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"You know, they did a really extensive training program. How would you like to take the wine test they gave the servers?" Jenn Galdes, publicist for Coppervine, a Lincoln Park wine bar and restaurant that opened in December, asked me.
All publicists take food writers (who aren’t reviewers) to new places to see if they’ll be interested in writing something about them. The true measure of a publicist is what kind of angle they can think up when the writer says, "I’m not a wine writer; I don’t have anything to say."
So: the chance to fail, in public, at the test for the server position, and to prove what I was claiming about my wine expertise (namely, that I have none)? How could I turn that down?
To provide some contrast to my own failure, I dragged along John Lenart, a food video producer and a guy who knows quite a bit more about wine than I do. We met at Coppervine early in the afternoon and were greeted by Don Sritong, partner and beverage director.
The concept behind the restaurant is that every dish on the menu—created by chef Michael Taus, formerly of Zealous and Duchamp—comes with a well-chosen wine pairing, beer pairing, and cocktail pairing. Though the concept is straightforward, the menu, with three choices under every single dish, is daunting to look at. Helping you understand it and choose intelligently is what the servers were trained to do. "For me there’s always an added value in not only offering a pairing but a learning experience, an opportunity to taste something here that you wouldn’t taste next door," says Sritong. (I think he means at other restaurants generally, but it’s worth noting that literally next door is a hot spot that opened shortly before Coppervine, Lettuce Entertain You's Summer House Santa Monica.)
He cites one example of the kind of discovery he hopes to prompt: there’s no pinot noir, obviously a popular varietal, anywhere on the menu. But a grilled octopus dish is paired with Mencia, a similar Spanish wine whose smokiness he says makes it an especially good complement, but one few would have ordered on their own. "For me, I recognize that not everyone’s going to [follow the pairing recommendations]. But at this stage we have almost a 75 percent participation rate, at least at one course."
Sritong, who previously was a partner in the wine store Just Grapes, says, “Our program can be quite complex; there’s a lot of moving parts. The emphasis we placed on training was to alleviate the tension the server might be feeling—which the guest might wind up feeling—when you have a wine, beer, and cocktail for every dish."
So Sritong embarked on an extensive training program, including six full days of seminars that began with a test to see where the server’s knowledge level was and what he or she needed to work on. Of course, if all the wines were spelled out on the menu, there wouldn’t be that much need for the servers to be experts, but Coppervine offered 250 different wines by the glass at opening, including eight via a kegged system, and it recently introduced a full list by the bottle. The ability to make intelligent recommendations—to be able to judge on the fly that a certain bottle would likely go with certain dishes, because its style or varietal is similar to the one suggested on the menu—would be key to the job.
At the end of the training week, servers were tested again, and how well they did decided how desirable their shifts would be—or if they’d be working at Coppervine at all. "We would expect someone who had experience as a bartender to ace the bar part, and if they didn’t, we had a discussion with them. There was pretty frank discussion with a handful of people who in their area of expertise . . . didn’t show their area of expertise. I’m not putting you in front of guests where we already have this pretty complex scenario, for you to just confuse them more."
The gregarious Taus, prior to Zealous’s own 20-year-run a veteran of Charlie Trotter’s kitchen, puts it in more cheerful terms: "People were really excited, people were really interested in learning. Because I think Don gave them a lot of tools to be successful with."
Sritong gives us the initial test, the one designed to assess your level of knowledge at the beginning of the process. The first page is devoted to food knowledge, and we do pretty well: we both know that za'atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend, that a lardon is pork belly, that chimichurri sauce has garlic and parsley. (All these things are on Taus’s current menu.)
Page two is cocktails and liquor—and there we both find that we know what we like, but that's about all. What’s the difference between mezcal and tequila? "Is it all tequilas are mezcal, or all mezcals are tequila?" John asks. Between potato and wheat vodka? "I want to give the fourth-grade answer, one’s potato and one’s wheat," John says. What's a cordial, exactly? "Something you drink at the beginning, I know that," I say.
I surge ahead a little on beer knowledge, having home-brewed a bit years ago, but John takes a comfortable lead when we get to wine—and wine takes up half the test. He aces matching grape types to regions, and defining the differences between Old and New World wines of the same grape. We’re both stumped when asked to rank German wines by level of sweetness—is Beerenauslese sweeter than Trockenbeerenauslese, or the other way around? "I think with German wines the rule is, the longer the name, the sweeter it is," John says.
In the end, it’s clear John would be working Friday nights and I’d get Tuesday shifts, but neither of us should go for our Master Somm test any time soon. We ask how the actual servers did.
"On the pretest, I was really pretty nervous about who we were hiring," Sritong says. "You assume that if people are coming to you having worked at Table Fifty-Two, at Senza, at Girl & the Goat, they’re coming to you with a world of knowledge—but that’s not always the case, not at least according to the pretest. But what I was really happy about was how they took the training. A lot of 90 percents, a lot of A’s and B’s. One guy, Justin, scored 100 percent. Didn’t miss a single one. Which is not what I expected."
Adding a wine list has changed things somewhat—"The servers are glad that their check averages went up"—but for Sritong, driving well-chosen pairings through both the printed menu and interaction with the servers will always be the essence of the place. "This is not a gimmick,” he says. “This is not an outlet—like some restaurants use specials for dumping low cost wines, wines they got on a deal. If anything, it’s the opposite—we picked some eclectic stuff that on its own may not sell, like Mencia. But it’s a snapshot, then and there, of what I felt the best pairings were for the food."
Coppervine, 1962 N. Halsted, 773-935-1000, coppervinechicago.com