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Know Your Sommeliers: Justin Parramore

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05/10/2023 Savoring a Decade of Wine Wisdom: Exploring the Journey of Chicago's Veteran Wine and Hospitality Expert, Justin Parramore.

Meet Justin Parramore, an experienced Wine and Hospitality pro right here in Chicago, IL, with nearly a decade of diverse industry experience. For the past five years, Justin has been running the show at swanky private clubs and trendy restaurants down in St. Louis, with a special focus on the fabulous world of French wine. Now, they've teamed up with the awesome Ballyhoo Hospitality Group to bring you DeNucci's, the hottest Italian spot in Chicago's Lincoln Park!

But what's the secret behind their passion for hospitality and wine? Well, it all started with an incredible mentor who introduced them to the world of serving and the art of winemaking. It's like they got a backstage pass to the wine world!

Let's dive deeper to know him better!

Your current place of work?

DeNucci's Italian in Lincoln Park

Tell us about yourself.

I am a Wine and Hospitality professional currently residing in Chicago, IL, boasting nearly a decade of experience in the hospitality industry across diverse roles. Over the past five years, I have been based in St. Louis, MO, where I managed private clubs and restaurants, with a particular focus on French wine. My most recent move brought me to Chicago, where I have joined forces with the Ballyhoo Hospitality Group to launch an Italian restaurant named DeNucci's, located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.

Why did you want to become a sommelier?

Hospitality has held a special allure for me ever since I was old enough to enter the workforce. The notion of serving others has consistently motivated me to prioritize guest experiences and create lasting memories. I was fortunate to have an exceptional mentor who introduced me to the world of wine and instilled in me a passion for becoming a sommelier. I am profoundly grateful for his guidance.

The world of wine has always captivated my interest. The concept of food and wine not just coexisting but enhancing each other has been a tradition for millennia. The legacy of winemaking and culinary culture has been passed down through generations, and I am deeply enthusiastic about continuing this tradition and introducing our guests to new and exciting wines.

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

How do you like your coffee? This tells me everything I need to know. Do you like tannin? Do you want something classic or more esoteric? Do you prefer something sweet or dry? Are you looking to take your wine seriously, or drink something without thinking about it and imbibe? Do you not even like coffee and prefer tea? 

I love this question because it catches people off-guard most of the time, but everyone always has an answer. These tendencies translate very well to wine taste and help me formulate some options for guests who are unsure of their wine preferences.

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

Effective Communication - Whether it's interacting with guests, vendors, or staff, the role of a sommelier essentially involves translating a foreign language to those who may have limited knowledge of it. Simplifying complex concepts like viticulture and vinification into the taste of the wine at the end of the day is the foremost responsibility of a sommelier. It's crucial to adapt to the level of wine knowledge that guests possess.

Compelling Storytelling - In today's digital age, wine-tasting notes are readily available through apps like Vivino, which many of my guests use. Anyone can read a tasting note and understand the flavor profile of a wine. However, the true beauty of winemaking and wine enjoyment lies in the human connections that wines create in each of us. As a sommelier, my most enjoyable task is sharing the unique stories behind the wines on my list. While a Sangiovese may taste like wild red fruits and savory tomato leaf, the real magic lies in revealing details like the name of the dog that roams the vineyard rows or the sisters who inherited vineyards from their father and now craft exceptional wines on the very land where they played as children. This is what makes wine truly captivating.

Physical Stamina - Restaurant floors can be some of the most demanding and intense workspaces. Remaining on your feet for up to 12 hours at a stretch can be physically taxing. Maintaining agility and staying active are essential to sustaining energy levels during those long and demanding nights.

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

One of my favorite examples of enhancing wine sales is by running wine specials. This strategy works exceptionally well when you have a staff that genuinely believes in your wine program, and I consider myself fortunate to have such a team. When our staff members become genuinely enthusiastic about limited-edition wines, it sparks excitement among our guests, ultimately leading to increased sales.

