Sommelier Business

Educating Sommeliers Worldwide.

By Beverage Trade Network



Marc Kauffman - a View From the Top

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07/01/2020 Marc Kauffman is a wine industry consultant, certified sommelier, cellar master and wine project management.

Combining knowledge of the top with experience of working from the bottom - and the power of the spirit of hospitality and providing good value for money.

Where did you start your wine education?

MK – You could say I started “at the top”. I was fortunate to attend a year of University in Bordeaux. My first wine tasting experiences were first growth wines. I could see the vineyards of Chateau Haut Brion out of the window of my dorm room! I was inspired to learn about wine from that time on. I have worked in practically every major wine producing region of the world.

Is the role of sommelier confined to just wine?

MK – In order to become a Certified Sommelier or advance further with the Guild of Master Sommeliers you have to know about spirits and cigars as well as wine. In addition, you must know about table service. While the primary assignment is wine, other beverage areas are included.

Which are the most important characteristics that go to make a good sommelier?

MK – First of all, the most important thing is to have the hospitality spirit. If you don’t like people don’t get into this business! An effective sommelier combines many attributes. In addition to wine knowledge, I studied acting, worked as a server for several years, and learned to account. While attaining my sommelier certifications (I have four) I worked as a waiter, catering manager then food and beverage director for a large hotel chain, Director of Beverage Operations and Purchasing for a large restaurant chain, then several years in the wine distribution business prior to managing one of the largest wine brands in California. I have worked on two television shows about wine as well.

What’s your view on wine closures?

MK – Research has shown consumers don’t make wine choices based on closures! Most consumers don’t know the technical information about the screw cap vs the cork controversy and they don’t care. As long as the wine tastes good and is a perceived value that gets the bottle sold in a restaurant. Personally, I have direct experience with technical aspects of wine closures as I am a consultant for a large producer of screw caps. Many customers enjoy the ceremony of having the cork pulled and it can be entertaining when done correctly. But the risk is always there of potentially having a bad (corked) bottle of wine. One thing about screwcaps you will never have a corked bottle resulting from the closure. For me, young white and rose wines and some reds are better sealed with screwcaps. And of course, the service is a bit faster when you are having a busy night. But since globally only about 30% of all wines are closed with screw caps, we will have corks with us for the foreseeable future. So as a sommelier we need to be able to successfully open any bottle be it a cork-sealed wine or a screw cap.

The role the wine glass plays…

MK - Wow is this an overhyped category! I think George Reidel is one of the smartest guys in the wine business (actually the wine glass business) today! He has actually managed to convince people that some wines taste better in different shaped glasses! And he is right but it’s a very subtle difference. And his glasses are so fragile they are not really useful in a restaurant setting unless it’s a Michelin 3-star place! A good all-purpose wine glass, at least 8-ounce capacity with the large rounded bowl is a perfect glass for most restaurant wine service.

How do you build your list-what are your influences: There are 2 major influences on building a successful wine list?

MK - Establishing a mix between some well-known (but not discount supermarket) wines the consumer will recognize and some lesser known “adventurous” selections.

Making sure the wines coordinate with the food! As a sommelier, it is important to work with the chef to maximize and enhance the guest’s dining experience by making sure there is a harmony of wines and food selections.

The bottom line is to create a wine list that sells! The primary assignment of any sommelier is to sell wine! Too many sommeliers get lost in the arcane, esoteric impossible to pronounce grape varieties and lose sight of the fact that if the wine program is not profitable for the restaurant they will be out of a job! I look to as many sources as possible. The wine must be readily available from a local source, distributor or broker. Trade tastings are a great help to make new finds. Having producers on the list that are authentic and have a story to tell is helpful.

What are your views about sulfites, and natural/organic wines – does the health lobby ever win over taste in your choices?

MK - Sulfites, natural/organic wines: From a winemaking point of view it is practically impossible to produce good wine that will last any length of time without using sulfites. I have yet to taste a “Pet-Nat” wine that is any good! If a customer actually has a sulfite allergy (a very small percent of the population) they know not to drink wine at all as sulfites are a natural result of fermentation. No wine is sulfite free. Wines can be made without added sulfur but I stay away from those.

What makes a good wine producer?

MK - Is this a trick question? A good wine producer is someone who makes good wines! They can be large or small, families or large companies. A better question for a sommelier is “What makes an interesting wine producer?” I look first at the way the wine tastes, second at the cost and third at the story/producer. A good wine producer has proven he or she can supply consistently high-quality wines vintage after vintage. So, reputation has an influence too.

How do you find new star wines and wineries?

MK - I travel to Europe once or twice a year, especially valuable is the Prowein show in Dusseldorf each year. I travel extensively in California and Oregon/Washington areas as there is so much new production there. You have to be pro-active and search out new options. Just waiting for your local distributor to make presentations is not the answer!

How do you establish pricing on your list?

MK - I want above all else for my customers to feel they are receiving good value for the money they are spending. As much as this is important it is equally important for the beverage program to be profitable for the restaurant. The high volume of sales results in higher gross revenues and that’s what keeps the door open. I hate gouging high markups on wine! Here are some basic pricing guidelines that will work to increase most wine list sales:

Know the retail price for the bottles in your market. Double it on wines that cost $6-$20.

For example, if a Cotes-du-Rhone form Jaboulet costs the restaurant $9.00 per bottle, in a local retailer the price would most likely be about $18. Double it. So, the list price would be $36.00. I also add a $1.00 commission to each bottle that I bank and use for in-house bottle promotions. So $37.00 price on the list. This is $28.00 profit per bottle or 77% gross profit on the sale. At $37.00 per bottle, I can sell a case a night at least. With more expensive bottles I use a straight 50% markup and add the $1.00 for the commission. So, a wine that costs $28.00 would sell on the list for $57.00. I have learned through experience it is better to sell more bottles of wine at lower margins than sit on high priced inventory!

The only exception that would demand higher markups is where real estate is really expensive. San Francisco and New York City for example. However, there can still be creative, effective pricing strategies that will entice the customers and make profits for the house.

Also, an effective profit tool is the development of a custom label wine program. This, however, takes experience in other areas such as buying and blending bulk wine, having bottling contacts and creating label designs. This requires specialized knowledge that goes beyond the experience of many sommeliers today.

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