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The Hardest Working Someliers in America

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By James Geneau

When it comes to choosing wine for a restaurant menu, the planning and selection process can be a daunting one. Chefs, seasonality, and the restaurant reputation all come into play. For most sommeliers, they are bound by a single destination which makes for enough work managing the day to day wine experience for a customer. However, at Walt Disney World, there is a team of professionals who have the responsibility for not just one restaurant but an entire city. Lead by John Blazon, manager of Wine Sales and Standards, they are responsible for a network of over 55 restaurants and 18 lounges delivering over 6,000 food items and countless pairing opportunities.

Blazon and his team start with a solid list of 250 wines, updated annually, representing 65% New World (from the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) and 35% Old World (from Spain, France, Germany and Italy). At a resort with more than 300 places to eat, it is no wonder that that they are the largest single single-license purveyor of wine in the World. They are the hardest working team of sommeliers in America, and I just had to sit down at Citricos at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa and speak with John Blazon to find out how he and his team run such a vast network of food and drink venues.

Gremolata: Most people think of corn dogs, popcorn, and fudge when planning a trip to a theme park, not wine. But Walt Disney World has a wide variety of dining options available and your job is to ensure that wine meets the demands of the resort. How many restaurants, cuisines, plates, and customers are you and the other cast members responsible for in a given day?

John Blazon: We are a large entity of food and dining experiences with everything from popcorn on Main Street to fine cuisine at Victoria and Albert's, central Florida's only five-diamond restaurant, awarded by AAA. We have 55 table service restaurants which offer a wide variety of cuisines from all over the globe. Jiko-The Cooking Place at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge offers only wines from South Africa, the largest South African wine program for any one restaurant in the United States. On the other side of the park we also have the California Grill located at Disney's Contemporary Resort, offering over 100 wines by the glass, all from California. We celebrate diversity in our restaurants and the wines we serve are cutting edge, and we find that our guests talk about the dining experience about as much as Mickey.

Gremolata: How closely do you work with the chefs of each restaurant and how do you keep track of all of the dishes and potential pairings?

John Blazon: We took a ground breaking direction a few years ago where we wanted our food and our wine to compliment and balance each other. When we designed our restaurants we wanted to create kitchens and an overall environment where the food and wine could come together and be easily incorporated into every dish by the chef. We did this because we wanted to excite the guests with our food and drink offering.

We put together an educational program in association with the Court of Master Sommeliers, which has been a major part of the overall program here at the resort. To date, over 725 cast members (team members working at the over 55 restaurants at the resort) have passed through the first level of the program. It is the bedrock of our food and beverage training and service delivery model. As you get through the first level, the desire to continue for the cast member is natural for each graduate to further perfect his or her skills. They learn about food. They learn about wine. And my role is to assist them with pairing our core stock of 250 wines. Out of the 55 restaurants, 47 wine lists are written by me whereas the remainders are managed by wine leaders at each facility. They must have a percentage of wines from our core list represented but also incorporate other bottles based on the cuisine and the overall experience being offered at their specific facility. For example, Artist Point at the Wilderness Lodge specializes in Pacific Northwest cuisine so they needed to incorporate certain vintages from Washington, Oregon, and the Okanagan Valley to pair well with cedar plank roasted salmon, grilled buffalo sirloin and pan-seared halibut.

It is about keeping everything fresh, balancing the edgy with the familiar, while also keeping ourselves true to the cuisine.

Gremolata: Clearly wine has been growing steadily for years as a preferred compliment of food regardless of the demographic group. How long has wine been an important element in the dining at Walt Disney World? Has it been increasing in terms consumption more recently or has it been steady since day one?

John Blazon: Well, the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971 and since that day, no alcohol has ever been served within that specific park. However, the resorts and the newer theme parks, specifically Epcot, have a long history of wine with food. Epcot opened in 1982 and that was a celebration in the diversity of countries and flavors. When the France pavilion was born, so too did the French wine program begin - similarly with Germany. We have a steakhouse called Le Cellier at Epcot within the Canadian pavilion for example where we pair Canadian based wines from the Okanagan and Niagara peninsula. This has been a challenge as there are not a lot of Canadian wines available with local distribution, but we have found some. Epcot really kick started the wine program at Walt Disney World.

