Robert McGrath of Juno Beach, Florida’s Ke’e Grill on Blind Tasting Guests and Reintroducing Chardonnay - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Robert McGrath of Juno Beach, Florida’s
Ke’e Grill on Blind Tasting Guests and Reintroducing Chardonnay

Robert McGrath has worked with the AP Restaurant Group since 1993, when he was 21 years old. Growing from a server to bar manager to writing the wine and beverage lists—he’s currently the General Manager of Ke’e Grill, located just north of Palm Beach. He’s witnessed the ebbs and flows of two-Martini lunches and the downfall of merlot, and maintains we are still feeling the Sideways effect. 2023 was the first year he saw guests moving back to normalcy after the COVID-19 Pandemic, with large groups dining together, and dining out more frequently. He’s just happy to see people coming out and enjoying wine again. —Caitlin Griffith

Robert McGrath

What are your guests loving right now?

We are basically a California house. Our wine program is heavily driven by California and Oregon wine, especially with pinot noir. What’s interesting about my wine list compared to most is the amount of by-the-glass offerings I have. We run 64 different wines available by the glass. If you go out to dinner and you want a nice glass of red, or you want a white and the other person wants a red, you end up ordering a Tito’s and soda because there’s nothing on the list that you want to drink.

Sancerre as a category for me has really started to take off. Back in the day, everybody was a chardonnay drinker but more people began to introduce themselves to sauvignon blanc and albariño—we have the Terras Gauda out of Spain. Crisp, clean, easy-going white wine is selling well. Guests always tell me that they don’t want a big oaky butter bomb—the exception is Rombauer. And I think you can reintroduce guests back into the chardonnays a little bit more because the wines are in old oak or very little oak and they’re not going through malolactic fermentation. A lot of times people will describe what the Chappellet Growers Edition is, but they’ll [also] say I don’t want a chardonnay. I’ll ask them to do me a favor, just taste this. And all of a sudden they’re like, this is a chardonnay?

Tell me more about blind-tasting guests to ensure they are drinking exactly what they want.

What I find most is that I have to lead the guests into some of the newer stuff. You have to listen to the guest as to what they want because a lot of times they don’t describe the variety that they’re asking for. My philosophy is to listen. The more you listen to the guests, the more you’re going to be able to put them onto something they’re going to truly enjoy. I like to do a lot of blind tasting with the guests. When they’re asking for cabernet and for big and fruity but they don’t want a lot of tannins on the backside, I’m more apt to maybe bring them the L’Ecole or the Dutton Goldfield that has a little bit of tannin, or Markham Merlot, to let them go ahead and taste something that’s a little bit more fruit-forward but not as big. And they get shocked, you know, it kind of blows their mind that they’re enjoying a pinot noir or they’re enjoying the zinfandel or syrah. And they didn’t realize that they enjoyed those.

What was the most exciting bottle for you to sell this past year?

We have a provider in the area that got me some older vintages of the Andrew Geoffrey [Napa Valley] and the Melanson [Napa Valley]. I was able to get my hands on some ‘09s, ‘11s, and ‘13s of the Andrew Geoffrey and let the guests really experience a wine that has matured in the cabernet section. More times than not, the wines are opened right out of the box. We tend to have to move what we have. So when we have an opportunity to list things like that, that really, helps out. One of the wines that I put on the list this year, that I really fell in love with, was the Dragon’s Tooth by Trefethen—it’s big, robust. It’s got malbec, petite verdot and cabernet sauvignon and it’s just a big-boy wine. It really hit a spot for me when I tasted it. Same thing with Ancient Peaks out of Paso Robles. I tend to shy away from Paso myself just because I feel the alcohol content is a little high. And they’re a little hotter than I like my reds. But that Ancient Peaks Oyster Ridge. It’s just spectacular. I like when I see things that aren’t normal for the terroir or the region. You know that the winery is doing something different.

How have wine sales been over the past year?

It’s about 50/50 wine sales with the list that we have [50 percent being liquor sales]. I do feel as though the amount of alcohol consumption has definitely gone down throughout the years. It used to be a martini or two and a bottle of wine. Now, guests may have a drink or just jump to the wine. And then if we go to wine, guests will just have a glass. I think people are a little bit more conscientious.

When I started in this industry, it was two-Martini lunch. Nobody drinks martinis at lunch anymore. And I just think that people are just being more socially conscious of their consumption.

Caitlin Griffith knew her future career would entail food and drink when, at the age of six, she munched an anchovy from her father’s Caesar salad thinking it as a small strip of bacon—and was more than pleasantly surprised. While enrolled in New York University’s Food Studies program, she learned the secrets of affinage in the caves of Murray’s Cheese.

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