On Thursay, November 17th, we had the pleasure of chatting (and drinking!) with Erik Johnson, the wine director for L’Espalier and Sel de la Terre and his right hand man, Sommelier, Erich Schliebe. Sarah Cummings of City Wine Tours, conducted the interview.
Erik: So Erich has been working with me for 7 years now.
Sarah: All at L’Espalier?
Erik: Yes, all at L’espalier.
Sarah: Could you ever part?
Erik: Uh, no hahaha.
Sarah: That would be tragic.
Erik: We are pretty much married, yeah.
- Laherte Frères Brut Tradition
Sarah: Alright, so what brought you into the wine business?
Erik: Haha, alright. This was way back in the 80’s when I was going to school in Madison, Wisconsin. I was the starving college student that you did not want to have behind you buying groceries because I was buying groceries with change. but I lived next to this hotel that I used to get stamps and newspapers for and I thought ‘this is crazy, I have no money, I’m going to get a job, and I am going to get a job in a restaurant because that way, maybe I’ll get fed, and I won’t need to spend money on food’. So it was right next to where I was living in Madison, and the maître d’ that was running the wine program was named David Martino and he gave fantastic briefings. The hotel business was based around banquets so they had these massive banquet rooms. It was like, every Friday we would were going to do a breifing. So you would walk in, and all the staff would sit down. There would be like 6 different glasses of Chardonnay, ‘Here are 2 from Burgundy, here are 2 from California and here are 2 from Australia.’ One grape variety, but massively different styles. It was a really serious, hardcore wine briefing but he made it really fun. It probably took me about 6 or 7 months to sort of get my head around them. He was talking about stuff where I was like, ‘are you out of your mind!? I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ But finally, I showed up at one wine briefing, and the wine that did it for me was Cline Old Vine Mourvedre… it was an ‘88 vintage. And I thought, oh, wait a minute, I can smell the plum, the leather, and the black pepper.
Sarah: And a light bulb went off.
Erik: I was like, okay, I get it now.
Sarah: Did you consider him (David Martino) to be your mentor?
Erik: Oh yeah, hugely.
Erik: Oddly enough, the sales people that were there at the restaurant working the sommelier shifts, both are my ales people here. So I have known Chris from Classic [wine] for about 20 years, and there is another guy, Michael, I have known him for 20 years. I’m still in contact with them and they still bring me wine. But I used to bug them like crazy when I was over at the Bay Tower Room. But they were really nice to me. I was like ‘what’s the new stuff? Let me try these things.’ There was no reason for them to start opening up bottles and to start giving me stuff. It was just a matter of, ‘I’m kind of into it, and really interested.’ I think they ended up pulling corks out of passion.
Sarah: What did you go to school for?
Erik: Public relations with a minor in business and organizational communications.
Sarah: But you continued on into the wine business?
Sarah: What was the transitional period where you knew?
Erik: You know, the thing is I sort of ran out of motivation and money at the same time. I did not want to finish a degree , and then sit in a cubicle and be like, ‘okay, now today is the shoe account and tomorrow is the toothpaste account.’Restaurants were always incredibly interesting to me. They’re wonderful and dynamic and there is this energy. Basically at a restaurant, every single night, you have to be perfect. There are so many moving pieces and it is always different every single night. You need to know the wine list, you need to know the menu, you need to know what the service steps are, you need to be able to read body language. It is very different to walk up to a table that’s looking at a wine list where there are three people leaning back and one sort of leaning forward, studying it as opposed to ‘oh the wine list [regarded as] ‘whatever’. You need to pick up on that right away.
Sarah: What did you do before you held this job?
Erik: I got a waiter job at L’Espalier in 1997. Within 3 months, they made a category called ‘assistant sommelier’. There was a guy there, Glen, working on the floor doing the wine buying for L’Espalier. He was there selling stuff but Frank [McClelland] wanted more of a presence as far as wine went. Glen decided to leave and work with Todd English when Todd initially decided to expand his empire. Glen wanted to go out and be famous, and travel and do all that stuff. Frank was like, ‘Okay, Glen is leaving and I need someone to do the wine program here at L’Espalier and oh, by the way, we are going to open a restaurant in in 4 months and you’re going to have to do the wine list for that too.’ I knew that I was the stop gap. I knew that I was a short term solution but it turned out there was enough support staff here in Boston that were really good that kept feeding me information. That kind of kept me in the gig. I mean I was ’short term kinda screwed’ so I was like, ‘okay, I’ll find someone who really knows what they’re doing.’ So really, my first wine job was L’Espalier. I basically started at the top and got incredibly lucky.
Sarah: So you have basically maintained your kingdom here?
Erik: Well, haha, I think they’ve tried to fire me, 8, 10, 12 times? I just won’t leave.
