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Interviews

Know Your Sommeliers: Jon McDaniel

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12/09/2023 Jon McDaniel is one of the most recognized wine educators and professionals in America. He was Food + Wine Magazine's Sommelier of the Year. Here's a Q and A to learn more about him.

Your current place of work?

Founder & CEO - Ottantadue & Second City Soil

Tell us about yourself.

I'm a workaholic. After realizing that the world of politics wasn't for me - I found my way into wine and never looked back. For almost 20 years, I have spent almost as much time in vineyards, cellars, and airports as I have at home - and I wouldn't change a second of it. I live in Chicago and Dallas - working with one of the most incredible direct-to-consumer winery concepts and developing several different projects to aid wine drinkers and sommeliers alike! When I'm not working - I'm noodling on several different instruments, cooking without measuring, and watching real football with an amaro in hand.

Why did you want to become a sommelier?

My career path was basically the opposite of most wine professionals. I was in the business for almost 10 years before I worked full-time on a restaurant floor. From there - the engagement with the end consumer and the relationship with the guest was like a drug to me. I found that the word "sommelier" was broken by those who used it as a tool for looking down on consumers vs. lifting them up. I knew that I wanted to be a sommelier to empower wine drinkers to enjoy wine - not be afraid of it.

Questions you would ask a customer who doesn't know anything about wine?

What's your Death Row meal?

What are some of the most important skills for a sommelier?

Empathy, reading between the lines of what a customer is telling you, understanding food and flavors, relationships with growers and winemakers, joy in your craft (if you aren't having fun being in wine - your customer won't either!)

Image: Jon McDaniel 

How I would train my new staff member in their first 7 days of joining.

Taste the entire menu. Wine is the enhancement to the dining experience. Train them on the BTG list - then train them again, then train them again On the bottle list - give them a couple go to whites and reds to elevate the guest experience Bring in veteran servers to give their experience with our customers - what are the majority of the wine experiences Have them spend an hour stocking wine to know the logistics of the system.

What methods do you use to grow wine sales - top line? Please explain with examples.

Every sale is a unique experience that is based on the relationship with the supplier and the account. You have to assess the needs of the account and how to match that with the right wine and supplier. Selling wine is not like selling shower rings - you can make it formulaic and scientific. Wine is about the connection between consumer needs and the producer of those needs.

Image: Jon McDaniel.You can follow Jon McDaniel on Instagram

What methods do you use to grow net profits?

Everyone in the chain must be involved in the profitability of the wine. So if the producer, the supplier, the distributor, and the account on not on the same page to create more end profitability AND value for the guest - then the account will not buy in. You have to know the laws of each state when it comes to the distribution of wine. In certain states, you can give "free" goods to an account to help bring the net price down. In some states you have rebates. in some states, everyone has to get the same price no matter what. But distributors always skirt these rules - so you have to know how to play the system to get the best price for the account. On the accounting side - you have to be very efficient and not wasteful. Create programs of value to your guests without giving away the farm. A splash of sparkling wine has calmed so many guests that otherwise would have sent a bottle back or asked for a comp.

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How do you self-learn and improve your skills?

Taste as much as I can, as often as I can. Wine is ever-evolving with techniques, and changes in our environment. Talk to growers and winemakers as often as possible. What is happening in their world?

What's the best part of your job?

That every day is different. People are still drinking wine and more hungry for information and experiences than ever before. Being able to get them excited about wine and the tasting journey. And the travel isn't bad either!

How do you elevate the guest experience? Please give 4-5 examples and insights here.

Listen to the guest Create a wine list that they don't want to give back - they want to keep reading and engaging Create a culture of wine that the service staff wants to learn, wants to talk and love wine for their own knowledge and their pocketbooks. If they are excited, that will elevate the guest experience Keep things fresh - a regular is your most important customer. Your staff should have something new to talk about every time they come in to keep them wondering what's next.

Your favorite TV show right now?

I don't watch a lot of TV - but I've been rewatching some old favorites - on Season 5 of House!

An unforgettable wine experience for you - tell us the whole story!

Early in my career, I would help on the floor of a very famous restaurant in Washington, D.C. Just a couple nights every once in a while, but I was asked one night to go to a table of 8 people and the host asked me what year I was born. 1982 - one of the best vintages of all time. He asked me if I had ever had a bottle from that year before - which I hadn't. He ordered 4 bottles of 1982 Calon Segur for the table - 3 of which the table drank and the 4th he gave to me as a thank you. That host was Johnny Depp.

