Friday, January 4, 2013

What's behind door number wine?

What you do day to day as a sommelier is determined by the kind of restaurant that you work in. Seems like an obvious statement, doesn't it? But outside of the fine dining vs. casual dining divide, the topic doesn't come up much for discussion. At a basic level, though, there is a huge difference between working at an Italian restaurant, which many sommeliers do these days, and working at a French restaurant, and that is this: at one of those restaurants you will be trying a lot of Italian wines, and at the other one you will be trying a lot of French wines.

Funny as it might sound, drinking wine from the same country that inspires the food wasn't always a given. It used to be that American wines were super popular in this country. If you worked in a French restaurant you might still be selling California Cab on the the regular. In fact, half of the list at your French restaurant might be American. But that is less true today. Consumption of European wines is common (at least in New York) and there are fewer globe trotting lists that offer extensive verticals from around the world. So now if you work as a sommelier at a French restaurant you are probably tasting French wine.

But what are the other differences? I think I might be able to tell you. In fact, I think I might be in a unique position to tell you, because I've worked in all of what you might call the Big 4. And by that I mean I've been a sommelier in a fancy New American restaurant, a formal French restaurant, a fine dining Italian restaurant, and a high end Asian restaurant. Those cuisines are pretty much the options you have today as a sommelier. Well, you could add steakhouse and Spanish restaurant, but you get the point. There aren't so many sommelier jobs out there for Middle Eastern or Russian restaurants. Yes there are exceptions, but they are exceptions. If I asked you to name a top sommelier in American today who is based at a Uzbekistani restaurant you might have some difficulty coming up with an answer.

So what can I tell you? Well, I thought it actually would be most helpful to start with the headaches. Yeah, I know it is lame to lead with the negative. But if you are considering different jobs, isn't it important to know about the potential pitfalls? I think so. And where else might you find out this information? Nowhere, probably. Ok. So here we go.

What is the biggest headache about working as a buyer in a high end French restaurant?
I think the answer has to be that you are often faced with purchasing wines you have never tasted. And that is because those wines are limited, expensive, and in demand from other buyers. And they just don't open the bottles up at the trade tastings the way they used to. Nor does the rep come around with a sample before you have to place that DI order. Nobody ever says it, but this fact of life was only exacerbated by the demise of Chateau & Estates, which used to carry big inventory with back vintages available for tasting. If you are ordering Burgundy or Bordeaux you are often placing orders before the wine has even arrived in the country. There is some real guesswork to that. What if you end up totally loving the wine? Will you have ordered enough quantity that you can turn people on to it? Or will you have to hoard the bottles because you can't reorder? Not only do the wines often have to be ordered before they are released, they often can't be reordered. Once the shipment comes in the shipment goes out, and that's it. No more is offered until the next vintage. Which can also lead a buyer into the predicament of over ordering a wine that turns out to be a bit disappointing. Trying to stake a big claim can backfire if you don't get from the bottle what you are looking for.

I'll take a moment here to praise the importers, like Frederick Wildman, who do make a big effort to open bottles before asking for orders. And there are definitely sommeliers who make a point of regularly visiting producers to taste in the cellars. Those people deserve a lot of praise as well. But for the rest, it can be a bit of a gamble. Why do you think there is such a demand for wine critic scores while at the same time there is such a general emphasis on a producer's reputation?

What is the biggest headache about working as a buyer in a high end Italian restaurant?
The balkanization of Italian wine in New York is pretty astonishing. Want a Barolo? Great, this distributor has two Barolo producers. This other distributor has three Barolo producers. And this great big distributor has four Barolo producers. All of varying quality. As a buyer of Italian wine in New York you can easily find yourself working with 15 different distributors and that would be for a SMALL wine list. With a mid sized or bigger list you are probably talking to 40+ different distributors. That is 40 different calls to make, 40 different dudes to taste with, 40 different relationships to maintain, and 40 different orders to place. Forty. Each week is only 7 days long. Forty is a lot. It is a lot of work. It is a lot of emails, and it is a lot of talking on the phone. It only gets worse if you decide to do something totally foolhardy like deal only with Southern Italian wine. Then you are really asking for it, because although many distributors have added wines from the South to their books in recent years, the offerings are still highly spread out. There is no one stop shopping, even if you wanted it, and even from the North. De Grazia was the closest that we may have seen to that kind of size and specialization. Yes, I do know of buyers, especially the old school Italian buyers, who cobble together a list from like 5 or 6 distributors, guys with big books who are friends of theirs. I do wonder how much volume they really see, but it's possible. But you might not like the look of things too much if you are an ambitious sommelier who wants to have a sharp list and you go about working that way.

