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How Sommeliers Can Make the Transition to a New Restaurant

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03/02/2018 Switching to a new city, a new geographic region and an entirely new restaurant? Follow these tried-and-true steps and ace your transition

It can often seem daunting at the outset for a sommelier to make the transition from one restaurant to another - and that’s especially the case if it involves a move to a new city or new geographic region, or to a restaurant with an entirely different type of wine program. Consider, for example, the transition from a casual dining establishment in the Pacific Northwest to an upscale steakhouse in New York City. Suddenly, everything you knew about Oregon Pinot Noir might not be nearly as valuable as it once was.

The good news is that there are certain tried-and-true steps that can help you make the transition. By following these steps, you can figure out whether you just need to update the vintages on the wine list, or if you are going to make a major change to the types of wines in the wine program.

Step One: Take Stock of Your Current Situation

When you are first hired, it might be tempting at the outset to make immediate changes to the wine program of your new restaurant. Maybe you’ve been looking forward to working with new producers, restructuring the wine list in a creative new way or ordering from new suppliers. But most sommeliers that have made the move advise taking time to understand your current situation. That’s particularly the case if you are moving to a restaurant with several different locations. You will need to figure out what’s happening at each restaurant before making any type of change to the wine list.

And, keep in mind that sommeliers do not face the same pressure as chefs to change the way a restaurant serves its customers. It’s often the case that a new chef is brought in to radically overhaul or change the menu. He or she is given carte blanche to create an entirely new approach to the food menu, with the understanding that some customers might leave.

You don’t have the same freedom as a sommelier, though. Since so much of the wine list is driven by what’s on the food menu, if there haven’t been any wide-ranging changes to what customers can order, then it’s a lot harder to push through radical changes to the wine list. In fact, many new sommeliers spend the first 6 weeks working alongside someone else at the restaurant, such as the assistant general manager, until they have a good feel for the overall wine program as it currently stands.

Step Two: Figure Out How You are Going to Structure the Wine List

Some sommeliers spend as much as six months seeing what’s working, and what’s not. By the end of that time, they will have a very good idea of how to go about structuring the overall wine program. For example, it might become very obvious that wine drinkers at the restaurant prefer classic, iconic wines from well-known producers and classic wine regions. If that’s the case, then trying to introduce a trendy new grape varietal, or remaking a wine list in terms of organic and biodynamic wines is going to be very difficult, if not impossible.

One good rule of thumb is to come up with the desired allocation for your wine list. For example, one classic mix is 70/20/10, as in 70% Italian wines, 20% California wines and 10% other. Of course, depending on your location, you will need to adjust on the fly. For example, if you are based in Oregon, then it’s a high probability that you will need to have much more of a focus on Oregon wines on your wine list.

But, at the outset, this allocation mix can help guide you. Do you want to make the wine list narrower? Or broaden it significantly? Do you want to put more of an emphasis on esoteric varietals?

And, here’s another question to consider: What do you want to be known for? In a city like New York, it might be hard to stand out for “the city’s best Chardonnay wine list” or “the city’s best Cabernet Sauvignon wine list.” But some restaurants have had success in building out “the best Champagne list,” while others have worked on building out epic Syrah wine lists, comprised of Syrah wines from around the world (and not just France).

Step Three: Look for Ways to Alter, Expand and Refocus your Wine Program

Much of this step can only be accomplished after you have a very good sense of what your clientele really wants. If they are looking for iconic wines, it will be your job to find and deliver them. If they are looking for trendy or esoteric wines, that too, will be up to you.

As a result, many sommeliers keep a close eye on what’s selling, and how long it takes for certain bottles of wine to be sold. At some restaurants, selling a $100 bottle of wine might only take 24 hours. At a more casual dining establishment, however, it might take six months before that bottle is ever sold. But when it does - you will have much more freedom in thinking about what type of wine you are going to replace it with.

And, taking a long-term view of the situation, some sommeliers making the move to a new restaurant start thinking about steps they can take that they might not have been able to do at their previous establishment - such as building a cellaring program. When you are just starting out, this might not seem as important as simply grasping the general contours of the existing wine program.

The best part about making the transition to a new restaurant is the ability to put your personal mark on the restaurant. Of course, you have to be aware of the current wine program. Change is good, but you have to be aware that trying to change things too quickly could backfire. It is far better to take the first few months to get up to speed. This will give you the right foundation. You will then be able to use your time, passion and purpose to create a wine program that enhances the overall image and mission of your new establishment.