Waiting tables in college, for most people, is a way to pay the bills until they get their degree and then a full-time job. For some, however, a foray into the restaurant world can change their entire career trajectory. Minwoo Kwon found that a job he took to help pay his tuition while he studied finance and accounting at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., set him on an entirely different career path—one that would lead him away from a desk job with the IRS and instead to restaurants in San Francisco and New York City and, ultimately, to his position as a sales representative at Frederick Wildman & Sons in New York.
Originally from Bethesda, Maryland, Kwon began his restaurant career waiting tables in D.C. He quickly realized that if he could develop his wine savvy, he’d be able to pump up his sales—and consequently his tips. During that time a colleague turned him on to the Court of Master Sommeliers, and he enrolled in the program.
Kwon earned his degree in accounting in 2009 and was seriously considering what to do. “I ultimately decided against riding a desk with the IRS,” he says. “I went into restaurant management.” Seeking work in a city with a more developed food and wine scene, Kwon moved to San Francisco, where he landed a position at Benu, a restaurant in the city’s SoMa neighborhood. For the next three years, under the mentorship of the restaurant’s beverage director, Yoon Ha, MS, Kwon refined his palate and his wine studies. He passed the Court’s Advanced Somm exam in August 2013.
STAY IN THE KNOW
Sign up for SevenFifty Daily’s twice-weekly newsletter.
Kwon relocated to New York City in January 2015, taking a job as a sommelier at Jean-Georges. After a year and a half on the floor, he decided he was ready to master a new side of the industry. In August 2017 he transitioned into sales.
The move turned out to be a good one. Wildman is known for its extensive wine and spirits portfolio. Kwon describes the book as one that highlights the best that every major region has to offer. And it isn’t just the quality of the portfolio that impresses Kwon. “Wildman is a great company with a rich history that holds in high esteem not only the product it sells but the people it employs,” he says. “I feel I have the support of the entire company in all my endeavors.”
Kwon still relies on the skills he developed during his university days. “My specialty is understanding what products work best for each account,” he says. “I utilize not only my education in finance and accounting but also my experience working in restaurants—from fast food to three Michelin stars.”
Sound accounting principles, Kwon explains, are important for every business, and wine is no exception. “Using effective strategic cost structures can expand the range of viable products for a particular slot. Understanding contribution margins and pricing can increase inventory turnover, which is mutually beneficial.” These accounting concepts help inform Kwon’s sales strategy. “For my day to day, opportunity cost is something I’m always mindful of,” he says. “Time is by far the most important resource we have—and I like the idea that it’s spent wisely.”
On an average day, Kwon services both on- and off-premise accounts across New York City, from restaurants to hotels to boutique retail stores. “All accounts are different,” he says, “but are equally important.” The underlying code driving Kwon’s strategy for success is respect. “I attempt to build my bag with respect for my buyers,” he says. “I never want to waste their time, and I always want to show them the best we have to offer within any category.”
Here are the six bottles in Kwon’s bag today. (The prices listed are Frederick Wildman & Sons’ suggested retail prices for the New York market.)
Bottle 1: Weingut Dr. Fischer Ockfen Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Kabinett 2016; $24
When it comes to dry Riesling, Mosel is always a go-to. “The Dr. Fischer estate has returned to its former glory under the new ownership of Nik Weis [of St. Urbans-Hof] and Martin Foradori Hofstätter [of J. Hofstätter],” says Kwon, adding that he particularly loves that the quality of this wine far exceeds the asking price.
Bottle 2: Weingut Neumeister Sauvignon Blanc Steirische Klassik 2015; $22
When considering Sauvignon Blanc, the region of Steiermark, Austria, may not be the first that comes to mind, but Kwon stands by it. “Any wine in the Monika Caha Selections portfolio is pretty much guaranteed to overdeliver,” he says. The Weingut Neumeister’s Sauvignon Blanc provides great concentration on the palate while remaining focused with its aromatics—a characteristic Kwon feels is important for wines made from this grape variety to express.
Bottle 3: Olivier Leflaive Les Pucelles Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru 2015; $175
Kwon explains that this particular wine is produced from a tiny estate-owned parcel that was acquired in 2010 by the legendary Burgundy producer Domaine Leflaive. “Nothing,” he says, “beats sipping on premier cru Burgundy from some of the most iconic vines in the world.”
Bottle 4: Domaine Alain Burguet Gevrey-Chambertin Mes Favorites Vieilles Vignes 2015; $85
What draws Kwon to Domaine Alain Burguet is the winery’s humble beginnings—and particularly Burguet’s memories of working the vines and harvesting grapes when he was just 10 years old. “More importantly,” says Kwon, “the wines are perennially outstanding and deserve their place alongside the best domaines in Burgundy.”
Bottle 5: Lavinea Tualatin Estate Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley 2014; $65
“Because Pinot Noir,” Kwon says simply, when describing how he positions the 2014 Tualatin Estate Pinot from Lavinea to buyers. Lavinea, he explains, is a collaboration between Greg Ralston and Isabelle Meunier, and he refers to them as a “super duo” who create truly remarkable wines. Ralston and Meunier, he says, are also committed to showcasing site specificity in their wines. “The Tualatin,” he says, “is a hit with my buyers that have an Old World palate.”
Bottle 6: Fattoria dei Barbi Brunello di Montalcino 2012; $52
“The Colombini family has owned land [in Tuscany] since the 1300s,” says Kwon. The Fattoria dei Barbi winery is one of the oldest estates in the Montalcino area. This Brunello, made in a traditional style, has the “gusto to last the long haul,” says Kwon, yet it remains soft and approachable in its youth. “It showcases the best of both worlds.”
Vicki Denig is a New York-based wine and spirits journalist and wine educator, discovering the world through the lens of a glass, one sip at a time. When not tasting or traveling, she can most likely be found running through Astoria Park or sipping on Cabernet Franc.