Posted on | October 27, 2013
Written by | W.R. Tish
Under the umbrella of Bonanno Concepts—comprising ten Denver restaurants helmed by chef Frank Bonanno—Kelly Wooldridge covers a lot of terroir, so to speak. This vibrant group includes the flagship wine-destination Mizuna (where Wooldridge is also GM and sommelier), a pair of Italian restaurants (Osteria Marco, Luca), casual eateries (Bones, Bonanno Bros. Pizza, Lou’s Food Bar), plus a BBQ joint (Russell’s Smokehouse), two cocktail lounges (Vesper Lounge, Green Russell) and even a pie shop (Wednesday’s Pie).
His task as wine director calls for a delicate balance of hands-on and stand-back management—which allows for palpable variety and creativity (e.g., up to 50 Rieslings at Mizuna during the summer; 14 sakés at Asian-leaning Bones; wine on tap at Lou’s). Here we speak with Wooldridge about the big picture at Bonanno Concepts; in extended coverage online he touches on his approach to training as well as specifics at the distinct locations.
THE BEVERAGE NETWORK: When picking wines by the glass, what guidelines do you apply?
KELLY WOOLDRIDGE: First and foremost, they need to be what they say they are. It sounds dumb, but all of us as sommeliers have tasted Pinot Noirs that taste like Syrah and Sangiovese that tastes like nothing much. Next they need to match at least one dish. At our flagship restaurant, Mizuna, it is not uncommon for guests to ask for a glass of wine to pair with an entrée; as such I need to have wines that are flexible to change with the menu and still appeal to a large array of guests.
And after that I look at cost. Does a wine warrant what’s being asked for it? Will I have to sacrifice a lot of margin to get it to a price that my guests will like (in the case of more expensive selections) and if it’s inexpensive, is it going to come across as cheap?
TBN: Can you summarize your ordering system?
KW: I’ve always been a strong believer in a good Excel spreadsheet and common sense. I have to have my eyes on the inventory to make the best decisions. Of course, each of my wine managers has their own style and feel, and I respect their decisions. So far I have had no reason to doubt anyone’s ability to order smartly. As a company we deal with more than 40 distributors, but that number is always moving up and down.
TBN: What are some recent trends you have noticed in your restaurants?
KW: A big uptick in folks being willing to engage with the sommelier. It used to be that people were afraid that we would be arrogant, make them feel dumb or trick them into spending way out of their budget. But now it seems that people want not only to find a great wine, but then to figure out why it is that they like it.
TBN: What tips/words-of-wisdom do you find yourself frequently telling your staff?
KW: Be confident without being arrogant. Never be afraid to ask for help. Let the guest know that you’re on their side; you are here to help guide them to something they will love and will make their evening more memorable.
TBN: What is another wine list/program (or two or three) that you admire?
KW: In Colorado? Aaron Forman at Table 6, his list is always a pleasure to browse. And Melanie Kaman at the Flagstaff House, she’s managing a behemoth of a list and doing very cool things with it. Elsewhere? I think that Dustin Wilson’s list at Eleven Madison in NYC is absolutely stunning and Cat Silirie’s small but perfectly-curated program at The Butcher Shop in Boston is a treat.
ONLINE EXTRA: Kelly Wooldridge’s approach to the wine programs at individual Bonanno Concepts restaurants, and staff training.
TBN: Mizuna, your longest list at 22 pages, and perhaps the most cerebral (deep in Burgundy; sections start with inspired introductory text), has a lot of Riesling. Is this mostly based on the menu, or is the breadth of Riesling more a way of you making a wine statement?
KW: The Mizuna list is intended as a survey of all that is great and good in the world of wine. Our present 18 selections of Riesling is actually quite small, at the height of the summer it approached three pages and nearly 50 selections. The section is meant not only as a complement to the food (which it most certainly is) but indeed as a statement of just how great the grape is and always has been.
