I started in this business when I was 11," says Michael Jordan, referring to his father's place, Matteo's, a celeb haunt in Los Angeles and a Sinatra favorite back in the day. So when Disney approached Jordan in 1999 to run Napa Rose, a new restaurant at its California Adventure theme park in Anaheim, he politely blew it off.
"I'm thinking, I've had enough churros and space burgers to last a lifetime," says Jordan (who, at 48 and well under 6 feet, is unlikely to be confused with the ex-Chicago Bull). "I was a maître d', a sommelier. I just didn't relate Disneyland to fine dining."
But Disney chased Jordan hard for six months; finally, he turned and gave it a look. "Before I told them no one more time, I said, 'I'll see what you got.' " Even though Napa Rose was still under construction, Jordan quickly realized that Disney was imagineering its way out of a culinary stereotype. There wasn't a Mickey-shaped chicken nugget in sight. Instead, there were dots of paint outlining a massive open kitchen, tape sketching the contours of a custom-made wine cellar, and blueprints with 25-foot windows that would look onto the distant Sierras. "It was committed to creating a world-class restaurant," he recalls.
He was surprised, but hooked. Still, before he'd sign on, Disney had to agree to underwrite Jordan's burgeoning obsession—a wine program unlike any other. That didn't just mean increasing the number of wines on the list to more than 1,000 (Disney had thought 180 was plenty), or offering more than 80 by the glass. Jordan was pitching something truly radical: certifying everyone from chefs to busboys as sommeliers. With Disney's blessing, Jordan designed a six-month class to prepare up to 35 employees at a time for the Level 1 exam, which is administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers; since 2000, more than 200 have passed. Today, Napa Rose has 42 sommeliers on staff—from busboy Roberto Ruiz to executive chef Andrew Sutton—more than any restaurant in the world. In fact, the program has expanded into a kind of sommelier farm team for restaurants throughout Disney.
According to Sutton, "What Michael did was educate the staff to where I now speak with them in different terms." Sutton says an educated team encourages experimentation with multiple courses and multiple glasses—a nice recipe for booming sales. And the numbers seem to back that up: Some 35% of Napa Rose revenues come from wine, in an industry where 25% is considered above average. "We talk to hundreds of sommeliers for our annual surveys," says Wine & Spirits managing editor Tara Q. Thomas, "and one thing we learn is that the more they train servers, the more they sell. I can't think of anybody who has trained so many people."
Restaurants being a pretty transient world, some observers scoff that Jordan is just preparing his bussers and food runners for better gigs elsewhere. "This is where I get existential and humanistic and altruistic," he responds. "I want to raise the bar for the whole industry. It's naive to think people will stay at Napa Rose or Disney forever. That's okay, because I'm going to be out to eat someday, and I hope someone's there to take care of me." But this is the one part of Jordan's scheme that isn't going so well: Turnover at Napa Rose is virtually zero, and retention of sommeliers is even stronger. In vino veritas.
Mark Borden is a Fast Company contributing writer.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.