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Joe Janish: 00:10 Today, you’ll hear from John McDaniel, founder of Second City Soil in Chicago and one of Food & Wine Magazine’s 2018 sommeliers of the year. John says the wine selling process is not just outdated, it’s broken. He explains how it can be fixed as well as why being a sommelier is a dying profession.
Speaker 3: 00:29 This is WineBiz360, in depth coverage of the wine industry for wine professionals, by wine professionals. Here is your host Joe Janish.
Joe Janish: 00:40 Thank you for downloading this episode of WineBiz360. I’m your host, Joe Janish. Our guest today is Jon McDaniel of Second City Soil in Chicago. John’s worked at just about every level of the wine industry. He’s run restaurants. He’s worked at retail shops. He’s been in export distribution. He’s even been a winemaker, although most probably know him best as a sommelier. In fact in 2018, Food & Wine Magazine named him one of their sommeliers of the year. In 2017, Wine Enthusiast named him one of their 40 under 40 taste makers. Jon, such a pleasure to have you today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Jon McDaniel: 01:19 Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Joe Janish: 01:21 You’re pretty much on a mission to transform the wine scene in Chicago with Second City Soil. You previously were at Gage Hospitality Group and you’ve recently got off on your own with Second City. Can you just give us a little bit about what went into that decision and what you’re doing with Second City Soil?
Jon McDaniel: 01:42 Certainly. Second City Soil really was born from my realization that you have to be your own best PR agent when it comes to being a sommelier or in the wine business of just making those connections, creating content for yourself and for the people that you’re trying to promote. I started it while still working in the restaurants and really it was meant to be a blog. It was meant to be something of just creating content for my peer sommeliers of saying, “Hey, they’re doing something cool at this restaurant in Chicago,” and those kind of things.
Jon McDaniel: 02:19 When I realized that I best served the wine industry not by working five lunches in a restaurant, but of really getting out there in the world and making better connections for buyers and sellers, it was a pretty easy decision to use the brand that I already created and use that as the platform for the company that I now have as Second City Soil.
Joe Janish: 02:44 That sounds pretty good because as you said, usually a beverage director or a lead sommelier doesn’t really have the time to do a lot of their promotion or the content. You’ve been in that role and you’ve seen it, so I imagine you’re bringing a pretty good value to the restaurants that you’re working with.
Jon McDaniel: 03:02 Yeah. I think a lot of it too is if you look at the great PR agencies or the great marketing entities for different restaurants, the people that are in those positions they’re not wine people. They’re marketing people. Really to have the specific terminology, to have the specific like, “Hey, this is something exciting that we’re doing,” you really need to involve the wine director in that kind of a conversation so that they can go out there and create the pitches to create these opportunities for coverage of what you’re doing.
Jon McDaniel: 03:32 I realized pretty early on that it was some it was so much easier for me to just create relationships. So, a few years ago, I flew out to New York. I went and basically knocked on the doors of Wine Spectator. I had lunch in the middle of nowhere New York where Wine Enthusiast was. So, I basically pitched what I was doing in the restaurants directly with the people that mattered because Chicago is one of those places that if you look at most of the coverage of wine and of sommeliers and of restaurants dealing wine, it’s mostly New York and San Francisco, and Chicago is really forgotten about even for how big of a city it is.
Joe Janish: 04:14 Yeah. It really is a shame because Chicago does have a thriving restaurant scene. It’s just it just doesn’t seem to be seen as one of those places where people are drinking a lot of wine.
Jon McDaniel: 04:26 Yeah. I think that has to do with the culture and the core of Chicago as a city is not white-collar wine drinker. That’s what I think people sometimes think of wine as having to be a sophisticated beverage, whereas Chicago is a beer whiskey blue-collar German, Polish immigrant kind of a town. For how amazing the restaurant scene here is, even you look at the reviews of those restaurants, even for a great wine program trying to get the word wine mentioned in the review is sometimes really hard.
Joe Janish: 05:06 Yeah. So, what wine with kielbasa then?
Jon McDaniel: 05:06 You got to mix it up with some Grüner. There’s a lot of good stuff that goes with this kind of things. It’s really finding opportunities to create wine as being as fun as cocktails, as fun as beer. Chicago has a great craft brewery movement. They have fun names and they use ingredients that people are like, “Wow, that’s cool.” Wine doesn’t have that on its own. I mean it’s a more natural product than beer and cocktails can be and it’s sometimes looked at as boring and uppity.
Jon McDaniel: 05:44 So, how I can create restaurant wine list, how I can create content for my peers in the city that you have to be fun. You have to be in a position where everybody is looking at the sommelier as based off of that silly movie that came out about four guys trying to pass a test. The wine business is much more than just those four guys trying to pass a test.
Joe Janish: 06:12 Right. Now, you’ve mentioned creating content a few times and I think that’s something that a lot of restaurant people maybe … I mean they may not really understand what you’re talking about and you may also mentioned PR and in public PR agencies.