Sarah: If you could be doing anything else, what would you do?
Erik: I can’t imagine doing anything else. I guess it’s sort of like, as Erich and I have talked about a huge amount of time, we would probably venture into retail, beacause the restaurant, is sort of a young man’s job. It’s incredibly physical, really, really demanding, emotional, intellectual..
Erich: Long hours.
Erik: Long hours, a high amount of stress
Sarah: Absolutely, it impacts your social and family life.
Erik: Well you know he (Erich) and I are very good about the fact that we have sort of resigned ourselves to the fact that our lives are completely opposite of everyone else.
Erich: But our wives haven’t.
Erik: The gig is the gig. Hahaha, you’re right. It’s always birthdays, anniversaries, weekends, I mean our lives are opposite of everything else. At this point in time, I have hung out with Frank and Jeff for long enough that my schedule is much closer to banker’s hours which took about 12 years to get to that point and Erich is the one who has to suck up all the floor shifts. I did floor shifts up until we moved L’Espalier to here. I was like, there are 3 different Sel de la Terres, there is L’Espalier, I have to do the wine buying I have to do the staff training, I can’t be at one location every night, all the time.
Sarah: Do you miss floor shifts?
Sarah: No, not at all?
Erik: To some degree, the answer is yes. But the thing is, I’m doing the wine dinners every Tuesday at Sel de la Terre in Natick and I’m doing the wine dinners every week over at Sate Street (Sel de la Terre). So that’s the time that I have, that interaction I have with the staff about all the decisions we make while we are sitting right here, It’s nice to see that immediate feedback but it’s a lot of work.
Erich: It’s instant gratification is what it is. It’s, ‘I bought this, you should have this, it’s really good’ and they’re like ‘wow, this is really good!’ That’s what the wine dinners are.
Erik: Erich and I both feel very much like anytime anyone comes in, we make a recommendation, and they’re like, ‘Wow, this is awesome! I cannot believe how awesome this is!’ And the thing that is going through my head is, ‘I just had this two and a half months ago, and I thought this is really good too, and now you’re having it two and a half months later’ and to my mind, there was never any disconnect between the customer and me.
Sarah: Do you think that it is in the nature of the server, wine director, or really anyone in the hospitality business , to be nurturing? You’re bringing something that you love to others and bringing them happiness.
Erik: Of course, yeah. I mean, that is the thing I would always like the best. I sit and have these meetings, and taste these things and get really excited about it, and it’s a matter of bringing that initial passion of what we had when the bottle was here to the staff. ‘I had this really awesome bottle I love, I hope you love it too.’ And that to me was always the most fun part, and still is. It’s just a matter of talking and talking and talking and waiting for that one waiter on staff, for the light bulb to go off, like, ‘I get it now.’
Sarah: Like it did for you?
Erik: Yeah, exactly. It’s like ‘I get it’ and you can physically see it when it happens and then it turns into a chain reaction.
Sarah: Do you have anyone like that now?
Erik: Oh yeah, we’ve got that at all the restaurants.
Sarah: And you welcome that, that’s awesome.
Erik: Oh yeah, that’s what we live for. It’s that one person that gets it and then imparts that passion from them, as opposed to just listening to us. It’s a matter of one person who is the peer ‘All the stuff that Erich and Erik are saying’ gets it. ‘I sold it to the table, the table liked it back, I got a really good, wonderful energy back’ As soon as that happens they show up in briefing, and you know immediately. And then they start talking about how ‘I sold it this way and they loved it.’ And often what happens that waiter becomes nurturing sort of like a parent.
Erich: And also empowered to be a better waiter.
Sarah: Knowledge is power haha it sounds cliche but it’s so true. When they have the knowledge, and they love it too, they are going to sell.
Erik: And it turns out to be that everything that we have been talking to them about the last 4, 5, 6, 7 weeks, months, all of a sudden they’re like, ‘I’ve seen it happen, I believe them.’ It turns out to be, ‘I trust now what they have to say.’ You have to earn the trust of the waitstaff which is always the most difficult thing. But as soon as you do, they are with you and they get what you’re after.
Sarah: Well it seems as though you both really have a really good peer oriented approach and not a daunting, ‘you don;t know anything’ approach. It’s a learning experience.
- 2009 Weingut Hans Wirsching Iphofer Kronsberg Scheurebe Kabinett Trocken, Franken, Germany
- 2009 Kiralyudvar Tokaji Furmint Dry
Fluke Crudo compliments of L’Espalier
Sarah: What do you think sets L’Espalier and Sel de la Terre apart from other restaurants in Boston, particularly the wine program? One thing that I see, is how you teach your staff.
