On most mornings, you can find Jon McDaniel, beverage director and sommelier for Chicago’s Gage Hospitality Group, at one of the five restaurants he helps manage.
“I’m usually in one of the restaurants by about 8…until midnight, 1 o’clock,” he says with a smile in his voice. “There usually aren’t a lot of somms in the restaurants at 9 or 10 in the morning, so I’m usually the first appointment (for sales people) and I taste quickly. I taste roughly 300 wines a week.”
And “sort of like a hair salon,” McDaniel’s online calendar has 15-minute blocks available for salespeople to book. “When the reps are going around with the winemaker or the supplier, and there are cancellations—I’ve been there before—they can always text me and say, ‘Hey, can I come by for 10 minutes?’”
But the trick to showing McDaniel your wines is knowing his restaurants, and each has its own distinctive character. For example, The Gage, one of the five restaurants, is known for its rustic American fare and vast wine list, with options ranging from Firelands 2016 Pinot Grigio at $44 a bottle to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Échezeaux Grand Cru for $999.
Next door at Acanto, an Italian restaurant, there are hundreds of wines offered from Alto Adige in the north to Sicily in the south.
The key for sales reps is simple: He wants them to say, “I picked this wine out because it will go so well at The Gage.”
McDaniel’s Wine Notes
McDaniel, born in 1982, or as he likes to say, “the best vintage there ever was,” was named one of Wine Enthusiast’s Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers last year, in part, because over the last 14 years he’s created five different wine programs that “are basically for everybody.”
I want wine to be fun,” he says. “I’m not working in the upper echelon, Instagram wine world. We’re talking about the $60–$70 ‘Hey, is this going to go with my burger.’”
McDaniel tries to visit three of his restaurants daily, and while he might end up being the best-dressed person clearing tables—”That’s actually a fine way for me to help the staff out,” he says—he is genuinely interested in the customers. If they’re reading the wine list and chuckling at the buzzwords, and “my 3 a.m. sarcasm because that’s when I write the notes, that’s the most fun for me.”
Like his note for that Domaine de la Romanée-Conti at The Gage reads: “There is no doubt that this is the best producer of Pinot Noir on the planet. Ethereal flavors of red berry, spice, truffle, like ensconcing yourself in velvet in the most social acceptable way. LOWEST PRICE IN THE WORLD—BECAUSE WHY NOT???” The $999 price tag is about 40% less than a consumer would pay at a wine shop.
McDaniel also spends a lot of time teaching the staff at each of the restaurants about the wines. From The Dawson, which focuses on seafood, to the Beacon Tavern, located steps from Chicago’s riverfront, or Coda di Volpe, where the Midwest meets southern Italy, training takes place when “we’re having our pre-shift meetings,” he says.
“I’ll open something up and we’ll be talking about it. Most guests will not really be interested in the soil types or the backstory on the winemaker,” McDaniel notes. “You have about 12 seconds to convey information about the wine or beverage in a way that they’re going to be interested and that they will want to order this because it will go with my experience.”
McDaniel calls himself “a lucky guy… I’m doing what I love, what I’m passionate about.”
He says his days off are spent traveling. His only friends are in the business and when he is not at one of his restaurants or looking after his small wine brand, Amos Cellars, which are poured at the restaurants, he travels to various industry functions. In his spare time, he teaches at Roosevelt University in its hospitality and beverage program.
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