Branislav Vilimanovic, Wine Manager, Bluebird in Chelsea

The Staff Canteen

Serbian born Branislav Vilimanovic has been with the Bluebird in Chelsea for 15 years where he has worked his way up the ranks to become the restaurant’s wine manager.

Growing up in a large family, Branislav was introduced to wine by his grandfather who owned a vineyard in Northern Serbia. After not being able to continue his work at a local radio station, Branislav gained a work permit and found himself pursuing a career in the hospitality trade instead.

As wine manager, Branislav’s responsibilities involve creating wine lists for the café and restaurant, running a wine shop, and organising wine tastings and wine dinners.

The Staff Canteen spoke to Branislav about bringing his personality to the wine list, the importance of wine pairing and why you need a hunger to be able to succeed in the trade.

Bluebird Restaurant
Bluebird Restaurant 

Where did your interest in wine come from?

I originally come from Serbia and my grandfather had a huge vineyard. Serbia doesn’t have a law for underage drinking so I remember tasting wine for the first time when I was like six or seven. I remember tasting the Merlot which was very juicy and soft. So my grandfather wasn’t producing wine just to sell, he had a huge family so was producing wine for the family as well.

Why did you want to come to London?

That’s a very long story, basically I used to work for a radio station with a friend. But then they closed the borders and Nato bombed Serbia so I was physically unable to go back which I had to explain to my friend, so we went to the home office and they gave me a work permit. At the time I wanted to get into either media or catering so I ended up in catering selling wines.

So what is it about wine that interests you?

Wine is an amazing gift because there’s a little bit of religion involved. I have a huge passion for food as well. I’m a big eater and I like to explore. It can be very challenging sharing your knowledge with people so having that knowledge about wine is very important, culture, history and especially geography so I like eating and tasting wines. I like travelling as well which I do often discovering new regions, new grapes, new vineyards, etc.

And you bring that back to the restaurant?

I bring back all my experiences with me to the Bluebird. The Bluebird is a huge building, we have a 170 cover restaurant, a huge bar, 4 event rooms and a huge wine shop where I have around 1,200 different wines. I really do try to bring my stamp and personality to the wines in the cellar and in the shop. I’m always on the look out for something that is amazing and good value for money.

Info Bar

Top service experiences

I was in Medla in Kingswood, Chelsea. The service was amazing, it was just flowing. They had a selection of wine and the service was just flowing.

There was also a Michelin-starred restaurant called Lyle’s, that was also very good. Despite the Michelin star the service was very casual but the food was amazing.

These two restaurants would be the ones for me.

Can you tell us a little bit about your role as wine manager?

I’m in charge of the beverage selection for the whole building and create quite a few wine lists. I create one for the café, one for the restaurant and one for the events wine list. We also have an outdoor company called Alexander Bjork so I am currently creating a wine list for them too. I’m doing all the pricing points, tastings, etc. All this is involved in the creation of this wine list. And a part of it is also running a wine shop.

We have 1,200 different wines in the wine shop and we do tastings twice a month. Apart from the wines we also have a selection of spirits, we specialise in single malt whiskeys and gin so we have a huge selection. We also sell cigars and we had a cigar tasting last month to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro – well it’s rude to say celebrate but a lot of people loved him and a lot of people hated him! But on this occasion, we tasted Cuban cigars along with Cuban rum called Havana 7 years old which had an expert for as well as for the cigars.

What is it you enjoy about working at the Bluebird?

The biggest advantage of the Bluebird is that the site has different departments. So there’s always something new going on, it’s never boring. I’m based in the wine shop where I’m also buying for my shop and do transfers for the restaurant or for the café. We don’t have a head sommelier so I have a team of three sommeliers but I do two to three shifts as well just to keep in touch to see what people like and to see my old regulars because I have been here for 15 years now so I know pretty well what the crowd drink. There always a lot of things happening, it is very busy but it’s a normal amount of work but nothing would work without passion and love.

Bluebird Wine Shop
Bluebird Wine Shop 

How important is wine pairing?

For me it’s crucial because if you know your dish and your wines they can really enhance each other. If you choose the correct wine with a dish it can bring it up to the next level. I also like to entertain people as well so if I choose the wine sometimes it’s because I’ve been here for so long but sometimes I dare to say ‘okay you choose’ and if they’re happy with the taste I sometimes check the personality or maybe how deep the pocket is. Sometimes you can get clues such as the suit.

