SPAGO'S MICHAEL BONACCORSI KNOWS MORE THAN YOU DO ABOUT WINE

For Michael Bonaccorsi, drinking on the job is a necessity.

As sommelier at Spago in Beverly Hills, he is responsible for procuring wine for the world-famous restaurant, as well as crafting the wine list and advising customers on what wines to pair with what foods.

The Chicago native got a business degree at the University of Illinois. But by graduation day, he headed to California to be close to the business.

After a stint selling wine in the Bay Area, Bonaccorsi worked as a sommelier at various restaurants in San Francisco and then L.A. before landing at Spago six years ago. Along the way, he picked up a diploma from the Guild of Master Sommeliers.

Question: How did you first get interested in wine?

Answer: When I was in college and was working in a restaurant in Champaign-Urbana, Ill. that, for the area anyway, had a pretty good wine list. I was basically busing tables, but there were a few people there who knew about wine and I just got interested. There was a good wine shop across the street and this waiter captain and I used to spend half our tip money checking out French, German and California wines.

Q: When you first started out as a sommelier, did you ever get funny reactions from diners because you were so young at the time?

A: I suppose. Some people did comment and still do a little, but a lot less than they used to. I'm by no means the youngest one out there anymore. There are a lot of young, upcoming, new-breed (sommeliers). A sommelier is not an old guy in a tuxedo with a tastevin (small saucer for tasting) around his neck, any more than your average restaurant chef is an old French guy wearing a toque and kerchief around his neck.

Q: Do you ever wear a tastevin?

A: Never in my life. Don't have one.

Q: What's your typical day like?

A: I work 12 to 12. At a place like this, we're doing $3 million of wine sales (per year) and almost $5 million in beverage sales, so a lot of that is dealing with the beverage department as a profit center in the restaurant, taking care of the accounting side of that. It's managing the products through the restaurant, through the pricing controls, following up on credits with distributors, meeting with vendors sometimes, keeping the wine list accurate and up to date. It usually gets printed on average every 10 days.

Q: Does Wolfgang Puck ever get involved in the process?

A: I can't think of when he has. He likes to drink red wine, but in five years I can't remember him saying boo to me about we should have. I think that's why he hired me.

Q: How often do you taste the wines?

A: We taste wine with staff every day, as well as the food specials for the evening. I may spend a week going through a particular area. I've gone through the wines of the Rhone or Burgundy or Bordeaux or Spain several times now over the course of three years. But everybody forgets.

Q: How much do you interact with customers?

A: It depends. I try to get around. I have waiters who are better with customer relations than I am. I'll make my way around, "I'm the sommelier, can I be of help with the wine list?" Or waiters will send me to a table, or they'll take an order and I'll serve the bottle. People might be looking for an interesting bottle to have with their dinner. I let them set the guidelines.

The waiters sometimes don't like me at the table because I tend to talk people down price-wise. "How is this Cabernet?" "It's good, but here's a better one for less money." The waiters think, "Show them a better one that's more money."

Q: Do you try to steer them to more unusual vintages or push them to broaden their horizons?

A: If people say, "We want something interesting in red," you won't hear the word Merlot come out of my mouth. But if they say, "We're looking for a good Merlot," then I'll steer them toward what I think is a good Merlot. So sure, yeah, I'll try to offer them the most authentic, highest-quality wine of a style that they're interested in. That often means Zinfandel and not Merlot, or Syrah rather than Cabernet.

Q: What's your mark-up?

A: It's industry average. At the end of the day, we don't measure it by mark-up, it's measured by wine cost. We have a self-imposed wine cost on the financial statement like every well-managed restaurant does, as well as non-alcoholic beverage costs, liquor costs, food costs, labor costs, etc. For a restaurant of this classification, ours are industry average, maybe a little higher, meaning we're giving back more to the customer.

Q: What about customers who make what you would consider bizarre or bad food-and-wine pairings? What do you do?

A: I don't stand in their way.

Q: What's the worst combination you've ever seen?

A: Well, one last week: Napa Valley Cabernet with Northwestern raw oysters on the half shell. It's their idea. I'll sometimes say, "I've got a great wine by the glass just for those oysters." Sometimes they'll say, "We'll try it." Sometimes, "No, we've got enough wine." Sometimes I'll bring them a little tasting, just so maybe a light bulb will go off.

Q: How often does someone complain that the wine is corked (tainted by a bad cork)?

A: Not often enough.

Q: Do you think people are intimidated?

A: I don't think they know. Somebody called me this week and said, "We were in this restaurant in Las Vegas and this waiter went over to the sideboard and took a taste of our wine before he served it to the table." I said, "He's trying to do you a favor."

In the real restaurant environment, 19 out of 20 bad bottles are corked bottles. We see it at the bar. The bartenders know enough that they pull a cork, smell something and pour a glass even at arm's length and dump the whole bottle down the sink. I wish there were some appropriate way to smell every bottle.

Q: What are the most popular wines these days?

A: Chardonnay, Merlot and Cab.

Q: Do you see any others emerging, that people are starting to ask for a little more?

A: Syrah's really come out. And we always like to sell Zinfandel.

Q: How do you select wines for your list?

A: I like to keep a good variety. The list draws on the influences that the food draws on California, French, Italian, Austrian, a few German wines, which are good with food, and Spanish wines.

Q: How do you find the wines?

A: It's a combination of meeting with suppliers, traveling to see the wineries, reading and past history. Mostly, it's personal experience.

Q: What was the last bottle you bought for your own personal consumption?

A: We were out for dinner at an Italian place in Palm Springs and bought a bottle of Fonterutoli Chianti Classico. It's a good, young vintage. I wanted to check it out and it was in my price range.

Q: Recount a meal in which the wine was stellar.

A: This past spring we did a dinner at the James Beard House where Chef Lee (Hefter) did his Moroccan spiced lamb and we had this '96 Syrah from the Napa Valley, from Lewis Cellars. And it was really one of those transcendent matches where you would taste the food and taste the wine and it was translucent you could taste the two things together rather than one blocking out the other.

Q: If you were on a desert island and only allowed three bottles, what would they be?

A: One would have to be Alsace Riesling because you want a good-quality, refreshing white wine on a desert island. I think one would be Rafanelli Zinfandel from Dry Creek and the other would have to be red Burgundy.

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