These days, you don’t have to subscribe to Decanter magazine to read about the wine business. Even the pages of Vogue boast articles glamorizing the work of beverage professionals. Yet while these portrayals have improved readers’ understanding of the industry, they leave something to be desired. Counting bottles until the wee hours of the morning is not what most people have in mind when they imagine the work of a beverage director!
MS David Keck, former wine director at Camerata at Paulie’s in Houston, points out that wine is a business, and running a beverage program means you’re responsible for driving a large portion of a business’s profit. “Working as a sommelier and working as a beverage director are completely different jobs,” he says. “Being a sommelier on the floor provides you with information regarding what the guests are enjoying and what’s working with the food, but none of that has anything to do with pricing, understanding wholesale cost and distribution, and the entire skill set needed to make your employer money and keep your program profitable.”
So what actually goes on behind the scenes of successful restaurants and hospitality groups? What does it take to run a beverage program—and to do it well? How can a sommelier on the floor of a restaurant make the jump to managing a beverage program, perhaps including multiple outlets? Through interviews with successful beverage directors, this article aims to give an accurate portrayal of the role.
First and foremost, beverage directors are responsible for ensuring a business is making money. But every restaurant or beverage outlet is different. What works for a casual bistro may not work for a poolside bar or an upscale steakhouse. A beverage director needs to understand all the variables involved in a specific business.
“You should have an understanding as a beverage manager of who your guests are, where you’re located, the concept of the restaurant, the skill level and knowledge of your team,” explains James Tidwell, Master Sommelier at Four Seasons Dallas at Las Colinas. Learning a new market can be as simple as calling up friends in the business to ask questions, reading media to see what’s popular, and visiting bars and restaurants. “What variety is most popular for by-the-glass pours? How much are they charging? What brands appear on multiple lists?” Tidwell asks. “Doing this gives you a sense of the overall market.”
MS Sabato Sagaria, chief restaurant officer for Union Square Hospitality Group in New York City, compares understanding these variables to looking through the lens of a camera. An outlet’s concept, market, and other variables make up the frame, and success depends in part on making sure purchasing decisions fall squarely within that frame. “There are so many variables,” he emphasizes. “It’s not just what wines you buy and how you price them. How do you come up with the vital signs for your program so that you can take a pulse at any moment? Every program is different, and the economics of a restaurant change based on the volume of guests, the type of guests that are coming in, their propensity to spend, and seasonality.” Successful beverage directors keep a close eye on the frame and a finger on the financial pulse so they can constantly gauge the success of their programs.
Beverage programs often make up at least a third of a business’s revenue. “The financial obligation of being a wine director is huge,” says MS Virginia Philip, wine director at the Breakers Palm Beach. “You have to know how to make money, and you have to understand your numbers and how they work.”
MS Yoon Ha, beverage director for San Francisco’s Benu, points out that this aspect of the role is relatively easy to learn. “There’s a learning curve just like with anything else,” he says, “but it’s black and white. There’s nothing nuanced about it.”
Certain tasks are basic, such as calculating how much to charge per ounce for a product and training staff to pour the appropriate number of ounces. From there, a beverage director must also pay attention to markups and sales mix, account for hidden costs like spoilage and breakage, and understand the turnover rate on a range of products. There are also numbers to interpret: What is cost of goods sold (COGS) and how is that different from revenue? What should you look for when reading a profit and loss (P&L) report? How can you use your point of sale (POS) system to analyze sales? Beverage directors must be able to answer these questions confidently. (Editor’s note: For a crash course in wine business basics, watch our webinar with David Keck!)
Numbers paint a picture of what’s happening on the floor, which is especially important for those managing programs with multiple outlets, with wine directors at each location. MS June Rodil, beverage director for McGuire Moorman Hospitality Group in Austin, says that although she’s unable to be at all seven outlets each day, she keeps an eye on what’s happening through spreadsheets and beverage management programs like BinWise. “I can look at depletions, daily sales information, and orders,” she explains, “and I can use this information to start asking my wine buyers questions if I see that something’s off.”
The better you are at analyzing numbers and using that skill to increase revenue, the more time you’ll have to devote to other aspects of your job. “You have to be efficient at the things that you dislike, which for me is spreadsheets,” Rodil says, “so that you have more time to be creative and do the things that you love, like tasting wines and traveling. You get to do more of that when you’re better at the numbers. A successful program doesn’t necessarily mean an award-winning program. A program is successful because it’s profitable.”
“Balance is a relative term,” Ha says when asked what it means to have a balanced wine list. There are endless ways to write a wine or beverage list, but it has to make sense within the unique framework of the business. One mistake new beverage directors often make is writing a wine list that’s too “geeky” or is simply a reflection of their personal tastes. Taylor Parsons, a sommelier in LA and the previous beverage director of République, says, “There’s a danger now of making wine programs about the sommelier, writing lists that are big statements of your persona or point of view. But we have to understand that we’re not buying wine for ourselves. We’re buying it for guests. If a guest comes in and wants a full-bodied wine at a certain price point and I don’t have something that fits the bill, that’s a sign of failure on my part.”
