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Take Five - Jon McDaniel, Beverage Director & Sommelier, Gage Hospitality Group

Jon McDaniel is the Beverage Director and Sommelier for Gage Hospitality Group. His rare talent for selecting wines that authentically illustrate the unique nature of each establishment can be found in the beverage programs of all restaurants including Acanto, Beacon Tavern, Coda di Volpe, The Dawson and The Gage. Jon is recognized as one of the top wine professionals in the U.S. and was recently named a 2018 “Sommelier of the Year” by Food+Wine as well as a “40 Under 40 Tastemaker” by Wine Enthusiast. 

Winning Wine Programs

by Jon McDaniel

Chicago has never been known as a “wine town”. It wasn’t until Charlie Trotter’s opened that the merging of world-class restaurants came in Illinois with a winning wine list.  Today, Illinois features some of the finest restaurants in the world and we are still fighting to get that same attention for our wine programs that guests naturally give to beer and Bourbon. So how do you build a winning wine list – it all starts with the guest.

Recognize your Concept

In every wine-growing region around the world, wine acts as an additional ingredient to any and every dish that comes to your table. Wine is just a part of the experience. So when you are building a wine list for your restaurant, first look at what your concept, what your food is. If your chef is cooking with the inspiration of Southern France, then you should highlight wines from those areas, really working on creating options for your guest to immerse themselves in the region and part of the world that your restaurant wants to convey.

The old saying goes “If it grows, it goes” – find those wines that grow right along with the core ingredients of your concept.

Recognize your Guest

Far too many times, I have seen wine buyers and sommeliers push their grape juice agenda on their guests because of their own ego and desire to have a “cool wine list”. If a guest is asking for a glass of sparkling wine – 99% of them are not going to appreciate a funky Pet Nat Pinot whatever from a former Soviet Republic. Or if your guest says they are really a fan of Chardonnay – as a wine buyer, you need to teach your staff to go a little further.  Do they mean an oaky, buttery behemoth or a mineral Chablis? What they certainly do not mean is some obscure expression of the grape from a place no one has ever heard of.

It is our duty to really explore what our clientele is about and to offer them wines that are yes, interesting and unique, but also that will create an experience of enjoyment and not of confusion and bewilderment. Engage your staff and engage your guest on what is popular and what is not working and don’t be afraid to change a wine if it is an immediate flop.

Recognize your Business

Wine is fun – or at least it should be, but you must realize as a buyer in creating a winning wine list that the margins you create in your list are helping feed the bottom line of your business. Too many wine lists follow one of two directions:

One - a wine list that is only formulaic in pricing – 3.5x cost, etc. These lists can lose a guest because they are usually over-priced and contain margins that for some wines are too high and for some that are too low.

Two - a wine list that doesn’t recognize what is popular. For most restaurants, your by the glass program is going to be the most profitable and popular aspect of your business. So why not build the margins you need into your most popular items. Recognize as the buyer with your ownership what your goal cost is for wine and make sure that your by the glass wines are making more than that profit margin. That will allow you to bring in “cool wines” and sell them at a lower price to give the guests great value.

Recognize your Worth

No wine director or wine buyer out there needs to “sell” Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay. It is one of the most popular and most ordered wines in the U.S. You see wine buyers out there put the wine on the list just because it is easy.  The danger of adding a wine like this to your wine program – why does the owner need you?  Taking advice from the Top 10 selling wines or the “most popular” wines out there is a recipe for failure for a couple reasons.

First, a wine like KJ Chardonnay is going to always be on sale at grocery stores and big retailers. Do you really want to be that restaurant that is selling a popular wine for $10 a glass when it is $9.99 at Jewel/Osco? Recognizing that your job is to educate your staff and offer a selection of wines that is well-priced and also a great value is key to your survival not only as a great wine list, but your job.

If your guests are asking for Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, find that producer that meets the flavor profile of that wine, that is well-priced and that can offer your guests something that is comfortable but also can show your effort in curating a great list. Nine out of ten times, if you tell the guest “If you like that wine, you will love this wine”, they are going to put some trust in what you are saying. That trust is key to creating regulars.

Recognize your Staff

The future of the sommelier as a stand-alone position will soon be extinct. As a wine professional, you have to recognize that you must offer something to your company that goes beyond just knowing something about wine – you must be an educator. Training your staff to be versed in the menu and confident in selling your concept and your wines will only increase your presence in the restaurant, your value to your company, and your profitability. Profitability = job security.

If you are able to be a leader for your staff not only in creating a fantastic wine program that they like to sell and that makes them money – but you are helping with service, clearing tables, and all of the dirty jobs of a restaurant – you will only increase their commitment to you and your passion for wine.

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