FIVE QUESTIONS 08/14/17

Five Questions with Rebecca Banks, Beverage Director of the Keith McNally Group

Rebecca Banks is the Beverage Director for the Keith McNally Group (Balthazar, Augustine, Minetta Tavern, Cherche Midi, Morandi, and Lucky Strike).

Five Questions with Rebecca Banks


Which producer or area do you believe in that most people in the industry disagree with you on?

I wouldn’t say it’s THAT controversial, but I’m a big supporter of Bordeaux. Probably because our group embraces French heavy wines lists, I can give the region a little more love than some of my colleagues in the city. But even if we didn’t, I’d still showcase Bordeaux wine. I feel strongly that the wines of Bordeaux are extremely diverse in style and price point as well as food friendly.

If you could only ask one question of another wine director, what would it be?

How much money do you make?

Which trend or trends do you wish would go away?

Natural Wine. Orange wine. Riesling. Verticals. New California. Discussions on Pre-mox. Beards on men under 40—yes it’s related–especially male somms. Pet Nat. Hard to find and get into wine bars in Paris. Natural Wine. (oh, wait, I’m repeating myself). I’m sure there’s more that I just can’t think of right now…

..advice for a new wine director: Keep learning; Keep tasting, keep traveling, and don’t take yourself too seriously.

You get to see the French wine landscape in a different scale than most, what is the most exciting “category” in French wine today and why?

Corsican wines are probably the most “up and coming” wines out of France right now. The scope of what is available just in the NY market is expanding each year. I’m seeing a wider range of varietals, viticultural practices, vinification and aging techniques, and price points with each vintage. Only 10 years ago, I could count 2 producers on the market and now I can’t keep track. In general, the wines differentiate themselves from the rest of France with a foot in both French and Italian winemaking influences.

What is the best piece of advice you would like to pass along to a new wine director?

Keep learning; Keep tasting, keep traveling, and don’t take yourself too seriously.

Bonus question from Sam Ehrlich, Wine Director of the Blue Ribbon Restaurants:

What is your favorite piece of fiction where wine plays a role, big or small?

Sideways by Rex Pickett—total sucker for this farce of a story which was turned into an entertaining movie.
Peter Mayle—again, my non-fiction reading time is next to nil, so I have to reach waaaay back into the card catalogue of my mind for this one. I’m a huge fan of the Peter Mayle books set in Provence: A Year in Provence and A Good Year.
Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure by Donald and Pete Kladstrup. So this is not fiction, but It’s not a wine manual either, so I’m including it. I come back to this book over and over.


Follow Rebecca on Twitter @rbankswine and Instagram @banks.r

Note: all answers above are posted without any cuts or edits.

SPLASH DECANT 08/07/17

The Great Canned Wine Craze

The Great Canned Wine Craze is on.

Canned wine has been on a solid run nationally for a few years and finally, it is gaining traction in NYC.

According to Nielsen, canned wine sales more than doubled from $6.4 million in 2015 to $14 million in 2016. More often than not, Nielsen numbers don’t line up with the New York City beverage scene.  We are a special bunch that enjoys our old world flavors and scoffs at the Costco mainstream.  But against the odds, canned wine (…and canned wine “products,” stay with me!) are en Fuego, and when NYC starts to gobble up more and more product, it makes national numbers jump steeply skyward. Easy prediction: Sales will more than double again in 2017.

So what’s happening on the street?  Canned wine on the buyer brain, rapid brand proliferation and the repeated sound of cans popping open.  When a category gets traction like this, new brands start falling from the sky, and the retail facings multiply at a dizzying pace.

The wine store tell

Recently I found myself in a tiny natural wine store in Brooklyn. I was passing by on the way to dinner and popped in. I enjoy checking out these types of stores because they are often just off the radar enough to give insight on the fringe, and what may be next.  Walking towards the center of the store I saw a prominently displayed wine in a can. It was well-packaged enough, so I asked about it. The gentleman behind the counter responded:

This is the only organic wine in a can from France.

Those words stopped me in my tracks. 

