B.R. Guest Inc.
206 Spring St.
New York, NY 10012
An Interview with Greg Harrington, Partner and Director of Corporate
Beverage, B.R. Guest Restaurants and James Hotels
By Jim Clarke
Jim Clarke: Why did you decide to specialize in beverage
service instead of restaurant work more generally?
Greg Harrington: It was the challenge of being on the beverage
side. Back in 1992, a sommelier was a 60-year-old French or Italian
guy with a metal cup hanging around his neck. 22-year-olds didn’t
get jobs buying wine or running wine programs. In fact, many thought
the sommelier position was passing into history. It all came down to
being in the right place at the right time. I worked in a restaurant
in Las Vegas as a manager. No one else wanted to do the wine list, so
I did it. It just so happened that Ron Mumford, MS, was the restaurant’s
wine representative; he brought in Steve Geddes, MS, to help us with
wine sales and service in the beginning. These guys were so far ahead
of me, but I was determined to get to their level. They pushed me hard.
About a year later, I decided to make wine a career. I put everything
I owned into my car and drove to San Francisco, thinking I would bartend
for a while and have the time to explore the wine regions of Northern
California. By chance I walked into Square One the first week to see
if they needed a bartender. Joyce Goldstein interviewed me and hired
me as a manager that day. Peter Granoff, MS, was the sommelier there
at the time. I begged him to teach me wine. I cleaned the cellar, organized
the room, put cases away. Very soon into my tenure there, Peter announced
he was leaving to start Virtual Vineyards.com. So there I was, 23-years-old,
running one of the most progressive wine lists in the country - and
scared to death.
JC: You worked for Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck before
coming to B.R. Guest; do chef-driven companies have a different approach
GH: Working for Emeril was an amazing experience. He’s
the only guy that would get on me for not buying enough wine. Emeril
is fanatical about the restaurant experience – food, service,
and wine. He wanted a well-rounded, cutting edge list. And he loved
to drink the wines from the cellar. When I was there, all night long
we would do spontaneous wine pairings for people - and not five course
tastings. If the chef was cooking for you, you were doing 8, 10, sometimes
15 courses - all paired with wine. We would do these on the spur of
the moment; nothing was planned. He would call out the course and I
would find a wine that would match it. Many times I would just bring
the wine to Emeril. He would taste it and cook a dish that paired perfectly.
He was amazing at that. I learned so much there – about food,
service, wine, and giving the guest what the guest wants. It was a more
personal experience, because I was working with Emeril every single
day. Both Emeril and Wolf saw wine like they see food – as an
essential part of the experience.
JC: How closely do you work with Eben Klemm, the company’s
Director of Cocktail Development?
GH: We work very closely. I drive him absolutely crazy. Eben
is an absolute artist - a craftsman. He uses amazing ingredients. But
I am always saying things like – What’s the cost percentage
of that drink? Is the average customer going to understand that? Do
we have a deal on that product? How long will it take the bartender
to make that drink? He’s the creative vision; I’m looking
at the practicality of the cocktail - its ease to make. But I think
we work very well together. He makes stunning cocktails, cocktails that
bartenders can make quickly and consistently. The guests love them.
And they meet the financial goals of the restaurants. He’s also
one of the funniest, dry-witted guys I have ever met. Take a look at
the names of some of his cocktails sometime.
JC: You seem to be unusually committed to wine training and
education; what are the basic skills you hope to teach servers in the
context of restaurant training, and what approaches do you find work
GH: Too many wine classes sound like Ferris Bueller’s
professor. The average server can’t remember that much info and
the guest doesn’t care. Does the guest care about the 10 Crus
of Beaujolais? No. They want to know if they are going to like the wine.
They are saying “Tell me if I am going to like this and make me
comfortable with this decision.” Wine intimidates people. Simple.
That’s why we sell so much Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet. It’s
easy. The guest is comfortable with the decision and knows what they
are going to get.