Consumption has been increasing; we have had year-end growth of 5-7% in wine sales for several years now. Even when the economy goes soft, we find that we have even seen people trading down in bottles. When people get away they want to indulge and wine plays a big part of that experience.

Gremolata: The resort draws guests from all over the world with varying degrees of sophistication when it comes to wine. How do you balance these demands when choosing a specific wine for a given restaurant in the resort?

John Blazon: We are a global brand and a global company and we keep in mind that we attract guests from around the world every day. Whether it is a surge of European visitors when the Euro is favorable to Brazilian guests, we don't necessarily change the menus and wines. Instead, we try to stay as close to the concept of each restaurant as we can. So for example, here at Citricos which celebrates the best in Mediterranean cuisine we offer a wide range of wines from the south of France, Greece, and Italy.

We are true to what we call our 'role in the show', where we might have a specific menu that is catered to that experience and we try to accentuate the wine menu to elevate that experience. We also listen to our guests and what they are saying about the overall dining experiences. We are very keen to the trends and shifts in perception and we can change as we need to in order to address the expectations of our guests.

Gremolata: Price must also be an issue. Do you stick to a threshold for guests or do you offer a wide spectrum of vintages to meet varying needs?

John Blazon: I think that our wine selection is always sensitive to price. Our guests know what they pay in a retail and restaurant environment and I think guests are pleasantly surprised when they arrive to see the pricing structure of our wine. We have a matrix we work from and we make sure that we have certain stratification price points that are fair while addressing the indicators that might have an impact on what the market will bear.

Gremolata: On the topic of price, The Wine and Dine program is an innovative package guests should consider when planning a trip to the resort. Can you tell us a bit about the program and its popularity? What kinds of vintages do you offer at such a great fixed rate of $39.99?

John Blazon: It's a promotional package set forth by our pricing team and initiated this past year. Because of the tremendous success of our dining program we thought why not provide the guests with the opportunity to 'trade up' and enjoy a bottle of wine with their meal. With so many bottles, we could not list every wine available but we do provide some examples on our Web site for guests considering to opt-in for this program. Essentially, it offers two levels ' a one entitlement or two entitlements list of wines.

The way it works is that your wine list has one and two entitlement wines listed. Roughly 80% of the wines offered are one entitlement wines. Everything $53.00 and less, is considered a one entitlement wine versus higher-priced wines are considered two-entitlement. They have one bottle entitlement per day and the guest can choose how they use them. They may choose one bottle a day from the one entitlement list or choose a two entitlement wine every other day. It is an added value program for them to make the most of their visit and incorporate wine into their trip in advance.

Gremolata: So, what does a typical day for your team look like? With so much responsibility, it must require a strict regimen. Is every day planned out or are you pretty much on call 24 hours a day?

John Blazon: Well, the way it is set up, there is no direct reporting structure. I act like a consultant to all of these restaurants within the resort. I am here to help them design the menus, the wine lists, and assist in the development of wine programs across the parks. I work closely with our procurement departments evaluating the wine deals and opportunities that exist including reviews of the supply chain. I also meet with the teams of the nine signature restaurants on the property each week and we will have a tasting where we bring in vendors. We taste them blind so that we have no pre-conceived impressions of the wines. They have no idea of the wines being tasted and this technique allows them to develop their skills tasting the minerality and fruit to match the wine with the food they are serving back at their facility. They then bring this back to their restaurants and cast members to share this knowledge.

We collectively work together to ensure we are being smart about our buying ' which leverages all other aspects of the program. It is also my job to manage the new wine SKUs coming into the system. In a typical day, I will visit restaurants, run educational programs, as well as work closely with my partner Michael Jordan, our Master Sommelier and Global Wine Manager.

