Andrew Pettingell of Otium in Los Angeles, CA, on Keeping Sommeliers Focused, and Why Madeira Is Ideal for Restaurants - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Andrew Pettingell of Otium in Los Angeles, CA, on Keeping Sommeliers Focused, and Why Madeira Is Ideal for Restaurants

Andrew Pettingell is the Beverage Director at Otium, one of the 25 LA restaurants we’re covering in our 2022 spring issue. We spoke with him about keeping his wine team focused on the jobs they signed up for, the buzz around orange wine, and what Madeira adds to the end of the meal.

You mentioned in an interview last year that you’ve been trying to keep your staff doing the tasks they were hired to do, but that meant cutting back some shifts and keeping the restaurant open five days a week instead of seven. Have things stayed that way and how have things progressed since the beginning of the pandemic?

We were a restaurant that was open seven nights [and six days] a week, and now we’re currently open five nights a week. We’re about to open up on Tuesdays again, maybe in the next two or three weeks. We were employing 150 or so people across the restaurant, now we’re at 80; that’s a big difference. But, as it relates to wine—and this is different from a lot of restaurants—if we’re going to hire sommeliers, I want them to focus on the wine program (selling, tasting, and organizing wine). I want them to surround themselves in that world, because when you find somebody who wants to be a sommelier, that’s what they want to do.

[Telling sommeliers,] “You’re going to get to sell bottles, but you also have to collect everybody’s closing checkouts and lock the doors up, or you have to do these reports that don’t involve wine, or you have to take a five-table section—” that’s not what the position is really for. I’m not going to attract elite talent who want to surround themselves with wine. Is there a version where we have leaner staff and somebody has to hybrid all that stuff? In other restaurants that are smaller, I’m sure you have to do things like that, but that’s not really how it is here.

And I believe that the sales generated from having a somm on the floor [increased]. What changed is that we had less people, but the rich got richer during COVID, to be honest, so we’re seeing higher bottle sales. Probably less people ordering $50-$60 wine because those people maybe don’t have the money to buy that, but the people that were buying $200-$300 bottles are spending more money.

We noticed restaurant professionals in other interviews have been saying people are buying DRC all the time, and it’s the number one thing going. People just want to splurge. Have you seen that in your restaurant as well?

Absolutely. We’re selling way more bottles of a thousand dollars than we ever did in the five years prior to post-COVID. Like I say, the rich got richer; and then even people who were middle-class or upper middle-class, a lot of them weren’t able to go out and spend money. You weren’t able to travel, so you have all this extra income that was added, and now you’re like “I want to go out because I haven’t been able to do it in two years.” So, you’re more likely to go out and maybe spurge a little bit too.

Based on the somms we’ve been speaking to, they all say everyone’s asking for orange wine. From your perspective, why do you think orange wine has been hyped in that way?

When I was working back at [Osteria] Mozza, we had all these amazing iconic orange wines like Radikon and Gravner, and I wanted to taste them so bad. But it was impossible to sell a bottle of orange wine. In a year, if I sold two, that was incredible.

It’s a little cyclical. You don’t want to listen to the same music your parents did. The youth movement has slid from getting out of drinking Napa cabs into doing natural wines, or orange wines or stuff that was being drunk before. That’s really the genesis of it. When we usually get asked about it, it’s usually younger clientele that are asking for it.

It will move through again. But, it’s got its moment right now. So, people are interested in it. It’s just the buzz. Like the buzz with malbec. People don’t know what malbec is, but they know the word. Sancerre was huge. We don’t actually sell wine—we sell the perception of wine.

Your top-selling dessert wine was ’94 D’Oliveira Madeira. People are a little less familiar with it than Port. Why do you think people are gravitating towards that as a dessert wine?

Madeira, to me, is the perfect dessert wine for restaurants. If you open a bottle of Port, especially vintage Port, the shelf life of it is about a week max. Ideally, two days. It would be like keeping any by-the-glass red open and pouring some of it. It’s not going to taste right. Yet, it still gets done at restaurants all across the world. But, it’s wrong.

With Madeira, the shelf life is infinite because it’s already been heated and oxidized. So you can’t really do anything more to it that hasn’t already been done. Anything can happen to it, and it’s going to stay the same. So, it’s ideal for by-the-glass pours.

We have a selection of vintage Madeiras. It just fits in really great—I’d like to even remove the Port altogether. The pricing’s a little better on [the Madeira]. When you pour 20-year Port against some vintage Madeira, it’s no question.

Addendum 06/10/22: We were surprised by a response to our posted interview on Instagram, in which Roderick Daniels left a comment that Otium has practiced racial bias in their hiring, and that he learned about it through Andrew Pettingell, the beverage director. In 2018, Mr. Daniels was up for a position as sommelier at Otium; he went deep into the interview process, but the position went to another candidate. Months after this, Pettingell and Daniels met at an event and had a friendly conversation, which included a discussion of the hiring process; each remembers the points of the discussion differently. For now, we will leave our reporting on the restaurant’s beverage program in place. Otium has a demonstrated history of high levels of racial and gender equity in their hiring, but, were we to learn that they or any restaurant on our poll list engages in racially biased hiring practices, we would remove that restaurant from our list.

David lives in New York City and is always looking for the next wine story worth sharing.

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