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Grow Your Restaurant Wine Sales With Karla Poeschel, Head Sommelier at LPM at The Cosmopolitan

Photo for: Grow Your Restaurant Wine Sales With Karla Poeschel, Head Sommelier at LPM at The Cosmopolitan

16/02/2024 Karla Poeschel, Head Sommelier at LPM at The Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas, gives thoughts on wine, her path to her work, as well as ideas to increase wine sales.

Karla Poeschel, a well-known sommelier, has traveled from San Diego's sun-drenched coastlines to Napa's renowned vineyards and, most recently, to Las Vegas' busy culinary environment. Karla, the respected curator of the wine program at LPM in The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, has years of knowledge and her love for wines.

In our exclusive conversation below, Karla generously shares her deep knowledge and enduring love of wine, which she has gained over years of diligent effort and investigation. Discover how her trip influenced her attitude to wine and how her skills may help you increase your wine sales.

Place of work.

LPM at The Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas

Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you begin your career and how did you progress into this role?

I'm a Sommelier currently residing in Las Vegas, by way of San Diego, Napa, Palo Alto, and ...stay tuned! I currently work at LPM restaurant in the Cosmopolitan Hotel, a French Mediterranean Restaurant that highlights French Coastal Cuisine (lots of olive oil, fresh herbs, seafood, and let's not forget the escargot, absolutely can not forget our escargot!!) My, "Ah-hah" moment about wine had to be when I got my first fine dining captain role at the age of 22. It was the first time that wine became a real integral part of my job, in terms of being able to describe the wines we carried by the glass and having the ability to recommend wines by the bottle. I knew there was an opportunity to prove myself as an asset beyond all the other servers on staff because nobody else in the restaurant paid much attention to our list or wine in general. I wanted to seize the opportunity to become one of the in-house "persons" for all things wine, not knowing at the time that the role of "sommelier" even existed. Not much longer after my epiphany, the General Manager of our restaurant did a sensory wine training exercise for the staff. He gathered about 5 bottles of wine, wrapped them all in paper bags, and poured a taster for each staff member asking us to describe them. He didn't necessarily mean technically, but rather, what did the wine make us feel, and how they were different (in our novice opinion). It was the first time I'd ever been involved in a sensory exercise of the sort and from then on I knew this was my path. Not too long after that exercise, I signed up for my CMS Intro course. Furthermore, I would be remiss if I didn't mention my (now) good friend Mark (who works at Bergstrom Winery in Oregon) who quickly became my very first Mentor. I remember how polished he appeared as he maneuvered around the service floor, the refined way he interacted with guests and his overall fervor for wine. Most of all, I remember how welcoming he was to me, and how willing he was to share his vast knowledge with a random, 22-year-old new hire who wouldn't stop asking questions. So Mark if you're reading this, thank you!

Define your role and the tasks involved in your role.

As the Sommelier for LPM, it's my job to continuously keep track of all costs relating to our wine program, including by the glass, bottle inventory, standard pours, tasting menu pairings, etc. Coming from a strong history of being near leaders who became mentors, I also prioritize paying special attention to educating service staff (no matter what their title) and the next generation of aspiring Sommeliers. Finally, I consistently encourage our sommelier team to adhere to the prescribed etiquette as dictated by our immediate wine team and our restaurant concept as a whole.

What questions would you ask the restaurant owner before you plan your wine sales growth strategy?

When determining the blueprint of a new program or joining a new team, the first thing you should ask is to, "Describe to me the ethos of this program?" I believe this is the most important question you can ask, especially in a place like Las Vegas, where every shiny restaurant opening has a real chance to show how they are different than their shiny (but consistently busy and highly regarded) neighbor. What story are we trying to tell our guests? Are we trying to be a value program? Are we trying to lock in breadth and depth? Are we just trying to carry the hits, regardless of its compatibility with our cuisine? Are we a program that is looking to constantly evolve and remain at the apex of representing burgeoning wine regions? Are we just trying to maintain the concept that was instilled 15 years ago by a corporate wine director who is no longer with the program? Getting to know what's expected, and where we want to go will lay down the road map for how far you can take your program.

How can suppliers work with you to drive sales?

At the end of the day, suppliers have numbers they have to reach too. The best thing you can do is develop relationships with these people. We all know it's give and take. Take care of the people who take care of you, and vice versa. Always be a person of your word. If you promise a spot on the list, then follow up with that, and the deals will come to you in return. It's the symbiotic relationship that keeps us all moving forward.

Give us an example of a profitable wine program mentioning wines on your list and why you have them.