Joe Janish: 06:28 Maybe you could help us understand what the differences between like in PR, it might be somebody thinking just sent out a press release about my restaurant or something like that, but you that you go way beyond that because … Why don’t you talk about some of the things you do to actually content? I mean, is it viral videos? Is it blogs? Is it newsletters? Give us a little taste of some of the different things that you do.
Jon McDaniel: 06:55 Well, I think first you have to really look at an honest answer of yourself as a sommelier of what am I doing in my restaurant that is different than the guy across the street or the girl across the street from me. I think that’s one part of it of how as creating wine program why is it any different than just listing wines on a menu. Really, when you look at the content, it all starts with the wine list of there are so many concepts in any city in America that you don’t need a sommelier. You don’t need a wine director. You just need a thoughtful list at acts as a sommelier
Jon McDaniel: 07:31 So, any list that I write, I make sure that there are descriptions and that they give those buzzwords so that when a guest is reading it, it gives confidence to my service staff of saying, “All right. I at least know that there are five or six words that are being described about that wine.” That’s really where it starts. Then it’s taking that creativity and it’s not just listing for a wine this taste like blueberries and whatever, whatever, whatever but making it a little bit fun, making it a little bit sarcastic.
Jon McDaniel: 08:02 Those things I think have always been the greatest success that I’ve had of just showing the wine list to … sending it to Ray Isle at Food & Wine and showing the editors at Wine Spectator and be like, “This is what I’m up to now. This is what I’m doing this different. These are the events that are I’m putting on. These are the different dinners and programs.” I’m trying to make wine fun for my guests and that’s what’s attractive to all these entities of they don’t want to just write about a product. They want to write about how wine can be exciting because that’s what’s their readers are looking for.
Jon McDaniel: 08:38 That’s the first part of it for me has always been the content that I’m creating in the list. Then it’s putting yourself out there in the world of much like a chef is a celebrity in a restaurant, the wine person is also one of those people that a guest is coming into the restaurant specifically to talk to that person. I’ve had guests that read my bio online and these kind of things and they’re excited to come in talk to me because I’m not just another person pouring wine. It’s I’m kind of the quirky guy. I want people to experience know that kind of quirkiness, that a little bit of sassiness in what’s happening in the wine list.
Jon McDaniel: 09:24 Then that’s what you take out there into the world and you show these different entities through social media. If you’re going to post a photo of a bottle on Instagram, it’s not just, “Hey, I drunk Romanée-Conti tonight.” It’s, “I did that with McDonald’s or I drink this wine and this is what I thought about it.” Just giving something that is different than the same ho hum, “This is a bottle wine. It tastes like this and it was good,” and that was all I have to say about it. You have to be creative that the wine industry is very slow to catch up to the rest of the beverage world on fun and creativity.
Joe Janish: 10:05 Yeah. I would agree with you on that. Probably all of the Instagrams about people putting up their pictures of their wine they have, it’s just basically a picture of the bottle and maybe a picture of the dish and like, “Wow, this was delicious.” Other than that, it doesn’t really help me very much. Now, not everyone has your level of experience and knowledge of wine. So, when you go into a restaurant and you start out with maybe building some content and helping out with getting the wine descriptions going, how can you empower the waitstaff and some of the servers to feel confident and sell more wine to their customers?
Jon McDaniel: 10:53 I just started with a new restaurant group called Farmhouse here in Chicago in and it’s a casual neighborhood, really find a table kind of a place. The first thing I did when I started talking to the service staff is talk about how wine is an ingredient. If you’re taking a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and you want to add that to a dish, is it going to make it better or is it going to make it worse? Look at those just very basic things about just thinking about how wine can be an addition to the experience.
Jon McDaniel: 11:27 It’s impossible to get someone to order extra cheeseburger or another steak, but they can get a second glass of wine. Then imagine if that server who sometimes is hesitant to even ask if they want another glass of wine, what if they did that five times a night, four times a week? That’s 20 extra glasses of wine that they sold. Let’s say that it’s $10 a glass. That’s an extra $200 that they sold. Let’s say that they get 20% on that and that’s an additional 40 bucks that they made in that week. Now, you look at how many times you can do that in a day, in a week, in a month, in a year. When I come into a restaurant, the first thing I say to the service staff is that if you listen to me, I will get you a free month of rent.
Joe Janish: 12:19 Wow.
Jon McDaniel: 12:20 It’s really looking at servers they’re not there because they want to be lifetime restaurant hospitality people. Some people want to go into management, learn to be sommeliers, et cetera, et cetera. Most people are just trying to figure out life and get through this week and pay the bills. Once you understand that the service staff they’re there to make money, if they have kids they’re there trying to pay for college or whatever the situation is, they’re there to make money.
Jon McDaniel: 12:49 If you give them the tools to understand that, there’s no other revenue stream in the restaurant that can sell and can earn them as much money as selling wine, the light goes on. I watch it in their eyes when I say that’s free month of rent wine and everyone of them they’re locked in.
