Florian Strassguertl on creating the dream wine list
Florian Strassguertl talks about his career in wine, what it takes to be a sommelier, and his role heading up the wine department at SLS Hotel and luxury residences in Dubai.
Can you tell us about your background and how you first got into wine?
I was raised in a small countryside restaurant run and owned by my father in Austria. Therefore hospitality, taking care of guests, and hosting them was always meant to be my career decision. Numerous visits to the wineries who we listed their wines gave me my first interest in wine. I could not believe and comprehend that from one fruit “a grape” you could potentially produce so many different wines by only changing and using a different type of grape variety. Those visits with my father inspired me to do what I am doing now.
Why did you want to be a sommelier?
Celebrations and gatherings in the wine hills of my area Styria made me fall in love with wine, as it really combines what I love about being a sommelier: sharing a great product with fantastic history and passion with numerous people and sharing each other’s stories. If you grow up surrounded by beautiful wine hills you must fall in love with this scenery and beauty.
How did you progress into your current role?
I studied in Bad Gleichenberg hospitality, where I tried every possible department within a hotel from being a chef to the front desk and finally being a sommelier. After numerous internships during that time, I started to study with the Austrian Sommelier institution and trained to be a sommelier.
I first moved to Scotland where I worked for the Gleneagles hotel in my first role as a qualified sommelier, before moving to London where I worked for Gordon Ramsay in his Asian fusion restaurant, Maze Mayfair.
I then got the amazing opportunity to work as head sommelier for the one-star Michelin restaurant, Petrus. There I overlooked the entire beverage operation, which with up to 800 labels of wine was a true sommelier dream come true. I was given the freedom to create and put together my own wine list and had the chance to serve various back vintages of Petrus by the glass.
After a short break back home with the family, I decided to start a new journey and moved to Dubai where I now hold the position of head sommelier at the SLS Dubai Hotel & Residences.
SLS Hotel and Residences, Dubai
What is involved in your current role and your main tasks?
I overlook the entire wine operation of the hotel including three restaurants, two bars, and one nightclub. The key is to create a tailor-made wine program for each venue that fits the style, target customer group, and cuisine. If my guests ask me what I do I say I look after everything that helps put wine in their glass.
Organizing wine events, such as dinners, guest tastings, and producer events is another crucial part of my job in order to keep the wine program vibrant and interesting.
I also see staff training as one of the most important aspects of my role as you can only succeed with a strong team behind you. I take a great passion for leading all the wine training in the hotel.
If you were asked to fix and grow a restaurant’s wine program where would you start and what steps would you take?
I believe there are two critical things to get right in a successful wine program. First does your wine list fit the market? Having a competitive analysis of what is happening in restaurants around you will clearly show what can and cannot be done.
You have to use this information to design your wine list. The price structure of your list is becoming more and more important and making sure you are offering value for money at all price levels is crucial. People want to see options they feel comfortable buying, as well as the opportunity to discover hidden gems at the right price.
Secondly, your staff needs to be comfortable selling wine. At SLS we don’t necessarily hire sommeliers, we train the staff so that they feel comfortable with the wines and the list and what they can recommend to the guests.
You need your team to be working together for a successful wine program to work. Training is a huge investment of resources, but in a long run, it is the most valuable one.
SLS Hotel, Dubai
What questions would you ask of the restaurant owner to know what sort of wine list to create?
It’s a mix of a lot of questions. There is no golden rule as every restaurant is different. The style of cuisine is very important. A classic French brasserie, for example, will need to feature, more French classic wines on the list
Then you need to who your target customers are? Different demographics have different likes. Where your guests come from will also determine what they want to drink - and their age.
Then you have to decide if you prefer a more vibrant, but smaller list that is constantly changing, or something with more bins and higher prestige.
Where do you want to position your list? Is sustainability and how the wines are made important?
What do you most look for and want from wine suppliers to help drive sales?
Wine suppliers are partners and mostly friends. It’s a lot about trust and knowing they will go the extra mile for you. Honesty in price structures and what options they can offer you is crucial. You want a supplier who understands what you need as a sommelier as well as what you need for your wine list.
The wine market is always moving so quickly so being the first to have new wines is also crucial to help you stay on top of your game.
Can you think of any good examples of wine partnerships with suppliers and wines you have listed as a result?
While working in London, I was able to work with a very trusted supplier to get access to several verticals of wine straight from their private cellars of top producers such as Petrus, Vega Sicilia, and Chateau Palmer. Being able to share those with wines with real wine connoisseurs in your restaurant is a real treat.
What was it about those wines that stood out?
Having received vintages of Petrus from a third party and direct from the Chateau shows how important storage can be. It’s small differences but they matter a lot when serving the best of the best wines. I do see it as a real privilege when a producer will offer you wines direct from their cellar collection.
What does success look like for you from a wine program?
Of course, you can measure the success of a wine program in numbers and revenue, but there are also other factors that I believe are more important.
Firstly, a great wine program will be constantly rotating and introducing new wines. Every wine should be listed for a reason and real success is when you manage to sell and use the entire range regardless of its size.
Having guests coming back is always a good sign, especially when they trust the knowledge of your sommelier team to choose a wine that is right for them something from your carefully created wine list.
How have you devised the wine list and wine program at SLS Hotel?
Each list is created for the needs of the separate restaurants in the hotel. It’s easy to create a wine list, but it takes time to create a good one.
You need a range of each style and type of wine on your list. This helps your guests choose between different options as well as gives your team the chance to up-sell based on the preferences of each guest. Having some safety options is always good if you have a tricky guest as well as some surprises to excite your guests as well.
What are the key four things you focus on to be good in your role?
Knowledge is key, you must stay on top of what is happening in the wine world.
Empathy is important to understand how potential guests feel in your restaurant and what they are looking for.
People skills are crucial, you’re only as good as your team around you. Train them, guide them and let them help you to be better
Numbers and figures are important as wine generates a huge part of the revenue, therefore being comfortable with numbers will make your life easier to focus on the creative part of your job
What do you think sommeliers spend too much of their time on which is not that important?
Details! It is different if you study for an exam or a degree or if you must sell and recommend a wine to a guest. Wine should be fun, enjoyable, and passionate so boring every guest and staff member who loves wine but doesn’t necessarily want to know every part of its making is taking away the fun part of it. Wine is passion, stories, and emotions not the temperature during fermentation.
What are the criteria you look for in a wine when deciding whether to include it in your wine program or not?
Overall quality is key. How is the taste, is the wine balanced, etc... A great story, the producer behind to whom you can relate is a key factor. As well as where the wine can fit in terms of style and price point. Ultimately, it’s a mix of 3 things.
Will my guests like, ask, or want the wine?
Do I personally like the wine?
How could this wine fit into my restaurant?
Sometimes you tick all 3 boxes and sometimes only 1 which can be good as well f.e. in all my lists will be at least 1 wine from Austria as I’m passionate about where I am from and what amazing wine we produce.
What do you see as being the key skills and talents needed to be a good sommelier?
Passion for the product, Passion for being with guests, and eagerness to learn. All the rest can be taught.