While this may seem like a total Brooklyndia moment: Two bespectacled bros talking about zero-zero wines, etc. This is the instant where I begin to think that a category has moved from a notable outlier into something that will be a real mover. What he said may not even be true, but it is a strong market tell.  Every time I have heard the “this is the only….” line about a category and it had nothing to do with South Africa (remember the Swartland revolution?), the category goes on a run.

The Alt Format Arc

For many years, I have watched the slow and steady rise of the alternative format. Boxed wines, Boxed wines with a wooden outside, kegged wine, Tetra Paks, 40 oz. wines (actually it is 33.82 ounces), the list goes on….There is an arc of alternate format interest, and this arc hasn’t climaxed, yet. Cans are not new, but they fit perfectly into this overall trend because they feel comfortable, like a walk in the park. We are as familiar with the canned format as our own childhood. It shouldn’t be surprising that Cans have a more immediate it factor compared to Tetra Paks or larger boxes of wine. If you are accustomed to Tetra Paks, you ain’t from around these parts.

Cans also solve an important issue that most other formats don’t solve: the single serving problem. This has historically been a tricky issue and Cans have this covered in a perfect little package. People like finishing things.  Also, everyone keeps telling me that the Can is a strong play for millennials. Now, as a non-millennial wine guy in the big city, my instinct is to call bullshit on this in a giant way. I want to yell back that all this millenial talk is annoying and stupid. But I have seen it first hand on numerous occasions: Young people enjoy drinking wine from a Can. I imagine the Biebs will probably be caught on TMZ sponsoring a wine in the can brand soon enough. The audience is there, and it is a mighty one.

..you will see a lot of sparkling rosé in a can. A couple reasons for this: no vintages, sparkling, and rosé, effectively hitting a home run of category hotness.

What is next?

Right now it is all hands on deck and we are going to get more of everything, and not just wine.  More canned cocktails, canned wine coolers, organic wine in a can, sommelier branded canned products, a celebrity endorsed line of canned libations.  This is also line extension Prime time for Sofia, Underwood and others, so watch for these bigger players to make some moves.

Also, look for a lot of “sparkling” wines, rosé, and “sparkling rosé.” Ok, you will see A LOT of sparkling rosés.  A couple reasons for this: no vintages, sparkling, and rosé, effectively hitting a home run of category hotness.

So who wins the race in NYC? In the short term, almost everyone in the game. Provided the brand work is solid enough and the juice is palatable, canned wine products and extensions will continue on a run until the category gets much more density. Sidenote: Is the Wine Cooler a better play? Maybe.  I think back on those Seagrams Golden Wine Cooler commercials and get thirsty.

While I am at it, how does Swartland Revolution sound for a Can brand? Swartland Wine Cooler #liveyourpinotage #pinotagelife ??

Shit. Back to the drawing board.

THE REORDER 07/14/17

Ricordo – Ten Years

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Three days ago I found myself in the Theater District because of the messy, grindy and endlessly frustrating MTA of 2017.
So, I walked over to Carmine’s on 44th street and sat down at the bar.

Not much has changed over the years. Black and white uniformed aces move fluidly through the dining room like an elite restaurant special forces unit, and the same pictures of Tony, Frank, Deano and slick-haired wise guys cover the dusty walls end to end. Even the bar feels and smells the same.

I found my favorite picture of Enrico Caruso on the wall and took him in. I always used to cut lemons in the coffee station and then purposely walk by to catch his eye. That Tenor had the world by the balls, I would think. Grande.
Sitting at the bar with my pool-sized negroni, many old friends that still work the floor came by to say hello. I think they must put something in that just wilted family meal salad because they all look the same. A crew of smiling, Scarpariello slinging, Titanic Sundae serving assassins.

Memories came flooding back.

We laughed and told stories about the restaurant that I can't ever bring myself to write down.

They are a family-size portion of hilarious, a heaping side of hospitality warfare and a small side of tragedy here and there. Let’s just say that if you ever meet someone who has worked at Carmine’s, they have seen things.