What are the biggest faux pas that customers tend to make when ordering and drinking wine?

Thinking that their order will impress the sommelier - we have already tasted them all - and all I care about is your enjoyment. On the flip side - worrying that putting ice in your glass, or wanting to decant something that doesn't need decanting will offend me - it's your bottle now, you paid for it, do whatever you want! Leaving part of a great bottle as a tip - DRC doesn't pay my rent, sir!

Any favorite food and wine pairing suggestions for drinks enthusiasts?

- Pho + Dry Mosel Riesling - Seafood Towers + Santorini Assyrtiko - Fried Chicken + Champagne (some will tell you, but consumers still don't listen!)

Jon McDaniel will also be judging at the 2024 Sommeliers Choice Awards. If you are a wine brand looking to grow in the on-premise channels of the USA, here is what Jon has to say about the Sommeliers Choice Awards.

"The thing that I like the most about Sommeliers Choice Awards is the intention behind it. There are so many different types of competitions and judging these days to certify and sometimes that can become confusing for end consumers. So what I like about this is you get a very core group of judges in a room that a winery can go to the trade and say 'Hey your peers are the ones who rated this wine' as opposed to some other people your buyers may not know. If I were a trade buyer and I was told the wines were judged by master sommeliers and these sommeliers, I would trust that score in the buying process more."

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Your favorite book?

Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles.

What's your personal career goal? And how are you investing or planning to get there?

I have a project that has been bubbling in my mind for years. I have finally put the pieces of it together and am taking on investors (if you know of anyone - send them my way!!!)

Give us one good story that you remember of a customer and you.

I was once leading a wine tasting for 100 people in the backyard of this collector's house (it was a big backyard). As we were tasting the Pierre Gimmonet Special Club, I made an off-hand remark that the perfect pairing for this wine is a bucket of fried chicken. We continued with the tasting and all of a sudden the host was dropping buckets of KFC on every table - he Doordash'ed it right after I made that comment. And KFC and Special Club is EPIC!

How can suppliers work with you to drive sales?

First, suppliers must realize that relationships that last take a while. Dropping a 10-case deal on an account doesn't mean that the account is yours forever. It means they will take the best deal every time. My role in the wine world is to connect consumers directly to the source and the supplier can be a partner in that facility. Sales are a long game - if you are into quick liquidation, you will always be in that game.

Can you share with us an example of a solid wine program?

Monarch in Dallas has a spectacular list with gems at every price point

What are the four main things you focus on daily?

Learn Something Teach Something Laugh Make my bed

What are the points you look at when selecting a new wine for your wine program?

The Story. There are 100000000 Pinot Grigios out there. I want to find the one that has a story, a person, a place, an ideal that aligns with the ethos of the account and that servers can be interested in. If they are interested, the guest will be interested The Profit. Of those 100000000 Pinot Grigios - if they all basically taste the same to the end consumer - the one that I can extract the most profit for the account is going to win every time The Relationship. 100000000 Pinot Grigios coming from 50 different suppliers - I am going to select the one where I know the supplier, know the producer 99% of the time. Because I know the supplier will go pick up cases when the truck doesn't deliver. I know the producer will come into the restaurant when they are in town. I know the mutual benefit will be there.

According to you, what makes a good sommelier, and what qualities do you look for when hiring a sommelier?

Are they a good people? Can I see them talking to a table about anything but wine for 10 minutes? Would a Super regular invite them to Thanksgiving dinner? Those are the qualities that are most important. I can teach a sommelier about the intricacies of the restaurant and of wine - but I can't teach nice. Also, the sommelier isn't just looking for a big score at a table. Their first instinct at a table is to assess what the guest is comfortable spending and recommend the best wine on our list for that price point that fits their palate. I don't care about the end-of-the-night photo with baller bottles - I care about the guest who gets a $100 bottle and thinks it's the best wine they have ever had.

What do you look for when you have to evaluate the effectiveness of the wine program?

Profit. Pull-through. Pleasure. If your list isn't making the restaurant money - you could have the most badass list on earth and it won't matter. If you are only selling 10% of your list and sitting on a bunch of dead inventory - that is a sign of an ineffective sommelier and of a list that doesn't make sense for the account If your guests are coming in and leaving happy with your wine list. If the staff is excited to learn about it and sell it. If the sommeliers are engaged with the list and want to sell it. That's a great wine program.

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