Gremolata: With the economic crisis gripping the world and having an impact on consumer spending, what kinds of innovative methods are you using to make wine affordable or has it had little impact on the typical Disney consumer?

John Blazon: We have noticed that bottle sales in general are not at the same level they used to be and instead people appear to be moving towards the 'by the glass' model. What we are trying to do is get them beyond that first glass. What we did that was innovative was the introduction of a half-bottle carafe program that is not a half bottle but instead we are taking the full bottle that is available by the glass and introduced a mid-tier pricing - so that you have a glass price, a half-bottle carafe price, and a bottle price. We bring the full bottle to the table unopened and then pour it into a carafe that would constitute roughly two and a half glasses accordingly. We have seen a tremendous shift in sales because people are more inclined to purchase the carafe and try a white and a red. Once sold, the remainder of the bottle can return to use for 'by the glass' service.

We are finding economies by how we deliver the wine and the options available to the consumer. The guest will determine where the best value is for them. That might be a financial value, a pricing value or in terms of how much they want to consume. We are just trying to find options for them to maximize their experience and we have rolled this program out to several of our restaurants so our guests can try new wines along with their favorites.

Gremolata: Do you have a personal favorite wine, region, or vintage? Meaning, if you could put your absolute favorite wine on every table like you do at your own home, what would it be?

John Blazon: That's a tough one. I recently travelled to Walla Walla and was truly impressed with the Syrahs and the quality of the product coming from there. It is great to see what is going on it that region and the pioneers who are trying new things are truly exciting. I also had the experience of visiting New Zealand about a year and a half ago and see what is going on there as well. I am excited about what is happening all over. I think it is a wakeup call for France. There are great wines coming from all over and the prices are great to match.

Gremolata: Finally, the Food and Wine Festival and associated Wine School at Epcot are great programs for foodies coming to Disney World. Could you tell us a bit about the program and what guests could expect?

John Blazon: The Epcot Food and Wine festival just finished its 13th year and it is one of the longest running continuous programs in the country and for 45 days guests have the opportunity to visit the festival. It runs from the last week of September through to the first and second weekend of November. One of the elements of that is the Epcot Wine School, a lifestyle-driven program where a winemaker or expert will be brought in to talk about a different region. Guests sign up for this school and they have a full day immersion into the specific wines and techniques of a region in a classroom setting. People come out of the classes motivated to learn more and start buying wines from these regions.

We attract a large local resident population as well as guests from all over America who come each year to enjoy the festival. They plan their vacation around the festival, particularly our vacation ownership guests who return year after year for the events. We do vertical wine tastings as well. We recently did one with Chateau Musar from Lebanon. We draw up to 1.3 million people through the gates during the festival and host a wide range of special events from celebrity chef appearances to tastings.

About John Blazon:

John Blazon oversees the development of standards for wine programs including product selection, service and training at all Walt Disney World locations including theme parks and resorts and new concepts.

Blazon graduated cum laude from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1982 with a bachelor of science in hotel and restaurant management. Blazon received his master sommelier diploma from the International Court of Master Sommeliers, during a fall 2004 exam in London, England.

In 2003, Blazon's efforts were applauded by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF), which awarded its 'America's Best Wine Lists Special Innovation' honor to Walt Disney World Resort at the Monterey Wine Festival. In addition, Sant' magazine named Blazon its 2003 'Wine Professional of the Year.'

Blazon continues to develop educational courses for Disney's food and beverage team which includes the Disney sommelier certificate program in partnership with the Court of Master Sommeliers. More than 700 cast members have passed the introductory certificate level since the training began in 1997, which is a greater number than any food and beverage organization in the world. In 2006, Blazon was recognized by The STARWINE International Wine Competition as their 'Sommelier of the Year.' In 2008, Blazon was elected to serve on the board for the Court of Master Sommeliers and was also appointed board member to the American Guild of Sommeliers.


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