Welcome back to Staff Spotlight: a monthly series where we’re digging deeper into the minds behind the magic. Just like you need to have your fishmonger and a local butcher, we think you’ve also got to have a wine guy. Thank goodness for our vino extraordinaire & wine director, Jeff Porter!
Where are you from? I’m originally born in Webster, Texas, which is south of Houston. But I was raised outside of Dallas and then I went to the University of Texas in Austin. I’m a Longhorn, so I bleed orange.
Did you always want to get into the wine business? My degree is in nutritional biochemistry. My whole goal was to go into medical school and study to be a doctor, but I veered off after a little while. The idea of being able to solve problems for people and fix them was intriguing. I liked doing that and I still like doing that today, especially in management, but wine just hit me in a very visceral level.
It’s interesting because today the wine scene has obviously become more in the intelligentsia. Food people and young people know about sommeliers. I’m not that old, but I graduated from college in ’99. I started working in wine in ’98 and I didn’t know much about it. I just did it as a hobby because it was something to do and I got free alcohol all throughout college. I did it because I liked it, but you got paid very little money to work in a wine shop.
Why do you feel so passionate about wine? Unfortunately, or fortunately, I kind of have lots of different passions. Wine encompassed art, science, history, geography, geology, cultural studies, language, and it all revolves around a commonality that a lot of people around the world enjoy. It was an easy way to start a conversation and an easy way to introduce myself to people. It was fun and people were convivial about it. You could see how happy people were and you could bring strangers together.
Being a people person and a crowd pleaser, wine enabled me to create that. Now I’ve been able to build on that experience from a retail level to a restaurant level and now at a managerial level.
Were your parents wine drinkers? Growing up I was fortunate enough to travel a lot with my parents and I would always see them with a bottle of wine on the table. They weren’t collectors or anything but they enjoyed wine. Be it box wine or a really fancy wine they just liked whatever was there.
How long have you been in wine in NYC? I have a circuitous route to New York. So first in Texas, I started my wine career at a grocery store called Central Market, which is a high-end grocery store in Austin, started in Houston. I started as a box boy and it was a really good learning experience and fresh starting ground because I didn’t really know anything going in. I just knew that I liked it and the people I worked with pushed me and gave me things to learn every day at work. All I did was stock the wine for them, not sell. After a while I did eventually start selling wine.
I did that for two years, working at the wine shop. Then I decided I needed to do something altruistic so I applied for Teach for America. I got in and it took me to Los Angeles. I loved LA. MY wife is from there and it’s actually where I met her. So I did Teach for America for two years but I missed wine and so I moved to San Francisco and the Bay Area and I started working in wine there.
I also worked in Napa Valley and then, in 2009, I got a call from some people who ran this restaurant Osteria Mozza (WINK!) in Los Angeles. I was like I’ve heard of Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton! So I interviewed and got the job there as wine director. I was there for just eighteen months when Joe Bastianich called me up and said he wanted me at Del Posto. That was in 2011.
Do you still have to work your way up the ladder today? That’s how it started back in the day. Now people come in and they just automatically want to be wine directors. Just like I think people watch Mario and any famous chef and think they want to run a restaurant group. It’s the same thing and it’s good and bad. It gets people excited about it and we’re getting a lot of great people but it also sort of distorts the reality of what we’re doing as an industry.
We’re in the middle of Passover. Any drinkable kosher wines out there? Everyone forgets that Israel is on the Mediterranean. They’ve been growing wine there for thousands of years. Technology has helped wines get better in a lot of regions, but in Israel the wineries closer to the coast make really great places to grow wines. There are some good kosher wines in the states as well.
What is your favorite winery abroad? Italy. By far. I love Piemonte; that’s where my heart and soul is, but I love all of Italy. The thing that drew me to our restaurant group and the thing I love about what I do here in the restaurants is that Mario and Joe allow us to bring the innate nature and conviviality of the Italian table at every level. Be it Otto at a very casual level, or Del Posto, very formal, we still have a singularity of Italian passion and it’s a very different style of service than you’d find in a very formal French restaurant. That’s the thing I love about the Italian table. It’s all about family, it’s about friends, it’s about exuding that dolce vita, the good life. Even though I’m not Italian at all, it’s in my heart.
When did you have your first great wine? The wine that really changed it all for me was my first bottle of Billecart-Salmon Brut Rose Champagne. I remember I was going to a party and I had just started working at the wine shop. One of the wine stewards there told me to pick a bottle out from a case in her car. I had seen this champagne on the shelf and I knew it was expensive, so I grabbed it. I just remember having a great experience at the party with this bottle of champagne. I really love champagne. It’s Barolo and champagne that are the two things I cannot live without.
Red or white? I don’t lean one way or another. For me it is more determinant upon my mood, what I’m eating, the people. Wine for me, there’s not black or white, or even red, white or pink. It’s whatever I feel like drinking and whatever I’m having for dinner or lunch or breakfast.
Can you discover anything about a person from their choice of wine? I think you can to a certain extent. The whole adage “you can never judge a book by its cover” is true because I am always surprised by individuals. The key in hospitality and the nature of the business that we do is that you just never really know.