Erich: It is consistency and the fact that there is no fly by night person where it is just a stepping stone for there next job, ‘I’m just here now and I’m leaving.’ I think that works in our favor for the people that have been coming here, or vendors, for 20, 25 years. The fact that there is someone at the helm so it’s not just someone who comes in and they’re here for 6 months and then they’re out.
Sarah: It always made a difference for me, working in the wine industry, that whoever I was working for, that I was able to connect and identify with them, and that I was able to approach them and ask questions and for them to be sort of a mentor.
Erik: What makes us different… A lot of it comes down to it’s not just about grape variety, it’s not about label, it’s basically not about anything but taste. ‘This is a really good example of something that is really nice.’ Is it something that the people are going to like? Is it going to work with my food? And I never think that ‘I can’t sell this.’ We never do what people expect. It’s not about label, it’s about wine by wine, producer by producer, that work with the food. So I can sit, and my producers can bring me Tressalier, no one has ever heard of it, they’re like’It’s hard to sell but its really good!’ So it’s a matter of trying to find things… and also we are not thinking ‘bottom line’, we are not thinking finance, we are thinking about what is really going to serve the food best and what is going to be different and unique for people to try.
Sarah: Not thinking about the bottom line seems to be working for you. It seems that a lot of wine buyers and directors struggle with having to focus on the bottom line.
Erik: You can do both but you have to dig. You have to taste a huge amount of stuff. But even at L’Espalier we don;t have separate tastings. Wine reps bring us stuff and there is differentiation in my mind what is ‘Sel de la Terre wine’ and what is ‘L’Espalier wine’. It is a matter of quality, bang for buck, and finding things that are really good and honest expressions of grape variety. The Furmint… how do you describe this? It’s really hard to describe.
Sarah: It’s unlike anything I have ever tasted…
Erik: Exactly. But now you have had food, you had two really fantastic wines, that are really good on their own. It is a matter of what is the experience with the food, and I guess the thing is, as a wine buyer, ‘know your food’. If you work for a restaurant your main goal is to sell food. No one has walked out of a restaurant because ‘the wine was just horrible’. It’s the food, It’s the food and the service, and the wine is sort of the icing on the cake. If I can get really nice stuff that is flavorful, that compliments the food at a reasonable price… and I am incredibly sensitive to price… I always want Sel de la Terre to be a place where you can come in and find really fun, interesting things for basically short money. It’s like, ‘Let’s go out and get a bottle, let’s get 2′. I hate going out to dinner when the wine list starts at $50.
Erich: It’s like buying real estate in Boston. You’ll get something crappy for a lot of money.
Erik: There’s a couple of bottles on there for $40, but you never order them because there is just a couple so they ‘must be bad’, $50, $60 must not be that good, so you start pitching yourself up to $70 and that’s just way too much money.
Sarah: And then you’re trapped. How often do guests request different wines.
Erik: Not a lot. I’m always pulling the staff in the wine briefings. I ask them, ‘Are people asking for things we don’t have?’ One of my biggest fears is when I’ve got stuff that I really like but no one else digs. It’s really easy to get yourself in a corner like that. Because really, Erich and I have had way too much stuff. We have had more than any normal consumer can possibly have had.
Erich: And not nearly enough.
Erik: Even if we are talking about Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone… the major grape growing regions, the big collectible stuff, it’s a matter of getting that balance. I like the weirdo, strange grape varieties that people haven’t had. But I like them where there is a touch stone of something they have had before, something they recognize but yet it’s a little bit different. Maybe the acod is different, the citrus is different, or the oak treatment is different.
Sarah: How do you get your staff to sell those wines?
Erik: Tasting… everything. Briefing, briefing, briefing.
Sarah: Have you had a tasting where the staff just wasn’t really into it?
Sarah: Is that hard for you?
Erik: Well, it just breaks my heart…
Erik: People have asked me, ‘When someone doesn’t like your wine, do you take it personally?’ Of course I take it personally. As deeply as you can take it. If my wife said I was a ‘lesser man’ I would feel okay because I can still go home. When these people walk out the door, I never see them again.
Sarah: The waitstaff is really the face of your restaurant, selling your wine…
Erik: Exactly. So you find something they feel comfortable with and go with that. If I want to buy something really strange for Sel de la Terre or L’Espalier, there is a lot of discussion between the two of us. ‘can I get away with it? Will the waitstaff understand?’ But even still, if you’ve got the waitstaff on your side, it is matter of ‘is the customer on your side.’ Because really when it comes down to it, we just want to make the customer happy. But I want to make the customer happy with interesting, strange things they have never had before. I want a unique experience. But f you start pandering to what the ‘normal’ pallette is, then I’m just like anyone else walking down the street.
Sarah: I would think that the diners at L’Espalier are more conservative wine buyers and that those that dine at Sel de la Terre, might be a younger crown, more inclined to try esoteric wines… Do you buy more conservatively for L’Espalier?
