It’s the little things that catch you up: making sure you update the vintages on the wine list, not double-booking yourself for tasting appointments, and figuring out just how much glass-pour rosé you need to order before the first true weekend of summer. When I first moved from waiting tables to running the wine program—along with my colleague Stacie Pike—at Seattle’s Dahlia Lounge in early 2016, I didn’t realize what the real challenges would be, nor did I have a sense of how other sommeliers in similar situations had dealt with them. In speaking to somms and wine directors around the country, I’ve now seen that every transition has something in common, and evolves naturally over time.
I had the luxury of working with the previous buyer at the Dahlia Lounge for years before he left. I also had a deep familiarity with the program and list, which meant that I knew what kinds of wines our guests were looking for, and in most cases where to get them. But that’s not the case for most other somms starting a new position, and I wanted to understand how they handle those challenges when they’re in a new restaurant or even a whole new market.
In Amanda Craig’s case, she had some help on hand when she took over as a sommelier at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. “When I was hired, there was one other person in the hotel who was a sommelier and also the assistant general manager,” Craig says. “He was there to help me. When I stepped in, there was a two- or three-month period where he and I would share those duties, or both sit in on appointments.”
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Cappie Peete’s predecessor at Raleigh, North Carolina’s AC Restaurants (Death & Taxes, Poole’s Diner, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, Bridge Club, Chuck’s, and Fox Liquor Bar) had left the company eight months prior to Peete’s hiring, so the restaurant group gave her a soft landing at the start. “They [let] me come on part-time for the first few months,” says Peete, who was also studying for the Master Sommelier exam at the time. “That allowed me to get a sense for which programs needed the most work. I really wanted to dig in deeper than I had time to, so it’s good that I was forced to go slow and get a feel for what was happening in each of the restaurants.”
For Peete, the challenge wasn’t just changing jobs but also changing markets, as she’d previously been with Charleston, South Carolina’s Neighborhood Dining Group. “Charleston is more progressive in terms of what you can sell, but you see similar challenges in both places, where people tend to stick with what they know,” she says. “Specifically at Death & Taxes, even though we’re not a steakhouse, we sell so much red wine, even in the heat of summer. It’s crazy how little white, rosé, and sparkling we sell.”
Change, Change, Change
When a new chef takes over a kitchen, it’s often an opportunity for sudden and significant changes to the menu; after all, there’s little in the way of long-lasting inventory to worry about. But that’s not so with a wine program, where a single bottle can take a maddeningly long time to sell. One of my first tasks at the Dahlia Lounge was to figure out what wines I wasn’t going to re-order, because only once they’d sold could I bring new wines in. That was easier with glass-pours, but agonizing with certain higher-end bottles that lingered for months.
Dustin Wilson also knew that changes would take time when he was hired as the wine director at New York’s Eleven Madison Park. “I definitely wanted to make an impact,” Wilson says. “I think whenever somebody takes over a job like that, they want to put their stamp on things in some way, shape, or form, and I certainly was no different. The gentleman who came before me, John Ragan, had really built a tremendous program there, and when I first got there, I thought, ‘How am I supposed to do anything with this to continue to improve it?’ I spent probably the first six months or so continuing the path and observing what was working well and what wasn’t, and I’m really glad I did it that way.”
Craig found that much of what was in place at the Four Seasons already worked, which encouraged her to stick with the plan. “I’m in an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, so when I came on board our list was probably 70 percent Italian wine, 20 percent California, and the other 10 percent are classics from the rest of the world,” she says. “I’ve stayed pretty true to that. We have very international guests, and our local guests are attracted to things they know and love. Nerdy or esoteric wine does not do well in Beverly Hills, so we’ve focused on classic producers from classic regions, which is just as cool.”
Time to Grow
The final phase of the transition for a new wine director is figuring out how to alter, expand, or refocus the wine program. In my case, we’d decided that the restaurant would be better served with a more focused list, which in Seattle meant sticking either to wines from the Pacific Northwest or Europe. I also wanted to be able to explore some of the more esoteric varietals that have found a home nearby, and to offer more library wine without that wine being painfully expensive.
Even at an iconic restaurant with a massive list, focus is important. In time, Wilson’s team at Eleven Madison Park set out to make the wine list both narrower and deeper. “From a selection standpoint we really tried to figure out what our voice was, what kind of food we are serving—and what works well with that,” he says. “We decided to put a lot of effort into sourcing, finding the very best producers, and offering a number of vintages from the places and varieties that we wanted to focus on. We built out one of the great Champagne lists in the city; we went really heavy on Syrah, not just from the Rhône but from other places around the world.”
Sometimes, growing the list of the wine program is the very reason a new wine director is hired. The programs that Peete took over were far smaller than Wilson’s, but she too has big goals. “I plan to expand Death & Taxes,” she says. “We have made a point of building a cellaring program, which in my experience is relatively rare, and I want to continue with that because I always want us to have some back-vintage wine. We can also have a wider range of price points and selection within different varieties and styles. We’re limited a bit by the style of the list, but we’re talking about changing how we present the list to accommodate that.”
Successfully making the transition into a new wine director role requires time, passion, and purpose. For those who aim to do it well, it’s both daunting and deeply exciting, and it’s a chance to put their own personal touch on a part of the dining experience that many guests will engage with. From the overwhelming early days to the first moments of feeling like it might be under control, some months (or years) later, seeing our vision come to life is, in large part, why we do it.
Zach Geballe is the sommelier at Seattle’s iconic Dahlia Lounge, the flagship of Tom Douglas Restaurants. He is also the wine and spirits columnist for Seattle Weekly and the host of the wine-focused podcast Disgorged.