The Feats of a South Beach Somm
by Lisa Elbert, Tastemaker in Residence
Every city throws its own special kind of curve balls at sommeliers. South Beach—home to Art Decco, bottle service culture, g-strings, and throngs of vacationers—is no exception. From an outsider's perspective, Advanced Sommelier Daniel Toral is in an enviable position: he oversees the beverage program of Yardbird, a bustling, fully staffed restaurant where business barely slows down in Florida's sweltering summer months. But those crowds bring their own set of challenges.
Much of Yardbird's business is driven by tourism—and not the kind looking for esoteric wine selections. Plus, there's enough money floating around on South Beach that front-of-housers can score a serious wad of cash at the end of each night without devoting themselves to wine education. Auctions are off limits, too.
None of that stops Toral from putting together a compelling wine list and introducing his (albeit transient) clientele to the wines he loves. It just takes planning, perseverance, and a little tableside pushing. Here are some of the wines Toral fought for—and won.
Restriction: Educating staff
Wine: Barbera d'Asti, Marchesi di Gresy, Piedmont, Italy, 2013
Solution: Keep at it with tastings
"Adding new wines by the glass that are not your 'standard' wines by the glass is always a challenge for the staff. Yardbird is an American concept. When I added the Barbera from Marchesi, it took me two staff trainings to convince the staff how well the wine worked with our food. The most challenging part was explaining how the naturally elevated acid of the Barbera actually made the food taste better."
Restriction: Distributor inventory
Wine: Zinfandel, 'Cobb Vineyard,' Turley, Amador County, California, 2013
Solution: Stock up on favorites and by-the-glass selections
"Yardbird is such a busy restaurant, with no space to store anything on-site, adding a wine by the glass requires a lot of planning, and making sure the distributor can stock the wine for at least three months without running out of it. Sometimes I have to wait for a couple of months so the distributor can order the wine for us before I print the menus. Inventory is also an issue with small production wines; Turley wines have had a following for so many years that everyone fights to get a hold of them. I have to buy a few cases in advance to ensure I will have enough to run the wine for a month or two."
Restriction: Distribution constraints
Wine: Grower Champagne
Solution: Price to sell
"Champagne is a very challenging category. Consumers only look for brand names with a lot of recognition, and the distributors stock and push them. So when it comes to small growers, it is extremely hard to sell the wines, and you have to under-price them so they sell. I look for great producers, and knowing they will be slow movers and won't affect my cost of goods sold, I mark them with very low margins to encourage people to try new wines."
Wine: Riesling Spatlese, 'Meddersheimer,' Hexamer, Nahe, Germany, 1999
Solution: Bring it to the table blind
"We have such a transient clientele that it's hard to educate them on things outside the norm, like aged German Riesling. I have tried to sell the Hexamer for a long time now, and no one understands how well the wine ages or how well it works with our menu. After tasting the staff on the wine, we tried pushing it, but still, no one got it. So I use it when someone asks me for menu pairings. Instead of telling the guest what they are getting, I pour it when the food hits the table and make them taste it, side by side."