After I had my Veal Parm combo, I made my way through the main dining room. Just next to the service bar, I ran into my old friend Peter and gave him a hug.
I trained Peter to be a server while he was high and jittery. I did my best to shepherd him through training because I liked him and I knew he really needed the job. For years we did the sugar bowl side work together before the dreaded Wednesday Matinee where no coffee was ever hot enough and the Penne alla Vodka was always missing “Brosciutt.” Peter was always good for a raunchy story, quick puns, and some deep philosophy. We laughed together a lot.

One day I called in sick and he had to do the side work alone. The next day I found an envelope in my locker containing this poem:

Looperless Wednesday

Sugars….rejected
Me….dejected.
No one to stuff the bowls with.
Blue hairs telling their trolls to roll with
the punch, the crush….of a Looperless Wednesday.

I hadn’t thought about that poem in years and it came back to me like a thunderbolt right there at the crowded service station. I recited it back to him with a mini Hamilton flourish and we laughed like we did back in the day.  I told him how much that poem meant to me.  It is nice to be missed.

After I said goodbye, I walked out into Times Square and realized that 10 years ago to the day was my last shift at Carmine’s.

THE REORDER 07/03/17

Clay on the Wheel

Purchase this image at http://www.stocksy.com:/107125

Once a salesperson gets past the opening struggle that is beginning as a wine salesperson in NYC, you come upon a problem. You have built up what you do with your run, your account connection, etc. and what worked before ceases to work. What you do cannot continue in the same way.  Stasis sets in.

But the fear of changing what you do and what has worked so well feels like a bone-chilling, mind-racing nightmare. That end of the world dream where everything you built goes away and all that remains is cold-calling, COD and a phone that never rings.

Here is the thing: if you don’t make some changes, the chances of losing big go up drastically. I have seen it. I have done it. I have lived it.

This is the moment in time where the real artistry begins -- you must use your imagination and get out of the way.

So how do you change? Ask yourself why you are doing the things you do.  Why email this offer? Why make this call? What is the real point??

Allow yourself to find the core of what you do.

The work used to be to open accounts and get them going.  Now you have to continue to develop your accounts while opening more, and/or letting some go.

Put the clay on the wheel and shape it. Be in the process. Don’t rush, just let it happen — allow the form of what you do to develop. And if the time where you have to topple the whole thing and start over, you will have confidence that you can restart it again.

All you have to do is throw clay on the wheel.

FIVE QUESTIONS 06/19/17

Five Questions with Sam Ehrlich, Wine Director of Blue Ribbon

Ehrlich

Sam Ehrlich is the Wine Director of the Blue Ribbon Restaurant Group, and one of the most passionate wine professionals I know.

Five questions plus a bonus below. Enjoy.

Five Questions with Sam Ehrlich


Which producer or area do you believe in that most people in the industry disagree with you on?

It would be too extreme to say that we disagree about this particular producer but I think that Porter Creek gets short shrift in the pantheon of REALLY CLASSIC California wineries. The Davis family has been there since 1981, growing incredibly honest, compelling Pinot and Chardonnay. The quality of vineyard work and their commitment to growing only what they can reasonably expect to care for at such a high standard results in a spectacular set of wines year after year. Alex Davis has run the estate since 1997 and the time he spent in the mid-1990s at Roumier and Guigal is reflected only in the best light. In the “less and less is more” era of California wine, these feel simultaneously, pure and un-fucked with.

If you could only ask one question of another beverage director, what would it be?

To my fellow wine directors, I would ask at what point does enough distributors become ENOUGH? With several restaurants and counting, I find myself going out of my way to work with fewer reps. In some ways this pains me because there has never been more great wine available from more sources and places. But I just don’t have the hours in the day.

There is a fair amount of industry love for Riesling as a category, and yet it seems to slowly move off of lists in NYC (with rare exception). Is there a secret to selling Riesling?

