Some sommeliers know how to put on a show, but not many wine directors would count 22 media appearances before noon as just another part of a typical day. But Brian Phillips isn’t most wine directors, and there’s no such thing as a “typical day.”
Phillips, 41, is director of wine strategy at Darden Restaurants, an international group of eight restaurant brands, from casual neighborhood super-chains like Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse to more upscale, wine-conscious concepts. Darden’s seasonal American grill, Seasons 52, has 40 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence–winning locations, and seafood restaurant Eddie V’s has 15. But Phillips' primary focus is the wine program at the Capital Grille, which counts 55 Restaurant Award winners. Overseeing them all, Phillips wears multiple hats, from trend spotter to buyer to “Excel master” to today’s role, spokesperson.
Phillips flew in last night from his home in Orlando, Fla., where Darden’s headquarters is located, for a busy two days in New York surrounding the launch of the Capital Grille’s biggest promotion of the year, called the Generous Pour. This morning he’s at Path 1 studios in Times Square to appear on television and radio shows across the country through a satellite media tour. It’s an early start, but things are already going more smoothly than last year, when the call time was an hour earlier and Phillips had the flu.
At 8:00 a.m., after downing a large black coffee and half a breakfast burrito, Phillips goes live on his first radio show of the day, KLTF Morning Show in Minneapolis. This year, the Generous Pour promotion pairs up to seven wines from a lineup of Duckhorn labels, for $28 per person.
Even when tasked with delivering a fixed message, Phillips projects his passion for wine, explaining the promotion and weaving in informative tidbits, like tips on how to pair wine with food. (“Match the weight of the wine with the weight of the food.”) When the hosts struggle to pronounce “sommelier” in their introductions, Phillips puts them at ease. “You can just call me the wine guy, it’s much easier.”
The segments are back to back, with the marketing team popping in from the green room to review talking points or adjust a bottle’s placement. By the time the media marathon wraps at 11:55 a.m., Phillips is in need of a serious pick-me-up. “Do I enjoy that part of the job? No. That’s why I’m paid. The wine part, right, that’s the fun part.”
Phillips was drawn to the fun part early on, eventually dabbling in roles across the wine world, from harvest helper in Germany to sommelier at Capital Grilles in Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C. Phillips even made Texas wine under a label called Ground Up while working as wine director for an Austin restaurant.
Phillips heads to Midtown Manhattan Mexican spot Empellon with members of his marketing team for lunch. He opts for octopus tacos with celery and salsa verde, and a bottle of Bodegas Arzabro Txakolí de Álava 2015 for the table.
Though the pairing works, Txakolí is a bit of a sore reminder of Phillips' attempts to pass the rigorous Master Sommelier exam; he will sit again later this summer and typically spends five hours a day during the workweek on his studies. Still, during his first attempt last year, he tended to get in his own head: When asked to name the Spanish Denominaciónes de Origen (DOs) on the Bay of Biscay, he blanked on the bay’s location, even though he knew the DOs for Txakolí that border it (the correct answer).
“It doesn’t matter if you know it all on paper, it’s, 'Can you do it quickly in your head and formulate the answers clearly?'” he says. “I know I’m going for the Master’s program, but there is no mastering wine. It’s a never-ending quest.”
Phillips arrives at French luxury goods giant LVMH’s Chelsea offices for a vendor meeting. These meetings with suppliers are vital for Phillips, who builds the 160-label core wine list available at all Capital Grilles that makes up about 60 percent of their wine sales; most have 400 to 500 selections total. Eddie V’s program is similarly structured, while Seasons 52 is named for its impressive 52 by-the-glass selections.
And of course, there is the casual American classic, Olive Garden. The chain has a set list of about 30 wines and doesn’t need sommeliers, since the typical Olive Garden diner is not looking for the same depth of wine immersion, according to Phillips. “They’re not going to take the time at that stage to understand what that sense of place is,” he says. “It is kind of like old-school Italian, where they’re just coming in and it’s whatever is on the table at the moment.” Still, Phillips helps Olive Garden with training and other sommelier duties.