I also like discovering new things for them, a new grape or a new country. I like to be daring with my wine list by using the classics. We have a Mediterranean menu and most of my wines are from Portugal, France, Italy and Spain but I chose Austrian wines by the glass which is a daring thing to do as people from Chelsea like the classics but it is doing very well.

I like discovering things, I like to break the boundaries. For me the most important part is catering for everyone. You need a little bit of interaction and a little bit of entertainment. You know they’re making steak but you can make that steak very exciting either with a different sauce, or amazing wine but especially vocally, this is my strength. I offer a very entertaining approach to food and wine matching.

Have you ever got a pairing wrong before?

I wouldn’t say a wrong pairing, but I would say I had a misunderstanding. Sometimes people don’t explain themselves properly. Sometimes I advise that that particular wine they want may not be very suitable for that dish. Sometimes they agree with me or they change their mind because here we’re very flexible and tolerant. So even if we serve wine the guest is not happy with we will remove it from their bill and replace it with a new one.

Bluebird Restaurant
Bluebird Restaurant 

How do you work on the pairings? Do you work quite closely with the chef?

A new head chef started in September with a Mediterranean influenced menu so I don’t get involved in his menu but the moment he changes his dishes or the moment he creates the menu is when I adapt my wines and pricing. So there are three very important things when I create a wine list, one is matching the food properly, second is pricing and the third, and most important, is putting my personality and stamp on the wine list.

I noticed that you have an extensive cocktail list as well and you were talking about spirits earlier. Did you have much involvement in the cocktails and their design?

I don’t have much involvement but the bar manager is a really good friend of mine. Usually his decision is final but I I’m in charge of ordering everything. Sometimes I tell him which gin is attractive, or which vodka is really good but cocktails are very quirky and different work.

What advice would you give to someone looking to begin a career in the industry?

Apart from gaining strong knowledge, I would say motivation is crucial. I wouldn’t recommend anybody to get into the industry without passion. I think I’m quite emotional towards my work and I think if you don’t love something then you shouldn’t do it.

Bluebird Wine Shop
Bluebird Wine Shop 

Is that what you would look for if you were hiring someone then?

Yes, I recruited five people who hardly spoke English when they started. I had a young boy come ask for a job. He asked about wine so sometimes I would give him a book or sit down with him one on one. Because the D&D Group is so big we occasionally offer some training so if I see somebody’s passionate about what they are doing I can organise this for free for them. The boy now works for one of the wine-shops just off Oxford Street and Bond Street. And there’s another French guy called Maxim, he’s a manager in Switzerland. It’s not easy to find but you can read body language and you can see they have a hunger. You have to be hungry. You have to have a passion.

What’s next for you and the Bluebird?

There’s a few shops around and a few connections where I could do consultancy. Last year, I was proud of the fact that Bluebird wine cellar was 22% up in sales compared to the previous year and we’re talking about a time when generally business went down. The strength of the euro is reflective on the pricing so we have to be very smart to balance the old debt and put it together.

The advantage of the wine cellar is that I’m proud to say we have a wide selection of wines which I don’t think are all from London. I have a small selection of orange wines and a selection of nacho wines. I have wine from much smaller countries, which are not on the wine map. So this is where my strength lies, to be different with the quality.

What is the worst behaved customer you’ve ever served?

As my old colleagues and general manager know, a part of my passion and strength in wine would be in my verbal skills. There’s a lot of things involved like body language, being foreign, English, rich, middle class, etc. If you process all of that information in your head you get a rough opinion of that person. I have never confronted anybody, even for the sake of being stupid, I like to have a very nice and soft diplomacy with customers because a crucial point in catering is for them returning. So even if customers say that the sable is not chardonnay sauvignon blanc, it’s not worth it. And if they stubbornly stand behind that, that is okay. It’s not worth it.

Five months ago I was in Tuscany and tasted a Merlot that I put on the wine list. There’s a mini story behind that, people like to have a mini story behind each wine where they can say, ‘oh this is beautiful’ or ‘this is very interesting’.

>>> Read more in the Are You Being Served? series here

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Editor 13th April 2017

Branislav Vilimanovic, Wine Manager, Bluebird in Chelsea