Joe Janish: 13:09 Yeah. Money is a motivator. It doesn’t matter who you are.
Jon McDaniel: 13:13 It’s a very cold black-and-white way to look at a little bit, but I mean we have to be realistic as far as like why your service staff is there and why are they going to listen to you. They’re not going to listen to you when you get wax poetic about Kimmeridgian soil and Chablis.
Jon McDaniel: 13:31 They don’t care because the reality is that how can you translate when I have 400 different products of food and beverage, all the things they have to spiel to the guests at the first part, hopefully they remember their name, all these kind of things. You want to then have them translate soil type information to a guest. You have instead about 12 seconds to talk about wine. What is the 12 second pitch?
Jon McDaniel: 13:57 That’s why when I travel to wineries, when I go around, I’m asking these producers, these winemakers, what’s the 12 second version of why your wine should be sold in my restaurants? If they can come up with it, I usually don’t buy it because I can’t translate that to my service staff of a three-minute exposition on why chestnut wood is important. It’s not important to my servers and it’s not important to the guests. It’s how is this going to well with what I’m doing, is it fairly priced and am I going to enjoy it?
Jon McDaniel: 14:29 Once you get your service staff hooked on, “I’m going to give you the information that you need to know to translate table side because you don’t have a sommelier to back you up. The menu is backing you up,” it’s a totally different experience to what they’re used to and it becomes more successful for them.
Joe Janish: 14:47 Yeah. It’s actually a brilliant way to get the waitstaff involved and motivated because I’m sure as you know, the young waitstaff don’t hang around very long. Usually, there’s a lot of turnover and you’re constantly retraining and retraining. Based on what you’re saying, your waitstaff doesn’t need to be a wine expert. They just need to know how to sell the wines that are on the list to the customer, which makes it a heck of a lot easier I would think.
Jon McDaniel: 15:17 Yeah. It’s just really because their confidence is so low about it because the reality is that most of them are millennial and millennial plus or whatever you want to categorize them at. They’re not going home and drinking Montalcino. They’re not going home and drinking Burgundy. They’re going home and drinking whatever handle of vodka is in the freezer or whatever craft beer that they picked up on the way home.
Jon McDaniel: 15:39 They’re not drinking wine in the context of what the restaurant is. So, how do you give them that kind of material that all they have to do is feel like that they’re one step ahead. They have one more piece of information than their guest does. If they feel like they have just a little bit more knowledge than the guest might have, that’s all we have to start with, that little bit of confidence to say, “You know what, I learned something today in pre-shift. I learned something today in our tastings.”
Jon McDaniel: 16:07 It’s like, yesterday when I was tasting with this new restaurant, we tasted New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc against Sancerre, both Sauvignon Blanc. A guest is going to ask the question, “Well, what’s the difference between these two.” If I can give the server that five or six words worth of, “Well, this one is fruiter. This one is dryer. This one is better with this dish. This one is better with this dish.” That’s really the baseline of what you have to build. You have to build that foundation of I can manage through the menu so that I can help the guests manage through the menu.
Jon McDaniel: 16:42 If you can start there, you really start to see their confidence building, and then they come back next training, they ask questions. They say, “Hey, we’ve never tried this Austrian Zweigelt that’s on the list. What in the world is that because we never opened it before?” “Well, let’s open it. Let’s taste it. Let’s talk about it. How is it going to be comparative to what someone knows not just like it’s this red wine and that’s it?”
Joe Janish: 17:08 Yeah. Toward that end, you mentioned Zweigelt and there are other amazing wines that the general population really has never heard off. Are you seeing with the younger customers that are coming in, some of those late 20s or early 30s, are they looking for these wild and crazy varietals from nontraditional places? Is that something that’s trending in Chicago or with the younger crowds?
Jon McDaniel: 17:41 I think a little bit. I think that the reality is first you have to realize that those younger drinkers, you have to realize what they don’t want to drink first. What they don’t want to drink is the same stuff that their parents drink. That’s why you look at wineries that were popular 10, 5 years ago. I hate to pick on Justin Winery, but that’s always the example that I use when I talk about this.
Jon McDaniel: 18:06 Justin was one of the most collected wines of California. You look at it now and you don’t see it on restaurant wine lists anymore. You see Isosceles a little bit because it still has that name recognition, but the reality is that at 26-year-old drinker that is just starting to learn about what they like in wine, if they see that on the list or they see that in a shop, they’re like “Well that’s what my dad drinks. I don’t want to drink that.” That’s I think the first reality.
Jon McDaniel: 18:34 I think they’re open a little bit more to places because more of them are studying abroad when they’re in college. So, they come back, they did a semester in Spain and they’d be like, “I may have had this when I was in Spain traveling or this kind of thing.” I think that younger generation is exposed to just more places around the globe. So, they understand I think a little bit better that wines come from everywhere and it’s not just what’s in your backyard. That’s kind of step one.
