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Spotlight: A conversation with Michael Mina’s (until yesterday) lead sommelier, Josiah Baldivino

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Josiah Baldivino is one of the more delightful somms out there. Even in the rarified atmosphere of Michael Mina, where he was—until yesterday—lead sommelier (more on that in a moment), he’s an unpretentious guy. Josiah, 32, and his wife, Stevie, live across the street from me. We had coffee yesterday morning in our Oakland neighborhood at Room 389.

SH: So what does the lead sommelier at Michael Mina do?

JB: The way the whole [Michael Mina] group is set up is, Rajat Parr is the wine director over all the restaurants, so he’s kind of like the big brother in a way. Each individual restaurant, though, has its own lead sommelier, who runs the wine program and does all the purchasing. So what I like about it is that each lead sommelier has the ability to do whatever they want, so it’s almost as though they’re the wine director.

So you chose the wines?

Oh, yeah.

You didn’t get a memo from HQ, “Here’s what we’re buying.”

No. I mean, we would definitely get allocations and stuff, which I would say works in our favor as a group, when we can commit to a lot more than just one restaurant could. So things I got sent were mostly allocations, and I’m totally fine with getting allocations of things like Coche-Dury and stuff like that.

Speaking of Raj, he’s known for, among other things, In Pursuit of Balance. Their thing seems to be low alcohol, however you define it. So at Michael Mina, do you have California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the wine list?

Yup.

And do you have wines that would not be balanced, from an In Pursuit of Balance perspective?

[laughs] I would say there’s definitely some wines on the list that do have a bit of higher alcohol, and maybe to some are not balanced. But in my mind, if somebody’s into something that isn’t considered balanced, then whatever, just go with it and order it. My main goal as the buyer is to make sure there’s something for everybody on the list. I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re not normal, or they’re not in the know. If they want something that some people think isn’t correct, then I’m going to give it to them.

What is your background? How did you get to be a somm?

Started in college at Cal State Northridge. Had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I took business management. In order to get your degree, you had to do an internship. So I did my internship at Silverlake Wine, down in L.A., and just got hooked. Started buying books, signed up for the Court of Master Sommelier program, moved to New York to cut my gums and get some real floor time experience, and then starting working in the Oak Room and ended up at Bar Boulud.

Did you get your M.S.?

No. I passed everything, got all the way to Advanced, and now just putting the whole thing on hold so I can open my business.

Why did you want an M.S.?

I don’t know if I really wanted the actual M.S. I really got into the program just to get my foot in the door and get some experience. I mean, I had that goal in mind at one point in my life, to get an M.S., but right now I’m happy with the way things are going. It’s like the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Michael Mina is arguably one of the most glamorous names in restaurants. You ended up as Lead Somm at his namesake San Francisco restaurant. How did that happen?

[laughs] I don’t really know, to be honest! I came out here from New York, and had a lot of fire. So I ended up working [at Michael Mina] under someone else, and once they left, they basically needed a lead sommelier to run the ship. And I, being a young kid, told them, “Hey, I want to do this, let me try it.” And they were a little hesitant at first, but after I told them, “Look, give me a couple months, pay me the same amount, I don’t want any promotion, just let me do what I can do, and if you’re happy with the results, then you can give me the keys to the Ferrari, and if you’re not, then I’ll happily step back down.” So…

Were you on straight salary, or did you get a percentage of your sales?

It’s basically like a server-type thing, like all restaurants. You get paid the same amount. You get a certain amount of points on the floor, and blah blah blah.

Do you make more money if you sell more expensive wine?

No. Not necessarily.

But sometimes? Because people wonder if the somm is pushing that $100 bottle instead of the $75 bottle because they make a little more.

I’ve definitely heard of some restaurants that encourage that kind of behavior, but I would say, at Mina, they’re pretty cool. Sure, you want to hit your sales and make your costs, which is very important. At the end of the day, you just want to make sure that people are happy, so when they come in, you’ve done everything you can to get them what they want and make those numbers. Sure, it would be great just to sell $30 bottles all the time, and that’s what I would do when I go out. But at the end of the day, sometimes people want to go a little bigger, especially when they come to a prestigious place like Michael Mina; they’re ready to celebrate, and you’ve got to have wines for those types of people, as well as wines for people who are just going out to eat on a Tuesday.

We are now on the very block where your new shop, Bay Grape, is set to open in August! What is Bay Grape?

Bay Grape is a wine shop that my wife, Stevie, and I are opening; she currently works for the Guild of Sommeliers. It’s a shop we want everybody to come to and feel comfortable with. The whole idea started because, as wine professionals on our day off, we always wanted somewhere we could go, like a cool wine shop, and just find a cool bottle and talk to someone who works there. But for whatever reason, it’s kind of hard to find that these days. So we decided to open this, and just be basically a really cool place where people can come, whether you’re really into wine, or just getting into wine. They can come, they can learn, they can find hard-to-find bottles, everyday bottles, and they can taste everyday in the store. We just make sure that all the bottles we have have some kind of story, are of good value, and most of them are bottles that are often overlooked in restaurants and wine shops. So we’re doing the hard work for people by taking our years of experience and tasting and finding the best bottles for the buck. And we’ll also have classes two or three times a week, which also involve tastings. We’re so close to wine country, we want to have people come down and pour their wines. So we’re striving to be a neighborhood corner spot where people just come and hang out and learn about wine and share wine with their friends and neighbors.

Will there be food?

Yeah: cheese, charcuterie, bread, pickles, and we’re doing a C.S.A. (community-supported agriculture) pickup every Thursday.

This is downtown Oakland, although people are now calling it Uptown. This is my neighborhood; Old Crow Tattoo is on the same block. Explain the thinking behind opening this kind of establishment in downtown Oakland that really hasn’t seen anything like this, and has had a troubled past–although the buzz now is that it’s coming back with restaurants and so on.

For us, we’re basically neighbors too, so the thing I love about this area is that, although it is busy and, according to our neighborhood meeting group, it’s the most densely-populated neighborhood in Alameda County, it has that sense of neighborhood. People walk by and say “Good morning.” People are very cool; there’s a lot of young professionals, and old professionals,* all kinds of walks of life. But at the end of the day, there’s that sense of community, and that’s where we wanted to do this concept, because that’s what we’re all about.

And you quit your job to do this thing!

[laughs] Yeah! All in. After 3-1/2 years, today is my very last day at Michael Mina.

I mean, you had—I think it’s fair to say—one of the most desirable—

–Absolutely—

–jobs that a sommelier could have, and yet, you left it. So my last question is, Was it a tough decision?

Very tough. Very, very tough. The only way I would have left Michael Mina is if I were doing my own thing. And this opportunity came up, and my wife and I don’t have any kids yet, so we figured we might as well give it a shot. The last thing I would want to do is regret not doing this. So we’re going to do it and make it happen, and it’s going to be awesome!

[Bay Grape will open in August. The address is 376 Grand Avenue, in Oakland.]

Josiah

* I think Josiah added that for my benefit.

  1. “But for whatever reason, it’s kind of hard to find that these days.”

    perhaps on the whole, but in that neighborhood?????
    Ordinaire, just up the road from the future spot of Bay Grape, fits that description extremely well

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