theory exam. It’s something I study for every day, and every day I’m learning to taste and analyze better. The only other thing more important to me professionally is making sure my restaurant is running at the highest possible quality.”
Since it opened last spring at 107 S. Bridge St. in downtown DeWitt, Bridge Street Social has slowly accumulated a reputation for excellence. It features a diverse menu of eclectic pan-European fare, including creative upscale twists on burgers, tacos and meatloaf. King partnered with local restaurateur Michael Luther to open the bistro. Luther is in charge of the menu, while King focuses on the vino — Bridge Street Social offers 150 wines by the glass, which King said is the largest number in the state — and developing a hospitality-centric culture. King says his philosophy and inspiration are equal parts New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer, serial entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk and MSU men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo.
“They all have an important common thread,” King said. “Tunnel vision on your dreams with the ability to listen to who is important to you.”
A series of special tasting events this spring featuring historic European vine yards— including a 300-year-old French winery and a ninth-generation German winemaker — will help King cement De- Witt’s newfound status as a fine dining and wine destination. But King doesn’t let all this attention distract him from his primary goal.
“I want my guests to have the best possible experience,” he said. “Everything else is for ego, and ego doesn't pay my daycare bills. But if we can make people feel special, then they keep looking to us as a special place. A restaurant where they can take a little vacation around the world on a Saturday night.”