Have you ever wondered what it is like to be the wine director of a restaurant? Of course, in some ways it sounds like a fantasy job. One can imagine the pleasures of having distributors visit your restaurant, bringing you fabulous wine to savor and discuss …
Yet of course this is really only a fantasy. The reality is that most restaurant wine directors are so stressed with so much to do they must limit visits from distributors, and even then, savvy wine directors tell the distributors in advance exactly what they are looking for so as to save time.
Yet if you ever wanted an inside peak into the restaurant world – including how wine is bought and priced and sold – you may want to check out the new book RESTAURANT MAN by Joe Bastianich, even though the focus here is more on the mechanics of creating a restaurant more than the responsibilities of a sommelier.
Joe is the son of Lydia Bastianich, who runs Felidia and is a famous TV celebrity chef and cookbook author. I met him once at Felidia, Lydia’s top-end restaurant, when he was giving a presentation to the Wine Media Guild about the family’s vineyard in Italy. In the book he spends countless pages describing his childhood helping out in his parents’ earlier restaurant in Queens – and his dreams of being a ‘restaurant man.’
His first restaurant, Becca, was wine focused … Joe explains his goal was to find a variety of interesting Italian wines from all over the country, and introduce them to American customers at a price point of (then) $16 dollars. According to Joe, though the “restaurant math” was wrong because restaurants typically price of a glass of wine what they pay for a bottle (and mark a bottle up 3x the wholesale cost), what he lost in margin he made up in quantity.
Some of the more interesting parts of the book concern Joe’s wine education traveling around Italy, buying wine for the high-end Felidia, and basically self-educating himself about the best Italian wines. You can also find some interesting restaurant gossip, such as the passage when he says “selling wine is all about sizing people up, and it takes a certain amount of chutzpah. The tableside bottle sell is a very funny thing – you take a look at the guy’s blazer, what kind of shoes he’s wearing, what kind of broad he’s with … is he trying to be a hero? A cheap #S#D? Who does he want to impress?”
Another colorful passage is when he compares tasting wine to looking at women. “Tasting the first wine in the morning is like seeing the first pretty girl of the day – the impact is clear, the impression vivid, there is little ambiguity. Beauty is apparent and it lingers. But with every wine tasted after the first one, it is the same with every girl you see on the street – you’re more likely to observe a ripple or a wrinkle, a blemish, poor posture …as you taste through a massive quantity of wines, what was crystal clear becomes a blur of sensations, tactile and olfactory.”
Written in a style slightly similar to Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, it is a “must read” for anyone who is considering starting a restaurant – or perhaps, even being a sommelier though the focus here is much more on Joe’s intriguing life.
And after reading it, well, all I can say is that you’ll never walk into a restaurant the same way again.