John Slover lied his way into the restaurant world, but by now he has earned his stripes several times over. Since 2017, the Major Food Group (MFG) corporate beverage director has helped develop the wine program for Wine Spectator Grand Award winner The Grill (and formerly the The Pool, now a private-event space) and multiple Best of Award of Excellence winners, including celebrity spot Carbone and Dirty French, both of which expanded to Miami during the pandemic.
Slover's illustrious restaurant career spans more than two decades, including wine director positions, private consulting and sommelier stints at Grand Award winners Daniel and Le Bernardin. His work at New York’s now-closed Cru, a favorite of wine collectors, led to later positions at chef Shea Gallante’s Ciano and wine director Robert Bohr's Charlie Bird. Slover has since given his legs a rest from working the floor and manages the wine lists for MFG's global empire from New York City, delegating service and other tasks to a team of local beverage managers.
Slover's journey started in 1996, when he began working as a food runner and waiter in his hometown of Brookline, Mass., and quickly taught himself enough about wine to sell more bottles than his coworkers. Then came a move to New York City, where he had to prove himself all over again.
Over the course of a very busy 2022, Slover spoke to Wine Spectator about managing wine lists for a large slate of different dining concepts, relaunching the Seagram Building's iconic restaurant space in 2017 and the wines he remembers the most.
Wine Spectator: How did you learn about wine?
In 1996, I started working on a whim in a restaurant in Brookline, Mass. where I'm from. The owner of the restaurant hired a Master of Wine named Sandy Block, and I credit him with inspiring the start of my career. He gave seminars to the front-of-house staff so that's where I started to learn about wine, and I would go next door to the liquor store and buy wines he tasted us on. Block recommended Wine for Dummies so I read it cover to cover and noticed I could take the things I learned from the book and go right into my waiter job and talk about wines. People trusted me with that, and I sold more wine than anyone else—as a guy who lied his way into a restaurant job saying I had a lot of experience, with no actual experience.
I kept reading and later picked up Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World wine course and read that cover to cover and then moved to New York City to play in a rock band and pursue a music career. But that didn't work out and this wine career did.
I worked in no-name restaurants at first and happened to room with this guy who was in the same place as me, a beginner and really excited about wine. It made it easy to taste a bunch of wine and study together. We would read how Riesling and Gewürztraminer go well with spicy food and wind up ordering a bunch of Chinese food and go to the store and get four bottles from Germany and Alsace and taste together and talk about it. Fast forward to 2000, after four years of being a waiter in NYC, I realized I knew more than the wine director at the restaurant I was working in. I annoyed him by continually suggesting wines I wanted him to buy and put on the wine list. So I decided to just get a job [doing that] myself and coincidentally Dan Barber's Blue Hill was looking for a wine director at the time.
What happened next?
In 2000, I opened Blue Hill in the West Village and met a lot of people in the wine business through that. I impressed a fellow named Robert Bohr enough for him to hire me to open Washington Park in 2002, which then became Cru. I went from a 100-bottle list at Blue Hill with a $40 average bottle sale to a 2,000-bottle list with a $450 average bottle sale and millions in inventory. I'm very good at organization, administration and cellar work … That later turned into a couple of years of private wine-consulting, handling high-net-worth individuals' collections. … I worked for Major Food Group co-founder Jeff Zalaznick's uncle. When MFG was looking for a beverage manager to run the program at the Seagram Building, I got traded to Jeff (laughs).
What was it like being thrown into the huge undertaking of launching the Grill, the Pool and the Lobster Club in the Seagram Building?
The closest thing was Cru because we had $7 million of inventory at Cru, along with a 400-page wine list. However, that doesn't compare to reopening the landmarked, famous restaurant space in the Seagram Building. That was a whole different level. I would say that the wine inventory is close to what Cru had. I was pretty nervous and scared about it. When we opened the Grill and the Pool, we hired many somms and that big team helped a lot.
What's your favorite part of your job and what’s the most challenging?
If I had to pick a favorite thing I do, it's buying wine at auction. A strong second favorite is dealing with my team. I'm the kind of person who likes working together and sharing ideas and coming up with plans together.
Data scrubbing and analytics is the challenging part but, once we are done with assembling information, it leads to more intelligent thinking about wine lists—such as what to buy and what's working and not working and pricing considerations and profitability. The high-level results of tedious details lead to very exciting decision-making.
What are your 'aha moment' bottles?
There are two that will stick with me forever. During my first waiter job in NYC in 1997, I was as green as could be and a late table came in one night and ordered a 1993 Louis Latour Corton Grand Cru rouge. I opened it and served it, and the guy said, 'Oh man, that's good. Have you ever tasted this? You should get a glass and taste this.' He poured me a glass and I tasted it, and it was like fireworks went off in my mouth. It was unbelievable, really remarkable and like nothing I had ever tasted before.
The other wine was with my roommate. We read about the Rhône Valley and Hermitage and decided to buy a bottle of the '94 M. Chapoutier Hermitage Monier de la Sizeranne. We sat in the living room and poured glasses and took a sip at the same time and looked at each other like, 'Whoa, what is this?!' The Burgundy had red fruit, flowers and length while the Chapoutier was dark, had blackberry spice and was powerful, but equally impressive and mindblowing.
