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‘I Simply Have an Open Mind and Tend to Listen and Recommend Rather than Impose,’ Says Jhonel Faelnar, Beverage Director for NA:EUN Hospitality, Beverage Director of the Year | Wine Enthusiast’s 2023 Wine Star Awards

It’s Jhonel Faelnar’s ability to communicate, educate and inspire a sense of community within the bev-alch industry that makes him a standout in his field.

“I think a sommelier is and should be constantly trying to be the most hardworking, humble, dedicated, and knowledgeable person on the floor,” says Jhonel Faelnar, beverage director for New York restaurant group NA:EUN Hospitality, which includes the two-Michelin-star Atomix, as well as Atoboy, Naro and Seoul Salon. “A sommelier’s first responsibility is to add to the guest experience and everything leading up to that, from the routine tasks of the day to the complex guest interactions that are often undervalued in their elegance and brevity.”

Faelnar started his career in fashion and retail management, first in his hometown of Manila, and later in Osaka, Japan. His travels led to an interest in food and hospitality, and he enrolled in the International Culinary Center’s intensive sommelier program in 2013 upon relocating to New York. In 2015 he joined the team at NoMad, which then had one of the most acclaimed wine programs in the country, and landed at Atomix in 2018, where he started as a sommelier, then wine director, and in 2022 became Beverage Director across all the NA:EUN restaurants.

Just as his restaurants explore the leading edge of new Korean cuisine by mixing traditional ingredients and techniques with radical new flavor combinations, Faelnar embraces tradition and innovation equally. While the wine program is rooted in Champagne and Burgundy, he’s constantly looking for against-the-grain producers in from across the globe, specifically seeking innovative wines that can pair with the many fermented, spicy and powerfully flavored foods.

“I certainly learned the ‘Western’ approach to wine tasting as I completed my wine studies here in New York, but that’s never stopped me from incorporating flavors from my childhood and travels into the equation,” he says. “It’s shaped the way I interact with our guests in that I simply have an open mind and tend to listen and recommend rather than impose a certain style of wine on people.”

And that’s truly Faelnar’s strength—the customer experience. “What sets Jhonel apart is this lack of pretense in his interpersonal contact, how he sets his guests at ease in and around a subject that can be anxiety-inducing with an intuitive sense of hospitality and care,” says J. Scott Carney MS, Dean of Wine Studies at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education. “He is an aura of positive energy that has found its way into hospitality and set a new standard of excellence.”

Faelnar’s message for aspiring wine professionals is simple: Start with the basics. “I’ve been lucky to see some amazing Beverage Directors in action over the years and those who are truly excellent at their craft have always been generous with their time, calm under pressure, and forward-thinking,” he says. “My advice to someone wanting to make a career in wine is to not skip the fundamentals simply to get to the fun part. Coming up in the industry and learning every position in the business or the restaurant is not something people these days aspire to do … but I can confidently say this has made me the sommelier I am today.”

Faelnar is also active with the ARK Solves organization that is committed to sustainably solving hunger issues in the rural communities of developing nations, which points to what peers say is his humanitarian nature. “Jhonel recognizes the incredible importance of community: He’s always one of the first to volunteer to assist for charitable purposes, or to help a peer with expanding relationships,” says Thomas Pastuszak, who worked with Faelnar as wine director of NoMad, and is currently vice president of sales and hospitality for Grand Cru Selections. “Every day, Jhonel embodies what our hospitality culture needs more of, and why those of us in this business love it so much.” For this, Wine Enthusiast is proud to honor Jhonel Faelnar with the award of Beverage Director of the Year.