OKC's Hiden Sommelier Culture
The Unseen Middle-Man Who Selects the Wines We Drink
Most restaurants in OKC can't afford to hire a sommelier, the traditional title for a person working the floor of a restaurant hand-selling wines, assembling wine lists, maintaining inventory, and searching out unique offerings for the chef to pair with meals for guests. So then, who is putting your wine list together? Brokers. Brokers decide which wines to bring into the state and are responsible for putting specially chosen wines in front of respective buyers, be that a liquor store or a restaurant. With most restaurants utilizing restaurant managers—who are also busy writing schedules, paying bills, and managing staff—to make wine lists, there simply isn’t time to procure labels from the far corners of the world. Brokers are needed, and the vast majority of sommeliers in Oklahoma have left the restaurant business to become brokers as it is less stressful, more inspirational work than being a sommelier. Each broker selects a few wines from regions in France, Italy, Germany, or even more exotic locales to present to restaurants and retail shops based on fit and style. Ian Bennett and Ian Clarke are two of the best in the business, and they both formerly held sommelier jobs in OKC.
Ian Bennett - Premium Brands
In what restaurant(s) have you worked as a sommelier?
A restaurant called Cecconi’s in West Hollywood. It’s still there, which is surprising for LA! I then moved to Oklahoma City and worked at Ludivine as the restaurant manager and sommelier.
What attracted you to the broker business?
I got married! Twenty years of coming home at one or two in the morning when your wife works normal hours? That didn’t sound good. My stress level is half what it once was. I like being at my job because it’s about relationships. I enjoy showing good wine to people who appreciate wine.
How does the brokerage decide which brands to bring into Oklahoma?
Brokers get samples all the time; a lot of wineries want to be in the state. On the other hand, a lot of wineries don’t need to be here. Oklahoma posting fees are high. You have to bring wines in that can do volume to justify the fee.
What changes have you seen to the wine culture in OKC since you began your career?
Portfolios diversifying. Pét-nat, sherry, dry Furmint, natural wine...I love that they exist but I don’t know that they have staying power. Brokers have a lot of training, but restaurant staff doesn’t necessarily have enough training to sell those wines to customers.
What changes would you like to see in OKC wine culture?
Better training and more recognition for sommeliers. We have to embrace our small size. We are never going to be Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco. We all know each other. We all live in a small town and if we take our time, we can be incredible, but we need to focus on training. I love the direction we’re going, but we need a moratorium on restaurants opening for the next two years!
What is the biggest change to our current process that you foresee with the new laws coming into effect next year?
I think that it’s going to streamline the process for the consumer because as a state we are going to lose A LOT of brands. It’s already happening. We’re going to keep many really good wines out of the consumer’s hands.
Ian Clarke - Putnam Wines
What restaurant(s) have you worked as a sommelier?
Red Primesteak and OKC Golf and Country Club
What attracted you to the broker business?
I enjoy the freedom and ability to make my own schedule. I was specifically attracted to Putnam Wines for the portfolio. I love selling the wine that I'd recommended for so many years.
How do you decide which brands to bring into Oklahoma?
We look at a number of factors. Is there a hole in our book we'd like to fill? Does the quality of this wine make us proud to sell it? Is there a demand in the market for this product?
What determines the wines you show to specific accounts?
I look at whether this wine fits the concept and clientele. I'm not looking to place a wine in an account when I know they're going to struggle selling it.
What changes have you seen to wine culture in OKC since you began your career?
So many more people are drinking good wine and consumers have gotten much more adventurous and experimental in the past few years. Also, people are finally drinking good pink wine.