How Wine Changed My Life
This is just a little background to how I became a Buyer, Consultant and Connoisseur of all things liver damaging.
I was never a good student when it came to academics, sitting down in a classroom and reading books was never my thing. I worked construction in my younger years and it was in this time of my life that I learned something about myself, I learn more when I am working. I am a hands on kind of guy and the more I get involved with it on a regular basis the better I am at retaining information.
At the age of 22, I didn’t have a job, and I was looking for anything that could cover my bills and allow me to go out with friends. There was an ad on Craigslist for a restaurant opening and they needed staff. With no experience, I was skeptical, but interviewed anyways. Let’s just say, walking into an interview with a crappy resume and no experience in the field, I was sure to get the most entry level job, but at that point I would take anything. Uproot, easily the most important job I have ever had, it has been the portal that has lead to so many opportunities.
Between the GM at the time Jon Ross, and Exec Chef Anthony Bucco, I learned that food and service is an art, a theatrical performance as they would call it. At this point I wasn’t focused on beverage, but I was willing to learn, and at a point, I was able to tend bar on Monday nights, where I learned how to make a cocktail and a little about wine. What I did best though was service. I had to be the best at giving the best service on the floor, precision was everything. Perfection was required and while mistakes were made, I knew mine were minimal. The last thing I learned is how important work relationships are. We were like a family at Uproot, because of that, we had our arguments once in a while, but there was NEVER a point where we didn’t have each others backs. To this day, the Uproot Family I had are still some of my closest friends, and honestly a good hand full of them are doing INCREDIBLE things in the industry. Executive Chefs, Head Sommeliers, Chopped Winners, and General Managers, we knew there was nothing stopping us then, and there is nothing stopping us now.
My obsession with perfection in service landed me an interview at Elements in Princeton, which I think is the best meal I have ever had outside of NYC. 15+ courses, made by some of the most impressive cooks I knew, with an amazing wine list and even more precise service standards. While it took some time to settle in, I was overwhelmed by how much I learned about sourcing great product, how important it is for the ability of a chef to implement those products, and the element of surprise. Scott Anderson is an absolute mastermind, changing the menu on a daily basis and keeping me on my feet. The looks on people’s faces when they tasted his food is priceless. I even remember a time when a corporate group did a dinner, they were having a good time, and we hinted that they were eating Lamb Testicles. They weren’t but their reactions were hilarious. The most valuable thing I learned about how Scott ran his kitchen is the trust he has in his cooks. While it is his kitchen, I would say at that time maybe half of the Menu had his dishes while the other half were his pupils. Every day he tested his cooks, and every day they succeeded. He was able to put such an impression on his cooks, that they started creating food that felt like they were Scott’s dishes. I took this to heart, and now as a leader in my career, I try to make an impression on everyone underneath me and push the people around me to become better at their jobs. Side note on this part of my experience, Mattias, if you read this, I owe you an insane amount of gratitude. Your precision and passion for cocktails is something that drives me every day. I have never met someone who had the ability to walk into a garden and walk out with a drink as good as you. If it wasn’t for what you taught me, I wouldn’t have the knowledge and appreciation of spirits that I have today. I also wouldn’t have the confidence to tell 99% of the mixologists out there that I meet that I can make a better cocktail than them.
My time at Elements was short, I wish it was longer, but unfortunately an opportunity came earlier than I expected. The opportunity to work in Manhattan. The place I knew I had to work if I ever wanted to make something of myself in the restaurant industry. If you get NYC fine dining experience, you can go into any city on the planet and find a job. When talking to Jon Ross (Uproot Family), who at the time was working at Oceana then later became Sommelier at Eleven Madison Park in NY, he told me one of his mentors Laura Maniec was opening a wine bar in Union Square. I had a decision to make, keep doing what I am doing and maybe becoming a restaurant manager one day, or focus on a specific field in the restaurant and possibly get out of them if I get sick of them. After Googling Laura, I find out she is the youngest female to pass the Master Sommelier Exam and is an All Star in wine. I drove in the city to interview, where I was asked a series of wine questions that I pretty much had no real answer for. I actually said a New World Viognier would pair well with west coast oysters. I look back and laugh at my ignorance. The next 3 years of my life, were incredible. The amount of knowledge I got from Corkbuzz Wine Studio was a blessing. This is where my addiction to wine began. Learning the regions, learning the grapes, tasting 25 wines everyday, and being around people that all have the same goal… being able to blind taste better than anyone else! (Inside joke?)