In Nevada, we don't have access to a variety of wines like, let's say, California might. A lot of times, you will see some of the same wines on your neighboring restaurant's list. Most of the time it's the staples (Silver Oak, Caymus, etc.). These are the wines that people are familiar with, but that are also on the list to satisfy those handful of customers who don't like to try new things and stick to what they know. In a city driven by tourists and conventions, these wines are here as a safety net to make sure that no matter what their adventure-seeking looks like, there's something here for everybody. However, there are moments when a guest, before having opened the wine list, mentions that some of the aforementioned wines are their absolute favorites. The conversation then usually goes one way, I offer those wines right up front, but additionally offer to suggest something new that they may have never had before, but is on par with the style/price and will offer them a new experience. The most important thing is to have wines on the list that represent a little bit of everybody, and those who maybe want to branch outside of their comfort zone too.

Let's dive deeper into your restaurant wine program. Break it down for us as to why certain elements were included in the wine menu and how these helped the bottom line.

As mentioned before, we keep some of the staples on our list. Interspersed amongst these titles, we keep some staples at prices that are specifically kept lower to entice our guests to buy them. To counter this, we may keep a slightly higher markup in other areas of the list (items we've received great deals on) and make up for the profit in that way. The guest feels like they're getting a deal, they will be more relaxed about their purchasing experience, and in turn, you gain their trust and loyalty. Also, our half-bottle program. Half bottles exist as a stepping stool to take guests to the next pricing bracket for, perhaps that two top who started with cocktails but only want that one perfect glass of wine to go with their entrees. While we do carry many options by the glass, the half-bottle program is meant to expand on a more luxurious or niche list of selections that can take our guests' experience (and PPA) to the next level. Finally, we do not list our options by price. When you list by price, you are almost guaranteeing that your guest stops at their max budget (which, in reality, might be anywhere up to 50+/- more). Allowing the guest to peruse the menu and the titles available without prices being in order, opens the door to an upsell opportunity, which can add up over your year.

What are the three main things you focus on daily in your role?

Three things I try to focus on would be: first and foremost, my initial greeting to the staff. While this may sound a little cliche, I can actually remember a handful of times I've walked into my restaurant preoccupied with something, and I'm greeted by a staff member with a warm hello and how it positively shifted my mood. I think it's imperative to make sure that the day starts with a genuine attitude towards those we work most closely with. Second, making sure that if there is a staff member who has specific questions about beverages, or has expressed interest in specific wines on our list, I make them feel heard. All it takes is a little sincerity to strengthen a team bond. Answering questions, however basic or complicated, makes employees feel like their curiosities are being taken seriously, makes them feel empowered, and that they are surrounded by people who care. As intimidating as a subject that wine and beverage can be, this is probably one of the most important things you can offer to your team. In return, you've earned yourself an ally on the floor who might be a little more dedicated to helping take care of the wine program (study the list, focus on upselling, pay more attention to handling stemware, etc.). Finally, the Third thing I try to focus most on would be trying to find a way to touch as many tables as possible, even if it has nothing to do with wine. Finding a way to interact with a table, and finishing the interaction with an introduction of yourself, not only lets the guest know "Hey, welcome to our restaurant, I've noticed you're here" but also, you've found a way to leave a lasting impression with the guest, without the pretense of just approaching them for a sale. The benefit here is that if the guest decides they do want to enjoy wine, they already trust your genuine nature because you've already said hello without an ulterior motive.

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

It's pretty simple. The price is one of the first things to take note of. The style the winemaker chose, but also, how it nestles itself in with the rest of the offerings on the list. Is it similar? Does it bridge the gap between two other offerings in that category? Or is it completely different and maybe a fun wine that will still have an audience, but also make the list a little more dynamic? At the last restaurant I worked at, we carried the Nestarec "Podfuck" and while it certainly is a unique wine, some guests ordered it for the novelty of its name and ended up enjoying the wine itself. I loved that we carried it because it was an easy way to provide an "in" with the guests who were intrigued by this wine and create more of a unique experience by discussing the producer, and varietals, and providing a more tailored experience. Also, if you're the type of person who gets a kick out of the name "Podfuck", then we're almost immediately going to have a connection anyway.

What is the difference between the role of a sommelier and a wine director?

If your sommelier doesn't feel empowered and like they can have some creative liberties on the list, then all the work you do as a director won't mean anything. Your sommelier is your ambassador, the person who is supposed to bridge the gap between the very technical act of ordering and crunching numbers and translate that into hospitality, which returns as profit. Sommeliers are, for the most part, very ambitious, proud, hard-working individuals. They want to be a part of a program they feel proud of and one that they can see as a part of themselves. It's the same mentality with making your staff members feel heard when they ask questions, you must make your sommelier feel as though they are being seen and heard too. What are their goals? What are their ambitions? What are their ideas with the list? Find out what you can do to lift your team because that investment costs nothing and will reap a monetary reward. Wine directors' responsibilities are to make the list a profitable reality and find a way to create a dynamic list, all while doing their best to find the balance with making sure their sommelier team feels as though they have a purpose as well. You have to have the ability to step back, and look at the program from a holistic standpoint, and decide if the list represents your restaurant, your team, but also satisfies the bottom line.