The other thing about Italian, and this definitely plays out on the floor, is that with Italian you will probably be decanting a lot of red wines. As French restaurants have moved from Bordeaux to Burgundy there has been a shift from decanting. But if you are serving Barolo you are probably decanting it. I mention this because decanting takes time. There are implications for workload and staffing.

What is the biggest headache about working as a buyer in a high end Asian restaurant?
The real issue with Asian is that you have to constantly reinforce the idea that your sommelier job is needed. Your role is not a given. Nobody really thinks of wine first when it comes to Asian food, whether that be Chinese, Thai, Korean, or Japanese. And by nobody I mean nobody who is your boss, unless the owner is by some off chance a big wine guy. And I mean nobody who works with you, as most of the servers won't have grown up around wine. Also go ahead and add to that nobody who is dining in the restaurant. Sit and watch how many people order sake with sushi compared with how many people order wine with the same. It isn't even a contest. At least not in New York. Which leads us back to a big problem for the wine guy, which is that beer, cocktails, and sake are all cheaper to hold in inventory than wine AND they offer more profit potential.  There is no way that you can mark up a wine 5X cost. Absolutely no way. You'd be strung up by your finger nails for even trying to get over that way. But guess what? That is a common markup percentage for those other beverage categories. With sake very few of the actual customers even know what they are buying, or what size a "carafe" actually indicates. So basically, as a wine guy at an Asian restaurant you are always fighting an uphill battle to show your relevance. I specifically remember being told, when I worked at a sushi restaurant, that I was "window dressing." I am 6'5'' tall. How many windows out there are as large as 6'5''? It can be a tough fit.

What is the biggest headache about working as a buyer in a high end New American restaurant?
The biggest headache with New American is the lack of inexpensive, tasty artisanal wine from this country. The bottom pricing floor can be high, and many wines can end up grouped right around each other in price on the list. That's if you stick only with American wines, and probably part of the reason why so few buyers actually do. But if you add European wines, you have options. Customers are open to eating New American with Spanish wine, or with Italian wine, or indeed with American wine. In general you can avoid a lot of the pitfalls because the strength of a program that is broad is the flexibility that you have. You can move in and out of categories pretty easily as the market shifts or as you find new things. Which I guess could be a handicap in that it is hard to position a real angle to the list, an obvious statement on the paper of what the list is about. This is more of an issue now that Cult Cab is out and Chardonnay no longer rules that roost. Those used to define the New American lists. Luckily, you don't have to be stuck in the endless allocation game that those entailed, either. But I would mention that just as it is nice that you can see producers who speak your language and visit often, you also have to face them when they want to pressure you to take their stuff. It is a bummer for me that I don't get to see a particular Burgundian much, but at least he isn't on the phone to my boss saying I ought to be fired because I don't carry his wine. Because that does happen with the American producers, and it does suck.

American wine can also be more brand driven, and when wines are brand driven it can take away some of the potential for turning people on to new things. The customer already knows what they want to drink, so why should they talk to you? This is also a bummer. 

And that's it folks. That is what I'd say about the headaches involved with the different cuisine types. I might be back with another piece along similar but more positive lines on another day.


Inigo said...

Could it help if the sommelier has a certain philosophy? Could be "only wines of a certain price" or "only wines from small producers".
That way he can explain his wine list easier and can always put a limit to all the distributors he's not interested in.

Levi opens wine said...


Thank you for taking the time to comment. I appreciate your input.

My suspicion is that any time one gets more specific about their philosophy for the list, the more distributors that actually entails, not less. Because it is actually not the case that one distributor will have more in your range when you narrow your focus. It goes the other way. A narrower focus means you must search farther afield for what you are looking for. The exception to that would be if a distributor's own philosophy matches exactly or near exactly your own. But there is no distributor, to my knowledge, that only cares "wines of a certain price," for instance. So that is problematic.

I spoke today with the wine director of a 4 star Italian restaurant in Manhattan and he told me that he deals with 85 different wine vendors. That is just for wine. 85 separate vendors.