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Beaujolais, Bowties and Blizzards: A Day in the Life of Starr Restaurants Wine Director Erik Segelbaum

When you’re responsible for 36 restaurants’ worth of wine, there’s never a dull moment
Photo by: Courtesy of Erik Segelbaum
Erik Segelbaum's days are spent in Philadelphia, New York, D.C.—or sometimes farther afield. Here, on a recent Burgundy trip.

Ben O'Donnell
Posted: March 12, 2018

Friday, March 2, 2018

12:15 p.m.: Commute

The National Weather Service has issued multiple dangerous winter weather advisories—high winds, coastal flooding—covering most of the Northeast, and New York state authorities are urging people to "avoid unnecessary travel." But La Mercerie café, in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood, opens for full food and beverage service in just five days, and the staff needs to sit for its final course of wine training on the 53-bottle syllabus tonight. The professor, Erik Segelbaum, is stalled on an Amtrak train at Washington, D.C.'s Union Station 200 miles away, as it begins to sleet sideways in New York, winds gusting above 50 mph.

Segelbaum, 36, is making the trip because he is the corporate wine director for Starr Restaurants, 36 of them and counting across four states and D.C., representing $45 million worth of wine sales a year. It is his job to make sure the wine program he has assembled at La Mercerie clicks into place with the same precision that distinguishes his group's Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence–winning lists like La Mercerie's nearby grand frère Le Coucou, with 750 selections, and D.C.'s Le Diplomate, Segelbaum's alma mater.

At Starr HQ in Philadelphia, lunch is most often taken upstairs from the flagship Continental restaurant on Market Street, but today it's a Pret sandwich on the train. "I almost think Stephen [Starr] should buy shares in Amtrak," laughs Segelbaum. He is scheduled to return to D.C. tomorrow morning and Philadelphia Sunday.

Ben O'Donnell
Erik Segelbaum (L), with Ryann Deering, describes his wardrobe as "kind of modern and funky and European but still sort of classically rooted. I'm not afraid to power-clash, but I don't do the weird SoHo three-quarter-length trousers and patterns that don't go together."

3:45 p.m.: Tasting

Despite the 90-minute delay, Segelbaum arrives in Manhattan with time to stop by a tasting where some 200 Italian producers are pouring for a wall-to-wall crowd. "To be honest, this isn't really an effective forum to be able to really get to know a lot of wines and build a wine program. It is, however, a great way to network with wineries and winemakers, reconnect with old friends in the trade, and sort of just see what I might want to taste in a more structured setting. It's a lot of card collecting," he says.

On the hunt for said friends, Segelbaum tastes a few wines, offering sartorial pointers along the way: "Either no tie or bowtie, so I don't end up dripping it into the spit bucket or the table." (Today is a red bowtie.) When he meets a wine that earns follow-up consideration, he snaps a picture of the label. (He finds notebooks cumbersome in these settings.) At one booth, he guesses, "Lots of Cabernet in this, yeah?" and shrugs when the winemaker replies that it's a Chianti Classico Gran Selezione—100 percent Sangiovese. "I'm wrong all the time. I like being wrong when it means I get to learn something."

Segelbaum finds one friend he's looking for: "mia ragazza," his girlfriend Ryann Deering, who lives with him in Philly and works as a sales manager for Esprit du Vin, an importer. They met three years ago in D.C. "I started working as a bartender at a spot that was like where all the industry [people] would go," called Proof, says Deering. "He would come in on his days off, and my friends and I would hang out at Le Diplomate on my days off, so he thought I was stalking him, and I thought he was stalking me," she laughs.

Deering's nickname for Segelbaum is "Carmen Sandiego" because he travels so much; when they do have time off, they generally relax. Relaxing can mean Netflix or board games and a dip into their 2,000-bottle cellar. "The thing we drink the most is Riesling. Second to that is Riesling. After that, Riesling," says Segelbaum. Champagne is another staple, but meat dishes call for cru Beaujolais—"as much Lapierre as we can get our hands on."

"Relaxing" can also look like this: During a brief break between months of travel last year, Deering devised a "Top Chef challenge" for her partner. Segelbaum was to create "a healthy reinvention of a classic comfort food," drawing a knife from a block to determine what it would be: meatloaf. Then, a Supermarket Sweep–style dash through Whole Foods, with Segelbaum, in full chef's attire, collecting ingredients. "I'm like screaming at him like '20 minutes!'" Deering recalls. "I was filming him by the vegetables, and kind of like the Australian guy with the crocodiles—Steve Irwin—[whispers] 'He's by the produce.'"

The episode's victor/sole competitor presented a "shawarmeatloaf" of ground lamb and shawarma spices" with Israeli "army salad": diced tomatoes, cucumbers and red onion, garnished with salt, pepper, cumin, grated carrots, olive oil and lemon juice. Segelbaum used to be a chef. "My catharsis is six-course dinner parties," he says.

Courtesy of Erik Segelbaum
Erik Segelbaum shows how the shawarmeatloaf gets made during his "Top Chef challenge."

