Sommeliers: A rare vintage

Posted by Keith Wallace

The story was originally published by the Philadelphia Inquirer on October 19, 2006.

It takes real devotion to work as a wine steward/manager in the Philadelphia restaurant scene, and not many make a living at it

Author: Karen Heller

Michael McCaulley is a successful Philadelphia sommelier, which means he makes more than $70,000 annually working three jobs and almost 70 hours a week under conditions that, at times, would seem risible anywhere else in the nation.

“From a restaurant standpoint, it’s archaic how we buy wine,” McCaulley says of operating in a state where the sole seller is the beloved Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. He’s beverage director at Tria, the popular Rittenhouse Square wine bar; sommelier at Northern Italian steak restaurant Davio’s; and co-owner of Tria Fermentation School, which opened this week and offers classes and wine tastings.

“I usually spend $5,000 to $10,000 each week for both restaurants, and I have to wait in line at the State Store as if I were buying a fifth of Jack Daniel’s,” says McCaulley, 31, a sommelier of nine years.
In a thriving restaurant culture with hundreds of white-tablecloth establishments, there are only about a dozen people making a living as sommeliers.

In the last decade, Philadelphia became a BYOB mecca as many chefs couldn’t bother with the bottles. Liquor licenses can be punitive. Taxes are high. Costs are considerable. Restaurants basically pay retail, same as consumers, whereas elsewhere in competitive markets they pay wholesale.

Sommeliers from Striped Bass and Le Bec-Fin decamped to New York. The Moore brothers, Greg and Dave, began as Le Bec-Fin sommeliers and general managers (it’s common practice to perform both duties), before building a wine empire that circles the state (New Jersey, Delaware, now Manhattan) like tanks around a DMZ. Evan Lambert, co-owner of Savona in Gulph Mills, moved his three-year-old Star Wine Competition to Manhattan. The event, featuring 65 international sommeliers judging 2,000 wines, takes place this week.

The “sommelier community here is lively and dedicated, thriving despite adversity, like the arts under Stalin,” says MO, a local authority making a living cobbled together from several jobs as consultant and educator. “I feel needed here at least partly because things are a challenge by the restaurant community, the wine trade, and, especially, by the public.”

In the last few years, wine has made a comeback of sorts, perhaps because it’s been off the menu at so many places for so long.
Tria and Vintage, another Center City wine bar, opened along with Amada and Ansill, which offer thoughtful lists of wine by the glass and a diverse array of beers. Several restaurants feature serious cellars, among them Meritage, La Famiglia, Vetri, XIX Nineteen, Le Bec-Fin, and, with 1,100 different wines, Savona. Venerable Ristorante Panorama in Old City has a Cruvinet that offers 120 wines by the glass.

At the five-year-old Wine School of Philadelphia, located in Fairmount, 60 students are taking sommelier courses, even though director Keith Wallace decries the profession as “the worst position on the face of the earth. At most places, they’re glorified restaurant managers, talked down to and condescended to.”

Beverage managers, responsible for all libations served, make “marginal income,” between $30,000 and $40,000 after long hours, Wallace says, “at the very top, you can make $60,000 to $80,000,” but the hours are punishing. “The wine industry itself is an amazing place to work,” Wallace says. He directs students to industry positions, advertising for a large wine company, importing, running portfolios for distributors all offering the possibility of better pay, travel, nights and weekends off. (Contrary to assumptions, there are import and distribution jobs in Pennsylvania, but only one buyer.)

Despite all the challenges of dealing with a monopoly, restaurants can turn excellent profits selling wine. True, a mixed drink represents a 500 percent markup, but wine by the bottle generally sells at three times the cost and, by the glass at wine-centric establishments, can represent a 400 percent profit. The first glass poured can pay for almost the entire bottle.

In New York and other states where competition flourishes, independent distributors deliver to restaurants while passing on a significant wholesale discount. In Pennsylvania, restaurants pay almost the same price as retail consumers, though there’s movement in Harrisburg to waive the markup on special liquor orders.

Restaurants which get virtually everything else delivered to the premises must make arrangements for alcohol, paying bonded drivers, another expense. Last month, when an underground Center City electrical fire caused gridlock, McCaulley and a colleague had to hand-cart $8,000 worth of wine for two hours, making nine trips.

Vodka is forever. It can be stored anywhere and served in a shot glass. Wine, an agriculture product with a rich tradition, needs to be stored properly, handled delicately, served correctly in proper stemware and tossed out if it turns. Corks rot. Wines go bad. “One in 10 bottles can spoil,” Old says. Good stemware runs $12 a glass and up at Savona. Lambert has 600 glasses washed and hand-polished daily, while spending $7,500 annually on replacements.

“It’s extraordinarily challenging for restaurants. The market is not warm and fuzzy,” Old says. “To craft and maintain a terrific wine program here takes fire in the belly and determination.”

The city’s most successful restaurateur, Stephen Starr, has said his empire is “all about chicks and vodka,” with wine remaining an afterthought at all but a few of his 12 local establishments. When Starr required recent wine list adjustments at his New York outposts of Buddakan and Morimoto, he turned to Old.

A veteran of a dozen years, Old worked at Striped Bass, Rouge and Chanterelle before launching Old Wines in 2001. She created the wine program at Ansill in Queen Village and Ferdinand in Northern Liberties, teaches wine at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, and designs private and fund-raising tasting events through her company and Web site, (She will host a German beer-and-art event at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Nov. 3). orecently signed to write a he said/she said, beer/wine book with Sam Calagione, owner of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del.

A good sommelier never pushes, only suggests. He “doesn’t try to sell anything,” McCaulley says. “You facilitate what the person really wants.”
When dining is an event, four diners might order four different entrees to experience the menu, a challenge for any sommelier to match. Large wine lists aren’t easy to manage. “It’s stressful looking over a huge menu. Even people who know wine can look at that list and feel stupid,” o says. That’s why restaurants are promoting half bottles, novel wines by the glass, and chef’s menus paired with recommended glasses.

The sommelier is “the link between the wine and the customer. Every wine has a dream, a story, and the sommelier is there to deliver the message,” Lambert says. “We suggest that the customer picks the wine first, then we recommend the food.” To bring in customers, Savona has $15 wine tastings from 5:30 to 7 p.m. most Fridays with sommelier Filiberto Magnati.

The job can have hidden benefits. At Davio’s, McCaulley received a $50 tip on a $45 bottle of Salviano Orvieto Classico, which cost the restaurant $16.

Tria offers 26 wines by the glass, a comprehensive beer list, and no hard liquor. When the cafe opened two years ago, the very first customer walked in and ordered a martini.

“Then he walked right out,” McCaulley recalls, “when I couldn’t help him.”

Despite that inauspicious beginning, the time ripened for wine. The Tria Fermentation School has opened (for more information, consult In February, McCaulley and Joel Meyerow, a beer authority, are set to open another Tria, at 12th and Spruce, because the city could use another wine bar.

“Like Starbucks, kind of,” he says with a wink.

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