What 'aha' wine would you now serve to a young John Slover?
I'd gravitate toward Christophe Roumier, one of my favorite producers. Christophe's Bonnes-Mares is obviously incredible, but he makes a Chambolle-Musigny premier cru from Les Cras vineyard, which to me is a special wine. I would pour a taste of the '08 G. Roumier Les Cras. If I could afford Bonne-Mares, I'd pour that too.
MFG has restaurants in cities around the world. How do you manage lists across states and countries?
There's a certain amount of similarity between restaurants. For example, Carbone New York, Dallas and Miami all have the same core sections so I know that at any Carbone we can easily sell Brunello, super Tuscans, Barolo, Barbaresco and expensive Bordeaux and Burgundy. But I make some guesses as to what a typical guest in Florida might be looking for, such as less Burgundy and more Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Carbone Miami and Dallas have a little more affinity for California wines. I make some assumptions based on gut feelings and conversations with people that live there and work there. Our restaurants on the whole sell wine so quickly that we can make a guess and, if it's wrong, we don't get punished for it. We don't sit on dead inventory for a long time. So we can make the guess and open the restaurant and study what happens and make adjustments to hone it to what people want.
What are some good, better-priced alternatives for your average Burgundy and Bordeaux lover?
For the Bordeaux collector, I would turn them on to Spanish wines and Châteanuef-du-Pape in the southern Rhône. To me, people who like Bordeaux like a combination of size and ripe fruit, and Spain's very good at that and Grenache is good at getting that way, particularly in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat are obvious possibilities, and Toro is another one that might be exciting to them.
[In Burgundy,] what's happening with global warming is that there are a lot of villages in the Côte de Beaune that are getting better ripeness levels, such as Aloxe-Corton and Santenay and villages where the wines have always been much less expensive, but also austere and rustic. Now, those Burgundies are getting ripeness and lusciousness to them. I never liked Pommard because it was tannic, earthy and slightly unpleasant, but I started to like them because the tannins are getting to be riper and softer and the fruit quality is nicer and more attractive. So for Burgundy collectors, I'd tell them to start exploring these villages that you have always put down because they hadn't tasted like Côte de Nuits wines. Outside Burgundy, there are a lot of Burgundian-seeming Spanish wines such as Ribeira Sacra, where Galicia meets Ribera del Duero, that are vibrant and lighter-styled.
MFG recently launched a new concept called Carbone VINO in Dallas. What's that about?
Carbone VINO is both a restaurant and wine bar. The food menu has the greatest hits from the Carbone menu, such as the Caesar salad, veal parm and spicy rigatoni, but they also developed delicious pizzas and pastas and things like that. It's designed to be a more relaxed version of Carbone. On the wine side, it's effectively the same wine list, but on the by-the-glass front we have a much larger selection of things that are open to taste. Wines by the glass are served by the quartino, which is a third of a bottle. There's also a section of high-end quartinos served via Coravin so you can get a glass of Antinori Brunello Pian delle Vigne, Bertani Amarone, Tignanello or Solaia ... the sky’s the limit.
In addition to MFG’s recent openings in Dallas, the company has invested heavily in Florida, most recently with Contessa in Miami’s Design District and the collaboration with the Boca Raton on Japanese Bocce Club. Why so much attention to South Florida?
We’ve opened six restaurants in Miami that have all had relative success. There are a lot of people there. There are a lot of restaurant goers. There’s a lot of movement between New York and Florida. The same regular clientele that we see in New York pops up in Florida, which is great.
In New York, you have the new Torrisi Bar and Restaurant opening. Can you give us a preview of what the wine program will look like?
It’s a small restaurant: 40 seats in the dining room, and then there’s a pretty sizable bar. It’s sort of like two mini wine lists wrapped into one, one geared toward the bar crowd and one geared toward the dining room. And the food is a mix of Italian-American and Italian, so there’s a strong Italian component. ... On the wine side, there’s crossover between the Carbone list and the Torrisi list [in] what people are going to be asking for and wanting to drink. There’s going to be Bordeaux and Burgundy and Champagne, and Piedmont and Tuscany are going to have a big presence.
We’re doing something that we tried out at VINO in Dallas [that’s] geared toward the bar a little bit, but also geared a little bit toward the dining room—a big quartino list, [where] we have a pretty wide range of price points and styles represented. For example, you can get a quartino of Sassicaia, and you can get a quartino of the Marquis d’Angerville Meursault Santenots premier cru ... which is fantastic.
[We’re also] introducing a little bit more esoterica than we normally do in our restaurants. We’re going to have Portuguese wines by the glass and Spanish wines by the glass, whites and reds. And we’re going to have German wines by the glass and Austrian wines by the glass. Essentially anything is fair game, as long as it’s delicious, as long as it’s tasty.
It’s been a long process, but it’s been really fun to go a little bit out of our comfort zone and taste things I haven’t in a while. Chenin Blanc is going to be having a presence in the quartino and the by-the-glass list. It’s going to be a really fun place to go and drink wine, and sit at the bar and have snacks and appetizers and explore different things.