I am also more than willing to open bottles of wine to facilitate sales. Just last night, a guest was torn between a couple of Barbera styles, one available by the glass and the other sold exclusively by the bottle. I decided to open both bottles and spontaneously conducted a blind taste test for them. The guests thoroughly enjoyed it! It was a delightful way to engage, offer a personalized experience, and successfully promote a higher-priced bottle of wine. Allowing the wine to speak for itself often proves to be quite effective.

I take the floor 5-6 nights a week, actively involved in hand-selling and pouring wines for our guests. This not only eases the workload for our line staff but also enables me to establish personal connections and build relationships of trust with our clientele. Once your guests have confidence in your recommendations and service, they are more inclined to return, spend more, and share positive experiences with others, which ultimately benefits the reputation and success of our restaurant.

What methods do you use to grow net profits?

I maintain a strong and trusting partnership with my distributors and representatives, fostering close collaboration. This proactive approach helps me minimize costs while ensuring that I stay well-informed about current trends, new product releases, and limited availability items.

How do you self-learn and improve your skills?

I consistently engage in reading, studying, and watching master lectures to keep my knowledge up-to-date regarding trends, vintages, and styles within the realm of Italian wines. This is particularly advantageous given the Italian focus of my wine list. Additionally, I conduct bi-weekly wine classes for my staff, recognizing that teaching is as valuable as learning when it comes to acquiring new knowledge.

Image Source: Justin Parramore / DeNucci's Italian in Lincoln Park

What's the best part of your job?

I derive great pleasure from serving wines that leave people pleasantly surprised. Just last week, I uncorked a bottle of Josko Gravner's renowned Ribolla Gialla for a guest who is an enthusiast of orange wines. Their reaction was priceless – they were left utterly speechless. Convincing them to opt for that particular bottle was quite an endeavor, but as soon as the wine was poured, all the effort paid off. Experiences like these, where I have the opportunity to showcase, satisfy, and astonish my guests with historically significant wines they may have never encountered before, validate the long hours and late nights that I put into my work.

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

We utilize a range of note-taking applications to record guest preferences, including their tastes and any allergies they may have. It's truly remarkable when a guest orders a Cabernet and thoroughly enjoys the wine we serve them. What's even more impressive is when we're aware of a guest's preference for Cabernet and can greet them at their table with their favorite glass of it before they even sit down.

I have a genuine passion for enhancing sales by opening bottles of wine. Just last night, a guest was torn between a couple of styles of Barbera, one available by the glass and the other exclusively by the bottle. I decided to open both bottles and spontaneously organized a blind taste test for them. Their enthusiastic response was heartening! This approach not only fosters a deeper connection with our guests but also allows us to successfully sell a higher-priced bottle of wine. These are the moments that leave a lasting impression on people and become synonymous with our restaurant.

One of my favorite gestures at our establishment involves keeping an affordable sparkling wine readily available, which we pour generously, almost like water. Whether it's a celebration, a special occasion, or someone simply needing a pick-me-up, we provide what we affectionately refer to as 'Gift bubbles,' offering it to our guests free of charge. It's a simple yet extraordinary gesture that costs us very little but significantly enhances our guests' evenings.

The essence of the guest experience lies in meeting people exactly where they are when they walk through our doors. If a guest is reserved, quiet, and not inclined to engage in conversation, it becomes my responsibility to ensure they feel comfortable and still enjoy their dining experience. On the other hand, if a guest is talkative, engaged, and inquisitive, my role shifts to providing them with the level of attention and interaction they desire. A significant part of my job involves discerning how to tailor each guest's experience individually. Some guests are eager to learn about the vineyards where our grapes are grown, while others simply want to place their orders and depart promptly. Each guest is equally valuable and deserving of an experience that aligns with their preferences.

Your favorite TV show right now?

I still need to catch up on The White Lotus Season 2, but we pour a lot of wine produced at the winery where it was filmed so it comes up a lot around work! That'll have to be my pick.

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

During my visit to Chianti last year, I had the pleasure of dining at a quaint enoteca in Castelnuovo Berardenga. As we savored our meal outdoors, we indulged in exquisite dishes, including Florentine steak and black truffle steak tartare. The owner kindly uncorked a bottle of Le Trosce Chianti Classico and proudly proclaimed, 'This wine was cultivated just 2 kilometers up the road.' It was a perfect embodiment of the saying that 'what grows together goes together.' The combination of Tuscan beef, Tuscan wine, and the fresh Tuscan air resulted in an unforgettable dining experience.