Define a good sommelier and what qualities you would look for when hiring one.

The most important thing to look for in a sommelier, and I can't stress this enough, is a humble attitude and an openness about what one does not know. I'm not saying that if you have those things, you will get hired, but without those things, you are in for an uphill battle. A good sommelier shows attentiveness to the well-being of the program, shows a genuine interest in the hospitality aspect of their role (even if it doesn't always involve wine), and takes the initiative to build the team up. The staff should be meticulous, genuine, and steady in their approach to all day-to-day operations.

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

Generally speaking, I like to look at the variety of wines offered, and the prices of wines listed. How readily available they are in the area? What those costs would entail if I were trying to order directly to my doorstep ( ordering, shipping, etc.)? With all of this information at our fingertips, building a reputation for having fair wine prices, is a quick way to ensure that you're building regulars from their first visit. Additionally, make sure the message we're trying to send with this list, is abundantly clear. Are we a French restaurant with a majority of French wines? are we a steakhouse with a little bit of everything? The idea is to maximize the exposure of wines on the list that are good for the bottom line, compliment the cuisine as best as possible, and also make the guests feel as though there is something for them specifically. If you have a list full of esoteric wines from the deep corners of every country, then that's a sure way to alienate your guests and make them feel as though they don't belong, or that they just won't be returning.

How according to you has the role of the sommelier evolved, especially now during Covid times?

In the era of COVID-19, I always found/find it wild to think that so many sommeliers lost their jobs first. The one person on the floor who can perform every function of the restaurant FOH was the first to go. I would have thought that in a time like COVID-19, some would be most protected for that reason alone. You have an individual who's trained in service, has most likely served or held at least two other positions in FOH, and understands the art of the sale. To me, that would've been a no-brainer. However, now that we are post-COVID, I think that we're in a place where it's more important than ever to highlight the hospitality aspect of the sommelier role. The perception of value is of utmost importance, we must find a way to make a connection with as many guests as possible and provide an elevated experience above what the server is offering. One of my favorite dining experiences was when Nomad Los Angeles opened. I went in for dinner with my partner at the time, and everybody from the bus person to the server, to the same, and the host was so engaging and welcoming, that at the end of the night, we forgot who was our primary caretaker to begin with. I'll never forget how many connections were made with at least one person from every job description. I don't even remember what I ate that night, but I remember how I felt about the experience.

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

I love to see sommeliers who have worked their way up from super casual restaurants to fine(r) dining. Also, sommeliers who started as a bus person or maybe a host. These are the sommeliers who are usually the most effective on the floor due to their experience in so many different facets of service. The ability to relate and connect to your coworkers and guests from every walk of life is the sign of a great sommelier. The more dynamic the better. When you can tap into the personality of the table, you can deliver a tailored experience to every guest who walks into the building. Are these guests more traditional? Are they looking for a new experience? Are they looking for a polished service? Do they want you to "hang out" with them and chat? A sommelier who can "hang out" with one table while talking about a skin contact white wine, and deliver just as much enthusiasm to the table next to them drinking the Corton Charlemagne, and also simultaneously be aware of the empty water glasses that need to be filled and replace the linen that fell on the floor. That is a great sommelier.

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Your favorite places to enjoy great wine in London?

Noble Rot and Le Beaujolais

What's the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is getting to meet so many people in my day-to-day. I've tried the desk job life before and I just wasn't built for it. Being in the service industry allows me to experience so many incredible things. Also, the travel. The travel is what balances out the long shifts and difficult guests. Travel is the reward and always reminds me why I do what I do, how lucky I am to walk this path, and how privileged I am to be a part of such a wonderful wine community worldwide

What's the worst part of your job?

I had to wait to answer this question last! I really couldn't think of anything truly negative about my job. There are the difficult guests, long nights, and holidays spent away from loved ones. I'd have to say those are still the biggest negatives to the job.

If you had to pick one red and one white wine as your personal best, which wines would they be?

I love a good Cab Franc and Chenin Blanc. I like to think they're still under the radar. maybe a little? I'm a pyrazine lover through and through and also really love the way that chenin shows itself in its different iterations. I mostly love Chinon, but there are a couple of Cab Francs even from Napa that don't overdo the fruit and still have ample pyrazines coming through.

Any favorite food and wine pairing suggestions for London drinks enthusiasts?

One of my absolute favorite pairings right now is a glass of Sancerre with our Duck a l'orange. We confit our duck so it's super tender and decadent, but still manage to keep a wonderfully textured, crispy skin. All of this is finished in a bright, acidic, citrusy l'orange sauce. Paired with the tropical notes and bright acid of the Sancerre is just perfection. The acid assists in cutting through the richness of duck meat, the cool temp of white wine refreshes the palate, and the tropical notes bring everything together with the l'orange sauce.

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