Thriving cities depend on the adventurous among us, who alter the urban landscape when they forge their own successful paths.

Each month, we ask an influential Pittsburgher: What was it like for you in the beginning?

Eric Moorer

Sommelier,  Or, The Whale,
Live: North Side
Work: Downtown
How Long: A Year

Eric Moorer remembers the first great wine he ever tasted.

It was 2011, the Alderdice grad had just moved back to Pittsburgh from Wilmington, North Carolina, where he went to college, and he was working at Sonoma Grill as a means to “figure out the rest of [my] 20s”, as he describes it. “One of our senior servers at the time poured me a glass of Stags Leap Petit Syrah.” Moorer said. “I tasted it and it’s this big, juicy, beautiful, opulent, California red wine, and I was like… Oh my god. What was that?’ And he was like, ‘Well, they’re not all going to be like that.'”

Years later, he not only remembers the experience, but the exact wine, its specific taste, the feeling he got when he took that first sip. After four years at Sonoma Grill, he moved on to Pizzaiolo Primo to work as a bartender, then the Commoner for a short stint. After Pizzaiolo invited him back to work as their beverage director, he started to realize the shape that his career was taking and to become entirely dedicated to wine.

He told us about it while sitting in the cozy wine room tucked away on the bottom floor of or, The Whale, where he now works as the sommelier. The thousands of wines he’s tasted since that day in 2011 might not all have been as impactful or as impressive as that first perfect sip, but get Moorer started talking about wine and it’s instantly apparent that his appreciation for it has only grown into a full-fledged passion. It even became his career, and one that’s not only enabled him to make a name for himself at a young age in Pittsburgh, but that’s also taken him all over the world.

On Pittsburgh as a “foodie city”: 

“Pittsburgh is its own beautiful kind of beast. You look at different bartenders around the city — I like to highlight people like Cat Cannon at Smallman Galley, Cecil over with the Richard De Schantz Group — those are people who are so thoughtful, so deeply entrenched in what they do. They’re reading, they’re going to camps, they’re going to different seminars, they’re making sure they’re as educated as possible so they can translate that to people better on the other side of the bar. They don’t do it because they want to talk down to people, they don’t do it because they’re thinking “Oh, this is what’s going to make me the next big thing” — they care about what they do, and I think that’s something that’s prevalent around Pittsburgh, especially in the bar community. People are super passionate about what they do. It’s not about getting to be someone, it’s about getting to elevate this city. I think everyone buys into that collective idea that we’re all here for Pittsburgh.”

On the bar community in Pittsburgh: 

I love when people take projects that aren’t for the visibility — I didn’t take this for the visibility. I took it because it’s the logical next step for me and a way to grow my career. I think that’s how a lot of people view moves; you move yourself in different avenues so you can learn different things. When I came here, I thought “Cool, I’ll be the somm,” and then when I got here, I realized I’d be doing payroll, I’d be doing all these different things, and it’s great. I get to round myself out in things I didn’t necessarily think I’d be doing, but it makes me a better person, it makes me a better employee. I came here specifically to this restaurant because of the people I knew they were bringing in, who I could learn from while I was here.”

On building the wine list at or, The Whale:

I’ve been here pretty much since the start, so it’s been really cool to be here since construction, getting a staff hired, building a restaurant, having my hands in this when it was dirty and there was dust everywhere, getting to put together a wine list from scratch without being limited to certain countries or certain varieties.

When I was in France this summer I got to drink so many cool things that I had never heard of, the indigenous varietals, Romorantin —  this is something I found when I was in Paris, we were eating lunch with my wife and I was like “I don’t know what that is, I’ll try that,” It was a four-Euro glass of wine to have with my Pastrami sandwich, and then I get this wine, and it was juicy, ripe, peach, mango, fruit without being sweet, nice balance of acid and body, and I was like “I’m going to drink this every day for the rest of my life if I can find it.”

Putting together the wine list for here, finding that, I was like “That’s the wine I had this summer,” that definitely went on the list. […] From traveling I’ve got to broaden my horizons, I’m open to so many more things, I’m not afraid to try things anymore. Especially when it comes to wine – people have been drinking this for a reason, they’ve been pairing it with the food they eat for a reason, the least I can do is try to give it a voice here.

On his wine philosophy: 

Moving into Italian wine [at Pizzaiolo Primo] was a whole different world for me because it introduced me to where I stand now with my perspective on wine. Wine is meant to be drank with food, it’s meant to be shared with friends, it’s an experience within the experience, it’s… extra. It’s not the focus — I like for wine to paired with something, whether it’s good friends or food.

On how he serves wine:

For me, it’s always about getting people’s trust. I’ll let you taste whatever you want — hell, I’ll even open a bottle for you if I think it’s absolutely what you want to have in this moment. I’ll say, “Hey, what do you normally drink?” and if they say California Cabernet, I’ll say “Okay, by the glass we have this Aglianico, it comes from Campania, you’re going to have big tannins, a full body, all the things you’re really looking for. I want you to taste it by itself, and then I want you to taste it with what you’re going to be eating tonight. Tell me what you think after that, and if not, I’ll buy you that glass of wine.” I always tell people that the worst thing that can happen is that they won’t like it, and we’re going to get them into something that they will like. I like to talk to people about things they’re unsure about and get people outside their comfort zone.

On his favorite type of wine: 

I’m into a lot of French wines, the Loire Valley. Chenin Blanc is my life. If I could drink Chenin Blanc every day for the rest of my life, I’d be happy.

On that first Petit Syrah:

I will never forget that wine. I will never touch that wine every again, for as long as I live. It could never be as good as that. Nothing will ever compare to that moment when I discovered that I loved wine.