Sunday, July 24, 2016

You've Come a Long Way, Baby! ~ The Ascent of the Female Sommelier

Dallas, Texas USA - 1980 - Sommelière Sharman
When I starting delving into the world of Italian wine at an Italian restaurant as a server, we had a sommelier. She was all turned out in a hot pants tuxedo (required uniform by the owner) and she kept her tastevin busy, clinking through the night, hustling and selling wine, one bottle at a time.

She was a force of nature. Very tough lady. She had to be. Her world was filled with macho narcissists, who had little or no regard for her talent or her strengths. But she was a selling machine.

In those days the common wines on an Italian list were Soave Bolla (not Bolla Soave), Ruffino Chianti (the regular as well as the Riserva Ducale “Tan” along the higher priced “Gold”), Fazi Battaglia Verdicchio, Valpolicella and Bardolino (also from Bolla), Fontana Candida Frascati and of course, Asti Spumante.

There's nothing like working a hot kitchen in a tux

When she brought in a then unknown wine, a Pinot Grigio from Santa Margherita, it was an instant hit in Texas. I often wonder if the name Margherita helped establish it in the land of Tex-Mex.

Barolo and Barbaresco, Brunello and Amarone, were also available, off the list, for the well-healed who didn’t want what the normal folks were having. And wines like Chateauneuf du Pape and some classified growths were also to be had, resting in the cellar or further away in the upstairs cool room.

What made all of this work was the incentive that the sommelier had. She was paid a nominal wage. But she made a commission on wine sales. She sold what she bought. And she made a good living.

Contrast that today with some of the younger wine buyers who put together a wine list. You can find some interesting and even compelling wines on the list. But they don’t just move themselves. And in some cases, these wine buyers don't go out and work the floor and make their wine lists “work.” Often the lists are simply showcases for their prowess in choosing wines from their various purveyors.

Italo-American servers
Another shortcoming, one which I felt last week in a way that struck me deep, is that analyzing the sales isn’t always one of the activities one does before changing a wine list. Some years ago, a wine buyer took off a wine that they had by the glass. It was selling very well. Maybe too well. The wine buyer got bored with it. Changed it out. I went to the owners and reported, after an in-depth analysis, that the wine buyer had just taken off a wine that had made the company over $40,000 in gross profits in the last year. The owners appeared to be surprised and said they would talk to the wine buyer about it. Several weeks later, the wine buyer came up to me and told me if I ever did that again, our “wine company would never, ever get another lick of business in my restaurant.” Not the owner’s restaurant, “my” restaurant. It was like we lived in two different worlds, and the black and white, fear and rage-filled one rammed into my yellow submarine.

If more owners would hold their wine buyers to a standard of better business practices, we’d start seeing a shake-out of these overly esoteric wine lists. Lists that even people in-the-know have reservations about. As one industry giant I recently overheard say, "Oh, we get it, you’re 25 and you want to show us how worldly and knowledgeable you are." How has a service industry gotten hijacked by folks looking to embrace a lifestyle that in a year or five, they’ll get bored with and move on, to try their luck as pharma reps or legal assistants or Mary Kay beauty consultants?

If I were starting out today, as a young woman (or a man) I would:

1) Get a solid understanding of business and the reason for why people sell and buy things.
2) Commit myself to being a “forever student” of my craft or trade.
3) Find someone older who knows the history of the last generation of wine business and ask them to help me steer away from any mistakes they had witnessed (or made) in the last 25 years.
4) Cultivate friendships with people in other profession, so as not to get trapped in a bubble of my own making.
5) Work harder at listening more and talking less.

Target practice in the back room

Yeah, you’ve come a long way, baby. But some of your older sisters actually had to put on panty hose and hot pants and trudge up and down stairs while trying to keep customers from grabbing their butts or their boobs, in order to move the business of wine in restaurants forward.

And lest anyone thinks people like our featured sommelier in hot pants didn’t earn every penny that she made, you’d be mistaken. When she’d open a bottle of Fazi or Ruffino at my table, we’d often talk later about it. How could we have given that guest a better experience? Should we try and get more people turned onto Vino Nobile or Barbaresco? Wouldn’t that Osso Buco have tasted better with an Amarone than the Blue Nun or the Lancer’s that the guest ordered? We constantly pushed, one table at a time, to get people to drink better, higher quality wines. The payoff was obvious, in tips and commissions. But the guest was also getting an uplift. And that was one of many little skirmishes in the daily battle to bring more people to the Italian table.

Sadly, the wine lists I have been encountering lately, not all, but many, are just a laundry list of cool and groovy (and unknown) wines to the many guests who flock to the latest, the newest, the shiniest restaurant in their town. That’s great for your Instagram feed. But someone needs to be out there, talking about the wines, telling the guests why these wines are on the list. A list alone isn’t good enough. It needs ambassadors to move the conversation forward. Suit up (sans hot pants) and tell people why these wines are so compelling to you and why they’d fall head over heels in love with them.

Tuning your guitar does not make you a rock star. Banging it out, night after night, on the floor, that’s what makes you a rock star - to your guests. 

The chefs will love you, too.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Unknown said...

Really liked this article.

Unknown said...

Excellent article Alfonso! One of the reasons I have decided to retire from the business.

Unknown said...

Not unknown, it's Jerome.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks, Jerome...

Anonymous said...

It's one thing to put a list together, but to be able to sell it night in and night out is an entirely different accomplishment...really well said, AC!

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