What worked in 2017 – A Review

Merry, Happy! We are in the home stretch of 2017, so here we go. Fast and dirty-style: What worked in 2017 — some top-line themes and categories.

All views from the street, not the desk.

2017 – What worked?

I have to start large: I am calling the whole Retail category a winner. It was a good ‘un.
Even in this a super competitive retail landscape with moats forming around states and making out of state shipping an issue, enough people in this city are drinking at home to make Retail really roll. Maybe the customers are drinking to soothe the pain or to save a dime here or there, but either way, the competent retailers who served well made good business happen this year.

Alternative format
I wrote about the alt-format movement earlier this year, and we are still in the middle of a giant crescendo. Millennials aren’t the only members of the alt-format libation nation – it is bigger than anyone can imagine. Cans, Tetra-paks, 40 oz wine that isn’t actually 40 oz., and more, all slaughtered it this year. I see nothing stopping this train in the near future – full speed ahead.

The Sommelier Wine Brand (wines or otherwise)
If you buy mine, I will buy yours.
The Somm Brand was a Gargantuan mover of BTG placements and off of shelves this year. Sommelebrity + Sommpreneur equals #winning.

Alto Piemonte
I love you, Alto Piemonte, for sentimental reasons.
Alto Piemonte is the little engine that could on lists and shelves this year and for my money, still wildly undervalued. AltoP offers vintage depth, spiced, lifted, lesser alcohol Nebbiolo (and Nebbiolo blends) that are just off in the fringe to many of the mainstream buyers on the green. But AltoP isn’t that far off. The upside here is huge, and I am all in. The patient believers in the area win, the bean counters abandon ship…

Somms like us buy things like this
If you were selling wine in 2017 and noticed this phenomenon, you probably moved an extra box or two (or hundreds). The hive mind of buying exists – especially since buyers are obsessed with having all the correct wine answers, at least for now.

Ribeira Sacra
One of the most magical regions in Spain got noticed this year by the Somm crowd – finally. And they like you Ribeira Sacra, they really really like you. The fact that this region has been doing under-the-radar well for years and is now being knighted by the Somm set is worthy of some attention. Who is deciding which regions are now deserving? And does it ultimately matter? There is gold in the answer.

Is there any way we as a community can kill the sabering champagne thing once and for all? Asking for a friend, again.

Huge year for Champagne in the city. Huge. All types did well, but Growers, in particular, got in the Octagon again and tapped more people out than ever before. The numbers the Big Houses did naturally dwarf the Growers, but the attention these smaller houses achieved was ginormous. Marguet, Laval, Bereche, Savart, Suenen, Pierre Peters, Gimmonet, Filaine, Brochet, Chartogne-Taillet, Dhondt-Grellet…the list goes on. These Champagnes were in all the right places.
Sidenote: Is there any way we as a community can kill the sabering champagne thing once and for all? Asking for a friend, again.

Wine Fairs
So many fairs, so little time. Every wine fair that was relatively well executed was PACKED. How did these cut through the noise of this busy market? It is all about the mission. Clarity in mission won the attention of consumer and industry – and deservedly so.

Tequila, Mezcal, and basically anything that could be called an agave spirit ran like the wind this year. Even brands that aren’t part of marketing machines had a more than fair chance to win a runner placement. We are working into the cycle of an impending agave shortage right now but I don’t see any slowdown coming, even with an imminent price increase or two.

And the Comeback of the Year is…drumroll…

Orange wine

Anyone remember this article: “Orange wine hits a wall” by Jon Bonné citing the Richard Betts article in Vogue “Why Tecate is Greater than Orange Wine”?

Up to as recently as early last year, I watched Orange wine barely register a heartbeat and then – the resurrection. Orange wine had a very good 2017. Praise poured out from the journalists in mostly annoying, trite articles about Orange wine – and I actually think it worked on the consumer. And, once customers start calling for it, you get a comeback.
Orange wine is back in the big show.

THE REORDER 12/18/17

o’mast – the craft of an artisan salesperson

Over a coffee a few weeks ago, a good friend and wine director gave me a gift. He asked me if I had seen a 2011 released documentary on Neopolitan tailoring called o’mast and recommended I see it as soon as possible. At the time I didn’t realize that this movie was the key to opening my eyes – the playbook of an Artisan Salesperson* on film.

That night, I watched o’mast, and I have been incredibly inspired ever since.
It is filled with older Italian tailors speaking in dialect, stunning sartorial stories and a Jazz soundtrack framed within the beauty of Naples, Italy.

For those that know me, it is not shocking that I loved this movie. But looking beyond the obvious, this movie is about the mastery of a craft. Mastery accomplished through a rigorous and thoughtful quest – and even further, the profound pursuit of what I would call the Artisan Salesperson*. This is a concept I am obsessed with.
I have never seen laid out so clearly what I believe is the absolute best way to sell wine and spirits in NYC today (what I attempt every day, and fail often in the pursuit of). These craftsmen are onto something and if you really listen, the properties of a spectacular, genuine salesperson are woven into the stories these men tell.

Artisan Sales – the starting point

Listen more, talk less
This is where to start, and I don’t mean it as literally as it reads.

