Wine Prophets: How Leadership and Vision Earn Profits
By Jeff Harding
We love the wine business. But at the end of the day, it’s a business. And businesses must make a profit to stay in business. The task of turning a passion into profit is a question everyone is asking these days, so we turned to three wine pros at the top of their games to figure it out. Daniel Johnnes, Emily Wines, and Olivier Flosse, all wine directors of multiple-venue groups, will be giving the low-down Sunday, September 30 for our “Wine Prophets” seminar at the 7th Annual StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress. We’re impatient to hear their advice, and couldn’t wait for the fall, so we asked them a few preview questions.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of wine “know how” from these experts, so get your additional questions ready, or post them in the comments section below and we’ll pass them along.
About the Panelists:
Daniel Johnnes has massive responsibilities as wine director for Daniel Boulud's Dinex Group. Boulud is the driving force behind the spirit of the wine program, with each restaurant’s focus is on a different style or region of French cooking, and Johnnes tailors each wine program accordingly.
Emily Wines is a Master Sommelier and the director of wine at the Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants group. Passionate about wine education, Wines travels the country teaching restaurant staff about wine varietals and the value and importance of eco-friendly wines and sustainable practices.
Olivier Flosse is the wine and beverage director for the Marlon Abela Restaurant Corporation, which includes A Voce Madison and A Voce Columbus in New York, the impressive wine program at MARC’s award-winning restaurant Morello Bistro, in Greenwich, Connecticut, and Bistro du Midi in Boston, Massachusetts.
One of the most exciting and difficult parts of a wine program is tailoring it to the restaurant’s clientele. Do you have a “psychology of the winelist” philosophy? How do you tailor that to multiple restaurants?
Every wine list has to be eye-catching and appropriate for the style and clientele of each restaurant. It has to have something for everyone but most importantly it has to show sophistication without being intimidating.
I think that winelists need to engage guests. There needs to be a starting point for any diner that is comfortable, whether it be a brand or a price point. From there the list needs to be concept-specific and tie in with the menu and price point of the restaurant (no Dom Perignon at a casual American comfort food concept, for example). Finally, the list must be something that someone in the wine business would appreciate: interesting wines, appropriately priced, and avoiding any strong allegiances to distributors or suppliers.
I do have some favorite wines that show up on multiple lists, but overall I want them to all feel fresh. I really work on making sure that the list is concept specific and matches the price point of the menu. The other thing I try to do is “spread the love” around and make sure that I am not giving all the business to a few suppliers.
I no longer put high ticket wines on opening wine lists (unless it really fits the concept). Those can be added later if the clientele want it. I see too many lists with aging out wines that are just too pricy to move. By visiting other restaurants in our comp-set, it can be pretty easy to spot what will and won’t be successful for us. That is not to say that we want to copy anyone else, but if we see “spendier” by the glass lists in the neighborhood we know that we can up the ante a bit. Opening lists are often compact in order to allow for quick adjustments post opening.
We always try to have a balance of choices for our guests. While we have very rare bottles of wine, we like to balance our list with great affordable options also.
How do you structure your hierarchy of wine directors and floor sommeliers? What are their responsibilities?
I am at the top, and then each restaurant has a head sommelier who manages his program with oversight from me and corporate directors. I make bulk purchases and develop core wines for the group and each sommelier has independence filling out the rest of the list.
We have an extreme range of restaurant concepts so the person who does the wine buying is rarely a dedicated sommelier. Often they are managers, but occasionally they are lead servers or bartenders. Because of this, education and a strong core program are critical. We have two people in the company with the title of sommelier and many more with strong wine backgrounds whose primary roll in their restaurant is as a manager. I keep close contact with the wine buyers in order to keep them engaged and in compliance with our corporate programs.
Each week I meet with each member of my team individually to go over everything that needs to be done that week. Together we create the “critical path” for the week, or goals that we must reach together. While I create the wine list, the sommeliers on the floor are responsible for making sure our guests are pleased and satisfied to the fullest. There are three words that I base our performance on: focus, anticipation, and communication—with extra stress on communication. Each member of the team is critical to excellent performance.
How much input does your staff have when building new, or maintaining existing, winelists?
I believe in giving them a lot of autonomy. They are on the front lines and need to have ownership of the program and believe in the wines they are selling.
I write all opening wine lists and turn it over to the restaurant after opening. We have a core program of 100 wines and each restaurant must have 20 percent of their list from this core. From there they can choose themselves. That being said, I often give feedback on lists. I include 12 of our top wine people in the annual tasting to choose our core wine program. We also have two or three wines by the glass mandated per quarter. In this program they have some limited choices as well, so they can pick the label that best fits their concept.
Their input is very important to me, and after I create the wine list and our guests try it for a week they will make suggestions and additions to what they see. They are the ones who know if our guests are happy and that they have what they want.
This is just the beginning of the “wine prophecy,” so we invite you to join us for the 7th Annual International Chefs Congress, for this seminar—and more: our wine program this year includes an educational tasting seminar on wines of Georgia, one of the oldest wines producing regions in the world, led by Master Sommelier Lisa Granik. Sommelier Pascaline LePeltier of Rouge Tomate in New York City will lead a seminar on natural wines, and Michael Madrigael from Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud will talk and taste us through a sampling of the top selections from Côte-Rôtie.
And there will be the 3rd installment of our Somm Slam competition (we are still accepting applications to judge the event—unlike any of its kind). We’re thrilled to be hosting such talented and informed speakers, and look forward to meeting more of our wine-loving community this fall.