Interview with Caitlin Stansbury
By Jim Clarke
With all the sommelier training programs out there,
why did you choose the International Sommelier Guild?
Caitlin Stansbury: I chose
the International Sommelier Guild because they offered the
biggest bang for the buck, and for the depth of their curriculum.
They’re the only school that accredits by direct instruction.
Other programs and, in particular, the Court of Master Sommeliers
seem liked a rip-off: you get some books, study on your
own, show up for a weekend, and get tested.
With the International Sommelier Guild
I really felt like you were learning what’s in your
mouth. It gives me a slight advantage in the job market,
but more importantly, I use everything I learned every day
at work as a sommelier – that’s where the real
value of the training is.
JC: What about developing
JB: Everyone loves to
think of wine as nebulous and subjective, but really, it’s
not. Many places allow students too much latitude. Learning
the difference between my own personal palate and what the
benchmark is out in the world was a huge part of my training.
It means I’m able to drive higher profits, because
I’m able to understand what a great deal is, and the
difference between exceptional and average wine.
JC: What makes a small
JB: Barbara Philip showed
us a bunch of winelists. BLT: 650 titles deep. Another one
has 2,600 titles on the list – it’s impressive,
a library. Then she showed us the list from a little Indian
restaurant: the menu and list are all on one single page
– it’s 15 bottles long, all available by the
glass. The wines are esoteric, just like the food. They’re
chemically perfect for the menu. A few Rieslings, a couple
of not-too-complex sparkling wines – every single
wine had a justification on the menu; each one was a perfect
fit with at least two things on the menu. At first we laughed
when she showed it to us, but Barbara said that list was
every bit as valid and well-thought out as any other list
we looked at. I still have a copy of it.
JC: How important
is knowing your clientele?
JB: You’ve got to
be mindful of who’s walking in the door. Put on your
sneakers and walk seven blocks in every direction from your
restaurant. I had assumed that the clientele at the Gaucho
Grill in Studio City was all families, mostly working class,
but every major film studio is around the corner –
the stars and studio execs are all coming to Gaucho Grill
for lunch. You couldn’t fling a cat without hitting
a celebrity at lunch there.
So you have the working class family that
just wants something nice and juicy to have with their steak,
preferably at under $7 a glass. Then I have Debbie Allen,
who at lunch also doesn’t want anything crazy expensive,
but does want something more sophisticated. So we offer
something like the Torrontés – you’re
not going to see that by the glass at Spago. The wines have
to do double duty to please both Debbie Allen and the family;
it’s so much tougher than the big Lodge list, but
sales double when we created that list.
JC: How do you get
guests interested in esoteric wines?
JB: If I can get a guest
to bite, they’re thrilled with the choice. I’m
particularly careful with what I put on the list; there’s
no point in having an esoteric wine that’s not quality.
It also has to be well-priced; the guest doesn’t want
to feel hoodwinked when you talk them into trying something
unusual. Quality has to exceed the price point for esoterics;
If I talk a guest into something, they’ve got to feel
it’s a great value. I over-deliver, and so they come
back to see what I’m going to pull on them next time.
The great deals are always off the beaten path on my list.
Sit back and let momma drive; I’ll always take you
on the scenic route.