Sunday, November 14, 2021

A Cautionary Tale - The Insolent Sommelier Pt. II

“The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don’t know anything about.” -  Wayne Dyer

For whatever reasons Segundo Sguattera ventured into the wine buying world, he did so without the proper preparation. I say this because everything he learned from the chef at Le Chant du Coq was based on a truculent foundation. Several of the veterans in the wine trade tried to welcome Segundo into a more amicable world, the one which many of us experienced, from the vineyard to the importer to the distributor. We were all part of a team, pulling to make sure the farmer’s efforts at the source wouldn’t be for naught. After all, the vigneron has to deal with the weather, with labor, with inflation, with competition, and with the changing economic and physical environment. At the end of the supply line, we want to give the producer a soft landing.

But Segundo would have nothing to do with it. I believe at the basis of all of it was his insecurity and ignorance. Which is folly, for who starts knowing everything? Or anything, for that matter? Segundo was a wounded creature from the get-go. His history and his ingrained maladies only served to further nourish a burgeoning inferiority complex, resulting in a boundless spate of anger, mistrust and furtive behavior. As I said, he wasn’t a pleasant person to be around. I reckon he, as well, felt that about himself. And his buying process reflected that.

I was on friendly terms with the Italian chef, long before I knew about Segundo and his role. And we had a working relationship. We used to go to lunch together, from time to time. One day I took a look at the numbers. The restaurant was pouring a red wine from Central Italy. It was very successful. So much, that I had to up the order of the wine from the winery to make sure we didn’t run out.

After about nine months, we were really clipping with that wine. And then one day, I noticed the account wasn’t buying it anymore. I asked the salesperson, who hadn’t paid attention to the lack of sales. So, I did a deep dive and tried to figure out what had happened. Was there something wrong with the wine? Did people not like it? Was it priced wrong?

None of the above. So, I prepared a report to take to the owner. The bottom line to the report was that with that one wine alone, in nine months, that wine had made the account over $30,000 in gross earnings! I told the owner, in person, “It’s not broken, I know you have a lot of things to look after.” I’d been looking after his business in this area and it looked to me like this was a solution looking for a problem, that someone had inserted their will into the process.

Sure enough, El Segundo told the salesperson that he was bored with the wine and wanted to move on.

Look, I’ve run bigger restaurant wine programs than this one, and if I learned one thing, it was to not make problems out of solutions. Segundo had violated a major rule of business, inserting his opinion, his will, into the decision-making process, to the detriment of the business.

Boy did that piss him off, me going to his boss with the metrics. He was looking to make an enemy of an ally. And make an example out of me, to instill fear in the other salespeople. And he did. And he would do so, again and again.

Being in my position, I was on the lookout for trends, having data and a network to know when something big in Italian wine was about to break. Lambrusco was making a comeback, and the lighter style, Sorbara, was delicious and clean, spritzy and fresh. A precursor to the rosé mania that was gearing up in America. It was a natural.

So again, I went to the chef and tasted with him. I felt it was important to pay respect to the owner and to also bring the kitchen into the dining room by exposing cooks and chefs about wine. In those days, wine knowledge was peripheral to a chef’s development. They hired sommeliers to run their beverage business. That was then. Again, I jumped the shark.

Oh yeah, Segundo brought in a Lambrusco. One of those dark brooding red ones. You know the type. They’re big and fruity, chewy and tannic, and alcoholic. Just the antithesis of where Lambrusco would trend. But we had to deal with his “flyover palate,” and Segundo was in no way going to give any of us the satisfaction of besting him. Again, he inserted his opinion, his limited experience, and his bombastic taste buds to dictate to the clientele a style of wine that was inharmonious with the style of Italian inspired food the chef was making in the kitchen.

Segundo never forgot the (French restaurant) chef’s admonishment, “People, what do they know?” What he didn’t realize was he also had been characterized by the chef's chiding. But he continued to go down that road. Once again, those of us who were trying to uplift his efforts, by helping him, fell on deaf ears, blind eyes and a dumb sense. He was inaccessible. We didn't know if he would ever let Italy in, really in. But we weren't finished trying to pry open his closed mind and darkened heart.

…to be continued
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