These 3 years of taking buses, trains, and driving in and out of the city were some of the busiest and most hectic times of my life. I would go into the city, eat lunch, go to work, leave work, drink wine, drink beer, bus home, stop at griddle, play pool, make it home and finally go to bed. I took the commute going into the city to study and listen to music, took the commute home to to release all the tension built up from a BUSY service.This is also where I built a circle of friends strictly in the wine business. While we were all there to work for Laura, we became super close and I can call, text, or message any of my colleagues, and they will get back to me with an answer. There are so many connections I made that I still use today with distributors, importers, winemakers, sommeliers, wine directors and just friends to go get a drink with. The times at Corkbuzz were priceless and I will look back and think, I can’t believe that one of my bartenders makes wine in California and the other one is sitting his Masters Exam, my human encyclopedia was on TV next to my first GM at Uproot on Uncorkd, my Sister (I say this because we had our ups and downs but in the end, I think we understood each other and there was nothing but passion behind our differences. Stacey, you know what I am talking about!) owns her own restaurant and I am sure is one of the leading wine professionals in Portland Oregon, Hilldog wrote a book and the 18 year old bus boy is now leads salesman for one of the biggest Portuguese importers in the country. Absolutely Impressive!
After my time at Corkbuzz I had the opportunity to bring back my skills into NJ with the opening on Jockey Hollow Bar and Kitchen in Morristown, NJ. Opening up a 3 floor, multi-concept restaurant was an experience. Lots of grunt work, training, and time went into that place and in the end I learned a lot not only about myself but about the industry. While I made it through the winter, I think we had different views about the restaurant. Chris Cannon is an animal and I am glad we left on good terms, for one, he still has some incredible insight in the wine industry, and two, Jockey Hollow is top notch when it comes to food. I now live in Morristown and I love to go there. I have to give one MAJOR shout out in this part of my career and that is to Cody Blihar. I am glad you left that shitty place in Pittstown where they told you to shake Manhattans and said that I was wrong. You have proven to be one of the elite when it comes to creating and making cocktails, and now you have the credit, being named Best Bar Program by New Jersey Monthly.
I took a summer off, took a job as the GM of a restaurant in town, the owner and I didn’t see eye to eye on how he ran his business, not because it was shady, just because we had different opinions on what people want. I respect that and I walked away. That is when Wine Library came along.
During my time off, I was at my friends wedding and his brother (Gary Vaynerchuk) asked me if I would want to work at the Wine Library. That fall I became a floor consultant, helping people through the holiday. Working “Brandon, Justin Hours” which was every day, 7 days a week, 12 hour days. I was into the hustle, and even more into being involved in one of the largest wine retailers in the country. That spring things fell into place where I became a wine buyer for the store and online, then I became of the sales team. Now I manage on the floor, I am involved in all buying, and I work with private clients and their wine collections. This is an angle that I wasn’t used to. In restaurants all of the trust on the right wine was on me, in this job it is what the customer wants. You want that 40 year old Bordeaux? Let me call France, and see if I can get it for you. In the short two years I have been there, I have learned more about business and marketing than I could have ever imagined. Learning that Northern Rhone Syrah is not as cool to the general public as I think it is was devastating, but what are you going to do? The most important thing that I have learned though is that dedication and passion is everything. I come into work on a mission to find people the best wine on the planet. That is my job and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Now I am involved with beer, my second favorite thing to drink, and it just keeps getting better and better.
Everyday I come to work, taking the little things from every job I have worked, every person I have worked with, and every experience I have ever had in hospitality to go forward in my career. Now I will be writing, blogging, and sharing my experiences with you! You want to know what it is like to be The Bearded Wine Guy? Follow me and you shall find out!