The first Smith & Wollensky steakhouse occupies a stand-alone building in New York City and showcases the trademark Smith & Wollensky green and white colors; colors they inherited from Manny Wolf’s, the previous steakhouse that had been serving steak at this location since 1897.
Smith & Wollensky was founded in 1977 when Alan Stillman and Ben Benson purchased the steakhouse. The only thing they changed at the time was the sign so it would read “founded in 1977” and the name using the exact same letters.
Smith & Wollensky has two restaurants in Boston and Chicago, the original one in New York, Columbus, Ohio, Miami and the newest one in Las Vegas. (a second Florida location is in the works)
We talked with Smith & Wollensky’s Beverage Director Alec Bruggentheis, about everything from his take on wine trends, the videos we produce for him and a few grapes he thinks everyone should try.
How long have you worked at Smith & Wollensky and what experience did you bring with you?
I have worked here for almost 10 years. Previously I had been the sommelier/beverage manager at a number of restaurants throughout Chicago, notably Ambria and Blue Water Grill. I received my sommelier certification in 2005 and I have been running beverage programs since.
How does your wine program work?
All of our locations have a dedicated beverage manager and they make most of the decisions for their individual locations. I oversee those lists as well as create our by the glass program.
There are so many wines out there. How do you decide which wines are best for your restaurants?
I try and take a number of factors into account, the most important being the quality of the wine. Even if it’s a popular wine, I do not want to list it unless it is also a good wine. I mostly look for wines that are well made and express a sense of where they are from.
A sense of place is so important, and the stories.
Yes. The Mark Wine Group has created great videos for us that talk about the wines and the stories, which are so useful for our staff.
We love to hear that. Thank you. What are some of the wine trends you are following?
I have been an advocate for screw cap enclosures for a very long time. There is a need for over 25 billion wine corks each year and only 17 billion wine corks are available so other means of enclosure are necessary. Although not traditional, wines under screw cap enclosures have begun to lose their stigma as being “cheap” or “lesser” because of the screw cap. Wine is one of the rare fields that had not embraced innovation throughout its history and, thankfully, that has been changing in recent decades.
How about the grape varietal trends like Prosecco, Rosé and red blends?
Prosecco sells well because it is our least expensive sparkling wine and the wine drinking public is starting to see the difference between different styles of sparkling wines. Rosé has been a nonstop juggernaut for the past four years or so. When it comes to red blends, there needs to be either some clarity or demystification with this category. I am very pleased that the idea of a “Red Blend” is a popular trend, but this should also come with a bit of education.
We get that. What kind of education do you have for your staff? Is that where the videos come in handy?
Yes. The videos are great for this. We also have an extensive training program. Our staff has a significant beverage training section as part of their initial training. All of our staff then has weekly notes that take that initial training and expand upon it. We conduct tastings at each of our locations and I always welcome special guests like winemakers or brewers to speak to the staff when available.
Do you find your guests being more adventurous?
Guests are being more adventurous but they still want to have an anchor of familiarity when they are being adventurous; for instance a red blend consisting of a different mix of grapes or a Pinot Noir from a region that is new to them.
Are your guests more wine savvy?
I am encouraged by the wine knowledge of the general public. This goes hand in hand with food knowledge. People are more concerned about what they consume. Whether it is for health reasons, personal preferences, or just wanting to look cool on Instagram, our diners are more particular about their selections.
Has this affected your wine program at all?
It hasn’t changed the focus of the program but it has intensified our training so we can maintain the integrity of our program. Since any of our guests can refer to Google or wine apps like Vivino, we need to make sure our staff is well versed in what we offer.
What grape varietal would you like your guests to try?
Every sommelier is going to say Syrah or Riesling (unless they are trying to be too cool and think everyone should drink Assyrtiko, which, really, they should). Syrah is versatile and expressive and similar to Pinot Noir in that it I think it expresses its origin more so than other grape varietals. It can be smoky, earthy and austere, or full and shamelessly fruity. With fuller bodied Pinot Noirs being en vogue, a switch to Syrah would be a logical next step. Syrah will have its day.
I love Assyrtiko. It could have something to do with my dream of going to Santorini. And I’ve been saying that about both Syrah and Viognier for ages. Still hopeful. Wine wish lists aside, what is your best selling wine/wine tier?
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in the $80-$125 range. It’s our most popular category.
Is there a particular wine region you have an affinity for?
I would have to say the Rhône valley. The wines are expressive, versatile and food friendly. Those wines are made to be part of a meal, a lifestyle and a culture. I also appreciate the lack of a classification system or hierarchy that you see in Bordeaux, Alsace and Burgundy.
We are sensing a pattern here. Syrah. Rhone. How about a favorite food & wine pairing?
Fried Chicken with Champagne.
Definitely not Rhone and thinking that’s not a specialty at Smith & Wollensky either.
What percent of your beverage business is wine sales?
Two thirds to three quarters.
That’s impressive. You and your team are obviously doing a stellar job as far as we are concerned. Are you following the path you started?
I did some teaching and I thought that was going to be the path for me. My desire to learn more about beer, wine and spirits pulled me from that path. I feel that many people don’t seek out this line of work but rather the work finds them.
We couldn’t agree more.