Marianna Caldwell was brought on in January of 2019 as the beverage director of Cassia, a Southeast Asian–inspired restaurant in Santa Monica and part of the Rustic Canyon Family restaurant group, but when the pandemic hit she also took on the role of General Manager in October of 2020. “I never wanted to be a general manager,” Caldwell stated, “but I really want to see Cassia thrive.” Together with chef/co-owner Bryant Ng, Caldwell helped Cassia weather the storm and found new ways to promote wine sales when cocktails started taking a higher percentage of beverage sales.
Your role changed a lot when you became the GM. Were you still able to focus on the wine program?
Yes. I’m a sommelier first. I told them (before taking on the role) that I had to make that a priority. I still curate the list and work the floor as a somm, which I think is great as a GM, as well. I think a lot of GMs do get bogged down in [administrative work], but I have an amazing support system; the management team is incredible. It’s the perfect storm of opportunity.
You mentioned a change in what guests are drinking. How do your cocktail and liquor sales this year compare to last year?
At the beginning of the pandemic cocktails were just kicking. Everybody wanted to get drunk, and wine was not selling the same. When we reopened for dining, that trend continued. Cocktails were 16% of total sales while wine was at 12%; it used to be the reverse and wine would be 18% of sales. But since the beginning of this year, I’m starting to see the numbers balance out. There are nights now when the bar says they were slow, and I’m sweating.
You employ humor on your list with headings like What I’m always drinking… (Hint it’s Riesling). Have you noticed a rise in riesling sales since you restructured the list in this way?
I honestly have, and this is something I’ve really been working on since I came aboard. There used to be a generic aromatics page of the wine list where riesling was put in. I think riesling gets such a bad rap, but there’s a reason sommeliers drink and love it. It pairs well with food, it’s delicious, it’s good value; and I wanted people to see that. People had already been attracted to the What I’m Drinking Now section, so I moved riesling to the front page, where guests were immediately confronted by it. Some people don’t want anything sweet, but most of my list is dry. I think that’s much more friendly to people who haven’t experienced it. I also price my riesling lower than any other wine on the list, so it’s the best value. It really has worked; I’ve seen at least a 50% increase in sales and the 2019 Weingut Keller Rheinhessen Trocken Riesling is the best-selling new wine on the list.
Besides riesling, have you noticed any other trend in your wine sales over the past year?
Skin contact is the new “it” wine. People are curious about it, so I really beefed up the orange wine section. I now have the same amount of orange wine as rosé; rosé has really fallen off. I think that is one of my slowest-moving categories. I wanted to start the conversation of what is orange wine… it’s not made from oranges! [When I choose a wine] I’m really looking for time on skins. I carry the entry-level, couple-hours-of-skin-contact wine, which is basically a white wine that has texture; and then I have the super-funky, traditional orange wine. I have one from Hungary right now that sells so well (now Cassia’s fourth top selling wine), the Jász Laci, which is made from mostly juhfark, a grape I had never heard of, so that’s a fun one.
You lead your list with a quote urging guests to chat with a sommelier saying, “Wine shouldn’t be intimidating. It’s just grape juice after all.” Have you noticed a trend in how your guests respond to sommeliers and wine?
Yes. I think what the somm documentaries did was make it more attractive to talk to a sommelier. They understand more what a sommelier does, and that opened up people’s willingness to both talk to me and try new things. I also read recently that millennials in particular are more likely to buy wine than cocktails. Maybe that’s because millennials have both gone through the 2008 financial crisis and now the pandemic, which was hard. I wonder if millennials see wine as a better value or more of an experience, in that you’re enjoying the bottle over the course of a dinner and a cocktail is more a starter or a finisher.
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