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Grow your restaurant wine sales with Hristian ILIEV, Head Sommelier of ARIA Resort & Casino

Photo for: Grow your restaurant wine sales with Hristian ILIEV, Head Sommelier of ARIA Resort & Casino

12/02/2024 Join Hristian ILIEV, Head Sommelier of Carbone Las Vegas at ARIA Resort & Casino, on an informative tour through wine sales growth. Explore his skills, which ranges from Bulgarian winemaking to developing successful wine programs.

Welcome to a unique look at the wine sales growth with Hristian ILIEV, the respected Head Sommelier of Carbone Las Vegas at ARIA Resort & Casino. In this interview, Hristian discusses his journey from being entrenched in Bulgarian winemaking traditions to becoming a sommelier with over 20 years' experience. His love of wine and commitment to offering excellent experiences for guests have cemented his place as a significant figure in Las Vegas' dynamic wine sector.

Place of work.

Carbone Las Vegas

Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you begin your career and how did you progress into this role?

I was surrounded by wine, growing up in Bulgaria! My grandfather made wine, and now my father make wine. He make is because he loves to drink it, and to keep the tradition alive. Wine-making is not his profession. I saw all the labor of love that went into a bottle of wine, and how it made people happy! Even though, I started drinking much later in life, wine has always been much more than an alcoholic beverage, to me. Music is my "first love", and I've always looked at wine as art, as pasion, as a connection between people and the Earth. Naturally as I had to choose a way of making money, I went with something that was already close to my heart.

I've been a Sommelier for the past 20 years, I've worked with handful of wine programs, so once I met with MFG, I wanted to be a part of this great concept! I opened Carbone in Las Vegas and built the wine program. It has been an essencial part of my life for the past 8+ years.

Define your role and the tasks involved in your role.

I am on the floor 5 nights a week! I serve wine, and talk to our guests about wine. Greet them and make them feel welcome. I create a longtime patrons that want to come back every time they are in Vegas. We have a team of 4 sommeliers, that do exactly the same. We want to make sure that everyone that comes to Carbone can have the wine experience that they are looking for, and in most cases even better. Behind the scene, I make all selections that go on the wine list. Taste with distributors, set up wines in the systems, and do the administrative process necessary to bring wines in our cellar.

Image: Hristian ILIEV

What questions would you ask the restaurant owner before you plan your wine sales growth strategy?

How important is wine to them? Are they willing to establish a wine culture in the restaurant? Everyone working in the team is important, from the dishwasher to the polisher, busser, server, bartender, captain! Everyone plays their part into providing a great wine experience to the guest! When everything is flawless and people care, sales will come! How much are they willing to initially invest in wine? Are the choices that we are going to offer, catered toward our clientele?

How can suppliers work with you to drive sales?

Most importantly, bring wines that are of interested to the program. If we've never met, look over our wine list, and see the choices that we offer. Bring wines that will makes sense in this program. By now most distributors know what I am interested in. If you see that we offer a single vineyard Pinot Grigio by-the-glass, a mass produced wine for a low price, probably will not be of interest, and so forth.

Give us an example of a profitable wine program mentioning wines on your list and why you have them.

As long as the choices are in-tune with the restaurant, they will be profitable. I have comfort wines in every category, like Dom Perignon, Cristal for Champagne, Gaja for Piedmonte, Tignanello, Banfi, Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Masseto for Tuscany, all the First Growths for Bordeaux, Silver Oak, Opus One, Kosta Brown for California, and so forth. Labels, that most guests will recognize. If this what they like and they are comfortable with, they can enjoy them at Carbone. They are always priced in line with the rest of the market! In some cases they even a bit cheaper! This way a wine buyer doesn't feel like s/he is being taken advantage of. However, we also have many smaller, less known producers, in some cases more expensive, that we, as sommeliers love to talk about! Once you gain the guest trust, sales are easy to happen. Again, within the guest comfort! Our goal is to create a great experience, so the guest will return time and time again.

Let's dive deeper into your restaurant wine program. Break it down for us as to why certain elements were included in the wine menu and how these helped the bottom line.

Wine-by-the-glass is very important part of every list! My choices are very few, but carefully selected! Some guests find comfort in just drinking a glass or two without thinking too much of it, that's why the common choices like Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chianti and so forth, and of good quality, not well known producers, and really delicious! They are a bit more expensive, let's say than the rest of the glasses that we offer. We make great profit on these choices! Our servers and bartenders are very familiar with them, and can sell them easy! This way the sommelier can focus on guests that have more interest in bottles of wine, where the selections is much broader.

We only have wines from 3 countries on the list! France, Italy and United States. It's another reason to start a conversation with the sommelier, so we can suggest a wine that suits the guest palate, but yet, is something new and interesting to them.

