Joshua Steiner of Milwaukee’s Carnevor on Choosing a California Cabernet and what Makes a Good Steakhouse Pinot Noir - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Joshua Steiner of Milwaukee’s Carnevor on Choosing a California Cabernet and what Makes a Good Steakhouse Pinot Noir

Joshua Steiner grew up on a Wisconsin farm and started waiting tables at a burger joint 17 years ago. He worked his way up in the restaurant business to become wine director at Carnevor, a Milwaukee steak house, where he has built a 760-bottle wine list that’s heavy on California cabernets. He became Corporate Wine Director for the Surg Group’s seven restaurants in 2016.

Carnevor’s six best-selling wines are California cabernets. How do guests typically choose from among the 120 California cabs on your list?
A lot of people have the perception that cabernet sauvignon from Napa is perfect with steak, but wine lists can be intimidating, and guests gravitate to names that are familiar, like Caymus, Silver Oak, Jordan and Stag’s Leap. Our three best-selling cabs [Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2015 Napa Valley Artemis, Silver Oak 2013 Alexander Valley and Caymus 2015 Napa Valley] are always consistently good regardless of vintage. People have decided on those before they walk through the door, often because they don’t want to worry about whether their wine is going to be good. We don’t try to sell those wines; people just ask for them. We have 50 selections each of French and Italian wines, and they do sell, but Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon is still king. I don’t ever try to change someone’s mind. If you want a Napa cab, that’s what I’m going to give you. But if not, I’ll be happy to show you something else. My job is that when guests hesitate, I’m able to suggest wines from numerous regions throughout the world that would be great with their dinner.

Domestic pinot noir fills out the rest of your best-selling list. What constitutes a good steakhouse pinot noir?
We look for “steakhouse pinots” that have darker fruit, a little bit less racy acidity, and a little more body and structure, which includes wines like Sea Smoke’s 2014 Santa Barbara Southing [the #7 best seller]. Domaine Drouhin’s 2013 Willamette Valley Laurène was our biggest success this year. It’s from a great family that comes from Burgundy, so the wine is sort of “New World meets Old World”—the terroir and fruit are both there. The flavor profile is not over the top, with more red fruit, low tannins and good acidity, so it can complement veal chops, lamb, or even fish. At $136 on the list, it’s at a good price point that people are comfortable with.

Only one white made your list of top-selling wines—Tiefenbrunner’s 2016 Alto Adige Pinot Grigio.
We can’t sell white wine by the bottle to save our lives. We probably sell four bottles of white in a month. People might order one glass of white, but then they move into reds. It’s so hard to sell higher-end complex white wines here, but we do carry some on our list for people who actually enjoy those things. Pinot grigio sells because it’s nondescript. I’m not trying to put it down—I like pinot grigio—but it’s a wine that people drink more because of what it isn’t than for what it is. It appeals to people who are looking for a white that is not sweet, not oaky, not buttery, and not too fruity like New Zealand sauvignon blanc. It’s a straightforward, easy-drinking wine that’s a great way to get things started, and the price is great at $9 a glass.
Muscadet is similar to pinot grigio in profile, and we have it by the glass, but people just don’t know it. We actually give it away with oysters to make customers aware of how well they go together. It’s a perfect match, but a hard sell. My job isn’t to push something on people that they don’t want, or tell them what not to order. We try to accommodate our guests and heighten their experiences without stepping on toes. It’s a lot of fun when they want to try something new, but if they don’t, we don’t want to lose that customer.

Your wine sales have increased significantly in the last year. What’s driving that?
We’ve dropped prices on certain wines like the Sea Smoke Pinot Noir, which is a wine that other restaurants in the area maybe can’t afford to buy and hold.  Rather than pricing it at $250 and sitting on the inventory, we realized that we can sell two bottles at $180. We decreased the price on the Stag’s Leap Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon by $8 to $112, and believe it or not, that little bit makes a huge difference. We’re taking a little less margin but moving more wine. We’re also seeing some movement away from high-priced wines like Cardinale or Staglin, and towards wines like Frank Family or Priest Ranch cabernets.

Priest Ranch has been incredibly popular with us recently – it’s a good value at $18 a glass and $72 a bottle. Our wine sales vary depending on the time of the week. The value wines like Priest Ranch and Frank Family sell during the weekends when it’s local customers. The higher-priced wines and brand names like Silver Oak are popular during the week when it’s a lot of business and celebrity guests. 

You offer about 20 selections by the glass under Coravin. How has that impacted your wine sales?
Our Coravin options have increased in the last year, and that has helped our sales tremendously. It gives people a chance to try high-end wines that they might not have ever tried, and allows us to broaden peoples’ minds, especially in a market like Milwaukee. Guests don’t want to worry that they they’ll end up with something they’re not happy with. This erases the doubt by letting them try it first without committing to a whole bottle. Someone might come in and say, “I’ve never had Duckhorn Three Palms before, and it’s $200 a bottle. I don’t know if I’ll like it.” We’ll Coravin it and let them buy a glass, and if they like it then they buy the bottle. It helps us sell wines like Ridge Monte Bello, Far Niente Chardonnay, Merry Edwards Pinot Noir and Gaja. It’s one of the reasons our sales of high-end Italian wines, like Brunello, have increased. It also allows our employees to try some high-end wines, and that helps sales too.

A couple of wines from outside the U.S. made your best-selling lists. How did those wines break through?
A lot of it has to do with more education. We’re getting more winery reps from around the world coming in and telling the story behind the wines. When the staff knows the story, they sell more of the wine. The staff got really turned on by the Mollydooker [2016 McLaren Vale Shiraz Blue Eyed Boy, the #4 best-selling wine by the glass], and their enthusiasm drove the sales. Customers loved it too and kept wanting to try it again. It’s a good value at $18 a glass for a six-ounce pour. The Zuccardi Malbec [the #9 best-selling bottle] is more about the price point, at $45 a bottle.

We’re beginning to see more interest in Brunello; three years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case. Brunello has that nice dark fruit and bright acidity which work so great with a well-marbled steak.

You sell a lot of cabernet sauvignon, but what about merlot?
We have over 30 selections of merlot, including three by the glass (two under Coravin), but trying to get people to drink merlot is like saying a dirty word to them. It’s a shame, because merlot with a filet is a match made in heaven. Merlot’s texture and fruit character really match up with a lean filet. I suppose it’s still some of the *Sideways† effect. We’re in Milwaukee, one of the last places to embrace trends. We sometimes pour merlot blind for people and they like it, but if you ask them after they know what it is, they’ll say they don’t like it.

If you were dining tonight at Carnevor, what would you order, and what would you drink with it?
I’d have our ten-ounce prime filet mignon paired with Hourglass HGIII. It’s a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah, which gives the wine complexity, savory notes of dark plums, chocolate and spice. It won’t overpower the leanness of the filet, but has enough backbone to complement a range of sauces.

is the Italian wine editor at Wine & Spirits magazine.