The holidays are upon us—the most wonderful time of the year for many, the most insane time of the year for those who work in restaurants. During my Beverage Director days I loved being busy and looking at the sales every night, but I would dread counting my New Year’s Eve inventory for months.
Functioning at your best every day as a sommelier in this hectic season is nearly impossible, and important elements of the job can fall through the cracks. The first year I was in charge of beverage, I forgot to refrigerate the sparkling wine for the staff’s New Year’s toast. Luckily I had a kind Chef on my side who made ice baths in huge Lexan tubs while I threw in the bottles of bubbly. He still sends me a “Chill the sparkling” text every New Year's Eve at 4pm.
In the spirit of helping others avoid frantic situations, I asked some of the country’s top sommeliers for their tips to successfully navigate the holiday season.
Consider starting your holiday preparation in the storage room. “I make sure I’m fully stocked up on decanters, flutes, high end crystal, all that stuff so I don’t have to order glassware during the super busy season,” says June Rodil, MS, Beverage Director for McGuire Moorman Hospitality group in Austin. “You will go through so much more glassware than you think, so check your pars,” adds Jill Zimorski, Sommelier at Alinea Restaurant in Chicago, “And if you don't employ a polisher, you might want to bring one in for the holidays.”
Do not overlook your computer. Zimorski advises, “If you have a special menu, special wine pairing, special bottles, for the love of Mike, make sure they are all programmed in your POS system before the night of. That kind of last minute nonsense is no one's dream job.”
It’s good to make changes to your wine list this time of year. In most restaurants the clientele is different than usual and many are hosting an annual gathering.
All the sommeliers I spoke with emphasized the importance of magnums. Yoon Ha, MS, Beverage Director of Benu in San Francisco, mentions that a large format bottle is a nice way to celebrate with family, or to unite a big party. He also suggests pouring wine pairings from magnums to heighten the guest’s experience.
Size isn’t the only thing that matters, “A magnum of broad appeal is a good idea, a wine that most people at the table can relate to,” adds Ha.
“I need to put on a larger variety of wines by the glass during the holidays,” says James Tidwell, MS, Beverage Manager of Four Seasons, Dallas and co-founder of TexSom, “Not necessarily more selections, but a much wider range, because some of the guests are neophytes just learning about wine who want what they know, and others are coming in because of your reputation for having unusual, hard to find, niche wine.”
Sometimes giving the guest what they want isn’t our first instinct. “Probably one of the biggest lessons I learned as a wine director is not to geek out on Champagne on New Year’s Eve too much,” laughs Carlton McCoy, MS, Wine Director of The Little Nell in Aspen. “My first NYE I thought we’d sell some cool grower stuff and everyone ordered Cristal, Dom Pérignon, all Grand Marques. And I realized: I’m running a business here. I’ve got to put the Pierre Peters away and give them the Clos de Mesnil.”
The added pressure of year-end financials raises the stakes of the holiday season. It’s the best and last opportunity to make your numbers shine.
“This is the time of year when you’re going to make your sales,” says Brahm Callahan, MS, Beverage Director of Himmel Hospitality Group in Boston. “The last week of November I look at where I am performing in the quarter. I want to affect my profit per cover and my cost so that I can close out the year on a positive financial note. It’s understanding that balance. If you’re already killing it cost-wise but profit per cover is down, then you might want to shift the staff’s focus to bottles that aren’t quite as good on cost percentage, but contribute to higher revenue.”
Your buying strategies will be put to the test this month. The high cover counts, large parties, and special events give you justification to order heavy. Callahan offers, “If you don’t have it in house you can’t sell it. Every state is different but if you have the ability to go through 10 cases of something in December, you might be able to get a 1 on 5 where you could impact your COGS and your profitability and be out of it. You’ve paid for the invoice, made your money, and gotten out before the invoice was due, so you’re not tying up the capital side of it.” But make sure you’re organized enough to avoid being buried in inventory. The product you order today may not be all that comes in this month. Rodil shares, “I have a file in my computer of every pre-sell sheet that I’ve ever filled out. That’s usually where we get our high end wines. I send an email to distributers with outstanding pre-sells to see if they’re coming in this calendar year. I make a note where all of that wine is going to end up and plan accordingly. You don’t want to over order, but you don’t want to under order.” Ideally, you close with high sales and low inventory. You end the old year with strong profits and less to count, and start the New Year with a clean slate.
Most restaurants see a significant rise in covers during the holidays. “We have to consider our ability to work the floor in a manageable way,” suggests Tidwell, “because we don’t all have the staff to focus on wine as much as we want during this excessively busy period.”
“I’ll often do a little beverage brush-up with the servers,” offers Sarah Clarke, GM and Beverage Director of Mozza in Los Angeles, “Even though we have a full somm staff, it’s good for the servers to know.” Callahan adds, “I put together a list of the top 20 wines that I want the staff to be really excited about and to sell.” He makes sure there’s quantity of those wines so they can be sold to large parties without question.
In the midst of the madness, the most important thing to remember is the guest.
“Holidays are by nature a stressful time of year,” emphasizes Taylor Parsons, GM and Beverage Director of République in Los Angeles. “Our guests are often frazzled—from shopping, from never-ending Christmas music, from overdosing on family—and it shows in the dining room. From a service standpoint, it's especially important to be extra-tolerant, extra-patient and extra-accommodating. From a wine-specific side, it's also great to remember that most people aren't looking to make wine a huge player on the holiday table. Rather, it's a good time to remind ourselves that we are essentially servers, folks in the business of catering to guests' needs, exceeding their expectations, and providing some small part of what will hopefully be a great memory. Get a bottle on the table (or better yet, a magnum) of something not-too-intellectual and let them get back to arguing with the cantankerous uncle who only comes once a year.”
I wish the best of luck to you this holiday season. Try to love it, and remember that January is right around the corner. Happy Holidays!
The Holidays bring in one in 20 of a dozen fine wine connoisseur if it all. That aside, the holiday's is about recommending fairly priced table wine excessible to the masses. This time of year is not about top quality producers but about excellent values without compromisinng quality.
"Get a bottle on the table of something not-too-intellectual and let them get back to arguing with the cantankerous uncle who only comes once a year.”
Great article Dana. My first year in Napa I was shocked that the holidays are the slow season here. It's always time to get a second job!
Great article! Thanks!
I'll be your polisher Jill - I know that sh** don't bounce :)
Great article Dana!
Good practical advice. It reminds me to prepare extra hard and to get ready for the crowds BEFORE the crowds come! Obvious advice, but I've been caught once or twice and the added stress does not translate to making customers happy. Thanks Dana!