Jon McDaniel: 19:04 Then step two is getting the service staff to be excited about it. I have a restaurant that it’s a sushi restaurant. The service staff was all about sake, all about sake and then realized they can’t sell sake. Then it’s well we’re starting to get into wine as a staff. We’re tasting a lot of the different food with the wine and there’s one wine that is the most popular wine that I’ve ever seen a service staff get super excited about is this wine from Verona right outside. It’s called Ferdi.
Jon McDaniel: 19:36 Basically, it’s Garganega. It’s Soave, but not Soave which nobody understands what Soave is in the restaurant. Nobody understands or can barely pronounce Garganega, but they’re like, “Oh, we love that Ferdi wine.” That’s the one that they always talk about and it’s the one that’s most popular for the staff and they sell it like they invented it. That’s the kind of thing. Because the service staff is millennial and they are learning about it too, when they discover something that is not just boring Chardonnay or boring Merlot or whatever, when they get excited about it, that’s when you see that they’re connecting with the guest that is basically them and they can sell those kind of things to people.
Jon McDaniel: 20:16 If you get a service staff to say, “Hey, there’s this cool new wine. It’s like the anti-Chardonnay,” they’re like, “Oh, okay that’s cool because everyone always asks Chardonnay and they don’t even look at the menu and I feel like I’m just taking orders and I don’t even really need to be here.” I can say like, “If you like Chardonnay, you should drink this instead. I really like it. I don’t like Chardonnay,” and all these kind of things of if you get the service staff hooked on something, then they can hook the wine drinker that is also learning as well. I think it all starts with your staff.
Joe Janish: 20:46 Right. A big part of it, it seems I’m little older so for me it was the brands and the brand marketing would influence me and then I would see advertising or whatever. But it seems to me that the younger generation is more about discovering. Like you said that they discovered this wine Ferdi and made it their own. Do you see that maybe the goal for some restaurants wine lists, to try to put out these wines and have them discovered more than just like tell them, “This is a great wine,” so that they can own it a little more?
Jon McDaniel: 21:25 I think it depends on what the restaurant concept is. If you look at Grüner Veltliner is a great example of that grape didn’t even exist really in the U.S. until a couple sommeliers in New York got hooked on it and then it trickles down to somms all over the country. It was like that cool hip sommelier wine. So, there’s that part of it where the sommelier is basically trying to justify their existence in the world and in the restaurant. So, they’re trying to be ones who discover new things, who put something out there into the world.
Jon McDaniel: 22:01 That’s why I always laugh. I’ve watched guests that will order Chardonnay from the sommelier. They’ll bring back a Chardonnay from Jura and I know immediately that’s not what the guest meant, but sommeliers are so hooked on Jura. They’re so hooked on like it being the cool new place that that’s what they want to push without understanding exactly what the guest is looking for.
Jon McDaniel: 22:27 Restaurants you have to understand and my goal for the concepts that I am working the list for is how do you move someone 10% away from what they know? Sometimes that is having a varietal that is common that is a new producer that they may have not heard of or a new place. There has to be some sort of comfort in everything that they are doing. Maybe it’s compared to one of these classic things, but you can’t just jump someone off the deep end because what if they don’t like it?
Jon McDaniel: 22:59 You have to play those kind of first things very safe and move them in the right direction so that you can earn the trust of your guest, you can earn the trust of your service staff. Because if you go out there and you say, “All right team, we’re going to start pouring this random varietal from Greece that 10% of the people may like.” When they go table side and they get three or four people that say, “Actually, you know what, I don’t like this,” it creates conflict at the table that I’m not at the table because I just write the wine list.
Jon McDaniel: 23:31 So, it’s the servers that are having to feel that negative experience and then they just stop selling the wine and then they stop trusting you. So, you have find those wins, those things that you know that the staff is going to get behind, that the guest is going to get behind. Move them just a little bit away from comfort and then you can bring in those things that are a little bit more strange, that are little bit more unique and that no one has heard to say like, “All right. We had success with this wine last time. We’re going to move just a little bit over to the right, a little bit over to left from that.”
Jon McDaniel: 24:04 That’s where you can continually compare it back to over and over again is there’s something that is comfortable about this. Now, the service staff can be a little bit more comfortable because they’ve had successes at the table in the past. You need those successes to build confidence.
Joe Janish: 24:20 Now, let’s switch gears a little bit because I know that you have an affinity for the business side of things and the economics of wine. When you’re building a wine program helping a restaurant build a wine program, what are some of the things that you talk about from an economics point of view and how a restaurant can be more profitable or just some basics that just start to introduce to the owner or the manager of the restaurant?
Jon McDaniel: 24:51 There are some things that it doesn’t matter what your concept is that people are going to order blindly. That they may not even look at the menu. They’re just going to order it. One of those things and the example I use is always New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc by the glass. I ran a 700-bottle five-decades-worth of wine list in Chicago at an Italian restaurant called Acanto. It was arguably one of the best Italian wine list in the country.
