Giving Personalized Wine Service—Without a Somm

The personalities and wine interests of our servers make each dining experience unique

I’m the wine director, or something like that, at our wine bar and restaurant.

I say “something like that” because my approach is somewhat nontraditional. I don’t work the floor, because I’ve got a day job and a family, and I’m a 47-year-old with zero restaurant experience who will certainly knock your glass of Burgundy over while trying to help you. Plus, we are a pretty small operation—38 seats, including the bar—and it’s not the kind of place where another person on the floor, dedicated just to wine, would have room to work.

That said, I buy from over 20 wine salespeople, handle inventory, make pricing decisions, decide what to do when the wine that tasted great at a wine fair in France arrives in the U.S. tasting awful, and all other things related to wine for our restaurant—throughout the day, every day. From a wine-drinking customer’s perspective, these things matter as much as, and probably more than, me helping you pick a wine.

When we were planning the Four Horsemen, our restaurant and wine bar in Brooklyn, we talked a lot about what we liked and disliked about service. One thing that came up over and over was the disappointment we’d feel when we ate at a restaurant reputed for having a well-known wine person; if that person was absent, we felt like we were being cheated. “What if this person working on Tuesday night doesn’t have access to the same wines? What if they fail to recommend some great new thing that just showed up, or something that’s been sitting in the cellar for a while and is drinking great?” Misplaced worries, maybe, but the downside of the recent culture of sommelier celebrity is this cultivated notion that one person is the key to your perfect evening.

After a fair amount of discussion, we realized that instead of relying on one person to guide our customers’ wine experience, we wanted to build an experienced front-of-house team with varied tastes in wine, but one that shared an interest in our point of view. We focus on natural wine at the Four Horsemen, which means we’re probably not the best place for a novice to learn about wine in a general way. That focus makes our staff somewhat self-selecting: We want them to care about the low-intervention wines we stock. And they have to be able to learn on the fly, because we also wanted to have a lot of wine moving in and out of our little cellar. Currently we have about 400 selections, and we switch out about 20 to 30 a week. So our staff needs to be interested enough to be constantly learning about these new bottles. We expect it.

This isn’t to take away from places that have dedicated wine teams, or those that offer intense education for their staff. It’s just that because of our size, and the time restrictions for everyone involved, we can’t be like that. In fact, I like dining at restaurants that still employ a more traditional sommelier. I love that there’s someone with whom I can talk about wine at length while I’m out to dinner, even occasionally to the frustration of my non-industry dining companions. It can be fun, and it’s part of what I’m paying for.

But that’s not what our place is. Fortunately, I’m lucky to have a team that loves wine as much as I do—specifically, one that loves to work with the bottles we have, without me breathing down their necks and second-guessing their decisions. I trust them to know what to do, regardless of the situation.

Will you have a different experience at our place depending on which server is at your table? For sure. In a way, that’s a feature, not a bug of our system. Their personalities, and specific interests, make each dining experience unique. Their interest also allows us to vary between being casual and serious—without, crucially, the dreaded “Let me go and get our sommelier” detour that can add 20 minutes between your meal order and when an open bottle lands on your table.

Sure our approach may not be traditional, but I think it’s actually made our guests develop more personal relationships with their servers—and subsequently, our restaurant. And by avoiding a hierarchy on the floor, we offer a level of hospitality that, I think, might feel even more comfortable than if we had a wine-specific person in the mix. Guests can feel confident that each time they come in, their experience will be personal, and they’ll feel like they have access to everything that we have to offer. In the end, providing that type of experience is what it’s all about for us

Justin is the Wine Director and a partner at The Four Horsemen, named one of the best restaurants in Williamsburg by New York Magazine. Previously, he was the wine buyer for Uva Wines for 8 years, where he pioneered a retail selection of natural wines.