Wine on Starchefs
Greg Harrington, MS
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 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 to wine?

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 best?

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 go on.

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 just wine.

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.”


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 Published: June 2004