Jon McDaniel: 25:21 The amount New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that I sold made me sick just because people would ask for it and I’m not going to be that guy to say like, “Well, we don’t have it.” You have to have a version of I had it by the bottle. I had an Italian version of that by the glass, but you have to have those answer of things. Knowing that when you’re building a wine list and you’re building a wine list for profitability.
Jon McDaniel: 25:46 I had a great conversation with a sommelier the other day and I asked her, “Well, why do you put this New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc on by the glass?” She’s like, “Well, I really like it.” New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is one of those things that the one that she put on the wine list the cost of her was $13 and she was selling it for $13. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc should be like nine bucks cost to the restaurant.
Joe Janish: 26:11 Right, right.
Jon McDaniel: 26:13 The reality is that there’s not one guest that walks into her restaurant and drinks a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that is going to care about that particular producer and that particular wine. They just want the style. Every bottle of wine is costing her restaurant $4 at least.
Jon McDaniel: 26:32 If you start to build in those things and you start to build in wins automatically of everyone is going to ask for some sort of off dry to sweet Riesling something like that, do they care that it is from the burden and it is a producer that only makes 1,000 cases of it, or do they just want something with little bit of residual sugar to? Do they care that it is this you know beautiful estate in Martinborough that is 100% certified organic and they make 500 cases of it and it’s super delicious? No. They want the aromatics. They want that grassiness, that grape fruit. That’s all that the guest cares about.
Jon McDaniel: 27:09 Once you understand, in building a wine list, what the guest cares about, then you can take advantage economically of that and start to build in profit from that so that you can then pepper in those things that are a little bit more unusual or more exciting for you as a wine person that you have to go a little bit shorter on your margins. But you have to build in these wins that you know no matter what, you’re going to make money on.
Jon McDaniel: 27:37 If you don’t have those things and you just average everything out of saying, “Well, my list is every wine is 27% cost,” or whatever it is to get that magic number. You have to have things that are 18% and things that are 32%. You have to look at the end of how you get to that goal is by mixing those things in and by pouring things that are money makers.
Jon McDaniel: 28:04 If you are looking at your rosé by the glass and you have this really cool Cotes de Provence producer that is just amazing, the reality is that during the summer, people just want something that is pink and dry and light and delicious. So if you’re paying $12 instead of $7, it’s really just your fault of why you’re not making money because the reality is that the guest in most concepts don’t care about the same things that you as a wine person cares about.
Jon McDaniel: 28:38 The sooner that you realize that they don’t care and that they just want something that is a certain style, a certain deliciousness factor, one hopefully they’re going to order multiple glasses of it, so you’re already up when it comes to that part of it. But you have build profit in places that you know are going to be easy and you know that are going to be just simple.
Jon McDaniel: 29:01 That’s the part of it that a lot of sommeliers don’t understand is that they can be great theoretically in wine. They can be great and knowledgeable about every different microclimate, region, geography, exposition, blah blah blah, all very important to being a better wine person. But the reality is that, are you going to keep your job because you know about the slate of the Rheingau or are you going to keep your job because you made your 25% cost this month? It’s always going to be the latter.
Jon McDaniel: 29:35 So you need to know the economics of it to keep your job as a wine person because the reality is that the job of just a sommelier is not going to exist in five years. It’s not a job in a restaurant that you can just sell wine on a floor and everything is going to be okay. It’s just not possible in reality of the restaurant business now.
Joe Janish: 30:04 That’s a pretty bold statement. How do you see the sommelier evolving over the next five to 10 years?
Jon McDaniel: 30:12 It’s really it’s going to be managers of restaurants that run wine programs because the reality is that can you pay someone $50,000 a year which is in theory if somebody hopes to make more than that? Can you pay someone $50,000 a year just run around wine program when you’re just hoping to make a wine program profitable?
Jon McDaniel: 30:37 So, even in my position when I was a beverage director at five restaurants, I also was the general manager of one of them. I was working 90 hours a week. 65 of those hours were dedicated towards the daily operation of a $4 million restaurant. 25 of those were running a $12 million wine program. That economics most operators don’t understand and it’s very difficult to break those habits for them. I’ve seen how the value of time spent developing and curating a profitable wine program is very different than having a body on the floor that covers managerial duties.
Joe Janish: 31:18 Right.
Jon McDaniel: 31:18 So, when you’re meeting with a distributor on trying to get to your new spring glass placements, the reality is that you may have to interrupt that so you can go fire a busser. That’s the future of wine professionals in the restaurant business is that if you’re going to be a manager, you have to be more than just wine.
Jon McDaniel: 31:37 You have to bring value to your establishment because it’s very difficult to argue I’ve made you 1% more profit over than the person perform before me or we’re doing better because there’s so much fluctuation when it comes to what people are drinking and costs and those kind of things. Your value is in your body on a restaurant or doing stuff that has nothing to do with being a sommelier.
Joe Janish: 32:02 Right. You’re talking right now about the selling part and the inside part of the restaurant, but then the other side of it is buying the wine. That’s involving the distributor rep or the salesperson. How do you get the restaurant and the distributor salesperson on the same texts?