Selling Riesling… Sigh. I imagine that like most of my peers, I’m not alone in wishing to see a bottle great Kabinett or Smaragd on every table every night. I despair at those wines just sitting on shelves collecting dust because they’re “too sweet!” But begging a table to try a wine they are petrified of can suck time out of my night. Albariño is such an easy alternate solution. That being said, it’s essential we consider our audience. Riesling by the glass should be priced attractively. A good dry wine that presents itself as good value next to a $22 glass of Sancerre immediately raises its stock. Also, don’t ignore the classics. This is an era of great young forward-thinking estates coming out of Germany, Austria, FLX, etc. But there is a reason that Von Schubert enjoys the reputation among sommeliers that it does: the wines are inimitably great and chances are that if you get one in front of a guest you will change his mind.

In your opinion, what is the most misunderstood aspect of Burgundy?

Burgundy, misunderstood?! I think people often discount or minimize the importance of the winemaker’s hand when considering the idea of terroir. Ultimately terroir in wine is about purity and divining a parcel’s essential character. But growers and winemakers get there in different routes and over a period of years styles change and adjustments are made to the work both in the vines and the cellar. Every adjustment reflects a decision made. Any grower who says that they don’t do anything and that the wine is only a reflection of the vineyard is stretching the truth. Stems or no stems, batonnage or no batonnage, what kind of barrels to use: Whether the decision is to DO or NOT DO, it is still part of the wine.

To my fellow wine directors, I would ask at what point does enough distributors become ENOUGH?

Which trend or trends do you wish would go away?

A trend I wish would go away? I’m tired of reading about blind taste tests that pit cheap wines against their more expensive counterparts, that inevitably result in the tasters choosing the cheap wine. This is a cheap ploy on the part of magazines and click-bait sites that poke fun at wine as a profession at every level. It reduces the hard work of the people who do the farming and wine-making to an exercise in frivolity and gives credence to the idea that wines can be judged objectively. Don’t get me wrong I will happily take a wine apart if I don’t like it, but I’ll never tell someone that they are wrong for liking a wine. After all, one is supposed to derive pleasure from wine. I realize that as a trend this may be a soft target but I find it infuriating.

Bonus Question from David Giuliano, Beverage Director of Market Table, The Little Owl,  The Venue, The Little Owl Townhouse and The Clam

Before you ventured into the world of wine and hospitality, what did you aspire to be and how did it lead you here?

As for my aspirations before I entered wine and restaurants, there was a time when I yearned to study archaeology. I settled on this when I realized I’d never play second base for the Yankees. I always found the physical exploration and dissection of history riveting, even going as far as to work on a dig in deep Brooklyn one summer on the grounds of an old Dutch farmhouse. I’d like to think that there is an element of that exploration in wine, especially when tasting an old wine. When the person who made the wine is no longer alive or the estate has been sold or broken up, we can still feel their imprint on the world through the bottle.


Follow Sam on Twitter @SaminFlatbush and Instagram @saminflatbush

Note: all answers above are posted without any cuts or edits.

THE REORDER 06/13/17

Questions for the Players

RAW

Questions for the key market players today:

To the Sommelier/Wine Buyer
What do you buy that very few of your buyer colleagues agree with you on?

To the Importer/Distributor
Since everyone has good, buyable wine, what do you have that others don’t? What do you make?

To the Spirits Buyer
Are you defining the Brands of the future through your buying? What does “Craft” really mean?

To the Supplier
If you could never do a work with or a market visit again, what would you do?

To the Wine Buyer/Sommelier: What do you buy that very few of you buyer colleagues agree with you on?

To the Retailer
If it isn’t about the price or the brand, what is it about? Bonus: why do most email offers look the same?

To the Sales Rep
Which ideas are you bringing to the buyer that they haven’t thought of already?

SPLASH DECANT 05/22/17

A Line in the Sand – Barolo in NYC today

Barolo - Vigna Rionda

The 2013 vintage in Barolo is a line in the sand. While many thought that the 2010 vintage was the before and after vintage, I believe the 2013 vintage is the inflection point for Barolo; the game is changed going forward.

Why? I think the market wasn’t quite ready, and now, I think it is. I recently spent a week in Barolo tasting with some of the great estates, some under the radar estates, etc. And, from what I experienced in the glass, 2013 is a truly grand vintage — One to buy in on. Buy producers you enjoy and you won’t regret it.

