Wine Director Gillian Ballance takes to the floor at Jack Falstaff.
Wine was the inspiration that launched the PlumpJack brand when Founder Gavin Newsom opened the PlumpJack Wine Store on Fillmore Street in 1992. Today, the PlumpJack Group is a lifestyle brand that encompasses a growing collection of 14 operations - restaurants, bars, retail stores, resorts and a Napa Valley winery - that combined make for one heady, good-life experience. Newsom divested his interest in the group when he was elected Mayor of San Francisco in 2003 and the company’s dynamic president and CEO Rob Goldberg manages operations for all of the businesses.
Goldberg’s keen eye for talent secured PlumpJack Wine Director Gillian Ballance, a dynamo whose credentials include opening wine director at the Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara and the elusive WSET Diploma, to oversee restaurant wine service for eight PlumpJack operations and provide direction for all of the group’s beverage operations.
A Closer Look
Ballance and Fillmore Street Store Manager Debbie Brown paused for lunch at the group’s SOMA hot spot Jack Falstaff to shed some light on the strategic value proposition that defines wine sales for the PlumpJack brand. In a market where retail wine prices are dizzying and markups liberal, the stylish image of the PlumpJack Group properties connotes almost too much cache. But in fact, when the first PlumpJack Cafe opened just up the street from the retail store in 1994 it was the only top restaurant in San Francisco to sell wine at retail prices.
“PlumpJack tailors its operations to the neighborhoods where they are located and we make personal service the very core of our business,” offers Brown who welcomes canine family members with biscuits and gladly provides curb-side delivery service for clients who call in their orders. The store’s ability to source any request including older cult wines has added to its high-end perception but with over 150 wines under $15 in stock, there’s no doubt that everyday value is a big part of their retail equation.
Today, Ballance prices the majority of her on premise wines a $6 to $10 above retail, a mere fraction of the markup taken by her competitors and one of the most compelling reasons to explore the value inherent in all of the group’s wine lists. She points to Champagne as her loss leader, “We take a 25 percent markup while the city-wide standard is 33 percent; we’re making it just that much easier for guests to celebrate with us.”
By leveraging her buying power and fine tuning lists for maximum appeal to each neighborhood’s customer base – the house style at Jack Falstaff focuses on biodynamic producers that excel at purity of taste and expression – Ballance achieves a rare state of equilibrium for clients that frequent the group’s restaurants and also purchase wine from their two retail stores. In one pointed anecdote described by Ballance as a “magical moment,” a Jack Falstaff customer returned specifically to enjoy the Chateau Grand Puy Lacoste 2001 Bordeaux (Ballance lists it for $60) after sourcing it from another local retailer at $100.
Between tasks like judging the San Francisco International Wine Competition and preparing materials for a six-hour wine seminar she presents at the company’s internal training retreat - PlumpJack University - Ballance is collaborating on PlumpJack Winery’s first release under the ultra premium CADE label (cade is Old English for wine vat) anticipated for 2006. She is also overseeing the wine program for Farm, a new dining concept at the exclusive Carneros Inn property in Napa that will debut in September. Farm will feature a unique demi-barrel tasting program from nearby producers, bringing the wineries to the guests.
When asked about her current ‘mini’ lists, she points to “40 is the new 30” a sublime collection that showcases “30 great wines in their prime for under $40” as an example of exceptional quality and value. With Ballance for inspiration and a pervasive commitment to customer satisfaction, the PlumpJack Group’s holistic approach to wine sales remains one tough act to follow.
Store Manager Debbie Brown makes customer service her top priority - clients’ canine friends enjoy biscuits while their owners shop.
The brand’s namesake, Jack Falstaff as Plump Jack.