Five Questions with Sam Ehrlich, Wine Director of Blue Ribbon


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


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?


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.


The Underdogs

Remember when Chinon, Rosé, Txakoli and Muscadet were the underdogs?   If you had told me fifteen years ago that the above categories would be something real today, I would have laughed.

So here goes: Some long shots and come back possibilities to spark your imagination.  The below have absolutely no chance….or do they?

Côte Chalonnaise –  the un ‘grammed Burgundy 

Undeniably the least utilized of all in Burgtown.  But, with where Burgundy is going (ascending prices, squeezed allocations, attention, high demand, blah blah blah, etc.), could the Chalonnaise move in as a real option? One major issue here is that wine buyers really want to buy the big $$$ unicorn bottles and be connected to the top producers of the Côte-d’Or.  And can you blame them?  Another issue is the long-held view that the wines from the Chalonnaise are generally lacking. However, recent tastings suggest there is a quality shift happening in the overlooked Côte.  What happens when Bourgogne Blanc and Rouge from the big dog producers get even more “uncomfortable” to buy?  This is probably the biggest long shot of the bunch, but I already see a few prominent pours in the city that could indicate a shift.

Austria – Beyond Liters and Cherries

There was a time not so long ago where Grüner graced almost every serious restaurant BTG, and store shelves were full and flowing.  Austrian was on fire.  I fondly remember incredibly talented wine buyers and sommeliers pivoting their customers towards Austrian wines, and away from Burgundy!  Well, that was then, and this is now: Austria is outside the conversation. The liter bottle enabled the category to expand but also pushed it towards a retail focus.  And, to further partition the category, the overall pricing on the non-liter selections ascended to a solidly uncomfortable level. But here is the thing: The wines can be transcendent.  At the moment, the primary hurdle is that big-boned, slightly elevated in alcohol wines are difficult to get behind for most NYC wine buyers.  If you look out into the market, lists and shelves are primarily made up of the top producer cherries, liters and very little else.   AND, the red wines from Austria are in even worse shape.

Sherry – is this thing on?

What the f*^&% happened here?  Has Sherry been relegated to the dusty corner bottle….again?  Not quite.  The sales are probably higher on the whole comparatively to a decade ago, but Sherry is certainly not in the dialogue like it was.  We once had a ‘Queen of Sherry‘, and since she is not in NYC shouting from the rooftops anymore there isn’t a fervent ambassador at the buyer level.  Commerce may have gotten in the way here: The Sherry D. O. appears to operate a lot like the Port aristocracy.  This probably needs further overall examination, but I have to believe that there is enough stuffing for Sherry to stage a little comeback.

South America – The Meat in the Middle

Some would argue that Pedro Parra is single-handedly changing the conversation, but I definitely don’t see it translating into the NYC marketplace.  A ‘sense of place‘ is a good start, but there seems to be a disconnect with buyers: They enjoy learning about South America but don’t enjoy buying South America.  South America is still burdened with the value play one one side and a fantastically heavy bottled, old vine wine monster on the other.  So, where’s the meat in the middle? Where is the real wine? That’s precisely where the magic can happen.  I can’t believe that we have seen all that this category can offer.  Distributors will have to broaden selections and challenge buyers for this one to fill out/grow. Right now, the cash generating value bottlings are easier to put on containers, even if sales are beginning to point downward.

Do the market underdogs of today give us hints about the possible trends of tomorrow?

Washington State – The  ‘Never Seen’ State

This is the red-headed step child of the domestic wine scene.  Find one restaurant in NYC outside USHG that has more than 5 producers listed and I will buy you a glass of Sherry.   The downside is that the NYC wine buyers have the general view that the wines are monolithic and that the notable exceptions are going to cost you.  The upside is that Washington has a myriad of wines to offer and the wines definitely have end consumer appeal.  Could we be missing something?

Sweet wines – not sticking at all

Is there a more out of fashion overall category?  Zachary Sussman wrote a piece covering this neglected group of wines that was spot on.  Let me add further confirmation: At the street level, the wines are almost without exception a DOA mover.  Could the category be poised for something more?   Possibly.  It is going to take a lot more than a giant vertical of d’Yquem to get this one going.  Someone imaginative will have to take a position and really get beyond the cherries, and behind the category.  We may need the aperitif move….