Barolo on the Street

Less and More

With every new vintage release, the rising interest in Barolo is squeezing the allocations* offered to buyers from big name producers. There is not much juice to go around considering the level of demand, and this is causing notable market shifts.

When buyers start getting minuscule allocations, they start to look beyond the normal scope of distribution for the wines they want. Further, the name-dropped producers dominate NYC lists, and buying in on older vintages from these producers outside the three-tier is a full-time search for many wine buyers. Why? Because it looks good, and the wines may attract big game hunters — Even if these older wines and their sources are extremely variable in quality. So, smaller allocations via distribution intensify the search for Barolo outside the three-tier system. Does this support the producers? That is another question altogether.

In contrast, young vintages of Barolo propel the by the glass game and Retail shelves. Barolo is a prime pour, and for Retail, the big vintage, direct import offer is still a relative juggernaut, especially with a vintage like 2013. Buyers looking for by the glass and fresh vintage releases will look for value. The effect: demand for Barolo in lower price strata increases.

If you happen to have both value and a big name on your side in a Barolo, it is like having Usain Bolt on the blocks: you have a winner.  I suggest you grab as much as you can.

Old Arguments – Modern vs. Traditional

The modern producer versus traditional producer argument has gone stale because the lines are not as strongly drawn; the stark contrasts have faded along with the sales speak that drove both sides. This stems directly from the source: the Barolo zone. It is currently quite rare to find a producer that will not call themselves traditional. And on the street, this conversation has definitely faded from the fever pitch of a few years ago. I don’t want to misguide you: traditional remains THE buzz word for Italian wine sales. But there is no doubt that the modern vs. traditional argument with regard to Barolo comes up strikingly less in dialogue with buyers compared to before.

The Forgotten Sideman – Langhe Nebbiolo
For years, I have wished that Langhe Nebbiolo would get a little love, and I see a few spots in the market where it is starting to happen. While Barolo overall remains one of the greatest values in the world, Langhe Nebbiolo bottlings have long been the hidden, secret track of the area: the gateway drug to Barolo. And yet, on wine lists and shelves in NYC, Langhe Nebbiolo is largely forgotten.
Langhe Nebbiolo is generally much more easily bought (often in open inventory, and not allocated), and only a very few savvy wine buyers have keyed in on this. I also believe that like buying secondary wines from producers in Burgundy, buying a bottling like Langhe Nebbiolo will get wine buyers more immediate access/connection to producers.

A staggering number of Barolo producers remain dramatically undervalued for the quality of wine that they produce and this bodes well for the future.

Hitting home runs – The Monfortino mentality
Wine buyers have to get over the home-run mentality that has driven the over the top sales of the big boy Monfortino, Monprivato, etc., and created a high-end Barolo sales addiction. I have had buyers push back on certain Barolos because the one sale of Monfortino numerically equals several bottles of others AND the only argument with regard to Monfortino table-side is price. I have to call Bullshit on this. With this mentality, you are playing to a very small audience. Monfortino is the rare answer; value in Barolo can work in your favor.

But the big question is: will wine buyers start to look beyond the name producers to overlooked producers? All signs point to yes. This is the hardest habit to break, but if they don’t, they will keep chasing the same wines and end up buying at the end of the wrong tail.

What is to come
A lot more great wine from Barolo. A staggering number of producers remain dramatically undervalued for the quality of wine that they produce and this bodes well for the future.   Also, look for some forgotten Barolo names to come up and “re-enter” the market.  Overall, producers are making better wines, and the landscape of choice is going to broaden as the run for Barolo starts to speed up.  We have entered the golden age.

Sidenote: If I had to bet on the next big producer to be anointed by the critics it would be Brovia. I could see a lot more attention for them with the classic, “difficult” 2014 vintage.  Maybe Galloni gives them the big 100 pointer next? Brovia is still strangely misunderstood in the NYC market, and I am hoping that only a few that are really paying attention catch on….


*Allocation – when you are offered an allocation, it is implied that the wine is in high demand and you can only get a certain amount.