THE REORDER 12/09/16

Letter to a Young Wine Director

New York, NY

Dear Sir/Madam,

There has never been a better time to be in the position you are in. You are admired, trusted, pursued. You will have opportunities to travel the world, eat at top restaurants and share wines that very few get to experience. In the not so distant past the wine buyer was the General Manager or ‘wine captain’, and now you could be on TV or write a column in a large, well-known publication. This is your time. It is your turn. As you may know, I have been at this for a while. Throughout my career I have seen the same mistakes made repeatedly in the wine buying role and I am hoping that I can help you avoid a few of them, if only a bit. This is just the beginning, thank you for your trust.

Don’t write a wine list, paint a picture.

A wine list is a canvas, (usually an underserved, underutilized, and non-specific one). Take note of the way the eyes move across the page, the way numbers and names interact with each other and the person viewing it. The very architecture of your list is a study in movement and massively impacts the success of your program. At one point in history, we judged a wine list by having “things to drink”. Well, that time is basically over. Now it is more a question of how, rather than what.

What does the list you shepherd say? You need to know. If your narrative isn’t clear, you must tinker with it until it resonates.

Protect your time.

Many of your colleagues will present their “busyness” as a badge of success. They will use this often as an excuse and unknowingly promote chaos. Please don’t fall into that trap. If you truly have no time, it is a prison of your own making.

Ordering is a discipline.

How you order wine for your list and with what clarity says everything about how you work. Placing orders is a practice that is no less important than inventory. The amount of knowledge and tasting ability in wine director positions across the city today is at an all-time high, and yet, ordering sloppiness is startlingly common. Most disorganized programs begin with haphazard ordering and buying practices. Rushing and confusion can only follow..

Seek understanding.

Truly knowing a producer is quite rare. It takes very little talent or skill to know who the top producers are, while deeply understanding a producer and/or identifying the underserved, forgotten or new is a craft. Anytime one says that a producer is the ‘best’, take note. Please ask yourself if you can trust the person saying this. Is this someone who you envision tasting through an appellation and making that call reliably? Or even further, have they visited and looked deeply beyond the hype? Be very careful who and how you follow. You may be choosing to be a part of a flock moving always towards the same “chosen” wines.

No matter what anyone tells you, you are not a brand. You are a person.

You support people, not wines.

Sometimes it becomes romantic to make it “all about the wine”, but this is never actually the case. What you place on your list supports people. It takes care of producers that give their lives to make something, and aids the people who put the immense time, risk and energy into importing and connecting those producers to a market. This is a part of your art to treasure, not resist. People mean much more than wine.

And all success on your path. More to come.


THE REORDER 12/05/16

‘Selling’ Monfortino

Selling the wine that everyone is clamoring for takes zero skill..maybe less than zero.

You know what takes skill?

– Offering that wine to the right people.

– Having the hard conversation.

– Artfully saying No.

– Listening better.

– Anticipating actual needs.

– Challenging just enough.

– And, (most of all), weaving an overarching narrative along with that wine that resonates well beyond the no-brainer buy of that moment.

Having a good portfolio of wines to sell used to be enough, now it is much less notable."

Today you have to have more to say than the quick path to the easy sale.  In other words, the high impact wine isn’t the holy grail anymore..dialogue is.



Producer X is the next Dauvissat.

Producer Y is just like Clos Rougeard.

No, they aren’t…and maybe that is a good thing.

This market has a predilection for connecting new producers to the most fetishized ones.  It is a ‘grab your attention’ tactic, or possibly a Jedi mind trick…

Even further, it startles me to think about how few will challenge whether the currently lauded and scarce producers actually deliver. Could the most coveted wines be overrated?  I am going to go out on a limb here (not really)…the answer is yes.

It takes very little to make pronouncements like we know it all—Like we have all the answers.  But look around may be just saying what everyone else is.  And do you really know?

It takes observation and courage to notice when a wine isn't a wine anymore, it is a brand.

And maybe, just maybe the brand is whole lot better than the wine.


Redefining the Fine Dining Wine List

If you took away the icons and name of the restaurant on a wine list at a fine dining establishment in NYC today, would you know which wine list belonged to which restaurant?  A majority of them focus on the same producers and have a strangely similar format.  They are ‘classical’ in nature.

Every day, cuisines are being redefined and reimagined. The shape and journey of a meal or dish is considered and often turned on its head.  Chef’s Table is definitely a “thing.”

Strangely, the art of the wine list has lagged far behind. Why?  A wine list can define an experience: It says something very clear about the restaurant.

I believe it to be a remnant of the old guard, traditionalist wine mentality.  A tastevin shadow that looms over the fine dining scene that only works for a very select few and locks up the dining patrons by handing them a one page personalized tasting menu. And with that, a heavy bible of wines to wade through.

Question: look at a list and tell me if you really believe that those long verticals mean something, or most of all, that all the wines are truly drinking. I doubt it. Some (or in many cases most..) of the wines on that vertical list are tomatoes out of season.

 If you have room to list it, certainly you have room not to list it. 

The tradition of the vertical is about scale and bigger is certainly not always better.  Are we honoring the producer by breadth alone?  This can’t be the path.  In fact, I think smaller, agile wine lists today (as a general rule) function better as a whole.

Who has the guts to challenge this old tradition?

Prediction: Long before we have virtual reality wine lists that appear before our eyes,  or even further, when iPad wine lists actually catch on it there will be a rebel that speaks out.  A restaurant will challenge the traditional fine dining wine list format in a strong and notable way.