Donaciano Betancourt of The Frog and the Peach in New Brunswick, NJ, on Taking Over Just Before the Pandemic - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Donaciano Betancourt of The Frog and the Peach in New Brunswick, NJ, on Taking Over Just Before the Pandemic

Since The Frog and the Peach reopened in September 2020, having been closed for six months, Donaciano Betancourt has been at work every day. “We’re still struggling to find help,” he says, but acknowledges that he loves being at the restaurant—even after 15 years. James Mullen had mentored Betancourt, who took over as wine director in 2019 after Mullen’s retirement, just in time for two of the most difficult years of his career. Now, he’s training Sara Hernandez, a server with an interest in wine. “I take her to every wine tasting that’s happening now.”

In 2019, the list was 350 selections. Now 200. How have you pared it back and what have you added?

After we reopened, we came out with a short wine list—a two-page list, one of wines by the glass, the other of preselected bottles we had in the restaurant. For five months, I didn’t buy any wine. I tried to use everything I had at the restaurant. Today, we still do that short list as well as a full list.

I got rid of the half bottles on the list. I would love to bring those back, but I still try to be careful how much I buy because, we never know. I added a little bit more in the Spanish section, Priorat, ten more wines. I’m Spanish, from Mexico, speak the language—let’s do this. The main thing on the list is French wines.

In 2019, wine was 60% of your total alcohol sales, then in 2020 it dipped to 2%, now it is 37%. What is driving that shift and what are people drinking instead?

Believe it or not, they’ve started drinking more beer and cocktails. That happened during the pandemic. People were at home, and, in New Brunswick, there are not that many high-end wine shops, so the only option was beer and hard alcohol. So, they get into that, and now I’m trying to get them back to drinking more wine. We used to do wine classes at the Frog, I’m planning to do that again in the middle of the year. Next month, I am planning a French wine dinner, the month after, I had something already planned with Martin Reyes, of Peter Paul Wines.

You noted that the Donatella Cinelli Colombini 2016 Brunello di Montalcino was a new listing that was particularly successful last year.

There’s a story behind that. Before the pandemic, I attended one of the tastings with her, and when I was there, I learned that everything was done by women—no men allowed. And since I was raised by a single mom, I was like, I have to get this wine. Every time someone is interested in a northern Italian red, I mention that. And I told my staff about it and they are really into that wine. Besides, the wine is amazing, too.

Back in 2019, the top sellers at The Frog and the Peach were mostly California wines, and mostly cabernet. Your top-selling list is heavy into Rhônes and Napa Cabernets, but then you have some unusual things as well, and particularly for a French-influenced restaurant like The Frog and the Peach. There’s a Santorini and the Zuccardi Concreto Malbec. How do those compete in the same arena with the richer red wines?

It’s not like I don’t like California Cabernet. The Concreto, well, I met Sebastian Zuccardi at the Descorchados tasting, and we talked for, like, 30 minutes. He was telling me about his project to find specific plots of land for malbec, to make something that really expressed the land. It blew my mind, and I told my staff, If someone asks for malbec, sell them this (the Concreto). Later, I found out that the guy who told him about different plots of land was Pedro Parra, and I really admire him. Every time someone asks for malbec, I sell them this.

The Santorini assyrtiko is one of my favorites. If someone is looking for a nice dry wine, it’s assyrtiko, that’s been on the list since I started working at the Frog. There are wines that have been there forever, and there’s a reason I just keep buying them.

When you say customers have been asking for cabernet sauvignon, do you mean Napa Valley, or from other places as well? How flexible are they, and how interested in cabernet from a range of different places?

They’ve been asking for Napa cabernets by the glass. I switch wines by the glass every two or three weeks—I like to keep it fresh; that’s what keeps a restaurant interesting. Every two months, I put on a cabernet sauvignon because guests keep asking. It’s everything they are looking for—if they want a full-bodied wine, they say cabernet sauvignon. Especially our customers, who are more of an older crowd, they are always like the big, bold Napa cabernets. Our food is not meant for that. It’s crazy.

Through the years, a couple of people have changed their minds. There’s a regular who has come in for the last thirty years. He told me, “Twenty years ago, I always used to drink full-bodied Napa cabernet. If I could see through my wine, I would not drink it. I would have cabernet with steak, with fish.” Then Jim asked if he wanted to taste the food—Jim converted him to Burgundy. Now, that’s the only thing he drinks.

Has the pandemic changed your buying strategies?

Before the pandemic, I would buy something expensive that could age. If I could sell it, fine. Now, everything I buy, I’m thinking of a short period of time for selling. I’ve got to move the product. With the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen, I buy in small amounts and try to be more careful of what I buy.

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.

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