Always have wines of value! everyone should be able to enjoy a bottle of wine! if the guests comfort is, let's say under a $100, I have a handful great choices. In my case it's Dolcetto, Freisa, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Southern Rhone blends! They are fun and easy drinking, a party of 4 can easily have 2 or more bottles, this way they feel like thay get their moneys worth. If the list doesn't have these wines, the guest will just drink cocktails or not drink at all! You can't make people spend more than what they are comfortable with. However if the guest is set on drink Napa Valley Cabernet, the choices there are more expensive! if we have a $90 Napa Valley Cabernet, it will be the most poured wine in the restaurant, and this is definitely not good for sales.

I always have top wines on the list! We often have guests that like to drink Mouton, Romanee Conti, Masseto, Conterno, Harlan and so forth. If we do not have these choices, we just lost on a big profit!

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What are the three main things you focus on daily in your role?

Make sure that I bring a positive attitude! 

Have all tools and inventory for a successful evening, and make sure that the wine list is up to date! Makes sure that I am caught up with all the admin!

What are the points you look at when selecting a new wine for your wine program?

First and foremost, I have to be excited about the wine! The way it tastes, complexity, balance, the story behind it! I am always looking for the passion behind the wine! How will it fit on the wine list? Is it adding to a collection of producers from a certain region, or representing an off the wall wine region and varietal. Small producers, always get my attention! We do not build a library, sadly. The purpose of this program is to open and sell the wines I buy. That being said, a wine that makes it on our list, is going to move off the rack, not sit there.

What is the difference between the role of a sommelier and a wine director?

There shouldn't be much of a difference, but if I have to find it, I'd say: Sommelier's role is to provide a great wine service, and to pass on his/her passion for wine to the guest. Wine Director should cover all the aspects of a wine program, and make sure that it's financially successful, by presenting choices and prices that work best for the establishment.

Define a good sommelier and what qualities you would look for when hiring one.

Passionate about wine and hospitality! Honest and humble! Outspoken and confident, but also eager to learn! Someone with great social skills, who is confortable being on the stage! Because we put a show for our guests every single night. A great sommelier is the one that is able to put their tastes aside, listen and be able to gain guests trust!

Image: Hristian ILIEV

What do you look for when you have to evaluate the effectiveness of a wine program?

They say that numbers don't lie, and it's true in this case. How much inventory is the restaurant sitting on? And how often is this inventory flipped? What persentage of it, is long term investment, and is it jastifiable by enough movement of the high volume wines? Is there a focus of the program? Let's say, deep and broad Italian or French list!? Or is it a vast sellection from every part of the world! 

I have seen some very small and con-sized lists, that are very successful and the reason is because the choices fit with the concept of the restaurant. In todays wine world, more is not necessarily better! One can have a 2-300 selecion list, but always have a new and impressive choice, even for the avid wine collector! After all, this is what we do, as wine buyers. Always look and find new exciting wines in this immense wine world.

How according to you has the role of the sommelier evolved, especially now during Covid times?

I think it's getting harder and harder to be a sommelier. During Covid many people had a lot of time on their hands! Lots of them made use of it, and learned a lot about things that interest them, like wine! Nowadays everyone has more information in the palm of their hand, than any human can ever learn, and soon AI will be telling us what to drink!!!

The only way this profession can survive, is if we really bring the human factor into it. Be humble, approachable, genuine. Listen! Let you personality show and bring your positive energy to the floor! Treat people the way you want to be treated. Gain their trust and then you'll be better than the iPhone.

What are some of the most important skills for a sommelier to have?

Great communication skills! More important, then anything else. Passion! We are not saving lives, but it doesn't mean that you can't give 100% every time you are talking about wine.

Your favorite places to enjoy great wine in London?

I used work for Alain Ducasse, so The Dorchester is still a very special place to me! 

What's the best part of your job?

Discovering new wines! I approach every new (to me) wine, with the same curiosity and respect as I did the first time I tasted Romanee Conti! I am humbled by the way a wine can bring you to it's place of birth and express everything that happened the year it was born! Second best part of my job are the people that I get to meet and share wine with!

What's the worst part of your job?

Telling no to distributors. We all have a business to run, and often this is part of the business!

If you had to pick one red and one white wine as your personal best, which wines would they be?

Salon! Both for white and red! :) 

And yes, I have fallen into the Burgundy trap, many many years ago! Young Coche Dury, Corton-Charlemagne for white and 10+ years old Romanee Conti, Grand Echezeaux can be the last wines I can drink and I will leave the wine world satisfied!:)

Any favourite food and wine pairing suggestions for London drinks enthusiasts?

Salon and chips!:) or honestly any delicious Blancs de Blanc and chips!

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