Video

Ryan Totman on Managing Multiple Wine Bar Concepts

Corkbuzz’s corporate beverage manager shares his tips for running venues that also host trade tastings and educational events

In the SevenFifty Daily Supertasters video series, we choose the wines, then challenge some of the industry’s best palates to blind tastings in an effort to glean their extraordinary techniques.

Ryan Totman is the corporate beverage director of Corkbuzz, New York, a collection of wine bar-restaurants owned and operated by Master Sommelier Laura Maniec Fiorvanti. Totman is originally from Stillwater, Minnesota and began his foray into the hospitality industry when he was just 13 years old, starting out as a dishwasher. He later studied graphic design as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Art Institute of California in Santa Monica. For a time, his ambition was to work with comic books, and this pursuit led him to New York City. 

In New York, Totman took a job in 2007 as a server at Ruby Foo’s, a restaurant run by the B.R. Guest Hospitality group. It was there, while taking beverage classes offered by the company, that he met Fiorvanti, who was B.R. Guest’s wine director at the time. Inspired by what he was learning from Fiorvanti’s training sessions, Totman decided to pursue a certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers. To help build his wine knowledge, he went to intern for Fiorvanti at Corkbuzz’s first location in Union Square in 2013. Soon after he joined the staff as a runner, and has since worked his way up the ranks. In addition to overseeing Corkbuzz’s New York-based concepts, he teaches wine classes as part of the company’s education program. Totman earned his Advanced Sommelier certification in 2016 and is now working toward the Master Sommelier certification. He has also participated in a number of somm competitions, winning the Sud de France Best Sommelier in 2015 and the Ruinart Sommelier Challenge in 2018. 

After shooting Totman’s Supertasters video, SevenFifty Daily caught up with him to learn more about his challenges as a corporate beverage manager, his hospitality philosophy, and what he’s learned from working with Laura Maniec Fiorvanti.

SevenFifty Daily: What’s your biggest challenge as a beverage manager for a wine bar that also hosts a lot of trade tastings and educational events?

Ryan Totman: You’re always working. I’ve been told that once you accept that you’re always working, it becomes easier. But most of our work is relatively fun—we’re always meeting interesting people, always learning something new. At the end of the day, we’re pretty spoiled.  

What’s something people get wrong about hospitality, and how do you as a wine professional push back against those misconceptions?

I think it’s important to always remind ourselves that we lead with hospitality. Our staff has heard it from me time and time again, we can know all this information about wine, but it doesn’t mean anything if we can’t keep a guest’s water full, or if the guests have to wait 10 minutes for someone to greet them. Hospitality is what keeps us in business. It’s the foundation of our jobs. We spend so much time trying to learn about wine so that we can be the most informed for our guests, and hopefully represent the wines as best we can. But it’s critical that we’re here for our guests in other ways too. 

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned from Laura Maniec Fiorvanti?

I enjoy her general disposition. She often offers a perspective—which I believe comes from her experience in the industry—that brings insight. Although she’s incredibly involved and works hard to do her best, I think she knows not to take what we do too seriously. It’s just wine. It’s supposed to be fun.

What bottle—or producer—are you particularly excited about right now, and why?

That’s a tough question when there are so many amazing wines and winemakers out there. I really enjoyed meeting Elisa Semino, the winemaker of La Colombera, who focuses on Timorasso from Colli Tortenesi, in Italy’s Piedmont region. Besides being incredibly aware of her wines and what she was doing, she had a smile from ear to ear, and I believe her joyful radiance is reflected in her wines.

Another I’m excited about is a bottle that was a recent addition to our wine list: Best’s Great Western LSV Shiraz 2017 from Victoria, Australia. The wine is super delicious. At the Australia Decanted event in Lake Tahoe last October, we tasted the Bin No. 0 ’17 in a flight of nine wines that included some of the most iconic Shiraz made in Australia, and it was a lot of people’s favorite. It’s cool to know the producer’s historyhaving been around since 1866, Best’s Great Western boasts having the oldest Meunier and possibly the oldest Pinot Noir plantings in the world.

How do you stay current with trends in wine?

I am fortunate to be in New York City where we’re surrounded by a lot that helps keep us aware of trends. I taste regularly. I try to see what’s on different lists throughout the city, see what’s offered at certain retail stores, and I read what I can about what’s going on in the industry.

What wine region would you most like to visit in the upcoming year?

I’ve never been to Germany.

If you could change one thing about the wine industry, what would it be?

I don’t know. I’m not trying to change anything. I very much appreciate the Court of Masters and having goals to strive toward with accreditations. Many Masters are mentors of mine, for whom I have the utmost respect, and those accreditations are what often motivates me. But I think people get involved too much for the reason of recognition that a certain pin may lend. To me, the best sommeliers are often the ones who are best in service—sommeliers who are the first to remove a dirty plate, the first to push in a chair, the first to top off a water, et cetera, and that performance on the floor is learned through experience, whether it’s working as a busser or getting your ass kicked in a busy restaurant, or maybe a restaurant that’s not so great. I think the best sommeliers are often the ones who are also the most humble.

If you had to guess, about how many wines would you say you’ve blind-tasted and formally evaluated for professional purposes?

1,000,000 wines.

What’s next for you?

Staying cool.

Jen Laskey is the former executive editor of SevenFifty Daily. She is also an award-winning wine, spirits, and lifestyle writer and editor based in New York City, an associate judge for the IWSC, and a WSET-certified advanced somm and Diploma candidate. 

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