Eventually Jim moved on from Cafe Allegro, and, after a few shaky managerial transitions, I was asked to take over the position of bar manager, which included revitalizing our dying wine program. I brought my palate and a sincere dedication to my profession as I reinvigorated our wine and cocktail lists. Quickly, Cafe Allegro made a comeback - our list was once again recognized by Wine Spectator, and we started seeing our accomplishments honored by local press with numerous awards and high critical praise. Within a few years I took over as General Manager at Cafe Allegro.
During the last couple years leading up to the GM position, I had also been producing, promoting and performing in a small poetry/performance art/music showcase called yawp Carnival Poetica. We featured local poets and musicians and artists in a 4+ hour program which was tied to a small press 'zine that I and friend, fellow editor, Eric Bliman, were publishing. It was a huge success which explored the rich artistic diversity of Pittsburgh at the time. I mention this because I've always felt that wine was, in many ways, very similar to poetry & art. There is an intrinsic value to wine, where a great bottle can have both physical beauty which we are exposed to through our palate rather than through our ears or eyes, and our criticisms are based on our unique perspectives which will always be different from person to person.
After a seven years at Cafe Allegro, among some of the finest professional servers in the city of Pittsburgh, It was time to move on, and I was asked to join the staff at the Big Burrito Restaurant Group's (BbRG) Mediterranean Kitchen and Wine Bar: Casbah. I had always admired Casbah and when my friend Jennifer (then Catalina) called and told me there was a server position opening up, I jumped at the opportunity to work for BbRG. I saw the move as an opportunity to spread my wings and learn other restaurants management techniques. At Cafe Allegro, as a small family establishment, managers pretty much had to train themselves. I looked forward to having some official corporate training in restaurant management, and where better than the largest local restaurant chain; BbRG. http://www.bigburrito.com/
I worked briefly as a server (2 mos.) before being promoted to Wine Director. Casbah was one of the largest wine buyers in Pittsburgh, my inventory from Allegro to Casbah quadrupled. So I was really able to branch out and experiment with different wine & liquor product from around the world, with a focus on European varietals and styles. Under my direction, working hand-in-hand with our GM Jennifer (now Fisher), the Casbah bar and wine program took off. Recognition came from local press, as well as national tourism groups such as AOL Cityguide. Most notably as one of the Top Ten Wine Bars in Pittsburgh in an article by Elizabeth Downer for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06236/715790-46.stm.
We had a great run for 3 1/2 years, Casbah and I. Casbah was a unique restaurant that was extremely dedicated to it's wine program. The list was constantly changing, evolving, growing. And our customers responded ecstatically to the cool new varietals that I was bringing in. We tasted (tested) our staff monthly. The staff was excited and knowledgeable (a great combination for a wine bar... no doubt!).
My tastes started leaning to more obscure, off-the-wall styles. Sure, we had the chardonnays, cabernet sauvignons, merlots & pinot noirs that were the standards and absolutely essential, but we also turned our guests on to Douro style red wines, good roses (my own personal crusade), Bordeaux blends, Priorat blends (Rhone & Bordeaux mixes), Lagrein, and the aforementioned Lemberger which I brought with me to Casbah as well.
They were heady times, and our clientele appreciated the introduction to varietals and styles they'd never seen or tasted before.
(to be continued)