Sunday, November 28, 2021

A Cautionary Tale - The Insolent Sommelier Pt. IV

"Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance." – Confucius

My boss, Brad, convinced the powers that be to let me hire a trio of Italian specialists, as our Italian wine business had mushroomed in the past 10 years. Where it was once hard to sell Italian wine across the board, now Italian wine was tres chic, even with some French dining establishments. So, I went about the business of putting a team together. It went well, even if it took longer than my boss had wanted. I had the business of a tonsillectomy that got in between interviews and negotiations. But once we had that all sorted out, I had a good, solid, team.

Part of the mechanism of ramping up the validity of the team and their street cred was to enroll them in the Italian wine specialist program at Italian Wine Central. The head education honcho in my company wanted as many credentialed specialists as we could muster. It was so mandated. And the team got after it and jumped through the hoops. It was, and is, a terrific program, and one I recommend highly for anyone wanting to further their skills in understanding Italian wine at a higher level.

I was also told to enlist some of our better clients in the program, that we’d found a way to partner with IWC for a group rate and my boss wanted us to get folks signed up. So, I put word out to my team. One of the specialists, Jearno Breior, came up to me one day, and said he’d proposed the program to El Segundo. “He said he wasn’t interested, that he was already enrolled in the Italian wine escolar course.”

Escolar? What? Sounded a little fishy to me. But knowing Segundo’s proclivity for nonconformity, I wasn’t surprised. It just seemed a bit off.

I ticked off in my head other similar sounding words. Escarole? Too vegetative. Escargot? Too French. And then it hit me. Scholar. OK, that probably was it. but here was a guy that we were trying to lift up, and he was so mired in his ignorance that we wouldn't effect any noticeable change. I told the specialist, “Forget about it Jearno, let’s not waste any more time on trying to pull this strunz out of the dung heap he’s luxuriating in.

So, we let it go, didn’t go there. Just kept trying to pass a baton or two with some heat at the end, to help light the way. But Segundo sputtered on everything we brought him.

I’d take clients in there, to support the account. Segundo would bring me something he found at another company, usually on closeout, and he’d proudly pour us a glass (and charge us handsomely for it, too!), eliciting some kind of response from me. I always tasted it and thanked him, even when the wine was so horrendously oxidized, it wasn’t even fit for cooking with. 

Bruce Lee said it best, “Showing off is the fool's idea of glory.” I’d gotten my baptism in that from a Sardinian maître d' turned chef (really, a cook) at his little café. The Sardinian would always brag about wines he bought from another company, as if to lord it over me with his prowess. But I knew, (from an ex-girlfriend and mother of his first child) that he took no ownership over any of his actions. That little jig he danced around me didn’t imprint. I’d learned in 30+ years to spot bullshit.

And Segundo was as full of it as the Sardinian was. Boy, what a team they would have made. 

Here’s the thing. You buy a Chianti Classico Riserva for $12 instead of $24, what do you charge for it on a wine list? In the normal course of events, in my region, a 3X markup was standard. So, a $72 bottle would become $36? Not so fast. Remember, Segundo was a genius. So, he’d keep it at $72, even though the wine was a little tuckered.

The good thing to do, would be to make it, let’s say, $39, and make a better than 3X markup, but still give the diner a good value. I realize that sometimes wine that is marked too low on a list doesn’t get the attention of many wine list shoppers. They want to show off a little. But $39 was a fair price and would sell. But that wasn’t how Segundo thought.

It was even worse on the by-the-glass offerings. He’d bring in a Rosso di Montalcino that some company had to unload for cash flow reasons, and price it like a Brunello. It was nothing to see a Rosso di Montalcino for $25 a glass in his place. We’re talking a few years ago, pre-Covid, when this happened. It would be really embarrassing when we’d see a supplier, sometimes the one where the wine that was closed out came from, in the restaurant to “support” the account and the “placement” and then have to pay a super-premium for it. I remember one supplier telling me, as he was leaving the account, that “it would have been cheaper and easier to just get that jerk-off buyer a lap dance.” But Segundo already had that lined up with his top-tier expense account supplier. It was a mess, there wasn’t anything normal, regarding Italian wine, that went into the decision-making process. It was all about stroking his ego, among other body parts.

It became a question, not of when Segundo would ever learn to act professionally and affably, but if. His future in the wine trade, whether he cared or not, hung in the balance. be continued

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