We had the good fortune of connecting with Sam Rethmeier and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Sam, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
It was serendipitous!
COVID-19 hit restaurants like the housing crisis of 2008/09; we were supposed to be the industry too big to fail. Impenetrable. To quote Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, “life finds a way.” Even with said housing crisis, restaurants came out relatively unscathed. This was different.
As a result, I was tasked with liquidating our existing inventory (selling wine at retail pricing) to free up cash as the restaurant transitioned to a take-out model. A friend of mine asked me to grab her some bottles, totaling $100. A few days later, she FaceTimed me and asked if I would walk her through my selections. I quickly launched into my table side sommelier bit and walk her through all three bottles. She was happy, I felt briefly normal for getting to do my job and we hung up.
I set my phone down and the epiphany hit me. I COULD TURN THIS INTO A BUSINESS!
I immediately knew I wanted to start a wine club. I wanted to HELP people LEARN about wine. And I wanted the wines to be AFFORDABLE and ready to drink RIGHT NOW. As I quickly discovered, wine clubs send technical sheets about the wines each month, which is, in my opinion, dry, boring and more often than not, thrown away with the box. They also give you ‘tasting windows.’ Who has the time to wait!?!
What sets the Wednesday Night Wine Club apart from any other wine club is that I recored 3-4 minute-long videos where I walk you through the wine like I would talk about it table-side at a restaurant. The videos are posted online and I stick a QR code on the back of each bottle so you can watch at your leisure. There are no scheduled Zoom calls. About to sit down to dinner and want to open the bottle? There’s a video waiting for you. About to walk into a dinner party? Watch the video just before walking in and be the smartest wine person in the room. I want everyone to drink wines that are affordable, ready to drink and delicious.
It’s affordable wine, explained.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
It should be said, I have the greatest job on earth.
I eat and drink for a living. I’ve had the pleasure of eating at 3 Michelin-starred restaurants. For work. And the drinking bit? I easily “try” over 5,000 different wines a year. For work. I’ve HAD to travel to Burgundy and Bordeaux to eat and drink. R & D. It’s work, remember? Oh, and don’t forget, I get paid to do this. My wife hates me.
At the restaurant, Chef Walter and I try dishes and taste wines together, nightly, for WORK. Just to dig in a little deeper, I get to write all this off.
Hate me, yet? I don’t blame you.
It should be said, it didn’t start that way.
I started working at restaurants because it was easy money. It was transactional. I give you food and drink, you give me a tip. I’m going to take said tip and buy a cocktail(s) after work. The first gig I got (at Old Spaghetti Factory) was in the same parking lot as a steakhouse that turned into a 21 and over bar after 10 pm. If I was in uniform, they’d let me in. No ID required. I was 18.
My friends would call me and say, “Come to this house party!”
“I can’t. I’m at a BAR!”
Life was good. I floated this way, happy hour to happy hour, until my wife showed me a positive pregnancy test.
Kids ruin everything.
Suddenly, what was my job needed to be my career.
I was living in Boulder, Colorado at the time. I looked up the best restaurant in the state. Frasca Food and Wine. They had just been nominated for a James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Program. I went in once a week, every week for three months, asking for a job. I’d also ask, “Has anyone been fired? /Died? No? Ok. See you next week.”
It took my dad coming in and spending $1,700 on a dinner for just me and him to get noticed.
“This is cheaper than sending you to college.”
We came back the next night, pregnant wife in tow. A similar amount was spent. Bobby Stuckey, owner and Master Sommelier took incredible care of us. It was a magical night. On the way out, Bobby and his wide, Danette, were eating dinner. They saw us leaving and got up to say goodnight.
My dad whispered to me “I’ll talk to Bobby. You tell Danette you want a job.”
I was hired a week later. During the interview, I told Bobby, “I want to be you.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No, you don’t. This is hard.”
(I see you and raise you out of spite.)
How hard can waitings tables be? This was my start of being the dumbest person in the room.