I teach wine very differently than others. You have limited time with
the servers. And most of the servers aren’t in the restaurant
business for a career. So you have to be able to teach this quickly
and effectively and make them remember it the first time. Let’s
say we are teaching about Robert Mondavi Napa Chardonnay. I’m
not standing there teaching them about Robert Mondavi. He’s a
fantastic guy with a great story, but if I only teach them about that
particular wine, they only know one wine. Big deal. I teach them about
the region. I want them to know that most Napa Chardonnay shares similar
characteristics – rich fruit, very full-bodied, with new oak.
They learn the climates of the regions and how these climates influence
the taste of the wine. Then later we can go into the details. Few wine
educators teach the students to read the language of wine. They teach
words, but the students need to know how the letters go together so
they can create their own language. This approach is slower and more
confusing in the beginning, but its great when you see the light bulb
My goal is for a server to go to every one of our concepts and be able
to give the customer a good idea what the wine is going to taste like:
light or full-bodied, fruity or earthy, oak or no oak or what kind of
oak. Too many servers list the ingredients of a can of fruit cocktail
when they describe wine – pear, pineapple, cherry. Why do we think
the guest wants to hear this? Ask ten servers what California Cabernet
tastes like. I guarantee 7 of them will say cherry and chocolate. Then
ask them about merlot and you will get the exact same response. The
game is about figuring out what the guest wants and giving that to them.
If they ask for Italian Pinot Grigio, what are they asking for? A cool
climate, earthy wine without oak. Once the server can categorize wine
like this, then all the wines on the list are open to them. They understand
the language. They now know how to suggest and sell wine, and, most
importantly, make the guest happy.
I try to make wine as easy and fun as possible. I use unexpected words
and descriptions. Explain Puligny-Montrachet? Well it’s like Soho
in NY. It’s a place. Part of a bigger community. And the Mayor
of NY said that if you want to put the name Soho on your wine, you have
to follow his rules. Basically I go in front of the class and make a
fool of myself, so they can see that its not intimating. It’s
JC: As you move on to more advanced training – training
would-be sommeliers, for example - does your approach change?
GH: That’s a whole different story. Because now you have
to have a PhD in the language. They have to have a full understanding
to be able to go out and teach it to others, in a way that others can
understand. The hardest lectures to understand are always from those
that don’t fully comprehend what they are saying. I like to teach
through tasting. It helps pull the theory together. This requires a
serious level of commitment from the sommelier. I can’t give you
a sommelier job, you have to earn it through hard work and study.
JC: Do you miss being on the floor?
GH: I still frequently get the chance to work the floor. We
have opened 7 restaurants and a hotel in 2 years. But what really makes
me happy is teaching others to go out and sell wine and then be successful
at it. We just opened Vento. Vento could have easily just sold Pinot
Grigio and Chianti. But the servers there were awesome. They are out
there selling Lagrein, Nero d’Avola, Barbera. The wines that you
have to work to sell. But I think they see that it creates a better
dining experience for the guest. And they see the results in the tips.
JC: I seem to remember a story of yours about a guest who
was more interested in playing with the cork than tasting the wine;
could you share it with our readers?
GH: This certain gentleman was dining on a very busy convention
night with his lady companion. We had a policy to always take the first
bottle back, no questions asked. Well, he decides to choose a 1995 Shafer
Hillside Cabernet, one of 6 that John and Doug had so graciously allocated
to the restaurant. He doesn’t taste the wine, he feels the cork
and proclaims “This wine is too tannic.” Out comes the next
bottle with a repeat of the same event. The waiter asks me to go to
the table to serve the 3rd bottle. (I know that I can serve the first
to some of our regular customers that are there.) He’s throwing
an absolute temper tantrum for the third bottle. Doesn’t want
any other wine. I open the 3rd bottle, quickly put the cork in my pocket
and pour a taste of wine. He says “Where’s the cork. The
other 2 have been too tannic.” I say “Sir, please taste
the wine. I believe that you will really enjoy this wine. I tasted it
a few weeks ago and it was amazing, not too tannic at all, especially
for a young Napa Cab.” He says “Give me the damn cork and
stop embarrassing me in front of my girlfriend” (She’s 30
years younger…). As he says this, she stands up, slaps him hard
across the head and says “Will you taste the damn wine already!”
As I stand there in utter amazement, the only thing that comes to mind
to say is “Sir, maybe I should pour the wine.”