Shifting Gears

Patrick Cappiello Shifts From the Floor to Wine Brokering

While still consulting on beverage programs, the entrepreneurial somm builds a portfolio

Patrick Cappiello
Photo courtesy of Patrick Cappiello.

At some point, every sommelier asks the same question—what’s next? The 16-plus-hour days spent organizing, memorizing, and selling countless bottles, all while on your feet, can’t last forever. Patrick Cappiello spent much of the last three decades working on the floor, most recently at restaurants he cofounded and co-owned, like Pearl & Ash and Rebelle in New York City, which have both closed, and at Walnut Street Café in Philadelphia. He also oversees the wine program at Scampi in New York. In addition, the enterprising somm founded Forty Ounce Wines, a line of wines packaged in bottles that look like old-school beer 40-ouncers.

Unlike many somms, who commonly move into retail or importing, Cappiello left the floor and turned to wine brokering. While he continues to oversee the wine programs at Scampi and Walnut Street Café, the day-to-day business at the restaurants is handled by head sommeliers Kim Prokoshyn and Kaitlyn Caruke, respectively. Cappiello’s main focus is now Rénegat, the company he created with his business partner, Chris Desor, who is also the owner of Verity Wines, a distributing company based in New York City.

SevenFifty Daily spoke with Cappiello about his transition from the restaurant floor to the world of wine brokering, the accounts and producers he’s working with, and his goals for the future.

SevenFifty Daily: When was Rénegat officially started?

Patrick Cappiello: Rénegat started in January 2014, after Chris suggested I curate a selection of wines I’m passionate about within Verity.  

Wow—2014? Why is the company taking off just now?

Before, my life was restaurants. Occasionally, I’d go out with a bag of wine, but I wasn’t doing a lot of active promotion of the brand. At the beginning of this year, things were changing, and I found myself in a situation where I could choose what I wanted to do.

I needed something to be excited about getting up for in the morning. I took a big look at what was going on with Rénegat. We weren’t adding wines that I wanted to, and producers weren’t getting the exposure that they needed—because I wasn’t committing the amount of time that I needed to give it, so I decided to commit the next year of my life to focusing on that.

You said Rénegat is technically a broker. What does that mean?

Basically, a broker is a portfolio within a portfolio—a group of selections that I’m in charge of. I personally don’t have an importer or distributor license; Verity does, so I focus all my energy on events, promotion, connecting with buyers, and being in the market. Brokers were common back in the day. It’s an old-school thing—an added level of care and consideration. My only job is to focus on taking care of the wineries in Rénegat’s portfolio. That’s what gives a broker worth.

What is the philosophy behind Rénegat?

We work with value-oriented wines, generally between $15 and $25 wholesale, with the exception of a few domestic producers on the higher end—but mainly family-run wineries with low case production.

What type of accounts are you servicing?

On- and off-premise accounts, including some with legendary wine programs, like those at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, but we also work with smaller accounts, like Popina, a small restaurant serving Italian cuisine in Brooklyn, and this wine bar in Hoboken, Bin 14—it’s such a cool little spot. Joel, the buyer, has been purchasing Jolie-Laide since we first got it. He’s so passionate and is such an awesome dude. He’s making a difference in Hoboken, and that’s what Rénegat is for me: If they have the right ambassador, people all over the world can drink cool wines.

Rénegat is about inclusion. Similarly, in the retail world, we’re as interested in working with a place like Discovery Wines as we are in working with Verve. The wines are wines for the people, and it’s my goal to reach as many people—and as diverse a group—as possible.

We promote our wines in a casual way and put them in the hands of the right buyers. I’ve always had a desire to connect young sommswho have to spend way too much of their time on the floor and in the cellarwith winemakers. Many of them don’t have the opportunity to go to trade lunches or tastings. When I was at Tribeca Grill, I never got out of the cellar—it’s not fair that only “famous” somms get invited to events. We want to reach out to buyers that aren’t always on the A-list, because only dealing with the A-list is bullshit.

It’s important to connect with as many people as possible and to work with the next generation—with people who have badass wine programs that no one’s talking about. Don’t get me wrong; it’s important that we have people like Jeff [Taylor] and Thomas [Pastuszak], but we’re also trying to strike a balance by bringing these two bandwidths together. We work hard to figure out who’s buying and working with cool stuff, and we want to make the Rénegat brand inclusive for all.

Where are you based?

We’re based in New York City, and we’re working in more than 40 states now! A lot of it is thanks to the Forty Ounce Wines brand, which has given a platform to my other French producers. The interest across the country has made it possible to show Rénegat’s other wines to distributors that might not have engaged me without the Forty.

Which producers are you currently working with?

The first two wines I had domestically were White Rose, a biodynamic, family-owned Oregon producer—all whole-cluster, sort of a Dujac of Oregon—and Renaissance, from the Sierra Foothills. After that, we started to look in France, specifically in the Loire Valley, and then for an affordable Burgundy producer, which we found in Irancy—Domaine Benoȋt Cantin. I want to give buyers that don’t have huge budgets the opportunity to work with these kinds of producers and regions.

How do you choose which winemakers to work with?

At first, I was just happy that anyone would talk to me! I tasted a lot of wines that didn’t work; I’m just realistic. If the quality level isn’t exciting, then we move on. We taste with our team and decide together if something makes sense. Cost, of course, is a factor too. I don’t want to work with anything too expensive, simply because people should rely on us as a place to find good value.

Patrick Cappiello
Photo courtesy of Patrick Cappiello.

What are you enjoying more about being a broker than working in restaurants?

That my life, once again, is full of diversity. My job has so many different aspects to it. I’m up early answering emails and making spreadsheets, similar to when I worked at a restaurant. Then I’m often at events in the evening. I’m visiting restaurants, pulling corks on wines to taste with people, just like at Pearl & Ash; it was disappointing that it wasn’t able to last, but that’s the coolest thing about my job right now—there’s always a new thing being thrown at me, and I feel like I’m back in a position where I’m turning people onto new wines.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a wine broker?

It’s a little sad for me not to be on the floor; I never thought I’d work on this side of the aisle. I treated some reps really shitty when I first started out—I was scared that was going to happen to me! When I go to a restaurant and I’m watching the somm run around the tables, I kind of miss that action. But when I get to go home at 10 pm, and I don’t have to work until 1 am—I don’t miss that! Restaurants had been my life since I was 15, and I’m now 45—that’s 30 years in restaurants!

Will you ever transition back to restaurants?

Someday, I’d love to open a wine bar in my neighborhood on the Lower East Side, kind of hang out and retire in it; that would be awesome. But I’d have to be done with all of this, and I’m looking forward to growing this brand. I’m happy with what I’m doing—it’s an invigorating thing [that’s] keeping me focused.

What can we expect from Patrick Cappiello over the next 5 to 10 years?

My goal is to continue growing this brand, to hopefully get some young producers to a level of success that they wouldn’t have had without us—that would feel good. I’d like to create something like Michael Skurnik has done. I also look up to Daniel Johnnes and David Bowler—these are all people who’ve done a really great job, and for me to say in 10 years that I could rise to the level of what they’ve executed—well, that would be a dream come true.  

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.

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