That’s not to say a wine list can’t be small and focused. “The goal of a wine list is not to have something for everybody,” Ha says. “The goal of a wine list is to have something which can appeal to everybody.” This can be as simple as making sure the staff can speak with guests about the similarities between Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Grigio, so that all guests can be led to a bottle of wine they’ll enjoy.
Representing value at all price points on a wine list is also key. Bottle prices should correspond to food prices, and guests should feel they’re getting a good deal. We’re taught, as sommeliers, to demonstrate great salesmanship, but that doesn’t necessarily mean trying to upsell guests. “A lot of people don’t realize that it’s a long game,” Jake Lewis, beverage director for Momofuku in NYC, says. “Suppose someone comes in after a long day but they don’t have much money. If you can sell them something delicious at an inexpensive price point, they’ll come back. Eventually they’ll be coming in twice a month and spending more because they trust you.”
Running a successful beverage program also means being a great buyer. “Selling wine from a list doesn’t mean you know how to purchase it,” Rodil comments. Buyers need to think critically about why a product will work for the program. “It’s not just, ‘I love this wine.’ It’s saying, ‘I love this Champagne. I’d like to place it on the list for $20 a glass. I spoke with the distributor and the importer, and they can guarantee 40 cases, which should last six months, and it will replace this other Champagne for these reasons.’”
A great buyer understands that good business means everyone involved has something to gain. Tidwell explains that learning to negotiate is key. “I negotiate best pricing without abusing anybody. Everybody needs to make some profit, but at the same time, you should negotiate based upon a fair and equitable solution for everybody.” The larger your operation, the more buying power you’ll have in these negotiations.
Alessandra Diana of American Wine & Spirits remarks that from her point of view, a great buyer is honest and forthcoming. “I’d like to see people have the courage to say no,” she says. If it doesn’t work for the program, be honest so that your distributor can bring you something else. Philip agrees. “You have to have the ability and comfort to say no,” she says. “Sometimes that’s really difficult.”
Interpersonal skills are key to the role of a beverage director. Daily, beverage directors will interact with staff members, other sommeliers, servers, chefs, guests, distributors, winemakers, and more.
Most of the politics of running a beverage program boil down to trust and maintaining relationships. Do guests trust you to recommend a wine they’ll enjoy? Does the staff trust you to work well alongside them during service? Does your wine rep trust you to be honest about the needs of your program? A great beverage director nurtures these relationships and understands that beverage, though important, is still just one piece of the puzzle. There are many other players contributing to the success—or failure—of a business.
Training and mentorship increase staff knowledge, create a culture that values education, and help maintain beverage standards across multiple outlets. The most successful beverage professionals will build teams that can run on their own. “The ultimate goal as a leader,” Sagaria says, “whether you’re a chef or beverage director or general manager, is to make yourself replaceable.” It may seem counterintuitive, but Sagaria says it’s about shifting focus from yourself to what success means for the restaurant or company. “If on your own journey to success, you help your teammates achieve success, you’ve just made all boats rise with the tide.” And if your team thrives in your absence, you are freed up for further growth.
There are many resources on management, and they are worth exploring if you are striving for a position as a beverage director. Managing people is a significant part of this role, and it's a challenging job. As a start, keep in mind what you were thinking at earlier points in your career and what motivated you at that time. Consider how you can empower your team and give them ownership. Give people the information they need to be successful, which will build much-needed trust, and always communicate clearly.
The ideal format for staff training, like everything else, depends upon the variables of your program. Perhaps you have a team of sommeliers, or perhaps servers sell wine. You may have wine directors or managers at each outlet who can speak to guests about wine and keep an eye on the cellar—or you may not. And, of course, it’s important to consider the staff’s level of knowledge. These factors will inform your approach to training. Options include tasting wines from the list during daily lineups, meeting once a week, and bringing together staff from multiple outlets monthly for a themed tasting, like California Chardonnay versus Burgundy. Field trips, games, and contests tend to generate excitement. Tidwell says he plays theory games with his staff, while Ha explains that education at Benu is more list specific and staff are expected to have a base level of wine knowledge. Regardless, you must monitor the impact of your training—successful education will be reflected in sales.
To achieve success, a beverage director must understand the financials, know how to build an excellent wine list, maintain healthy relationships, and always keep the big picture in mind—skills you can work on building in whatever job you hold now. Great beverage directors also look ahead. Landing a job as a beverage director is an excellent goal, but it shouldn’t be your only one. Sagaria says that whether you’re a sommelier on the floor or already working as a beverage director, you should have an eye on diversifying your skill set. The best restaurant professional is someone who knows how to do everything in the restaurant. “Thinking beyond the role of beverage director, I realized I needed to diversify myself,” he says. “As I moved forward in my career, I built a toolbox by working in as many capacities as I could, from opening restaurants to overseeing banquets and doing room service in hotels. You’re always interviewing for the next job.”
Rodil offers an important reminder: “To run a successful beverage program, you have to be part of a successful restaurant. You can’t be autonomous from the restaurant. It’s not an island.” A successful beverage director understands this and works from a place of humility, with a skill set diverse enough to manage any business, no matter the frame.