Ren Neuman of NYC’s Joseph Leonard on the Challenges of Stepping into the Beverage Director Position Amidst a Pandemic - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Ren Neuman of NYC’s Joseph Leonard on the Challenges of Stepping into the Beverage Director Position Amidst a Pandemic

Joseph Leonard is a cozy, neighborhood spot near New York City’s Washington Square Park. It was opened by Gabriel Stulman, Chef James McDuffee and team in 2009, but Ren Neuman jumped into the position of beverage director just nine months ago. She talks about transitioning into the role, which wines surprised her by their performance, and the unusual challenges she ran into behind the bar.

Previously, you were a floor sommelier at Nomad. What was it like jumping into your first Beverage Director position in the middle of a pandemic?

It was all at once very exciting, because now I have my dream job, and overwhelming in a sense because we have four restaurants in the Happy Cooking family besides Joseph Leonard (the other three are Jeffrey’s Grocery, Fairfax, and Jolene). It was COVID times, weird things were going on, and I had a quick training of only three weeks. Then it was, “All right. Go off and do the thing!” And so far, it’s worked out. I’m loving it.

Have you been able to make many changes to the wine list or have you had to be more conservative?

I think like most places, there was wine we had pre-pandemic that we wanted to utilize first before making any really big changes. I think in the next six months that’s where I’m going to find a little bit more of my personal touch. But I was really excited to bring in Claus Preisinger Kieselstein Zweigelt. I’m slowly but surely putting my Ren twist on the menu. Joseph Leonard has the longest wine list of our four restaurants, so it’s a place where I get to have a little bit more fun.

What new wine surprised you the most with its performance?

Definitely the Maxime Troncy Beaujolais Sourire au Nature Gamay. I tasted it two weeks into starting and thought it was delicious, but it was very unexpected when it first took off. I didn’t know there was such a thirst for a more natural-listed style, so it was cool to see that there was. At first there was what I call the “Brooklyn vibe,” asking for orange wine. I’d tell them I had some good skin-contact for them and they’d ask, “What’s that?” And I was like, “Yes! Let’s learn.” But recently, the word “natural” has been coming up a lot more in conversations.

Have you noticed a trend in the price people are spending on wine during the pandemic?

I find the most success pricing wines in the 60-to-80-dollar range, or right under 100 dollars, though, we’ve had good movement in the 110-115 area. We’re a neighborhood spot so the majority comes from that lower range. I want you to be able to come into any one of our restaurants multiple times a week rather than just once and spend $300.

I’ve been hearing about shortages within the restaurant industry. Have you run into any unusual shipping issues?

I haven’t had issues with wine buying. There is so much to choose from that there’s going to be an easy substitute if you need one. My biggest issue with buying right now is all liquor. Scotch is hard to get your hands on. Random things, like there isn’t a liter or 750 of Woodford Reserve or Grey Goose. They only have a 1.75-liter bottle and now you have a bartender behind the bar with two hands holding this huge bottle. That’s been a little bit of a headache. 

How did outdoor dining affect Joseph Leonard?

Our restaurant is teeny tiny. It only seats thirty-something people or fewer. During the height of COVID, there was no indoor dining, so we added the outdoor component. Once indoor was back up and running along with the outdoor, we had doubled our original seating but were still running with the same tiny kitchen. I think that’s happened with a lot of New York restaurants. You see places that are super-duper small and historically hard to get into, that have now doubled or even tripled their capacity size with outdoor seating. Now that everything is allowed it has definitely increased our sales and number of people we get to interact with every day.

What’s it been like interacting with guests at this time?

Obviously, there are always going to be some bad apples in The Big Apple (laughs). But, really, our guests have been a delight. We have regulars who know everyone by name front-of-house and back-of-house and will give gifts at Christmas. Just really lovely people who understood that this was a really hard couple years for a lot of us. We’ve been there for when they fell in love, for when they’ve experienced loss, and even people who have left the city come back and have to visit. That’s a really good feeling.

Based in Los Angeles, California, Alissa Bica is the Spirits Editor and Critic at Wine & Spirits. She is also a Certified Sommelier and co-runs the home wine tasting company, Côte Brune and Blonde. In any rare moments of free time, she writes about obscure grape varieties in the blog Off the Beaten Wine Path.

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