California native Brandon Borcoman helped open a beachside craft beer restaurant while attending Loyola Marymount College and credits the experience with helping develop his palate. He moved NYC to attend graduate school for poetry, and began working in restaurants like Sorella, where he developed some wine chops that inspired him to stay on that track. Borcomon started as a junior sommelier at Charlie Bird three years ago, and now heads up its wine program.
I think of Charlie Bird as an Italian restaurant, but half of the wines on your top ten list are French.
Hip-hop, red Burgundy and roast chicken were the three important things to the people who founded Charlie Bird. If you listen to the music, you’ll realize it’s always hip hop that’s playing, and it can be interesting to find yourself listening to that while drinking a glass of Roumier Bourgogne rouge. The Burgundies that made the top ten are probably there because our team enjoys them. We often taste wines blind, and every vintage we tend to pick Benjamin Leroux’s St. Romain [2015 Sous Le Château, number five on the best-selling bottle list]. Even in big and forward vintages like 2015, he seems able to rein in some of those characteristics. It’s also a screw-capped wine, which we like, and it’s priced under $100 on our list.
Usually when we see a sangiovese-based wine at the top of a best-selling list, it’s from Chianti Classico or Montalcino, but your number one wine last year was Poliziano 2015 Rosso di Montepulciano. What made that wine so successful?
One easy thing is that it has Montepulciano in the name, and to be honest, some people probably think it’s Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. It’s also priced ridiculously low for its value, so for those looking for something $65 or less, that’s the bottle they’ll almost always go to because it’s in the Tuscany section. But I stand behind it too. It has that sangiovese delicacy, and people see the excitement we have for it. If people order cavatelli and pork shoulder, the Poliziano is a great match. We also have Foradori’s Teroldego at the same price on our list, but that wine asks more of a guest—the flavor profile is less easy, the name is harder to pronounce and people are less familiar with the region, so it’s more of an outlier. But Elisabetta [Foradori] is one of the original gangsters, and it’s great to have that wine on our list.
Castell’in Villa’s 2013 Chianti Classico, another sangiovese-based wine, was number five on your top-selling BTG list. How have your customers responded to Chianti Classico?
Castell’in Villa has some Burgundian aspects, which I like, and Chianti Classic is having a resurgence, but it’s kind of an age thing. You could almost relate it to Beaujolais. People in my parents’ generation may have had trashy Beaujolais, and that’s hard to overcome. I’ve had people scoff at me for trying to sell them 2014 Lapierre. Some people do that with Chianti Classico. They’ve only had the bad iterations, and that’s what sticks in their heads. But it’s an easier sell with young people because, even though it’s somewhat familiar, they don’t have that negative association. If you can give them a great example they’ll get into it, and it’s an easy sell, partly because it’s also well-priced. But sometimes you have to talk the table into it in the first place. It’s a little bit like riesling; people are skeptical when you say it, but if you blind a table on a riesling they’ll almost always like it. The same is true of a good Chianti Classico like Castell’in Villa.
Your wine sales are up, yet prices have held steady.
Our reserve list helps drive up sales. We get people that can drink Raveneau or Roumier on a weekly basis, and that’s great. Our half-bottle policy is also an important aspect. You can order half a bottle of any wine on our main list for half the price of the full bottle. It’s what I would want to do if I were out, and I’m very happy that our program allows that. If someone wants to try Roulot 2014 but doesn’t want to commit to a full bottle, it’s an awesome way to try it. If it’s a higher end wine, we’ll Coravin the remaining half so we have a little extra time to sell it. If not, we’ll just sell it by the glass. It’s a perfect way to maintain your cost and give someone a great experience.