Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Lifestyle: Portfolio A Wine for All Seasons


by Julie Earle Levine
Jan 7 2008

Wine director Richard Hales spends $2 million a year purchasing the bottles that make the list at New York's Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

Richard Hales
Photograph by: Robert Caplin
Job title: Wine director

On a recent Saturday morning in December, Richard Hales was at Christie's auction house in New York to bid on vintage madeiras—massive, full-bodied, and incredibly old wines with high alcohol content and prices to match. Madeiras have recently been attracting attention as investments and as stories (some are almost 200 years old), and Hales, the wine director for the Mandarin Oriental in New York, spent nearly $40,000 at the auction to buy about 15 bottles of the rare wine.

"These are wines that have been sitting in the cellars of wealthy families," Hales says. "They are very, very good, and everyone wants them."

As wine director, Hales' job is to study, find, and purchase wines for the hotel's restaurant, bar, and lounge; room service; and banquet facilities. He typically spends about $2 million a year at auction and through wine dealers to pick the wines that will be served at the hotel. (Read his top tips for building your own wine collection.)

Hales keeps about 1,000 wines on his various lists for the hotel and can recall each one according to style, flavor, alcohol content, and acidity so that he can suggest the perfect pairings, whether it be with foie gras or finger food. As a sommelier, his style is to be casual and conversational with the hotel's guests. "Not every table requires so much information, and as a good sommelier, you must read your guest," he says. Hales also always encourages his guests to give a price range for what they're looking to spend.

A typical day starts at 10 a.m. when he checks on deliveries and has meetings with staff, followed by lunch and dinner service and then an hour of updating his wine lists, studying new wines and regions. During slow periods at his restaurants, usually in April and midsummer, Hales travels to do research and tastings, typically splitting his time between the new and old wine regions.

Hales' passion for wine grew from an obsession with food and his original career path as a chef. After studying at New York's French Culinary Institute in 1997, he worked his way up the food chain at New York gastronomic centers La Grenouille and Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Vong, eventually rising to sous-chef at Vong several years later. From there, he moved on to Miami's Azul, an Asian-inflected Mediterranean restaurant located in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, where he found himself in the role of wine connoisseur when the sommelier left abruptly in 2002. He became wine director for the Mandarin in New York in December 2006.

Hales compares his work as a wine director and sommelier to his previous job as a chef; both positions have required him to assemble the right ingredients to fashion something memorable.

"At this level, dining is about the experience as much as it is about eating," Hales says. "Wine is part of that experience, and it is more than just satisfying a thirst. It is a discovery."

Wine director Richard Hales shares his best advice for assembling a top-notch, highly personalized wine collection.

Companies that hire them: Luxury-hotel groups and restaurants. Typically, a wine director oversees multiple outlets in a hotel or restaurant group, with one or more sommeliers on staff.

How to find out about openings: Word of mouth, since it is a small world. There are also job listings on the Court of Master Sommeliers' website. This is the American chapter of an international group whose mission is to improve standards in the beverage industry.

How much you can earn: Between $60,000 and $250,000 a year, depending on the size of the company and the scope of the position. At the lower end, the job would most likely be at a single restaurant, while at the top, a national operation.

Useful skills: No specific background is necessary but communication and organizational skills, a fine-tuned palate, and a knowledge of wine history, vintages, and current wine trends is crucial. Wine directors must also travel and taste wine regularly.

Number of jobs in the U.S.: The Court of Master Sommeliers says it's likely that each five-star hotel and upscale restaurant in the U.S. has its own wine director, putting the number in the low thousands, but there are no official data.