A New Orleans native, Joe Billesbach spent eight years in New York’s wine industry before moving home to join the reopening team at Brennan’s. Ralph Brennan’s side of the family had left the restaurant in the 1970s, focusing instead on Commander’s Palace and Mr. B.’s, but he and business partner Terry White bought the building at auction in August of 2013 and soon reopened the restaurant. Billesbach began working on the wine program when the doors opened in November of 2014, and was officially promoted to beverage director in October of 2015.
How did you go about building on the previous wine program at Brennan’s?
Ralph Brennan bought all the contents of the restaurant and the cellar as well. There were lots of old party wines we had to get rid of, but they had some great background on DRC, [other] Burgundy and California cabernet. But Brennan’s lost quite a bit of inventory in Katrina. It’s rare to find things from prior to 2004, when [the former owners] started buying once they restarted the cellar.
We’re building it back up. When we opened, we were around 1,200 selections, then 1,500 at the end of last year. This past year, with Burgundy, it was easy to add on 400 selections.
Can you point to any challenges that are somewhat unique to the New Orleans market?
Those higher-price-point US pinots—things like Aubert, Littorai and Marcassin—we just don’t get a lot, because the state has this law: Whatever producers sell DTC [direct-to-consumer], they can’t sell to distributors. So we won’t see those wines. I’m always looking for collectible pinot noir, because I can sell it. We get a lot of convention business; they want to spend that money, and I have very few wines that are instantly recognizable.
We often see zinfandel showing up in the poll results from California restaurants, but less so in the rest of the country. How did the Ridge’s Three Valleys zin end up in your top ten?
We do get people who ask for a zin that’s got some body to it. They might think the French wine is too foreign for them, and the cabernet is too [highly] priced for them. So you have those people who want an American wine—it’s a zinfandel. They’ll say, ‘I like zin, so let’s go with that.’
I’m a little subversive in going with Ridge. The way they do zin, with the field blends and being super-transparent with what they do in the winemaking, it’s a more classic representation of zinfandel, what we consider American zinfandel. A lot of zin producers have been blowing with the wind, first with more oak and alcohol, then, when that market was lost, they go with less oak and pulling back. There’s something to be said for Ridge’s commitment to what they make.
With the vast selection of Champagnes on your list, including more inexpensive options, how is it that Billecart-Salmon Rosé at $185 is outselling all others?
In a lot of other markets, most of your diners are two tops, four tops, maybe a six. What’s unique to our market is that we routinely have larger groups in the dining room. Friday lunch is crazy, like a lot of places in New Orleans. You end up seeing people who are willing to jump on something like that Billecart Rosé. We’ve been pouring it by the glass, so people were familiar with it. I counted up the Champagnes on the list a few months ago and it was over 100. From the beginning, we felt that we had to have a pretty serious Champagne program.
And yet the Scarpetta Prosecco is one of your top by-the-glass pours at $10.
The other side of our market is that we get a lot people coming in for breakfast from 8 to 2. They’re getting eggs; they just want a glass of something light and fresh. It’s perfect for that. Cocktails do well in the morning as well. The other thing that drives the Prosecco, is that we’re more known for the locals who come in to celebrate a birthday or anniversary. That’s an easy jump, to have something that’s celebratory that’s not $70 to $100.