Whether diners prefer red or white, sweet or dry, Gates helps guests select the right wine to accompany their meals.
“I want them to make the best decision but also I make the decision for them and after a while they actually build trust with me,” said Gates.
Eliminating customers’ intimidation in selecting wine is something that Gates views as a key responsibility of his job. He accomplishes this by interacting with diners directly, table by table, learning their tastes.
“Let’s say they have no idea. I’ll ask them, ‘What foods do you like and what foods don’t you like? What candies don’t you like, what candies do you like? What are your favorite desserts? What are your favorite fruits that you like?’” Gates said. “That helps me determine what kind of wine they’re going to like.”
He asks his serving staff the same types of questions to help educate them and eliminate their own fears of helping clients choose wine. Gates then reinforces their knowledge with examples.
“I listen to them when they are at the tables, and say, ‘You could have done this. Here’s what you should be serving,’” he said.
Gates and his staff select wine for diners from the restaurant’s expansive wine list. Maintaining a well-balanced inventory he says is an important aspect of the wine director’s job.
Bistro 234 offers 140 different wines on its list with a depth in each variety that enables Gates to present a wine suitable to almost every customer need. The restaurant received the 2012, 2013 and 2014 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for presenting a wine list of 100 or more quality wine selections.
Every Tuesday and Wednesday, the first two days of his workweek, Gates reviews and adjusts his wine list. Seven different wine representatives come in throughout the month and taste wines with him. They, describe what’s new and what’s “booming.”
Based on their input, what his competition has selected — he wants Bistro’s list to be unique — and what his customers like, Gates develops a wine list and orders for his wine cellar.
He often purchases wine for specific diners’ preferences.
“I’ll buy something around their range that I know that they’ll taste, and they’ll have the confidence in me buying for them,” he said.
At the end of each season, Gates revamps the selections reflecting the upcoming climate. For fall he transitioned to heavier, warmer wines such as zinfandels and heavy cabernets while still maintaining a selection for lighter drinkers such as pinot noir.
“I changed about 20 wines coming into the winter months,” he said.
His developed wine list also offers multiple choices for various varieties.
“Again, going back to what the guests like, so we can have a chardonnay, but there are going to be five different styles of chardonnay of what they would like,” Gates said.
A typical day as Bistro 234’s wine director has Gates arriving sometime during the lunch hour. He shakes hands with all his regular customers whom he knows by name, and introduces himself to new diners He then checks in with his staff and reviews the wine inventory, adjusting for any shortages.
During dinner service, Gates visits all tables and begins describing new wine selections, providing wine pairing suggestions and answering any questions guests may have about their dinner and accompanying wine choice. He also makes himself readily available to his servers in order to assist them in selecting and serving wine. His workday ends anywhere between 10 p.m. and midnight.
There isn’t anything Gates dislikes about his job.
“It’s the restaurant industry,” he said. “Some days are better than others, it’s a grind but I love the sweat, the late hours, the food, the drinks.”
One of his favorite things about being a wine director is that his education in wine is never-ending. He is always learning and there is no limit to the information out there. Gates currently is preparing for the first of five levels of the sommelier exam.
For anyone interested in becoming a wine director, Gates recommends having a passion for the industry and a willingness to start at the bottom. He began his professional journey as a dishwasher. He went on to become a busboy and eventually the manager at Verona’s in Modesto’s McHenry Village by the time he was 21. He was the youngest food and beverage manager at age 24 for a four-diamond, four-star resort in San Diego.
Working with and learning from a particular sommelier at a Santa Barbara restaurant launched him closer to his current job.
“He really taught me how to open up to clientele, open up to my staff on how to present wine without being intimidating and not being over the top,” Gates said.
As far as job satisfaction goes, Gates scores the position of wine director a perfect 10.
“I love my job. I really do love my job. It’s definitely the best choice I ever made,” he said.