There is no craft you can do without it. Without passion for some elemental aspect of wine or spirits sales, you will wither and/or burn out in a flash.

Don’t say yes all the time.
Sales without tension is boring and dismisses the elemental part of choice that has to be there in any real relationship. Look at the computerized automatic check out line… That is the left turn to meaningless. You don’t want to do that — you need to engage. And the act of saying no sometimes helps.

Imperfection is interesting
One of my heroes, Seth Godin, famously said (and wrote): Perfection is Boring.

Admittedly, I struggle with this, but you don’t have to. Accept that mistakes and imperfection are not only a given but opportunities. They are never the indication of an imminent death or absolute failure. In one of my favorite moments in the movie, one of the tailors says that you need imperfection in a jacket or it is lacking. Exactly.

In the craftsmen’s language, O’mast is the man in charge, the master. He is the one that really knows the craft.

Dialogue wins over any product.
If you have a good dialogue with your client, you can have a real conversation. It takes zero dialogue to sell a wine or spirit everyone wants, that requires little to no nuance. Having the real dialogue helps connect customers to things they didn’t know they wanted. It also requires genuine honesty.

Again and again and again. “Make,” “practice” or “do” the act of sales so often that the very action requires attention to detail, but no strain. Then, and only then, can you tune your attention towards the people you seek to serve.

The Movie

I would recommend o’mast to anyone who is interested in the qualities of an Artisan Salesperson. Watch it now, there is a free link below. It is all there, you just have to notice it. And if you don’t want to go that deep, no big deal. It is still a beautiful documentary.

Link to: o’mast – the full movie

Artisan Salesperson – A salesperson that is committed to the craft of sales and places practice, service, detail, respect, and honor into every element of the work. The artisan salesperson pursues mastery, with the knowledge that mastery will not be attained.

I am defining this today acknowledging that it must evolve.


Five Questions with Nicole Hakli, Wine Director at Momofuku Ssäm

Nicole Hakli is a 2016 Wine and Spirits Magazine Best New Somm winner and the Wine Director at the three-star NY Times awarded Momofuku Ssäm Bar in the East Village.

Before joining the team at Momofuku, Nicole was the Wine Director at the relaunch of Acme and on the Sommelier Team at the NoMad Hotel.

Five Questions with Nicole Hakli

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

I think my colleagues would agree that tasting wines from roads less traveled is exciting and fun, but I don’t see many really investing or taking chances on these regions and their native varietals. Turkish wines have become meaningful to me after visiting my husband’s family there for the past 5 years. Unfortunately, the wines have been little received in New York City. No one is really looking to broaden their selections in this area. It is not so much that I would say my colleagues disagree, but it is work to taste and procure some of these more obscure wines. Turkish varietals can be very rewarding in classic programs, but they have to be sought out.

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

To my colleagues: “what is your favorite work-life balance tip?” Just can’t seem to crack this secret!

You have been a Wine Director and a Sommelier in some of the top restaurants in New York. what would you tell an aspiring wine professional about the difference between the two jobs and how to be best prepared?

Read, sell, and taste as much as possible while you are a floor Somm! And, ENJOY IT. Being on a team of sommeliers slinging wine at The Nomad was one of the most fun jobs that I ever had. When you become a wine director, you will have much less time to taste or study. Often, your team will just be you! Before taking that next step to buying, make sure you have an arsenal of knowledge and wines to boot. Try to also get as involved as much as possible with things like inventory and costing if you are allowed.

Before taking that next step to buying, make sure you have an arsenal of knowledge and wines to boot. Try to also get as involved as much as possible with things like inventory and costing if you are allowed.

Which trend or trends do you wish would go away?

There is a lot of hive mind happening with wine lists as of recent. As much as I love classics, I don’t go to different restaurants to see the same wines over and over again. As wine buyers, we have the unique opportunity of being tastemakers and voicing our opinions through the wine list. Take advantage of that creative opportunity and taste more wine!

What does “a great wine list” mean? Please describe.

A great wine list is inspired by the place. It has a clear point of view with wines that pair well with the food. It fits not only the cuisine style but also the creativity and opinions of the wine director. For a guest, the list should be organized and easily readable. Wine is already intimidating to many, so make its readability inclusive and accessible for your guests.

Follow Nicole on Instagram @nicole.hakli

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


The Q4 Shuffle: RAW, The Vanishing and Welcoming the Sommpreneur

All roads lead to RAW WINE

The Q4 shuffle. The race. The middle of OND.

After a hiatus, I am back. The NYC market brought some serious challenge in the months leading into this fourth quarter we are now in the middle of and I had to focus or lose big. From here on in, 2017 is a sprint to the finish line.

Articles will come more regularly going forward.

A couple top-liners below. Enjoy.

