The Evolution of a Dish:

5 Secrets to Sommelier Success with Matthew Conway

In the world of fine dining, few roles are as enigmatic and essential as that of the sommelier. These wine experts are storytellers, curators of experience, and guides through the labyrinthine world of viticulture. 

To uncover the secrets of sommelier success, we turn our attention to Matthew Conway, owner, and sommelier of The Tippling House in Charleston, South Carolina, as he shares his insights from years of navigating the nuanced terrain of beverage management.

The Power of Mentorship and Perseverance

Matt's journey from California dreamer to esteemed sommelier didn't unfold overnight. It was a tapestry woven with threads of mentorship, perseverance, and a passion for wine. 

His early foray into the culinary world, working in the back of the house under the watchful eye of his mother, provided a solid foundation. But it was his encounter with a wine distributor in San Diego that ignited the flame of curiosity that would define his career.

The lesson here is clear: seize every opportunity for growth, no matter how unconventional. Matt's transition from kitchen to cork was propelled by a thirst for knowledge and a willingness to embrace the unknown. From Grey Kunz's legendary tutelage to forging lasting relationships with industry titans, Matt's ascent underscores the importance of mentorship, whether formal or informal, in shaping the trajectory of one's career.

It's all about mentorship, whatever Master Sommelier program or path you choose. Having somebody that's well vetted, that's done great work that you're proud of, and you think you would want to emulate again. It doesn't always work out that you get to work for that person, but to find somebody that checks as many of those boxes as possible and getting an opportunity to work alongside of them is always the best route.

Crafting Compelling Narratives

Technical expertise is just the tip of the iceberg for sommeliers. What truly sets the greats apart is their ability to craft compelling narratives around the wines they serve. Matt's philosophy is simple yet profound: "Nobody cares about soil types." Instead, he emphasizes the importance of forging emotional connections through storytelling, painting vivid portraits of the vignerons behind each bottle.

Whether regaling diners with tales of Chave Hermitage's adorable canine mascot Marley or sharing insights gleaned from his travels through the vineyards of France, Matt understands the power of narrative in elevating the dining experience. 

By humanizing the winemaking process and fostering a sense of connection between producer and patron, he transcends the role of sommelier to become a true ambassador of oenological artistry.

Stories are really important to connect people to the wine. Is it a female vineyard? What type of food did they serve you while you were there? Things that people can actually connect with and feel comfortable with. And traveling helps you fill your arsenal of stories that you can then deploy. I'm way more likely to talk about somebody's dog than the type of soil the grapes are grown in at a table. So having those stories to kind of connect that big gap between the grower and the final consumer is what I think being a great sommelier is.

Adaptability and Emotional Resilience

Matt's emphasis on inclusivity in wine selection underscores the importance of catering to diverse tastes and budgets. By curating a wine list that offers something for everyone, from connoisseurs to casual enthusiasts, he ensures that no guest is left wanting. In doing so, he fosters a culture of accessibility and exploration, inviting patrons to embark on a journey of discovery with each sip.

Conway emphasizes the importance of being adaptable and emotionally resilient in the face of challenging situations. He discusses the need to navigate interactions with customers who may be drunk or rude, highlighting the importance of maintaining composure and focusing on the task at hand. This skill is crucial for sommeliers, who often interact with diverse personalities and must tailor their approach accordingly to provide exceptional service.

To excel in guest relations, it’s essential to develop empathy and keen observational skills. Pay attention to subtle cues, such as body language and tone of voice, to gauge a guest's mood and preferences. This approach allows for a tailored experience that makes each guest feel special and well-cared-for, encouraging repeat visits and fostering customer loyalty.

One of the two things that I think really set people aside is wine lists that have something for everybody. Not everybody can spend $100 on a bottle of wine at lunch. If you can do the work to find those wines and put them on your list, that always distinguishes yourself from everybody else. And the sommeliers that have done that well in their career over time have always excelled. Because if you can go to a restaurant, sit down and spend 60 bucks and get a bottle of wine that's as good as the wines that are 120 bucks, because that sommelier did the work to go to the tasting and taste through a bunch of bad wine to find the gem, that's special.

Leading by Example

Conway's early days at Cafe Grey under the legendary Chef Grey Kunz were a trial by fire, with him stepping into a high-pressure environment with little room for error. Despite the immense challenges, he maintained a composed demeanor and a relentless work ethic, traits that earned him respect among seasoned industry veterans.

Conway's leadership style is rooted in his willingness to tackle any task, no matter how menial.  Whether it's arriving early, staying late, or engaging directly with customers and staff, leading by example cultivates a work environment where high standards are the norm and everyone feels valued and motivated. 

This hands-on approach not only demonstrates his commitment but also fosters a culture of mutual respect and teamwork. By showing his team that he is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure the success of the establishment, Conway inspires them to adopt the same level of dedication and professionalism.

Working for Marc Forgione taught me as a business owner to lead by example. Having somebody that worked harder than you, no matter how many hours you put in, encouraged me to show up early and stay late. If you're at the beach all the time, sipping Mai Tai's, then your staff might be pretty lazy. If they're worried you're going be there before them, chances are they're going to beat you there and be halfway through their day's work by the time you arrive. But the idea of sticking to your beliefs and persevering through tough times is definitely my biggest takeaway from my time at Restaurant Marc Forgione just cause we went through a lot of hard times early on.

Commitment to Employee Wellbeing

Conway’s dedication to employee wellbeing is another pillar of his leadership philosophy. Recognizing the demanding nature of the hospitality industry, he strives to create a supportive and inclusive workplace where employees feel valued and motivated.

At The Tippling House, Conway's commitment to his team is evident in his efforts to ensure a healthy work-life balance. This includes reasonable working hours, adequate rest periods, and a respectful and collaborative work environment. He understands that a happy and well-rested team is more productive and better equipped to deliver exceptional service.

Moreover, Conway invests in his employees' professional growth. By providing opportunities for continuous learning and development, he helps his team members advance their careers. This not only benefits the individuals but also contributes to the overall success of the establishment, as a skilled and knowledgeable team is better able to meet the needs of guests.

The restaurant business complains that there's no labor. It's because we built a system that doesn't value the people that we need to do our jobs. The way that things are structured doesn't value the day-to-day hourly employee that you need to wash dishes, serve tables, and do everything else necessary. So what I wanted to do with my own space. I value everybody the way that I would want to be valued in their shoes. Health care, two days off every week. Nobody breaks 40 hours a week ever. Giving people the quality of life that they deserve and hopefully still make a lot of money.

Practical Advice for Aspiring Leaders

For those looking to emulate Conway’s success, here are some practical tips:

  1. Demonstrate the work ethic and standards you expect from your team. Your actions will speak louder than words and set the tone for the entire workplace.
  2. Enhance your ability to read and respond to guests' needs. Personal connections can transform a good dining experience into a great one.
  3. Create a work environment that supports your employees' health and professional growth. A happy team is a productive team.
  4. Build strong relationships within the industry and with your clientele. This network can provide valuable support and resources.
  5. Stay curious and committed to learning. Whether it’s about new wines, culinary trends, or leadership strategies, continuous improvement is key to staying ahead.

By integrating these principles into your leadership style, you can cultivate a successful, sustainable business that values both its customers and its employees. Matt Conway's career is a testament to the power of these practices, showcasing how they can lead to both personal fulfillment and professional excellence.

Listen to the full conversation with Matthew Conway on The meez Podcast

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