Alsace – Dry as a bone, sometimes

Alsace is the most confusing, annoying and at times exhilarating group of wines in the market.  Are there more amazing values still available in France?  I struggle to find better producers at relatively low prices in other appellations, and yet interest in the wines is elusive.  I can tell you from experience that selling the non-sparklers from Alsace is a tough game to be in.

Valpolicella – Style blunders

This one is sad, actually.  There is plenty of good wine, and takers are few and far between.  Is it because a couple names dominate the category? Probably.  Is it because no one cares about how varied the terroir and crus are? Maybe.  The styles of the two dominant producers define the territory and shape market expectations here.  For instance, showing a fresh-styled Valpol is typically met with a raised eyebrow or two.  Until the frame is changed Valpolicella has a tough road ahead.

Honorable Mentions:

Cahors – Vader without the voice

All I have to say is: OUCH.  This baby is in the corner.  And, if you try and say that it is the “real Malbec” to buyers, the reaction you get is reminiscent of my face watching a Kanye performance.  The mineral-driven ones are interesting, and the entry is not expensive.  Maybe?

White Rhone – Flatlined forever?

About as en vogue as Carrot Top.  Say the below words to a wine buyer and you will see what I mean.

Great Condrieu

Who am I kidding? This one is a Hail Mary….




The NYC Beverage Market – February

February is about to end and it has been an exciting start in the NYC beverage market.   It feels different this year, faster moving than ever.  Hold on to your hats….

Here are a few dominant topics in the NYC market from the street level:

The Sancerre War

Love it or hate it, the market is about to hear about Sancerre even more.  Should we get more into the terroir of Sancerre? Maybe.  But one distributor is going to make a big play here–predominantly because they have to.  This will test the wine buying community because they will have to answer this question: Do I buy the Sancerre that I never entertained before just because of a distribution shift?  Not an easy one to answer in this particular case.

Rosé Madness

Rosé offers are going out (since January!!), buyers are committing and the question still remains: will darker hued rosés above the value line sell this year? I am still not sure.  There are some outliers like Bandol, but the darker colored Rosé thing has historically been a difficult play.  And, just in case anyone forgets: Rosé is still a seasonal game.  The pre-arrival fashion in which it is distributed has something to do with it, but more importantly, the ‘Rosé all year round’ consumer is a small segment for now. Here’s to a long, mild summer….

Turnover Time

Almost like clockwork, Beverage Director/Wine Director positions are becoming available in restaurants within major restaurant groups and beyond.  Circumstances are driving this particular round, but the question remains: Why is the speed of turnover in buying positions seemingly gaining in velocity?

Recent big time, notable sales rep exits at top companies mean that new blood is in the water with accounts that have had the same rep for many years.  Look for a few street level skirmishes here, especially if the Rep moves over to another viable company.  These transitions are always harder than they seem….in both directions.

Can’t say this one enough: Producer shifts are the third big play in this market turnover trio.  Big changes are imminent.  Keep an eye.

What does all this movement say about the NYC market today? Some might say the rampant turnover indicates a ‘chaotic market’, but I think it is a new geometry: A natural recalibration of a market that has been in a super growth mode for at least a decade.  Turnover is not at all new, but it does feel more frenetic than before.

Faster turnover in distribution, buying positions and sales reps is just one of the effects of a recalibrating market.

Natural Wine

The buzz created from the fairs in the Loire valley this year is blaring loudly.  New discoveries and most importantly, some serious heritage Natural wineries in play that have not been in play for a long time are going to continue to make waves.  This bears repeating: Don’t sleep on this “category”.  The wines are only a prologue, there is much more to it.

Bitterness – Behind the Bar

While the press has already anointed this year “the year of Rum” (I really hope this is true..), I am still seeing Amaro at a serious inflection point behind the bar.  There is vintage, old, new, more domestic (and more coming).  And, via a recent tasting: a lot of the dominant Amari are kind of terrible.  Actually, a LOT worse than I remember them ever being.  This leaves some bar space and an opportunity for market development.  There is not one industry person I know who isn’t pro-amaro.  If the beer and a shot thing goes beyond fernet, we could have something real.