Jon McDaniel: 32:24 That’s really why I exist as a company is I’ve seen over the last 15 years of how distributors sell wine is the exact same as they were doing 15 years ago. You take around a wine in a bag and you pour it and you talk about the price and then you give the tech sheet. Then you walk away and maybe you follow-up, maybe you don’t. You put on as a winery that you visit here, the city of Chicago, and I get invited to lunches almost every day of the week. I could eat free lunch every day just doing wine lunches.
Jon McDaniel: 32:59 That wine lunch is a two-hour affair where you open up all the wines, and you have three courses. You’re looking at your watch the whole time. You’re wondering all right. Well, I’m not going to be the first person to get up because I have to go to the restaurant. But as soon as one person gets up, then I’m going to be number two. Everyone is looking around and trying to see like how the hell can I get out of this place?
Jon McDaniel: 33:20 It’s not a good thing for the winery. The distributor doesn’t want to do it. The buyer for some reason only gets invited to that lunch two days before even though the winery booked it three months before. There’s all these parts of how people sell wine that it’s a broken model. It’s an old model and it doesn’t take into account the fact that the buyer is one, probably younger and is in over their head and they’re a manager as well and they have to be on the floor in 45 minutes, but you want to talk about how important the last vintage was to you as a winery.
Jon McDaniel: 33:55 The winery is going to spend a thousand dollars for eight people for a luncheon in that the reality is that the distributor is probably not going to follow up with those eight buyers. It’ll be like, “All right. I just paid for this lunch. Do you want to buy any of these wines?” The winemaker thinks that the only time that they sell wine is when they’re in the market because when they go back again, they don’t hear anything from the distributor and everybody thinks that everyone else is basically not doing their job.
Jon McDaniel: 34:19 So, how I fit into the gap is I look at instead of having a two-hour luncheon where we sit and talk about the wines and we enjoy lunch and whatever, whatever, whatever, let’s spend 45 minutes. Let’s get people into a room on the way to the restaurant or whatever it is. You just sit there and you open the wines and you talk about the wines. You give the thumbs up, I like it. Thumbs down, I don’t. You make the distributors say, “All right. These five people said yes, they like it. 30 days from now, I expect some information as far as what you did with those hot leads, warm leads,” whatever it is.
Jon McDaniel: 34:55 We need to change how wine is being sold because the buyer doesn’t have the time to dedicate towards playing along. The distributor has … as consolidation happens between all these different portfolios. Southern, Glazers is just growing and Breakthru is going to merge with Republic National and all these different things of wineries are getting lost. That’s why a wineries like Silver Oak are moving towards more medium-sized distributors because they want to be the jewel. They want to be able to hold the distributors to the fire and say, “You need to go out and sell my wines or I’m going to pull my wines.”
Jon McDaniel: 35:32 That’s the reality is like a lot of wineries don’t have the ability to say, “Hey, you know what, my wines need to be sold. You need to show my wines out there in the world.” It’s amazing to me being on the other side or on every side now talking to different buyers and talking about a specific wine and they say, “I’ve never seen this wine before. I’ve never been shown this wine before.”
Jon McDaniel: 35:57 The amount Italian wines that I’ve never been shown even though I ran one of the best Italian wine programs in the country is phenomenal. I just don’t understand why reps don’t do that. I mean, the reality is that they have so many things that they have to make their numbers on and all these different questions and logistics and why is it that you get a call in the last day of the month to say, “Hey, I need to sell 15 cases of Jordan Chardonnay or my boss isn’t going to let me leave this room.”
Jon McDaniel: 36:29 Well why is it that you didn’t spend the month saying to everybody … Why didn’t you call me on the eighth of the month and said, “Will you buy six bottles Jordan Chardonnay?” As opposed to “Please Jesus, buy 15 cases today so that I can go home?” It’s a weird model. It’s looking at I do work for different suppliers and the reality is that a supplier, if you take a great Italian supplier, they can only hold the distributor responsible for probably the top five SKUs.
Jon McDaniel: 37:01 Well, what happens with SKUs six through 10? You can’t make the numbers for those. I kind of fit in and I will go up there and I will create programming for SKUs six through 10 because your local rep is spending 50 hours a week trying to develop your top five SKUs while the rest of everything because you don’t have the time to develop SKUs six through 10. What if you had an additional 10 hours a week to dedicate to your brands? What would you do with that?
Jon McDaniel: 37:32 That’s where Second City Soil fits in the local market is that I create those additional 10 hours for the distributor, for the supplier to go out there and talk about wines, to create programming for the wines, to create educational entities, to just have the exposure to the buyer because those wines are not being shown by the distributor and the buyers will never know that they exist other wines.
Joe Janish: 37:56 Well, hallelujah to that because I’ve been in the wine business a little over 20 years now and 20 years ago that model kind of sort of worked the one that we’re still using today, but I read somewhere that, I think it was in Nielsen, Nielsen scans like 2,300 different brands of Pinot Grigio in the United States. That changes the whole ballgame. There’s a reason why you probably haven’t heard of different Italian wines that have been presented. There’s just too much wine out there and with all the consolidation, nobody’s being given any attention from the supplier side.
