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Bohlsen’s wine guru Paulo Villela pours trophy wines and ‘cougar milk’

Bohlsen Restaurant Group Beverage Director Paulo Villela in the wine vault at Teller’s Chophouse.

First of two parts

 Paulo Villela is a man of influence.

As beverage director of Long Island’s Bohlsen Restaurant Group, his influence extends to the thousands of patrons who dine at the group’s five high-end eateries: Tellers Chophouse and Verace in Islip, Monsoon in Babylon, H2O in Smithtown, Prime in Huntington and the moderately priced Beachtree Cafe in East Islip. That makes Villela one of the most powerful wine buyers on Long Island. Bohlsen’s restaurants ring up $3 million a year in wine sales.

At the group’s flagship eatery, Tellers, the Brazilian-born Villela oversees a wine cellar with 8,000 bottles –1,000 labels – that includes scores of reserve California Cabernets, rare Barolos and hard-to-find white Burgundies that sell for hundreds of dollars each. You’ll also find cult wines like Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate and Schrader Cellars stored in the walk-in vault of the 1927 art deco former bank building. Wealthy doctors favor these bottled trophies, some priced to $3,500, he confides.  “They cost a lot of money. We charge a lot of money for them, too.”

While admitting its fun to offer cult wines and helps to create a buzz, Villela notes that patrons have become more price conscious. Needless to say, there are plenty of lower priced options at Tellers and the group’s other destinations. “Somebody looking for [a] $40 [bottle] can find it very easily on our short list.”

And, of course, there’s wine by the glass, which starts at $9. Indeed, Villela says, wines by the glass are fastest growing trend across the group, enabling diners to try less-familiar wines, such as Viognier, Falanghina and Gruner Veltliner, and educate themselves without asking a sommelier for assistance.

But the group’s top seller is Pinot Grigio with 24,000 glasses of the ubiquitous Italian white wine slurped up annually at all the restaurants. Villela and his staff refer to Pinot Grigio as “cougar milk.” (Hopefully no additional explanation is required.)

Bohlsen Restaurant Group Beverage Director Paulo Villela shows off wine tap at Verace.

A lot of wine poured at the group’s restaurants is served from kegs, rather than bottles. The group was among the pioneers of the wine-on-tap movement with the launch of Verace, which offers a custom merlot-based red blend made at Long Island’s Raphael Vineyard  and chardonnay and pinot grigio from Piedmont’s Iuli Winery, which is delivered in tanks to Raphael and then kegged. Wine-on-tap, Villela explains, delivers an exceptional price-to-quality ratio. To be sure, there is no keg wine at Teller’s,

At Tellers with its beefy menu, reds, especially Cali Cabs, dominate sales, but these Cabs also sell well at H2O, a seafood eatery. “People still want to have what they’re into regardless of the food,” Villela says. “You’ve got to give people what they want.

To be sure, the Bohlsen restaurants support Long Island’s producers with a list that includes Castello di Borghese, Channing Daughters, Lenz, Macari, Paumanok, Peconic Bay, Wölffer, Shinn Estate and Sherwood House. “The level of quality has risen in the last 10 years,” Villela notes.

Villela’s interest in wine began as a youth in southeastern Brazil, where he grew up on a farm neighbored by Italian immigrants who provided him with homemade wine as long as Villella brought his own bottle. After finishing up a degree in agricultural engineering at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, a family medical issue necessitated a move to New York City in 1983, where Villela found work as a bus boy. He later managed a restaurant, Dolcetto on the Upper East Side, and in 1996, he joined the staff at the Windows on the World, because, he said, he wanted to learn more about wine at the city’s top wine program.  “I went from GM at a restaurant to busser,” he said, explaining that he took the only open post available at Windows. He became a captain in less than a month, learning wine from gurus Kevin Zraly and Andrea Immer Robinson

Now, Bohlsen’s wine guru, the 1998 Sommelier Society of America class valedictorian, joined the group in 2008 after working at Blue Fin Restaurant at the W Hotel in Times Square.

He’s been a welcome addition. “Paulo brings a breath of fresh air to our wine program. His love and appreciation for wine has fueled a culture at the Bohlsen Restaurant Group where wine knowledge is cool,” says Bohlsen co-owner Michael Bohlsen. “The members of our staff have intricate experience with wines ranging from local Sauvignon Blanc to Argentinian Malbec.  This wine knowledge translates to a more well-rounded, seamless dining experience for our guests at the bar and in the dining room.”

Adds, Villela, “We have a very motivated staff.”

Fluent in five languages, Villela conduct staff wine education programs at each of the restaurants and tastes 40-50 wines per week and regularly visits Napa Valley, Italy, Greece, Chile, Argentina, Germany and Spain. Away from work he drinks Cali Cabs, German Riesling and whites from Northern Italy. “I love wines with food,” he says. 

Next: Tasting fall reds with Villela

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