Mark Guillaudeu joined Commis as Beverage Director in 2017, the same year the team opened a cocktail lounge next door, and debuted a new wine cellar. He’s since doubled the offerings on the wine list, building a selection of 600 labels chosen to complement the restaurant’s Southeast Asian–influenced cuisine. Last fall, the sommelier community voted Guillaudeu as one of the W&S Best New Sommeliers of 2019. His latest move is to focus on sustainable winemaking: He now adds to the list only wines from wineries practicing organic farming.
Photo by Cayce Clifford
How did Domaine Tempier Bandol become your top-selling wine?
To be honest, that shocked the hell out of me even while it was happening. We built a new cellar in 2017, and I had just come on board with the company. One day, I was clearing out the storage unit, and my predecessor told me we were all done and everything was loaded up. Then, eight months later, the proprietor of the storage facility was like, “Hey, you still have half a storage unit here. Are you going to come get it?” There was a full case of the Domaine Tempier Bandol, and I did not sell a bottle for roughly 18 months. Then, all of a sudden, in a four-month window, the entire case was gone. Every time people were sitting down for the dry-aged ribeye, they wanted that 2015 Tempier Bandol. I’ve never seen a wine be so stagnant for so long, then just take off in the absence of a staff training or a promotion. And it was different people ordering it every time.
Do you have any sense as to why the sudden interest?
We launched a shorter price-fixed menu in the bar centered around dry-aged ribeye. Just a quick hour and a half, five course, $75 a person kind of deal. At least from a sommelier’s perspective, that wine had just started coming into that place where it was in a good spot, especially with that beautiful fatty steak. People gravitated towards it almost magically.
I think it’s also part of a broader trend: It seems people are waking up to this thirst for things they haven’t heard of before. I think Bandol kind of goes in there a little bit, because it’s big and robust and rich, but it goes just far enough off the radar of what people have heard of in France that it checks that curiosity box of, “We had steak, and we didn’t just buy a cabernet. We drank something different tonight.” Bordeaux is great, but outside of sommeliers, nobody’s putting classed growth on their Instagram.
You do brisk sales in sparkling wine, with several Champagnes among your best-selling bottles.
Chef had always wanted to brand the bar as a sparkling wine and brandy bar. So when I came on board, one of the directions I was given was to take a solid Champagne list and make it something special. I’ve done that mostly by focusing on small grower-producers, biodynamics preferred. A lot of my focus right now is using the wine list as a vehicle to spark conversations about climate change. The only major house I have added to the portfolio in the last six months is Louis Roederer, which farms more acreage biodynamically than anybody else in Champagne.
Champagne has sold itself very well. It’s that experience of luxury. When guests want to treat themselves, they want a good glass of Champagne, good oysters and 25 grams of caviar.
Predominantly, we get a half bottle or two glasses down before the tasting menu. It’s also part of our opening spiel. Would you like to get started with a cocktail or a glass of Champagne? As soon as you put that word in somebody’s mind, they’re like, “Sure, Champagne sounds great.” Then we built the follow-up question, “Well, we actually have three Champagnes by the glass.” A lot of people still order [Champagne] as a consumer product, the same way that, in the Midwest, when you say Coke, it just means soda. Now, we’ve built in that second moment where we can ask people how they are going to use this, whether it’s as an aperitif or as their one glass of wine for the whole menu.
Outside of that, we now have a pretty regular phenomenon going on where, because there’s no fixed menu at the bar, people will come in and, instead of spending $200 a head on the tasting menu at Commis and getting $100 bottle of wine for two people, people come into the bar and spend $100 on food and get a $400 bottle of wine. So most of the above-$200 Champagne bottles sales have been on the bar top, almost inevitably with a plate of oysters.
Your list of top-selling wines by the glass is impressively diverse, from a sparkling cabernet franc from the Loire to Maule Valley país and Styrian sauvignon blanc.
If you want that old-school San Francisco fine dining, there is no chance that my little 26-seat restaurant in Oakland can compete with the restaurants across the bridge. The place where I can most reasonably compete is on interest, is on complexity, being able to offer something different that you can’t get in the city, so I try very hard to reflect that in the wine list.