Peter McDaid is a London accounts manager for a UK wine importer, having worked similar positions in Barcelona and Beverly Hills. He is also the former head sommelier of Spring in London, and Firefly Bistro in Los Angeles. Here's his (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition.
‘You have to wait tables. It’s the only way’.
Lisa had had a point. If you needed quick cash in NYC, it was the only way to go. And boy, did I need cash.
I was on my second university, broke, and about to transfer to a third. Dad had royally mismanaged my financial aid package and the generous grant that had taken me from Boston to Brooklyn was about to disappear. At first I thought I could work part time – you know, double up on shifts over summer break and then wait tables weekends to fill up the coffers without terribly affecting my studies. But, of course, in a city as expensive as New York, you needed to really start racking up the tips – and therefore the hours.
So, I started at the Seaport, unwittingly working at a mob joint with plastic forks and cockroaches falling from the ceiling. Then it was a heaving, narrow Mexican cantina where Michael, the manager in false eyelashes and a floor length kimono made it clear we were only permitted to cry in the downstairs toilet.
“Not the upstairs, only the downstairs. Now, last item for briefing; I’d like to remind you we will be having nightly bag checks as too much guacamole has gone missing”.
The money was pretty solid. But once I graduated uni(haggard but fiscally sound), I decided enough was enough. Bartenders made all the money, bartenders were cool, and I was gonna be a bartender. Having zero experience was not going to get in my way.
Like any twenty-something, I puffed up my CV with creative aplomb. I’d bartended a lunch shift at the Mexican place when Donnie showed up too high on ketamine one day:
…add ‘waiter/bartender’ to this one…
I also made a few highballs during a summer job in New Hampshire:
….they’re out of business, so change waiter to ‘bartender’; no reference available…
The first few interviews didn’t go so well. I was too short, looked too young, didn’t have enough ‘attitude’. Okay, so one job, yeah, it was mine – so long as I was willing to bartend in a jock strap.
Then came Follonico.
Follonico was a top Italian restaurant just off of The Flatiron. At the time, that neighbourhood was a wasteland. But walking in, the place was just beautiful. Warm earth tones, plank hardwood, leaf-motif upholstery and dropped antique lighting. And topiaries. I didn’t even know what those were.
My heart raced a bit. This was not an ideal match, what with my steel-toed boots, black nail polish, soul patch and hoop earrings.
But I pushed through the written exam, and I did okay. I knew enough from years of taking drink orders(and taking drinks). Then there was the interview, whereupon I was asked what the hardest part of bartending was and I answered, ‘I don’t really know anything about sports’.
Which was really to cover the fact I didn’t really know anything about bartending.
But, the manager got a laugh out of it and I got my trial shift.
Marcy was lead for the night. She was a dour, irascible girl from Indiana. I’ve seen throw rugs with more personality, but she was swift and measured. No step was wasted and by the time Follonico really started to hum, it was clear why. I fixed my eyes on everything she did; every cocktail, spirit, mixer, glass, garnish, shake and stir. I was essentially learning how to bartend on the sly. But then came the unforeseen wrench. She was decanting a 1974 Monfortino with delicate ease, and glanced to me.
‘How’s your wine knowledge?’
My eyes widened for a moment and I was hoping Marcy hadn’t noticed. But, she had.
‘I see. Okay, look, here are the trades, behind the register. Decanter, Spectator, Enthusiast – you’ll need to get reading. Also, there’s a book called Wine for Dummies. No offense, but you’ll need that’.
‘Cannot believe they never asked you about wine…’
There was deep disapproval from Indiana and for a moment, I thought, I can bartend in a jock, why not?
It was a steep learning curve, and I think it’s one you can only successfully climb when you’re twenty-three and nothing seems impossible. I put my nose into it – literally. And, it wasn’t an instant pleasure for me. Honestly, my drink of choice was a Manhattan, straight up. If I’d ever had a glass of wine before Follonico, I couldn’t remember the occasion. I was a twenty-three year old virgin.
People in London laugh when I tell them we had Etna Rosso by-the-glass – in 1998. Set you back a cool $7. Sometimes Monica di Sardegna was a special pour. Oh, how I loved that one. Yes, we had the big bangers, and the chef was wild about Amarone(I still haven’t fully warmed to those wines), but for a novice like me, it was the undervalued reds from the south of Italy that reeled me in. Aglianicos and Negroamaros that I managed to find at a Chinese grocer on Eighth Ave. I’d buy a Cannonau for $7.99, and try to make it last the week. The combination of plummy fruit, herbs and lavender, for under ten – it was an instant love affair.
A couple years later I moved to Los Angeles, became a wine director, moved to sales in Beverly Hills. And it was at that hiring exam where my Cali knowledge came up short – but my Italy scores excelled. Londoners tell me all the time how lucky I am to have begun with Italian wine; moan about how confusing it is. Yeah, I guess I really was lucky.
How ironic my New York City side hustle – the means to pay for uni – became my career. I’ve made no use of my Fine Arts Education degree. But I’ve made very good use of a very many Italian wines. And all because I was too short and wouldn’t bartend in a thong.
(still don’t know anything about sports, either)