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

I firmly believe that making a wine selection error isn't a major faux pas, unless, of course, the guest brings an inflated ego and excessive confidence to the situation. I find it most enjoyable when I encounter guests who exude overconfidence and adopt a somewhat condescending attitude towards wine. They might assert confidently, 'I adore White Burgundy, but I despise Chardonnay.' However, if you approach wine with a sense of humility and genuine enthusiasm for learning, there should be no reason to feel pressured or concerned about making a wine-related mistake.

Any favorite food and wine pairing suggestions for drinks enthusiasts?

Although the classic combination of cigars and Scotch is undeniably popular, I find it a bit intense due to the strong and smoky flavors. However, introducing a sugarcane-based spirit like rum into the mix brings a delightful balance and complexity. It may sound unconventional, but I highly recommend giving it a try!

Your favorite book?

The first book that I got when I was thinking about entering this industry was "Wine Simple" by Aldo Sohm. I still use it for quick reference to this day.

Non-wine related- my favorite book is "The Great Gatsby." Pure American literature at its finest.

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

At this point in my career, as someone relatively new to the industry, I have a strong desire to explore and immerse myself in the diverse world of wine. While I've successfully launched a new restaurant, my ambition extends beyond that. I aspire to be involved in wine at every level of the process – from selling it at various stages in the supply chain to spending time at wineries, managing brands, and even trying my hand at winemaking. My recent experience of establishing a new restaurant and wine program in Chicago has equipped me with valuable tools for personal and professional growth as I pursue these endeavors.

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

In the first week of our new restaurant's opening, a guest walked in and requested 'a red wine that's suitable for chilling.' While we had some options on hand, none of them truly impressed her. Determined to provide a satisfying choice, I embarked on a month-long quest to find the perfect wine. When she returned a month later, I presented her with three carefully selected options. She was pleasantly surprised by my commitment to her request and felt genuinely flattered by the effort I had put in to accommodate her taste. I guided her and her companions through a tasting of these wines, and they were so delighted with the selections that she has returned three times since to enjoy them.

How can suppliers work with you to drive sales?

In my experience, open and transparent communication is the key to building successful relationships with my suppliers. I prioritize maintaining regular contact with them through phone messages, making them my initial point of contact when seeking new placements. I highly value suppliers who actively share information such as new arrivals, forthcoming stock adjustments, updates from producer visits, and any specific requirements they may have from me. This level of communication is essential in fostering strong and mutually beneficial relationships with my suppliers.

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

The Crossing in St. Louis, MO was one of my favorite restaurants when I lived there, and a wine list I study often when it comes to balance and depth of options. The work they do there with their tasting menu and wine pairings is so impressive.

What are the four main things you focus on daily?

In my role, I focus on several key areas to ensure the smooth operation of the establishment:

Maintenance: This involves daily tasks such as keeping our inventory well-stocked and ensuring accurate pricing.

Growth: I actively seek opportunities for improvement and expansion. This includes introducing new wines, making adjustments to pricing and organization, and exploring various avenues for growth.

Service: Providing top-notch service is a priority, and this involves nightly floor service, actively promoting and selling wines and liquors, guiding and supporting staff, and ensuring our guests have a stellar experience.

Planning: I engage in strategic planning, which encompasses adapting to seasonal changes, staying updated on industry trends, and carefully considering guest feedback to make informed decisions.

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

I have a strong appreciation for wines that come with intriguing narratives. Whether it's the tale of a brand with a prestigious name and attractively priced wines, the story of two brothers inheriting 10 hectares of ancestral land and continuing the tradition of crafting Nebbiolo from their grandfathers' farms, or simply the enthusiasm of my brand representative about a specific wine on a given day, I am genuinely drawn to wines that have a unique story to share.

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

The abundance of options, variety in terms of price point, and visual design/organization (an extensive selection is great, but if I can't read what your menu says, it might as well be empty!)

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