Last month I was in New York and stopped by one of my favorite watering holes for a glass of wine. Where else but the Maialino Barolo Bar can you get an unusual and rare glass of Ulysses Collin ‘Les Pierriers’ Blanc de Blancs 2011, or an even rarer Bartolo Mascarello Barolo 2001?
My motto is “start with champagne and end with champagne”, so I of course ended up savoring a bottle of Jérôme Prévost ‘La Closerie Les Béguines’! The selection at Maialino Barolo Bar – both by the glass and from the cellar- is truly extraordinary, and for the eagle-eyed wino, there are some outstanding bargains. This got me to thinking:
How does one strike the balance between offering great choices at a reasonable price for your customers while maintaining overall profitability for the wine program?
I decided to go to the source and chat with John Ragan, Certified Master Sommelier and Senior Director of Operations of Union Square Hospitality Group. John, an industry icon, has directed wine programs at acclaimed restaurants such as Campton Place and Eleven Madison Park, where he earned a James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Service.
Isabelle: The Maialino Barolo Bar pops up each autumn. The idea that you can enjoy well-aged and well-priced Nebbiolo at the height of its beauty is brilliant, and it’s no surprise that it’s hugely popular. How did that concept come about and what are some of the challenges of running it?
John: The Nebbiolo focus came about as part of five different focuses a year that we do that are specific wine themes.
For example, white truffles and Piemonte wine pairing is a tradition every year during truffle season, so we came up with the Nebbiolo Bar – it’s great to drop in here to enjoy a glass of wine you might not always get to taste by the glass. Nebbiolo Bar is the answer to the question:
“How do we promote an incredible selection of wines if you aren’t able to try any of them by the glass?
Despite the popularity of this concept, there are still challenges, like planning ahead and thinking all year long of wines that would be perfect for each unique focus. Also server education is one of those “positive challenges” and one I think is essential to creating a successful wine program.
Isabelle: Marta has a killer list of reasonably-priced grower-producer Champagnes…where else can you stroll in with a reasonably good chance of scoring Vilmart by the glass? It seems like every Danny Meyer location has a concept that is unique to that restaurant. What’s the USHG’s philosophy behind the individualism of each location, and how do you think that contributes to that location’s success?
John: Individualism is very important. Conversely, when the wine list isn’t in harmony than it’s not a great overall reflection of the restaurant. Also:
-we have to ask ourselves thought provoking questions like what is that interesting wine component, that special draw and what do we want to convey in our wine lists?
-create a really well-defined concept that motivates people to come in.
-being softer with the markups 0f particular wines we have carefully chosen to highlight helps us move inventory. Customers see this soft markup and say “why not?”
Isabelle: The push/pull of profitability versus sales is something that I see quite often, with the sommelier stuck in the middle. There’s two school of thought on this – Price wines to sell: make less profit but potentially entice your customer to order better or more. Or price at a higher markup: more profit per bottle, but you could end up selling less wine.
It seems that there’s both a Science and an Art to how you navigate those waters. What’s your philosophy on the right balance between those competing priorities?
John: It’s not as simple as either/or in respect to the business side of things. The best programs embrace both push and pull – using both strategic and soft pricing, plus paying the rent by making smart and diverse purchases. A disciplined buyer can spend those dollars strategically and determine where they will make the greatest impact.
Isabelle: As Senior Director of Operations, you work with each restaurant team to ensure operational success among USHG’s family of distinctive restaurants. Tell us about the philosophy behind your success and some of the operational challenges of running multiple locations, each with it’s own distinct approach. What do you think has helped to contribute to your success?
John: There are many challenges but also many unifying factors:
-Clearly define the goal, everyone needs to play the same song for the symphony to work. Everyone needs to be on the same page.
-Demystify wine – pull corks and open more bottles to let people experience many wines versus opening less $400 bottles. Once trust is there you can build great relationships and explore many more wines together.
-Hire talented and driven people and give them the space to do their job. When you trust people to do their jobs, you can multiply your impact.
-BinWise is huge a game changer that helps keep money from slipping through the cracks. [Thanks John!] It’s a great tool to balance between providing your guests the best value while satisfying the accountants. BinWise allows real-time course correction and keeps the train on the tracks. With BinWise we foster trust and support because when there’s transparency and everyone can see what everybody else is doing, managers don’t have to micromanage.
Isabelle: Since we’re so close to Thanksgiving, we would love to hear your thoughts on great reds to go with Turkey, and if you recommend Champagnes that’s ok too!
John: I’m with you Isabelle, definitely go with champagne! Try a rich blanc de noir like ‘Andre Clouet Un Jour du 1911’ – a rare and special bottling for the holidays.
The Business Behind the Wine Business – proudly assisting in the ongoing success of our award-winning partner restaurants.