The tender: Matthew Wohleb
The bar: Amaro Pizzeria and Vino Lounge (28234 N. Tatum Blvd, Cave Creek, 480-502-1920)
The pedigree: Wohleb began working at age 20 at Kazimierz World Wine Bar. The place's vast wine cellar spurred an interest in the beverage, so he moved on to other wine-centric spots-- Cowboy Ciao and Caffe Boa -- before landing at Amaro, where he's now bar manager and sommelier.
What different about your job at Amaro?
Here is my first management role, and my first buying role. So this is the first time I've had a significant amount of freedom as far as what I want to bring to the guests, as opposed to before, where I didn't have any cool new products. Now, if I like something or if there's a new wine I want to bring in, I can.
The places you've worked at previously have been pretty similar in their high-end focus and wine selections. Why did you choose those bars?
I feel like I'm fast, but I don't have certain "assets" that would help me out at most bars.
So I kind of rely on wine knowledge and bar knowledge. I'm more into getting people excited about a product than games or entertaining in different ways.
Is your wine knowledge pretty vast?
The thing is, the more you know, the more you realize you don't know anything. So it's one of those things where I'm superior to a lot of the people I meet, but I know even more people who would clown me and make my knowledge look like nothing. I study a lot and I love it; it's a passion. I drink a lot of wine, but I'm into all spirits. I'm a bar geek.
How do you put your personal touch on a cocktail?
I'm always a sucker for showmanship. I do a Negroni here where I do burnt orange zest through a flame. I do it because, one, it gives you a cool burnt orange taste, but when people see the zest flying through and the flash, it spurs conversation.
Do you try to craft your drinks to incorporate flare?
I wouldn't say I'm twirling batons with blades. I'm not trying to get corny. I want to have something that has a purpose and isn't just for visuals. But I think catching the eye is important, and it's definitely a good way to market drinks.
What's your least favorite part of the job?
Anyone who's not coachable or doesn't want to learn. I guess people who see food and beverage as a commodity. That's my biggest pet-peeve. You know, this isn't just creamed corn; this is creamed corn with lemon zest and other stuff. There's more to it. This isn't just beer; this isn't just pinot noir. I always try to coach people to see that there's more here they might be missing, and to experiment, try new things, be brave.
I imagine you didn't run into to many of those at the places you've worked.
I think I'm used to that from working at Kazimierz. People went there for the huge list, and to try something new. I'm used to people wondering. I wondered; I spent three-and-a-half years wondering. I tried to bring some of that up here. I have a bottle of Lillet Blanc, which is my favorite aperitif, and whenever I bring it out, no one has ever seen it before. But I sold a lot of it at Kazimierz. There are some things I can bring out here, but there are some things I can't. I've kind of learned the hard way.
What do you drink?
I drink a lot of Negronis. My friend Matt Cortez -- he works at Cowboy Ciao -- he turned me on to Negronis when I was 21. If you've never had one before, it's basically equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and campari. Kind of real tough drink if you're not into super-bitter, weird-tasting drinks. So obviously I hated it, and I kept hating it for about a year. Then I met my current girlfriend, who's from Italy. She drinks them all the time, so now I do too.
What's your favorite memory as a bartender?
At Kazimierz, we had a NASCAR or race car driver come in. He ordered an '82 Penfolds Grange, and that was the first time I had ever sold a bottle that cost over $1,000. Everyone was really excited; it's like history happening when one of those opens. We had bottles that could make history on any given day, and that was one of them.
What's the best tip you can give to someone trying to be a better bartender?
Try everything. Like everything. Don't say, "I don't drink this, because of this." Everything has a purpose, a role, and you need to know all the roles. You need to know how to make a good Cosmo, and if you think it's a girly drink, you need to reconsider that men drink that for a reason. Even if you never drink Lemon Drops, or Corpse Revivers, you need to be aware of the full spectrum. It's not about liking drinks, it's about appreciating them and knowing there's a reason each one tastes like it does.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
This is a question we ask people when we do interviews here! Now it's flipped on me, and I don't know what to say. I'd like to say Angelo Gallo, one of my favorite winemakers. I'm also a huge fan of Kevin Spacey; I'd like to have a drink with him, pick his brain a little bit. We'd have Chartreuse VEP, up, in a martini glass.
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