But at meetings like this one, Phillips' focus as a buyer is the Capital Grille. First up in today’s tastings are three pours of Moët & Chandon, including the elusive new MCIII multi-vintage cuvée, followed by a flight of Krug and a tasting of Ao Yun 2014, a Cabernet blend produced in the remote Himalayas, near the Chinese city of Shangri-La. Phillips remarks how it’s not only good for a Chinese wine, it’s simply a good wine by any standard. “It almost reminds me a little bit of some of the Bordeaux blends in South Africa,” he says. Stopping by a Moët & Chandon in-office Champagne vending machine, Phillips drops in a token, selects a mini-bottle of rosé bubbly and pops it open on the spot.
Phillips wakes up early for a few hours of wine-exam review before heading to the Capital Grille marketing team’s office for meetings on wine trends and the future of the program. For lunch he grabs a bowl of pho at a nearby noodle shop, Obao, and watches France win its World Cup match against Belgium.
Tonight the W. 51st Street location of the Capital Grille is hosting a media dinner for the launch of the Generous Pour, so Phillips joins in for the pre-shift staff training.
Aside from his local Orlando outpost, where he stops in almost every week, Phillips visits five to six Capital Grilles a year to assess and encourage the wine culture. After an introduction from Vincent Piazza, this Grille’s wine director, Phillips thanks the team for their hard work and reports a growing amount of positive guest feedback. “If you take care of the guest, everything else follows. And that’s what we’re seeing,” he tells the staff.
As the meeting wraps up, Phillips asks how the Generous Pour has been going since yesterday’s launch. Piazza reports that 90 percent of tables opted for the Generous Pour—so far, so good.
Media guests are starting to arrive as Phillips sips a gin and tonic. “I’m a spirits guy as well,” he says. “All things alcoholic, all things fermented, I’m a fan of.”
Dinner is served, and out come the pours. First up: Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2017, Goldeneye Pinot Noir Anderson Valley Vin Gris 2017 and Decoy Chardonnay Sonoma County 2016. Phillips offers in-depth details of Napa Valley’s history as a winemaking region, founder Dan Duckhorn’s career and the significance of each label as a “classic go-to” for California wine. When it’s time for entrées, he goes through similar details for the reds: Migration Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2016, Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2015, Canvasback Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain 2014 and a 2015 Napa Valley red blend from Paraduxx.
“On average, we serve almost a bottle per guest, but if you’re having dinner and an experience, that’s really not too bad,” Phillips says. “I drink a bottle a night myself, easily. Maybe more.”
Joined by two marketing representatives, Piazza and Phillips wander down the block to Aldo Sohm Wine Bar. It’s one of Phillips’ New York favorites for its easy-drinking, slightly geeky list of light wines and its dynamic eponymous owner, also the wine director at nearby Le Bernardin.
“So what are you drinking these days?” Phillips asks Piazza. “What am I not drinking these days?” Piazza replies. When he’s out with fellow wine professionals, Piazza likes to defer to their picks. Phillips wastes no time making his selection: Karthäuserhof Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Riesling Grosses Gewächs Mosel 2009. “If I had to go to a desert island, if I had a refrigerator, Riesling,” he says. And for a red, Schloss Gobelsburg St. Laurent Reserve Niederösterreich 2015.
The group discusses Phillips’ Burgundy trip in June, and Phillips says he was able to secure a grand cru from Corton for the Capital Grille as an allocated wine by the glass, starting next spring.
It’s approaching midnight, and the conversation shifts to Phillips’ hectic lifestyle. Finding time for family is difficult, especially since he’s on the road about 40 percent of the time. But Phillips says he doesn’t feel like much is sacrificed, thanks to his “rock star” wife Jennifer, who works in software and technology.
Phillips' daughter, Guinevere, seems to be following in his footsteps. Once, when she was in Montessori school, the teacher called Phillips to inform him that his daughter was circling the room with a water pitcher offering “wine” to all the children. While he apologized to the teacher, Phillips doesn’t seem to mind. His daughter also once arranged her Barbies around a magnet of a miniature Pommard bottle pulled off the fridge.
“Yeah, she’s going to go to U.C., Davis, on a tenured scholarship and be an enologist and viticulturist,” Phillips says. “We’re going to open up our own winery in California when I retire.”
The lights flip on at Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, and the last remaining guests—Piazza and Phillips—call it a night. It’s been a long few days, but soon Phillips is off to Napa Valley for tastings and vineyard visits—more of the "fun part.”
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