Joe Janish: 38:34 So, it sounds like your concept and what you’re doing with Second City Soil is exactly what the wine industry needs from both supplier side and the restaurant side because as you said if a restaurant is an Italian restaurant and they’re not being presented some really cool great wines that will fit into their program, it’s kind of hard buy them. That’s brilliant, Jon. That’s awesome stuff.
Jon McDaniel: 39:00 Most buyers don’t know that they need it until they’re shown it. Most of them can do as much studying as possible, but until they are actually exposed to the wine, until they actually taste the wine, I mean that’s how I’m guess knowledgeable in some fashion about wines is that I taste 300 wines a week. I’m out there tasting all the time.
Jon McDaniel: 39:24 I’m basically forcing the conversation saying like if you want me to buy this wine, if you want me to look at selling this wine, I have to taste it. I have to know what’s going on because I can read theoretically about it all the time, but that theoretical tasting notes or whatever or the opinion of probably one person or one person alone, whether be the winemaker or the marketing person that wrote those tasting notes.
Jon McDaniel: 39:50 I read tasting notes about this Nebbiolo from Washington the other day that somebody gave 97 points to. It used veal charcuterie as a tasting note. I’ve been in the wine business for 15 years. I’ve never heard of veal charcuterie. So, how am I as a salesperson, how am I as a buyer, how am I as a guest, as a consumer going to be like, “Oh, I’ve been waiting my entire life for a wine that tastes like veal charcuterie?”
Jon McDaniel: 40:28 I asked the staff that makes charcuterie as part of his business what kind of charcuterie would be vest with veal?” He’s like, “I’ve never even made it before,” because you don’t use veal for charcuterie. So, how in the hell am I supposed to know what that tastes like? You want to use that in tasting notes to sell a wine that one grape that nobody really knows outside of the place that’s from Washington and you want to give it 97 points. I have no idea what just happened with that wine, not a clue and I’m clearly not going to buy it at all.
Joe Janish: 40:58 Yeah. Well, I imagine it also smells like a new tennis ball can right?
Jon McDaniel: 41:03 I mean, descriptions that people use … When I start talking about this is what I think this wine tastes like. If you have never had a grapefruit before and I say that this wine tastes like grapefruit, how are you going to understand that? You need to write your subjective version of those notes. What are you tasting? You need to expand your vocabulary.
Jon McDaniel: 41:28 I teach an undergrad class at a university here in Chicago. I made them go online and look at different wine tasting notes and write down 15 words that they don’t know what it is. Each of them had the most simple things. Someone didn’t know what a pomegranate tasted like or what cardamom was, these kind of things. These are words that as wine people, we try to use in our tasting notes to make it seem more sophisticated and better, but the reality is that most consumers don’t know what cardamom is. They don’t know.
Jon McDaniel: 42:02 They understand what baking spices are, they understand what fruitcake tastes like, but they don’t know that that’s cardamom as an example. So, how are we using these tasting notes of the same stuff over and over and over again? What’s the difference between black cherry and bing cherry? I couldn’t tell you and I eat it all day long. We’re basing our sales of wine on and our one-sheeter on this paragraph of pineapple confection. I’ve no idea what that means and how is my guest going to know.
Joe Janish: 42:37 Yeah. You said something earlier in our conversation about how the wine should be more of an ingredient. It follows with the whole Italian concept of wine as food. I think that might be of an easier way to have people understand wine a little better. I like the way you presented that where it’s like okay. It’s just like another ingredient and maybe it will taste pretty nicely with this type of a food or this type of a dish or this type of a source rather than getting all high and mighty and elevated with the nuances of quince and cardamom and burnt rubber.
Jon McDaniel: 43:12 Yeah. It’s usually, I mean very early on in my career I sold the wines of Betts & Scholl which Richard Betts, an amazing master sommelier, amazing guy. He does everything. I’ve heard him talk maybe 74 times about his pitch. Each of those 74 times, the first phrase that came out of his mouth is so it all starts with a tomato and then you add salt, and then you add olive oil. It’s verbatim every time and it literally just breaks down flavor into if you start with a tomato, if you don’t start with the best tomato possible, it’s not going to workout.
Jon McDaniel: 43:55 You have to really bring it down to the baseline of what we’re talking about here, it’s grapes. If you don’t have the best grapes possible, you can’t get to having them taste like raspberry parfait or whatever it. We have to get back to the core of what really we’re talking about and audiences because most of us in the wine business, as the newer generation tries to get every color of lapel pin possible, the reality is that most master sommeliers leave the floor as soon as they become a master sommelier.
Joe Janish: 44:28 Exactly.
Jon McDaniel: 44:29 They’re not back in front of the guest anymore and there are some amazing hospitality people that are master sommeliers. I mean, Bobby Stuckey is my god when it comes to hospitality. He is on the floor every night and he is the best dressed busser in the world and that’s how he fits into the grand scheme of things.
