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Behind The Wine Curtain: The Real Life of a Somm is Sometimes More Grind Than Glamour

Posted on  | October 24, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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Most people imagine the job of the sommelier consists of sipping and swirling amazing wines, trialing them with world-class food, then adding the carefully vetted vino to a leather-clad list, all the better to impress well-heeled guests. While tasting and tableside service is a very important aspect of the job, and perhaps the image most perpetuated, sommeliers will candidly tell you that 50% or more of their time is spent behind the scenes, in managerial and logistical duties that carry little glory but which have significant impact on the quality—and profitability—of their wine programs.

Four top sommeliers agreed to share their tips for managing their duties in a way that allows them to maximize their time spent interacting with guests, while still boosting their bottom line and enjoying a life outside of the restaurant.

André Compeyre
Chef Sommelier, Benoit, New York City

“The sommelier does so much work that nobody realizes. Younger kids who are starting into this industry think it is all talking about wine and tasting great bottles. That is a good side of the job, but I know my first job is as an employee—to be profitable for the place,” says André Compeyre, who oversees a wine list that features bottles from all over the world, with a focus on France including rare Burgundy.
Compeyre enjoys a capacious cellar space, a luxury in New York City, yet he has little interest in cellaring wine for his French-focused list. He does not gamble on Bordeaux futures or stock up on releases that require more time in bottle, instead opting for instant gratification—and sales. “Every bottle in the cellar is available on my menu,” says Compeyre. “I have access to wines from auctions and private collectors, so I leave that work for the wine collector to hold them for me. I prefer to find perfectly matured wines at a price that works for me. I buy ready to drink.”

Compeyre has a fairly open-door policy and will work with a supplier for even a few select wines. He currently deals with 15 distributors. He explains, “I like a lot of suppliers, because I am very curious. I’ll give an opportunity to anyone who has wine of the quality, style and price I am looking for. My program is a big cake, with a slice for many people.”

However, Compeyre endorses careful homework before taking on a supplier. He often begins by reviewing the portfolio on paper, then attends the portfolio tasting, where he can sample many wines at once to get an overview of quality. “I do the research, so I can be very informed and truthful if there is no future for a supplier. Sitting down for an individual tasting is not the first step, but the final step to a potential spot on the list,” he says.

With 500 selections, Compeyre says an inventory on the first of every month down to the bottle is key to his efficiency, and typical of his meticulous nature. “We trust our staff, so this is about finding inefficiencies. If there is any variation and I am missing 12 bottles, it could be because we are overpouring a by-the-glass wine. If five waiters are overpouring every day for 30 days you can’t let that persist too long,” he notes.

Olivier Flosse
Beverage director, Marlon Abela Restaurant Corporation (MARC)

Nobody can be in four places at once. So organization is key for Olivier Flosse as he manages the wine programs for four restaurants, including two locations of A Voce in New York City, Morello in Greenwich, CT, and Bistro du Midi in Boston. “This job is all about organization,” he says. “It is for me the only one way to check in on four restaurants in one day.”

Flosse insists that all wine deliveries arrive at each restaurant on a single day of the week, different for each one. Then, the individual wine directors or managers check the delivery against a purchase order that has been created and approved in-house. “We print a pre-invoice of our own for every delivery, so if anything is different on the day of the delivery you can easily catch the mistake. The idea is that we are checking from our own information,” he explains. “In this way, even an employee that has no knowledge about wine can verify the delivery. Without this system, the supplier can slip in wrong prices or wrong vintages, and by the time you catch it there is a huge headache to send it back.”

Once all deliveries are received, the individual wine directors email Flosse the new listings highlighting wines that are changing—whether an addition, vintage change or other—for his approval by 5:00 that day. When Flosse reviews it in his custom Excel sheets, his formulas automatically tell him how the list may have skewed, noting items like the percentage of wines under $40 for instance. “These formulas are part of my wine list breakdown. They are important numbers, so your list does not slowly grow too expensive for instance,” he says. “Then it takes more work to get it back in line.”

The wine lists themselves are printed in-house. With Time Warner A Voce’s list at 80 pages, only pages with changes are printed each night. Flosse will tolerate one “86” on a list, something the sommelier can easily mention to a table. Once he or she needs to mention two, it’s time to reprint the pages.

Peter Mastrogiovanni
Corporate beverage Director, EMM Group

With a wine inventory of $330,000, spread across six restaurants including Catch in New York and Miami, Peter Mastrogiovanni says, “The work load can really build up at each individual property if you are not super organized. For receiving, tasting, updates, you have to find a schedule and stick with it.”
With most restaurants experiencing their weekly boom as the weekend approaches, Mastrogiovanni likes to frontload his organizing and paperwork to counterbalance the predictable flurry of the weekend.  “I address all the ugly stuff in the beginning of the week, squaring away business Monday through Wednesday. By Thursday and Friday, I have more free time for tasting with sales reps. I save the sexy stuff for the end of the week,” he says.

While Mastrogiovanni uses computerized inventory systems to track the properties, he shies away from the trend of bringing computers and tablets into the dining room, preferring the feel of a paper wine list and a personal connection between sommelier and guest. In contrast to his time at Bouley, where when a wine ran out the page was reprinted and replaced immediately, Mastrogiovanni finds clever ways to plan and group his reprints to save time and conserve paper.

For instance, if a page is being reprinted and one or more wines on that page have a single bottle in inventory, he’ll remove those wines preemptively, switching them to a hand sell. “There is something to be said about a wine not on the menu,” he says. “It is more efficient to take the bottle off the list and present it as that ‘last bottle’ of special wine that is no longer on the list. It is transformed into a powerful sales tool instead of a future deletion to deal with.”

The EMM Group restaurants use typical stackable bin storage for wine, with a few small changes. First, they are custom designed by Mastrogiovanni so they make optimal use of the restaurant space. In addition, they accommodate dividers, so that a bin that holds 30 bottles can be sectioned to separate several different wines. “That is a major storage trick, because with some of the more expensive wines, we order only three bottles,” he says.

Damian S. Reusch
Beverage Director, Graham Elliot and Graham Elliot Bistro, Chicago

In assembling his wine lists, Damian Reusch says he keeps close alliances with about seven or eight distributors. “I don’t like to get too much more than that or it becomes too many moving parts and muddies the waters,” he says. “It makes it harder than it has to be, because I can find everything I need across those selected portfolios.”
Part of his strategy in conserving time with purchases is not just selecting the distributors that are the best potential fit, but meeting with them to explain his preference, strategies and expectations. “All my suppliers know the direction of the list because I made a point of having meetings with the reps. I took the initial time to meet with them for hours, explain the parameters and make them partners, so they know what not to bring me,” he says.

They also know when not to bring it. Reusch reviews his list for deletions on a Sunday afternoon and makes the orders Monday for a Tuesday delivery. “Sometimes, you get guys showing up at 6:00 on Thursday,” he says. “They are gonna get an earful from me.”

Reusch says he relies heavily on a collaborative sharing of information regarding the status of wines on the list, made possible by using Google Docs. “Everything is based online. The managers are able to go into the system, and what they do is highlight a wine in yellow if it is low inventory or out of stock. Then I am alerted and make the call of whether it will stay or go,” he says. As a free alternative to expensive wine list software, Google Docs still enable Reusch to review every change that has ever been made and who has made changes.

For Graham Elliot, Reusch never orders full cases, both to conserve on his very limited space and to allow his list to change dynamically with the menu and the seasons. “Most wines I order just three bottles at a time, some six bottles. That means I can move through them on a good weekend and turn over a good portion of the list. This will let me quickly move from summery whites to powerful reds with the season,” he explains.


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