While sommeliers might know wines of the world, too often a restaurant or wine bar is forced to narrow its focus to a few regions. Now there’s a new approach that lets restaurants diversify their focus by recruiting guest sommeliers for pop-up events.
At Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse in New York City, beverage director Michael Furletti embraces that approach to diversification. Despite managing the wine list at two venues during his 15 years of working in restaurants, the day-to-day focus for Furletti is currently on American and Italian wines. Rarely does he, as a sommelier, deeply immerse himself in, say, French wines. For guest sommelier events hosted at Davio’s, he continually seeks out hosts who can share knowledge of other wine regions. Recently a representative from Duckhorn Wine Company in Napa Valley, California, who had once worked as a sommelier in New York City, was the host. Four wines were paired with four courses. Previously, sommelier Marco Moroder of Eataly and Moroder Family Estate, in Italy’s Marche wine region, was a host.
“A lot of these people have worked in restaurants before, and we have good relationships with them,” Furletti says. “It’s a really good opportunity for customers to gain in-depth knowledge, and I’m not going to know everything about that brand.”
Guests can opt for a glass of the special wine, priced $10 to $20 and served at the bar, or a tasting menu that runs $65 to $95, plus $50 to $95 for wines.
Hosting guest sommeliers can also serve as an advertising boost. At Stems & Skins in North Charleston, South Carolina, co-owner Matt Tunstall wanted to get the word out shortly after opening his wine bar last year—and not just to customers. He yearned to cultivate a community of wine professionals.
The weekly “winetender” series, which brings in guest sommeliers from other wine bars, restaurants, distributors, or wineries, does just that. Tunstall has hosted two so far, capitalizing on the fact that many of Charleston’s sommeliers once worked in New York City or other large metro areas.
“They bring a whole different, unique dynamic,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of great feedback from people who want to participate, so we’ll probably continue it all through the summer.”
Each guest sommelier brings two cases of wine, typically between four and seven wines from different producers, and works with Stems & Skins to create a light food menu that consists of charcuterie, sardines, and anchovies. “It’s fun, first of all, to work behind someone else’s bar. We taste all night, and it’s a little cross-promotion for their bar or restaurant,” Tunstall says. Each guest sommelier signs the “winemaker wall,” a delightful close to the evening.
Diners are attracted to these events largely because Stems & Skins offers a flexible price range. In lieu of a formal sit-down dinner paired with wines that might normally cost around $100, Stems & Skins allows customers to order the guest sommelier’s wines by the glass, typically priced between $7 and $13, or a flight of three wines for a flat price.
“That’s a very popular way for people to approach it,” says Tunstall, adding that of the 50 guests in attendance at one event, 18 people ordered a flight.
The idea is to make the guest sommelier event about entertainment, a departure from more buttoned-up wine events, and perhaps also an incentive to attract younger diners or those new to wine.
STRIPSTEAK Waikiki in Honolulu, which is part of Mina Group, hosts quarterly F(l)ight Club and Sommelier Showdown events, pulling in beverage enthusiasts. One event might feature sommeliers while another might home in on mixologists. Although the group’s inaugural event was held in 2013 at Bourbon Steak in Washington, D.C., STRIPSTEAK Waikiki hosted its first event earlier this year.
“We want to highlight the palates of sommeliers in Hawaii,” explains general manager Robert Villanueva, who directs the participating sommeliers to pick out a wine to pair with each of the four or five courses prepared by Chef Ben Jenkins.
Including wine, the prix fixe menu costs $135 per person. At the end of the meal, guests vote on the best pairing, naming the new F(l)ight Club champion. Gratuities are donated to the winner’s charity of choice.
The first event was held in February with William Giampaolo of STRIPSTEAK Waikiki and Jonah Galase of Hy Steakhouse.
“Throughout the dinner, the sommeliers are speaking about their pairings,” Villanueva explains. “That’s a big part of the voting. There’s always a story behind the wine.”
Forty guests attended the first event. By expanding to its outdoor patio, the hope is that an additional 40 people can be accommodated in future events. “It’s an event that we’re going to continue to do,” Villanueva adds. “It’s really catering to our local clientele.”
Being part of a restaurant group with five sibling restaurants made it easy for Formento’s in Chicago, of B. Hospitality Co., to host guest sommeliers at an event toward the end of last year. The Italian-themed eatery invited Marcello Cancelli of Swift & Sons, as well as Charles Ford, formerly the general manager and sommelier at The Bristol, to join Formento’s own Alex Augustine for a one-night-only event. The cost was $125 for the dinner, plus $40 for wine pairings.
“Those guest sommeliers are definitely a fun way to integrate beverage and food,” says Phillip Walters, B. Hospitality’s co-owner.
To promote the events, he adds that the restaurant used “guerrilla marketing” to get the word out. Each sommelier participating in the event promoted it via their social media channels. This helped to cast a wide net, given the sum total of connections made when factoring in the number of followers for all three combined.
To help promote the Davio’s event, Furletti highlights that keeping the event special drives interest: It’s only offered monthly, making it a rare opportunity. “If you do them too much, it doesn’t help the restaurant,” he says.
Conversely, STRIPSTEAK Waikiki turned to traditional advertising via television spots and internal fliers, all of which helped fill up the 40 seats at its first event.
Inga Winkler, the restaurant’s director of events, also encourages the participating sommeliers to post about it on social media. “It’s a huge success within the industry,” she says. “Guesting at a different restaurant provides exposure in a fun and creative way. … It’s an exper-ience they can take with them [throughout their career].”