Is there a wine on the list that you most recommend? Wines people generally gravitate toward here at Del Posto are generally from Piemonte or Tuscany because those are the two most famous wine regions. The wine list at Del Posto is built around those two regions, so that’s where we have most depth on the list. For me, it all depends on what the guest is asking for. If you’re asking for “x” I am going to steer you towards “x, y and z.” I don’t just have one I throw out every time because it’s such a big wine list here. The thing that’s super cool about our restaurant group is that even at Lupa, we have six hundred wine selections, which is ridiculous. It provides all of the sommeliers so many tools to provide the guest with what their needs are.
What is your ultimate pairing? It would have to be aged Barolo and brasato. So any hunk of meat that’s been braised for a long amount of time in a red wine sauce and a Barolo is the best. It’s not very good when it’s warm out, but when it’s cold it’s the best.
Do you have a successful hangover cure? Not anymore, unfortunately. I have just decided that as I’ve gotten older, it hurts so bad to have a hangover now. It’s absolutely miserable. I take two Aspirin before I go to bed and drink lots of water. So, if you if you find the cure, let me know.
What wine will people be talking about in five years? There are definitely trends in wine. I’m hanging my hat on Eastern European wines becoming hot. It’s twenty years post the fall of the Iron Curtain and all those countries had pretty dynamic wine growing histories before Communism. With the nationalization of all those wineries, quality went down. Now with privatization, we’re seeing more investment and qualities going up. I think there are really interesting varietals that aren’t really known outside of those regions. I think sommeliers are always looking for something new and unique and something besides “x, y, and z.” I’m a bit of a classist and enjoy staying in that “x, y and z,” but I always do like dabbling in an esoteric nature.
Any tips for the wine novice? The prettier the label, the better the wine is… I’m just kidding! I think my recommendation is always to go to your local wine shop that has an actual person there. Don’t go to the bodega or grocery store, but take time to go to a reputable wine shop. You may have to spend a few extra dollars but you’re going to get an exponentially higher quality of wine. Ergo, it’s a better experience for you. Knowing what you dislike in a beverage is just as important as what you do like. That way you can describe what you don’t like in wines: too dry or too sour maybe. Those are really good things to tell a retailer or sommelier so that they can provide you with what you’re looking for. Then, you have to be open to some experimentation. When you try that wine come back to that person and it’s going to be trial and error. Buying wine is a relationship business and going back and forth to that person until you build that trust is when you’ll really get what you want.
How often do you have to stock your inventory? We order wines all the time and we do inventory once a month. It’s huge and daunting. I spend at least half the month just doing inventory in my new role. As I manage it, I talk with all the head sommeliers about what is good and what is bad. We discuss where they need to improve and how. It’s a different level and it’s helping me grow my professional career in understanding the true business side of what we do.
Ice in your wine – yes or no? If the weather is really, really hot outside and the wine is warm, I’ll put an ice cube in my wine. Would I do it at a restaurant like Babbo or Del Posto? No, because the wines here are at the proper temperature. I don’t think I’ve ever done it outside either though because I’ve never let it get warm enough. I drink pretty quickly.
As a manager, what advice do you give to your team? My biggest advice in hospitality is there are no supermen or superwomen. Everyone needs help, so never be to prideful to ask for it. That’s extremely important because at the end of the day, the only person who suffers when you’re trying to be superman is the guest, the person we’re trying to take care of. So you cannot do it all and it’s important to have that staff surrounding you with support and to be the manager who gives that support back. If my staff needs help I am there for them either in the background or the forefront. Whatever they need from me I try to provide.
Now that my role has changed and I am working at more of the restaurants, I really like trying to be a mentor. I am still trying to develop my own understanding of what that means, but I like bouncing ideas off of other people. I like seeing their insight. The hardest thing when you move from one position to another is to let go of control. So it’s nice for me to let go of certain things and see a wine program through someone else’s eyes, and then for me to help shape that to further the goal of Mario and Joe. Ultimately it’s to further the idea of what Italian food and wine mean in New York City. Also, to see it through the eyes of someone young and excited takes some of my jaded, old man visions away. It’s invigorating and it’s inspiring.
Do you often interact with Mario and Joe? I work really closely with our operations director, Jason Denton, more so than Mario and Joe on a day-to-day basis. They have to be the big picture guys as CEO’s and I’m more of a medium picture person in my position. I’m looking at the year in chunks, not what’s going to happen in two years from now.
What do your business trips to Italy entail? I was recently there for Vinitaly, which is the biggest Italian wine fair in the world. All twenty regions of Italy are represented there along with thousands of people, producers and wine. So I catch up with producers I have relationships with and I’m also looking for new producers to create those relationships. The idea behind these relationships is asking about older wines they may have in their cellar that our group could represent. Or we discuss events here, such as wine maker dinners to get these producers to come to our restaurants. I also taste new vintages and decide if we want to move inventory or dollars into buying these vintages. As an example I think a 2010 Barolo vintage is going to be an incredible investment. I think we should capitalize on that and use a larger chunk of money than we normally would.
Do you also cook? I do cook. I am the cook in the house. It depends on the season, but I really like Iron Chef-ing it in the sense of just going to the grocery store and seeing what’s there in season, or on sale or what looks delicious. I like coming up with an idea at the store. I love cookbooks. I always read them, but I never follow recipes. I just read them more for inspiration and then I either go left or right.
Where is your happy place? With my three-month-old baby and my wife. We love when the weather is nice and we can go to Smorgasburg in Brooklyn, pretty close to where we live in Boerum Hill.