Raw and the Anti-Naturalistas

More on this to come soon, but RAW WINE NYC was strong. Besides the terrible faces and horrendous “hospitality” I got at the door, once I got inside, I was blown away by the obvious, vibrantly growing consumer interest in the Natural Wine Movement*. I think we are a few more rounds away from the RAW tasting jumping the Action Bronson, but until then the anti-natural journalists and other non-believers are going to scratch their heads and vehemently defend their anti-NWM positions. They will continue to focus on the wines, the lack of definition, and pay little attention to the movement behind them driving the whole shebang.
Is a trend still a trend in this market after fifteen plus years? I am no genius, but I think these folks may be missing something. Or maybe the journalists that write on both sides of the natural aisle are using the sexiest click bait around next to Rosé to get clicked all day long. It is probably both.

One thing is certain after the RAW experience: the Natural Wine Movement has galvanized and is going to gain attention.

Welcoming the Sommpreneur

First, we saw the Sommelebrity come up, and now we are witnessing the arrival of the Sommpreneur. Brother and Sister Somms have a wine brand to sell through their restaurant wine program and to their colleagues that make a brand as well, an alternative packaging project, a fast-casual concept, book #2 on the way, a retail wine partnership, and all the while they have a busy restaurant with a team of sommeliers that execute service on the floor — pretty amazing, right?
Enterprising Somms are grabbing the vine by the cluster and I am happy for them. Opportunities abound. I have said this often before and am on the record on I’ll drink to that, but I love that the Sommelier is getting the star treatment. I believe it is good for the entire wine industry.
But a word of warning to all the budding Sommpreneurs as this world grows: Two roads diverged in a wood, etc.

Exit Stage Left – the vanishing Wine Director

There have been more high profile exits this year from top wine director positions than ever before and I am not shocked. Several of the upper-level buying positions in play had been held for years and are a little like Brando in Streetcar on Broadway: incredibly tough to replace. Turnover happens, but I have to wonder: is there a reliable place in this country where Beverage/Wine Directors are being developed? It must be exceedingly rare.
The trend towards younger wine directors of the last few years continues with the current landscape. While they are crazy talented with wine, they lack the secret sauce of experience and this dynamic creates some increased velocity of turnover.
Along with this multi-year, overall sea change towards the young buyer, a peppering of old guard buyers from the past are making comebacks. These experienced buyers are coming out of semi-retirement and moving back into buying as high-level beverage director positions come available via rookie turnovers.
We will see some rookies become heroes and some move on in a flash, but the bottom line, for now, is this: younger, knowledgeable, motivated, cheaper, and less experienced is the overall rule in the Wine Director role.

Gray is the new black

The Epic run of wine sold outside the three-tier system continues…
Has more been sold outside the three-tier system so far this year than any previous? Yep, no need to crunch any numbers. Is it growing through this holiday season? Obviously, yes. Old and rare wine is the recipe to make Sommelier/Wine Directors, (and myself…), weak in the knees. Also, buying these types of wines creates a cycle of constant searching. An addiction to the old that is hard to pull away from. So, here we are: Gray is the New Black.

If more players dive into this game it will get decidedly more competitive since there aren’t a vast number of consistent sources for these coveted wines. However, one constant will remain: Wine Directors buy the Gray stuff from their friends. Attention remains the key to the castle.

Sidenote: I have to wonder what it is like for heritage producers to come into this market to sell their current release wines and see old bottlings featured in many restaurants bought from sources outside their chosen distributor. They must they find themselves between a mother rock and hard place: It is decidedly more difficult to sell their current release wines and it is difficult to argue with the broad support on a list of their historic vintages. The lucky few have both rolling…

Empire is like the brother-in-law you never want. Buyers today generally buy from them because they feel like they have to.

The Empire strikes…back?

The Empire Merchants distribution animal (Evil Empire on the street..) went on strike and I took a few surprising phone calls that made me very happy. When one of the juggernaut companies gets interrupted by a Union strike and buyers in the market are already fed up with the horrendous service experience of working with them, we smaller players are presented with an opportunity.
Empire is like the brother-in-law you never want. Buyers today generally buy from them because they feel like they have to. Good service from them is as rare as a pleasant ride on the L train at 4 am.
Empire has been on strike before but never before have there been so many companies poised to take some biz from them. Stop and think about that for a moment. This was near impossible five years ago. Now the volume placements are in play. This is beyond huge.

And, the Winner is…

The Wine Spectator #1 wine of the year is…(wait for it)… Duckhorn Merlot Tres Palmas Vineyard 2014!

According to Tom Matthews, Wine Spectator executive editor, it is a comeback story that has quality, value and the so-called “X-factor.”
This may strike you as a total spinfest from an alternate universe at first glance, but after a little thought, this choice makes a lot of sense. The Wine Spectator business must work for advertising and towards a large market, so a 5k case production Merlot from Duckhorn as the #1 wine is a perfect choice.
Print (and digital) media companies in the wine space are generally behind and more mass market than we experience in the trenches of NYC.
Duckhorn is now owned by a private equity firm (and for me the wine equivalent to a dusty, mallard duck rotary dial phone), but the truth is that Duckhorn is on a lot of lists and shelves, and sells better in NYC than most of us would ever believe.

*The Natural Wine Movement (NWM) is a tribe defined by the Seth Godin principle “people like us do things like this” and has little to do with exacting vineyard or cellar practices and much more to do with the people behind them. This is my current definition of the movement. Happy to discuss in person. Email me.


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.


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


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

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.