Bonus: I have had multiple complaints from buyers about having to buy a certain required Negroni component from one of the giant companies.  Whoever can answer this question with a replacement product, and provide a fair quantity for a decent price will get the gold….

THE REORDER 02/13/17

The #Grind Mentality

I really, really hate this: #grind.

The ‘grind mentality’ in wine sales makes for some early success, mid-term burnout, and long-term hurt.

If you start from zero every month as a salesperson (in NYC especially), you need a tenacious mentality. There can’t be a lot of quit in you.  Commissioned sales is clearly not for everyone.  When I started, to combat some of my own shortcomings, I consistently told myself to grind: To force it to work and push the rock up the hill.  This actually worked for a while, but over time it stopped helping.  Take it from me, sitting here, right now: Don’t ‘grind’ in the long-term….Avoid this at all costs.

That big number that you worked so hard to make today won’t mean much tomorrow if you are incrementally crushing yourself to do it.  Keep in mind that while you are ‘grinding’, you may be selling a lot of wine to a lot of people. You may even get some extra ‘attaboys’ for what you are doing.  But also remember that the ‘grind mentality’ will reduce you over time, and the end won’t look pretty.

The grind mentality in wine sales makes for some early success, mid-term burnout, and long-term hurt.

If you are ‘grinding’, step back and look at what you are trying too hard to do. More than likely, you are simply doing too much.  You are probably putting unnecessary tension and effort into selling habits that are inhibiting you long-term, and you need to change them.  Grinding is not a discipline, changing habits is.

Don’t grind.  Do the absolute best you can and then relax.


Five Questions with David Giuliano, Beverage Dir. of The Little Owl, Market Table, and The Clam

2016-08-11 10-15-07 -0400

David Giuliano is the Beverage Director of restaurants  The Little Owl, Market Table, and The Clam in the West Village. We are especially lucky to have David in the industry.

This is the first installment of Five Questions, where I ask industry folks five questions.  Enjoy!

Five Questions with David Giuliano

Which producer or area do you believe in that most people in the industry disagree with you on?
The North Fork of Long Island. Though admittedly, the region shows great variation of quality from producer to producer, vintage to vintage, I truly love supporting our local wine region. It’s such a pleasure to watch the region and the producers grow in both quality and notoriety. I think Cabernet Franc is the star of the region and producers like Shinn Estates, Onabay and Bedell make delicious and age-worthy expressions. We are lucky to have a vibrant wine region nearby and I feel it is important for us to explore and support it.

What is the difference between a Sommelier and a Wine Director?
The wine director sets the tone and direction for the program. They lay out the landscape of the list with all its diversity, with both its gems and its challenges. Wine directors create the harmony and counterpoint for the restaurant’s cuisine in tandem with the chef. They also set the tone for educating the wine selling team, passing down the stories of people, places, and techniques that brought each wine to the list. They make sure the programs are profitable, adaptable and always contributing to the success of the restaurant.

The sommelier is the ambassador that guides the guest through the many terrains of the list. They translate its meanings, explain its nuances, excite and challenge, warn and advise. The somm is a performer that can entertain, inspire and greatly add to the guest experience and overall hospitality of the restaurant. These people can be, and often are, one in the same.

If you could only ask one question of another Beverage Director, what would it be?
For the beverage directors out there with several restaurants, how do you educate your staff? What are your most effective techniques for educating so many different people at various knowledge levels about constantly evolving lists?

Must we all take ourselves so seriously?

Which trend or trends do you wish would go away?
Must we all take ourselves so seriously?
Ultimately, wine is a beverage meant to be enjoyed. While it can certainly be lofty and cerebral at times, it has humble origins. It was meant to spark conviviality.

What do you want people to know about your beverage programs?
Every wine on each of our lists is there because it tells part of a story that I believe in. Wine should be an expression of a culture and a place, and of the integrity of the people who make it. We taste a different wine every day in our restaurants so that my staff can hear those stories and share them with you.

Follow David on Instagram @davidjgiuliano and Twitter @davidjgiuliano

Noteall answers above are posted without cuts or edits of any kind.