Erik: There is no difference between the two. The entire Sel de la Terre list lives within the L’Espalier list. L’Espalier has a bigger list.
Erich: It’s getting close to 800. What is also really interesting is that I’ll go in (to Sel de la Terre) and have people order off the L’Espalier list.
Sarah: So you have a lot of regular diners. Do they go back and forth between the restaurants?
Erich: Yes they do, and it depends on who they are eating with. The biggest difference is that for the people that come over to L’Espalier, we have all the bells and whistles on the really high end. What makes buying for Sel much harder, and I don’t envy Erik at all, is trying to find all those bells and whistles you can still put on the list for $40. That’s hard. Bells and whistles on the high end are easy. All you have to do is wait for Wine Spectator to come out with whatever egregious point scale, which we don’t do, but that’s how you do it.
Sarah: Where do you both choose to dine out? What kind of atmosphere do you like?
Erich: Hahahaha Oh God, I hate eating at restaurants.
Erik: Okay, It’s like the pizza place under your apartment, the sushi place across the street…
Erich: Yes, yes. I live above (Pizzeria) Dante in Brookline. What I love to do is get a pizza, and have wine above. And Erich has come up for these these things with both my in-laws and my parents and we just sat down and had a great time. So that’s actually a fun dinner, if you can actually pull it off.
Sarah: I used to live in Tucson, Arizona for a bit, and there was this place that was just pizza and wine. Really good pizza and really good wine. It was very chill and not upscale… it focused on the fact that people that enjoy great wine don’t need to be in that type of atmosphere.
Erik: It turns into, fine dining is sort of your job, and when fine dining is your job, if you go out to fine dining, it’s really uncomfortable.
Sarah: It’s like being at work.
Erich: It’s like if you’re a doctor and watch ‘ER’ on your days off.
Sarah: It’s not a treat anymore?
Erik: No, it’s really not…
Erich: Although once in a while it really is…
Erik: It’s nerve wracking.
Erich: It really is if you stare at the wall and don’t watch what all the other people are doing, and that’s the hard part. So it’s a lot easier if you just go to a place where the food is really good and maybe the service is mediocre, but you don’t really care because you’ve got that time.
Sarah: Where are some of your favorite restaurants outside of L’Espalier and Sel de la Terre? I know you both love where you work.
Erich: Lineage in Brookline is a really good place. There are actually two guys that work there that have worked at L’Espalier that have done great stuff.
Erik: I love Sel Natick. Daniel’s food is awesome. Daniel was at L’Esplaier for what, 6 years? Hungry Mother is awesome. Hungry Mother, it’s another place where there are a bunch of people that used to work with us. They went and opened the restaurant we wish we could do. They took a look at what we did and got rid of the stuff that we didn’t like and started putting in other things… I love Hungry Mother.
Erich: Probably a better question to say, where are the better wine stores? It’s like, Urban Grape, Federal Wine and Spirits, Howy at Bauer…
Sarah: What makes a wine store better than others?
Erich: It’s the palette of the person that owns it. They actually run it like a restaurant wine list. And they don’t do Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio… not to knock it. It’s more personal attention. It’s as much tasting as you do in a restaurant setting, but you’re buying in a different [venue].
Sarah: Where do you both shop for wine?
Erich: When my wife sends me out of errands it’s either Federal or Urban Grape.
Erik: We have no wine at home, there is nothing.
Erich: Three bottles..
Erik: I think I have like a, Richbourg..
Erich: you have a Richborg??
Erik: No wait, I drank it.
Erich: No, haha, that doesn’t sound like a good thing.
Erik: Well, it’s sort of like, the upper end stuff, people give you, because they like you, but I’ve never bought anything for the house. I mean, I think I’ve got a Port..
Erich: I’m also a complete failure because my wife is trying to buy red wine, because she is trying to drink less, she drinks a lot of white wine…
Sarah: Her and I should be friends…
Erich: I’m trying to find something I would actually buy at retail stores… there things that I just don’t recognize, I don’t know, and I try and buy something and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I am so sorry, this is awful’
Erik: Well it’s like, you (to Erich) and I…. I just don’t want wine unless I’m eating.
Erich: Well that’s not true… I want white wine. White wine, I’m good.
The conversation moved onto vacations, beer, cocktails like the Ward 8, and the best way to prepare Sunchokes. Erik and Erich are two of the most down to earth and approachable wine guys I have ever met. They know their stuff and are extremely passionate about what they do. Boston is very lucky to have Erik Johnson at the helm of one of the city’s most renowned restaurants.
Thank you Erik, and Erich for chatting with us and thank you Lauren Palumbo, for coordinating the meeting!