In our new series, 5 Bottles I Sold Last Night, sommeliers and wine directors talk about the bottles that they’re selling, giving tips and context for making the sales.
At The Catbird Seat, our wine list is pretty streamlined: We just have 10 whites, 10 reds, and three types of bubbles. But considering that our restaurant only seats 22, it’s a perfect fit. We don’t want to overwhelm guests with too many choices, and we also have a wine, spirits, and sake pairing option.
It’s my job to make sure it all syncs with our eight-to-nine-course tasting menu, which my brother, the executive chef Ryan Poli, is constantly fine-tuning. We generally do a menu change every season, but Ryan and his team are always tinkering with something, and before I know it, they’ll present me with a new dish and tell me it’s going on the menu—that same night!
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Fortunately, I have a pretty diverse palette to work with when it comes to pairings. When I came on board, in January 2017, I had a lot of leftover inventory from the previous owner—about 80 bottles. In addition, I’m always doing tastings with winemakers and distributors, and if I like something, I buy a bottle right away. Then, when we’re fine-tuning recipes, we can do a taste with the Coravin and see what works and what doesn’t.
Even though we’re known for our tasting-menu pairing option, we still move plenty of bottles because some customers just prefer to choose their own wine. If you’ve got a four-top, for example, and two people go for the pairing but the others don’t, 9 times out of 10 the table will end up buying bottles anyway. Here, a deeper dive into five bottles I sold last night. (The prices listed are what we charge at the restaurant.)
1. Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner, Kamptal, Austria 2015; $46
We recognize that this can be an expensive night out for guests, and we never want them to feel that they’re being pressured into making an expensive purchase, so it’s really important to have a selection at a lower price point. I truly enjoy selling this one because it’s such a value-driven wine. It’s also incredibly food-friendly—very mineral-forward with good acidity. So it goes great with our first course, which is typically seafood, such as tuna crudo or something with crab. Then we move into dishes like risotto or cauliflower, and it really holds up to the rest of the meal.
I sold this bottle to a couple who ordered it after my recommendation and finished it off by dessert. They liked it so much they asked if they could order another bottle and take it back to their hotel with them—of course we said yes.
2. Patrick Piuze Les Forêts 1er Cru Chablis, Burgundy, France 2015; $125
When a four-top came in wanting a bottle of Chardonnay in traditional Napa Valley style—big and oaky—I knew this would be in the wheelhouse of what they were looking for, so I told them if they wanted to spend about $15 more, they could try this Chablis from France and have a really outstanding vintage. They went for it, and the first thing they said was, “This is Chardonnay?”
They were so pleasantly surprised, and of course that opens up the conversation about Chardonnay being the most widely planted grape in the world. They ended up loving it. And that’s one of the most exciting parts of the job: to be able to show, in this case, a typical Northern California Chardonnay drinker that this is how winemakers are doing it in Chablis, France.
3. Bohème English Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California 2013; $110
We have two Pinot Noirs on our list: Sea Smoke, which is at a higher price point, and this one. The wine has just the right amount of fruit and earth—it’s a lovely food wine at a great price. It’s a dynamite pairing with mushroom risotto and holds up well by the time we get to beef.
I sold this last night to a couple who were obviously well versed in wine, asking a lot of questions about the list. I recommended this bottle, and they were a bit skeptical, saying they’d never heard of it. But I pushed them a bit, feeling confident they’d love it, and they did.
4. Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real Rioja Gran Reserva, Cenicero, Rioja, Spain 2008; $102
We had a couple come in dressed to the nines, looking for something special for their anniversary. The woman was looking at the wine list and wanted to stay somewhat price conscious. She ordered a bottle of Barbera with confidence, but when I opened it, I could tell she wasn’t pleased with it—it was like that sixth sense that we have in the industry. I reassured her that we’d find something that she was happy with and asked her what she normally likes to drink. She told me Cabernet, so I suggested this at a similar price point as the bottle she’d already picked. She took her first sip and said, “This is totally what I want,” even though she’d never had Spanish wine before. It was that perfect moment of making a guest happy while introducing her to something new.
5. Giornata Ramato Pinot Grigio, San Luis Obispo, California 2014; $65
When you think of Pinot Grigio, you usually think of white wine. But since this is macerated a bit on the skins, it takes on a more rosé color. So when people order it, you have to preface it with that detail, because sometimes when people see the bottle, they say, “What the heck is that?” But they always end up loving it.
When you have a guest, like my mom, in the baby boomer generation who knows exactly what they like, it’s a perfect sell, because they’ve never had a Pinot Grigio that has this characteristic. This just happened with a couple of women out for a night on the town. They were a bit on the fence, but they ordered it and loved it so much, they ordered a second bottle because the first one went down so fast.
—As told to Blane Bachelor
A Chicago native, Matt Poli spent six years in the Windy City’s The Publican, rising through the ranks to be named beverage director. From there, he spent a year at Boulder’s Frasca Food & Wine, a James Beard Award-winning restaurant, before making the move to Nashville to join his brother, chef Ryan Poli, at The Catbird Seat in early 2017. Poli has his sights set on the Court of Master Sommeliers.