Jon McDaniel: 44:49 There are master sommeliers out there that can barely tie a tie let alone talk to anybody about the sale of wine because they’re so stuck in theory. They’re so stuck in the AVA of Malta versus how can I sell you, neighborhood Trattoria, this Pinot Grigio? They can’t do it and that’s why I got into some trouble about this when in another interview I said that I think that being Food & Wine sommelier of the year is more understandable to a guest than being a master sommelier because you can understand what that means.
Jon McDaniel: 45:27 Being a master sommelier is amazing. It is the apex of everything that we do right in our industry, but most people don’t understand that once you pass that test, you’re still going to go back out in the car and you’re still going to bring the bag around. That’s the part of it that we lack understanding of in our industry of we need to get back to the core consumer, which at the end of the day doesn’t care about that. They don’t care about any of that. I’ve never worn a pin that I’ve been given in my life on the floor. I take it off as soon as they put it on.
Joe Janish: 46:00 Well, it sounds like what you’re doing with Second City Soil is getting over all this dysfunction, for lack of a better term, that’s going on in the wine industry and the restaurant industry and pass off to you. You’re basically, you work for both the restaurant side and the supplier side? Is that how it works?
Jon McDaniel: 46:24 I’m working for everybody.
Joe Janish: 46:26 You’re working for everybody. That’s great because now you no longer have us versus them because there’s you.
Jon McDaniel: 46:33 Right. There are holes in the dam from point A to point B of the winery, things that the supplier needs to do more. The supplier thinks the distributor needs to do more. The distributor thinks the buyer is flaky and doesn’t do their part of it. If I can plug the hole in the gap in each of those different things, then we start getting a better understanding of how each person works.
Jon McDaniel: 46:56 There are very few people that … I actually started as an importer before I was a sommelier. I started on that side of the world which is screwed up and backwards of what most people do, but I understand as a buyer what it takes to be a seller. I don’t think a lot of buyers really understand what that is like. When I’m buyer and I want to negotiate buy the glass price on Pinot Grigio, the last person that I should ask is my sales rep because they have to ask their sales managers who asks the brand manager who asks the supplier who then asks the winery because everybody has their basic pay for the price. Why don’t I as a buyer just call the winery?
Jon McDaniel: 47:38 My best friends in the industry are suppliers. When I left the restaurants, the last people that I talk to are the sales reps it was like I died when I left the restaurant floor for the gates to my sales reps. I haven’t heard from them in months because reality is like that of relationship is they need to sale that’s in front of them today and because I’m not buying from them today, I’m no longer relevant to them, which is a harsh reality, but you have to understand that.
Jon McDaniel: 48:09 That totally makes sense and I don’t fault them for that. They have to do what they have to do today. They need to continue to do business with Gage Hospitality Group, which they should because it’s amazing, but I’m not Gage Hospitality Group anymore, I’m doing something else. The suppliers of the ones that are really continuing to foster those relationships because the new restaurants that I’m working with now, which I have 14 restaurants I’m consulting for now, I don’t have the same sales reps that it did before because it’s a different part of the city or it’s a different account or whatever, whatever, whatever and I talk to people now.
Jon McDaniel: 48:45 So, the sooner that as a buyer you can understand how the whole process works, you can start being a better negotiator and a better businessperson because the sales rep is the last person that you want to ask about pricing because they have to ask four people.
Joe Janish: 49:00 Well, if there is a restauranteur or a supplier who is listening right now, what is the best way to get started to work with you and get more information about how they can work with you?
Jon McDaniel: 49:14 I mean, email is best. So, it’s email@example.com. It’s creative in my business model of what I thought this would be. I’m in year two of a plan. It’s six months already. I think that what I’m doing is definitely something that’s needed. My goal next year is to create my own justice league of sommelier consultants around the country and really create better national programming and national conversations.
Jon McDaniel: 49:44 I’m fielding calls all the time, which is amazing. I want to work with people that realize that they don’t really know what’s happening in Chicago and they don’t understand why they’re not doing as well as they thought they should. So, my goal is to help answer that question. The way that I do things is just be as honest and creative as possible and try and change the model. If you’re listening out there, shoot me an email and I’ll help you sell more wine.
Joe Janish: 50:11 That’s great, Jon. So, even if someone is outside of Chicago, they should still send you a note and maybe get a little help, right?
Jon McDaniel: 50:18 Yeah, about because they’re … Just because I’m not in L.A. doesn’t mean that I can’t help you in L.A. Our wine business is a very small world. It’s a very incestuous world. One way or another my guest today is your guest tomorrow kind of the mentality of just because I can’t necessarily help in this market today, doesn’t mean that I can’t tomorrow. I think we all need the strategies to just help us negotiate the realities of our business today in a new modern busier world. So, there are a lot of ways to do that and a lot of ways that I can help different entities make lives easier, and more efficient and more economical.
Joe Janish: 50:58 Awesome. Jon, thanks so much.