"Duck the Halls," for example, is a Segelbaum-Deering household holiday tradition, with every dish featuring duck, including dessert (think "lavender beignets fried in duck fat and a Famous Grouse whisky-caramel sauce"), while Passover called for "foie gra-zah ball soup." ("How would Eleven Madison Park do a seder?")

At about 5 p.m., it's time to head out into the storm. Segelbaum tips the coat check attendant with a $2 bill (always), takes his chances on an Uber, drops Deering off at 11 Howard (the hotel where Le Coucou resides) and rides another block to the Roman and Williams Guild showroom that houses La Mercerie.

5:45 p.m.: A Lesson

The bright space, in hues of eggshell to robin's egg, is inviting enough to put at ease visitors who might be nonplussed by the concept of a hybrid furniture showroom/flower shop/café. Everything is for sale, including La Mercerie's plates, stemware and a $15,000 chair one visitor is warned by a manager not to sit on. The furniture may run spendy, but the café is, well, a café, with an eclectic, downtown-inflected, all-French wine list on which all but a handful of selections come in at under $100. Segelbaum describes the concept in his head as a wine list you might find at a village bistro somewhere off the A7 between Lyon and Marseilles.

Roman and Williams
The interior of La Mercerie in the Roman and Williams Guild showroom

Segelbaum greets the group's director of new restaurant openings and briefly discusses the logistics of the wine-on-tap system being installed, then orders a triple espresso and heads down to the basement, where a waitstaff of about 15 and a few managers await.

Segelbaum constructed La Mercerie's opening wine list much the same way he approaches bigger, pricier lists, in this case starting with 350 wines and tasting through them with two managers "for 7 hours. And the rule was if we don't all three accept it, if it's less to your liking, it gets kicked out." He then assessed the surviving 100 or so wines for category appropriateness, price suitability and availability. All this for a trim list of 53; when he opened the Best of Award of Excellence winner Upland in Miami Beach, he started with more than 2,500 contenders for a 600-strong list.

In an unfinished room, the servers take their places in plastic folding chairs around a U-shaped plywood table. Segelbaum hands out a cheat sheet—single-page, single-sided—with each of the 53 wines on the list, in the order they appear on the guest-facing list. Its purpose: "If a guest asks you about one of our wines, you can answer with four or five words.

"I promise nobody's going to sit down and ask, 'Can you talk about the pH and the titratable acidity in this wine?'" Segelbaum starts the lesson, which he describes as the servers' "103"-level wine class. (They've already done basics of tasting.) Still, the list has many curveballs for wine novices, from Grolleau Gris rosé to the obscure grape-based liqueur Macvin de Jura.

The sheet (quickly dubbed "paper somm" by the staff) is arranged in a grid: wine name, followed by columns representing wine characteristics ("Traditional," "Citrus," "Mineral," "Fresh," "Oak," etc.), with an X next to wines that have the flavor or style, plus a few "Key Points" of interest ranging from "gunflint" or "cherry blossom" to "unusual grape for Burgundy."

Segelbaum runs through them. Traditional: "Does the winemaker make their wine in a way that is representative of most of the other winemaking of that region?" Floral: "Doesn't matter if it's purple flowers, white flowers, red flowers. Is there any of that flower bouquet—or not? Since we have a flower shop up front, I figured flowers would be a pretty safe thing to put on a list. If you don't know what they smell like, just walk to the front of the room!"

Picking the first wine off the list, he mimics an interaction with a customer: "'Hey, how's that Drappier Carte d'Or?' 'Oh, it's traditional winemaking, and it's got a little bit of a mushroom and a lemon zest note to it.' Boom! Mic drop! You're done! They know what it is."

Segelbaum wends through the list wine by wine, sprinkling in fun facts and drawing on humor and analogies (of the Domaine Vacheron Sancerre: "What's a good example of a car, a Tesla or a 1982 Toyota Tercel? This is the Tesla.") to maximize the impression he makes in his two hours here.

Segelbaum drives his main point home: "You [are] the ambassadors of comfort. It's like when you check into a hotel, they're like, 'Would you like the feather pillow or the memory foam pillow?' That's you. You're the pillow guys."

With the conclusion of the lesson, Segelbaum is done with work for the day. But he's still putting in the "work" of maintaining relationships tonight. By 7:40 he is in another Uber with Deering, on the way to East 27th Street Italian eatery I Trulli.

8:15 p.m.: Play

After a bit of musical chairs with the table arrangement, Segelbaum, Deering and about a dozen makers and merchants of Italian wine are seated. Segelbaum is catching up with friends like Lorenzo Marotti Campi, who makes "two of my favorite wines of Italy," he says. Marotti Campi has supplied the table with them: his Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and a Lacrima di Morro d'Alba, a traditional white and red of the Marche region. Out come plates of charcuterie, octopus with fennel and olives, orecchiette in rabbit ragù, ricotta ravioli and more. Friday night ends with a grappa toast, but Saturday will be just another morning of work, at a different restaurant in a different city.

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