TBN: The idea of House Wine has been pushed out of sight/mind in many “fine wine” establishments. Can you tell us the thinking behind having a House Red and White at Lou’s? What are the House wines, and do they change? And which size is the best seller?
KW: It’s funny you mention house wine, because we are actually moving away from that at Lou’s, as I feel it can devalue the rest of the list. A recent re-formatting of the list and menu at Lou’s has given me a chance to re-focus on what really works with the food and atmosphere at Lou’s. And now our draft wines, which were the house wine outlet, are moving toward a more premium price point and we’re seeing a lot of 12 oz. (half-bottle) carafes selling.
TBN: Osteria Marco appears to be the least “divided” list—wines are grouped mainly by color, and you manage to get over 100 wines on one oversized page. You also offer 24 wines by the quartini; how did that come about and how are the quartinis doing relative to bottle sales?
KW: OM is a big restaurant with an extremely diverse clientele. When the restaurant was opened it was decided that the list should be 100% Italian and I love that it still is. The challenge is to keep the list relevant and fresh in a market swamped with Italian wine. The quartini program is actually how we refer to our BtG program (butchered Italian referring to the fact that it’s a quarter of a bottle, rather than a quarter of a liter). We sell more wine by the glass than bottle due to our varied customer demographic. It’s something that I’m always changing, at least one wine changes there every month, which the staff can find maddening to learn, but I always give new placements at least 90 days to sink or swim.
TBN: Bones has a very short list, with more wines by the glass (14) than by the bottle (11), plus a surprising selection of saké, with flights. What is your thinking there?
KW: Bones is meant to be fast, fun and creative. With the emphasis on Asian and (at times) difficult flavors, it can be hard to curate a list any bigger than what is on offer without being 100% Riesling. With the noodle bent to the menu, I feel saké is the perfect accompaniment, and is often misunderstood. Thus we have a chance for us to use our reach to influence Denver’s conversation about saké with a cool selection and a flight program to allow guests to sample multiple offerings. Plus, there is almost no storage in the restaurant, so what little wine we do have is jammed into every nook and cranny that can safely be used to store it.
TBN: At Russell’s Smokehouse, wine shares the stage with cocktails, beer and housemade nonalcoholic beverages. What do you look for in wine that goes with BBQ?
KW: I look for wines that are flavorful enough to stand up to Tim’s amazing smoked meats and sides, but not so assertive as to create harsh contrasts. I’m woefully cliché in a lot of the selections: Zin, Grenache and Riesling. But I love them with BBQ. Of course when I’m eating BBQ, I reach for a great beer as much as for wine, I guess that’s what you get growing up in Kansas City.
TBN: All-Italian vino is in play at both Luca d’Italia and Bonanno Brothers Pizzeria. What sells well at each?
KW: Luca is a list administered entirely by the great-and-talented Jim Herbst, and while I do work in a mentoring role with Jim at times, I can’t claim to have anything to do with the awesome list he writes. I know he moves a LOT of Barolo and Brunello, and we spend a good deal of time tasting together and finding what’s great. The Pizzeria list is actually the most challenging to write. It’s for an area that is just not used to a wine list in their restaurants. Most of this part of town is dominated by chain restaurants and so the guests are pre-programmed to look for the same eight things everywhere. So the challenge is in crafting a program that lets guests explore wine without feeling like their hands are being forced or they are being made to feel stupid. We sell a lot of Pinot Grigio (Castelfeder is a favorite) and Super Tuscans; Ornellaia’s Serre Nuove is popular.
TBN: How do you handle staff training at the various restaurants?
KW: I’m fortunate to be given a ton of freedom to pursue a very aggressive program of staff education, which as we all know takes up not only time but a lot more resources than some people believe should be necessary. Each month I have a roving wine training class. Some focus on grape varietals, others on regions or styles, some on topics like service or technical skills. The class presents the same material over the course of four days at four different locations. Since we have more than 150 FOH employees all over the metro area, it works out so that everyone can make it to a class. And then if restaurant managers need me to come in and cover other specific topics I’m always available to come in and spend time with them.