Bobby Stuckey lives on a different plane than you and me. He is remarkable to watch. If you dine at one of his restaurants in January and come back the following December, he’ll remember you and the story you told about your kid. He’ll remember the bottle of wine you drank. If you should run into him outside his restaurant, he’ll make you feel like the most important person in the room. He’ll actually listen to you. He cares. He is hospitality, personified. You can also pour him a glass of wine, blind, and he’ll accurately tell you the producer, vintage and vineyard. He can also shotgun a beer in 2.5 seconds. Trust me. I have proof.
Also, and this is important…it was really, really hard working for him.
One day during our pre-service meeting, after a particularly challenging night, he looked at the new hire and asked “Did you go to college?”
(this can’t be good)
“What GPA did you graduate with?”
(where’s he going with this?)
(ok, not bad. I didn’t even go to college…)
“Wow. That’s pretty good! But in my restaurant, that’s fucking failure. You want to operate at 85%, go work somewhere else. It’s 100% here or you’re failing.”
(Oh My God. What have I gotten myself into?)
Another one of my favorite memories about working for Bobby is when we had to “spiel” each table about the menu (and all four courses). There are four to six choices PER course. And, most importantly, the cuisine is based on this super obscure region in Italy, Friuli Venezia-Guilia. We had two minutes to communicate this to each guest. Two minutes. I know this, because on any given night, I’d walk up to a table, and as I opened my mouth to say hello, I’d catch Bobby, (across the dining room) looking at me and tapping his watch. He was timing me. He was timing all of us. And one second over two minutes? You’re fucking failing.
Working for Bobby was hard. I had to study about food and wine off the clock. I gave up on my personal life; I didn’t have time for it. Bobby should have fired me. Several times. I was a 25-year-old cocky kid, WHO WOULD ARGUE WITH HIM when I DID SOMETHING WRONG! Once, I ran the wrong food to the wrong table. Rather than owning up to what happened, I hid in the men’s bathroom for ten (I counted) minutes. I trained 7 people over the course of a year that all went on to positions ABOVE MINE. When I finally confronted Bobby about this, he asked me to “spiel” the menu. I was speechless because I couldn’t. I felt like a failure.
So, back to being the dumbest person in the room.
For all of the challenges, the hardship, the stress, the…Bobby Stuckey-ness of it all…I’m grateful.
Bobby refused to let me get away with my worst. He saw something in me I couldn’t see myself. He was relentless in making me better. And, the important part in all of this…he didn’t need to. He could have dismissed me. But he didn’t. So while I felt like the dumbest person in the room, I had the smartest guy rooting for me.
I can credit the success I’ve had at République to Bobby.
I was hired there, indirectly, because of Bobby. I was hired period because Bobby saw value in me. Without him, I would have just kept floating.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Bell’s in Los Alamos. Stop everything you’re doing. Go there. Don’t walk, run. This is my go to spot, hands down.
They just opened a second spot in Los Olivos called Bar Le Côte which is seafood heavy. Cannot wait to try it.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
This is easily one of my favorite topics to talk about.
I wouldn’t be where I am today without Bobby Stuckey. He is the owner of Frasca Food and Wine, Pizzeria Locale, Tavernetta and Sunday Vinyl in Colorado. He’s a Master Sommelier and arguably one of the greatest hospitality pros in the business. I owe him so much. He hired me, a cocky, dumbass 25-year-old recently married kid with a baby on the way and didn’t let me get away with ANYTHING. He was relentless in making me better, despite myself. Some kids go to college. I went to work for Bobby and left with a degree in hospitality. Best decision of my life.
Secondly, I wouldn’t be where I am today without Walter and Margarita Manzke, Chefs and owners of République and as of this year, Bicyclette in Los Angeles. They hired me in 2017 to run their wine program and gave me an astonishing amount of freedom to do that. I was hired to work for them but it never felt like that; I got to work WITH them. They have been one of the most empowering forces in my life. They believed in me, gave me agency and supported me. Best job I’ve ever had.