In today's interview we are meeting with Basile Al Mileik, Wine Director at the Wythe Hotel, in NYC. Basile shares with us his journey through wine and the hospitality industry, as we well as his ethos as a buyer and the importance of relationships with producers.
In a few words, please introduce yourself, tell us about your background, and your job responsibilities at the Wythe hotel?
Pretty standard studies, I have a bachelor in IR and a master in business. Very quickly I moved to a restaurant job as I did not like the “corporate world” and wanted to open my own place. I worked my way up from server to FOH director, and I got bitten by the wine bug early in Paris. I also learned through other sommeliers who served as my mentors. Today at the Wythe, I am the wine director, which means, I buy all the wine for Reynard, the hotel restaurant, The Ides, the cocktail bar, our events program, and the hotel room service and mini-bar. I am also on the management team for all F&B, so I work on the floor daily and sell wine.
How much wine do you buy per year at the Wythe?
I buy roughly $380-400k of wine per year for the whole building. I actually should look into our mini bar numbers more because I don’t have them for this year but for F&B our wine revenue is about 2 million a year, which is roughly 30% of all our beverage sales.
Do you have a chart or ethos to follow regarding your wine selection?
We have a pretty strong ethos of working with only producers that are at the very least organic, usually biodynamic and most even go as far as ‘natural,’ yet this term isn’t officially defined anywhere. We undeniably have a focus on French wines. However, I do buy a little bit of non-French wines, either from lesser known regions of established wine countries (Baden, Wurttemberg, Canary Islands, Catalunya, Abruzzo, Sardinia, Finger Lakes, Oregon) or more diverse countries like Georgia, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Austria and so on; always keeping in mind that the wines should complement the food and never overpower it.
How often do you change your wine list?
I tweak and update the wine lists every week or so, but it is fundamentally is to remove references that are sold out and inserting new additions to maintain balance and showcase new arrivals, never a complete changeover as we have about 250 references in Reynard and 50 in The Ides. Wines that we offer by the glass are usually on for anywhere between a week to a couple of months depending on availability and seasons. Our events and hotel wines are pretty stable throughout the year as we look for continuity there.
How do you look for wine? Magazines, word of mouth, sales reps...?
I am now pretty familiar with a respectable amount of producers, estates, and wines that I like, and I try to taste all their new vintages and cuvées. Of course, reps are my first source of discoveries, I see 12 to 15 reps per month, as is word of mouth from the industry (producers, importers, sommeliers, other buyers, and so forth.) as well as the online wholesale platform SevenFifty. The most fun part of my job is, of course, being invited to lots of “winemaker dinners” where buyers get to try much wine in a more casual and food friendly context. I also go to other restaurants & wine bars a lot, for “market research” aka drinking other people’s allocations. Solid retail shops like Chambers street wine, Verve Wine, Flat Iron wines, Astor wines, Uva and the like also help, and I go to Paris a few times a year, always seeking new wines there as well.
What are the channels to meet with the seller? Through a direct meeting, tasting/conference, samples sent to the hotel, more substantial contract negotiation…
All of the above! Direct one on one meetings with reps are the most common and part of my everyday routine. There are also seasonal portfolio tastings, organized importers, and distributors that I try to attend as much as possible. Not so many written contracts but definitely oral agreements, especially for long-term placements (i.e., mini-bar placement or wines for our events business which are usually chosen for a full season or year round).
What makes you decide which wine to buy besides the establishment ethos?
This rationale may sound very cliché, but the number one reason in my decision to buy a specific wine is in regard to its overall taste, if I like it, and if it interests me enough to want to know more about it. After that element of sensitivity, then, of course, many factors come in. I would say in the following order; type of farming/winemaking practiced, origin, price, current needs/opportunity, relationship with the seller, availability, and access to information.
What importance do you give to information about the domain, the region, the producer, on presentation tools?
Access to information is vital to me, as it is part of my role to then share that information with the rest of the FOH staff -selling the wine- and also to our guests -buying and drinking the wine. That being said, it is not always possible to obtain, as I work with mostly wine made by small wineries. Moreover, French or Italian farmers aren’t always the best at communicating all the correct information (varietals, soil type, winemaking process, and the like.). Most of these farmers don’t even have an updated website, and I honestly prefer having less background info but a better wine than to buy from large-scale domains who spend thousands or millions on marketing but make shitty wine.
How important is price to you? How do you manage the range of prices on your menu?
Price is, of course, a huge factor. We work in a very competitive market, restaurants have thin margins, and wine is already costly once it arrives in NY, so every $ counts on the wholesale price. I try to keep a balanced list regarding price. Keep in mind that our whole building is gratuity free, so our price already includes service, but our range is about $45 to $500 a bottle. Our core business is $60 to $120. There is one magnum of vintage Champagne that we have for $900, in case you’re interested.
What relationship do you have with your wholesalers? What could be improved?
I have excellent relationships with my distributors. I work with a limited number of them, so it’s easier to maintain a meaningful business relationship. In NYC, no one has time to waste; we have to be very efficient.
I would like some of my reps to be a little more reliable and efficient, but for the most part, they are all very good at what they do, and I value their job.
Do you go to visit estates? If yes, who organizes trips and how does it impact your job?
Of course. I travel at least twice a year with importers, for “work trips,” for which the companies pay. We visit the region, the producers, usually meet them and their family, tour the vineyard and cellar and share at least a home cooked meal and lots of wine. Sometimes we even stay at their place. It’s very authentic and incredibly valuable and useful to learn more about wine in general and the human being behind the bottles. It’s not at all like a PR agent who tours you and then hands you purchases orders. It’s so much easier to talk about and sell the wine when you’ve been there and have a backstory to tell tableside.
How do you talk about wine when you sell it? How much importance do you give to regions, producers, characteristics, food pairing, pricing?
Yes, pretty much all of that. I try to be as thorough and specific without being too technical or pretentious. Most people aren’t here to talk about wine for more than 5min. I’ll help them navigate the list by offering taste characteristic through keywords and a little geographical background while including the food pairing options, when applicable. Once we’ve decided on a bottle, I’ll usually give them a bit more storytelling, if I sense an interest. I’ll only bring up price point if they do it first. It’s our role as a sommelier to make judgment calls to the best of our ability without mentioning a price. That being said, it makes everyone’s experience significantly more pleasurable when a guest gives you an indication like “around $70” or “under a $100”.
How do you influence the client in buying preferred wine?
I’m not sure I understand the term, preferred wine.
However, if you are referring to how I push a specific bottle, well I’ll make sure to use keywords that are extra complimentary or that to which I feel like people will be sensitive.
What is the special added service you provide your clients?
We take back any bottle with which someone is unhappy. We standby 100% of our wines and unless there is a flaw (which then, of course, we would replace right away), but if a guest is not 100% thrilled about the wine 10min after trying it, then we take it away and find something else for them.
Our true added service in my perspective is knowledge. Our wine list may seem esoteric to most, but we have staff members that will help navigate and pick the right wine for anyone. Our list may not be the most diverse or geographically unique on paper, but it has something for all tastes, and every wine is unique.
Would you find it useful to have a platform to discover wines from all over the world with the presentation of domains, winemakers, and region to purchase your wine?
No. Ha-ha, of course, I would! That sounds amazing and almost too good to be true.
My first thought would be; is it going also to represent the smaller estate, farmers and “true wines”? Alternatively, is it in favor of larger scale industrial operations that have marketing and PR power? Such a tool would be a revolution for the US market.