For the Love of Wine and People: Beverage Director Bennet Riley
Bennet grew up in the Bay Area less than two hours' drive away from wine country, and his childhood was saturated with wine talk. However, he never imagined that he would be immersed in the wine world two decades down the line. Instead, Bennet was set on working in the nonprofit sector, and took to studying Nonprofit Management in college. It was also when he was a freshman that he started working as a server at Marks Bistro in the Dundee neighborhood of Omaha.
"The General Manager at Marks Bistro, Kait, was an awesome educator." Bennet had to familiarize himself with the menu as a server, and he recalls Kate making the wine tests exciting and fun. Peripherally aware of the topic his entire life, Bennet's interest finally settled firmly on wine. "It was there that I received my foundational knowledge about wine."
In 2020, Bennet finished his Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management from the University of Nebraska-Omaha and began working as a development coordinator for the American Lung Association, organizing fundraising events. A year later, Casa Bovina opened for business. Through sterling recommendations from Kait, Bennet became a bartender at Casa Bovina. "It was supposed to be a side gig," he explained. “I was not ready to give up nonprofit.”
Then he met Jordan Reed, Front House Manager and the driving force behind the restaurant's wine program. According to Bennet, Jordan told him, "You seem like you like wine."
It was Bennet's formal introduction to the world of sommeliers.
Bennet accompanied Jordan on one-on-one wine tastings with sales representatives. Watching how he ordered wines, learning the ins and outs of building a wine program, managing the inventory, and studying about wine. "It started with counting bottles, but I've learned so much from Jordan."
Bennet saw the opportunity for what it is – a deeper second look into the world of wine, and he took it with relish.
Before long, Casa Bovina started to gain popularity and traction, and with it, their responsibilities grew. "Responsibilities grew as the restaurant picked up traction, and everyone started filling in the spaces, doing what needs to be done," said Bennet, now the Beverage Director.
Bennet's responsibility is to ensure that the drinks and service meet all guests' satisfaction and enhance their dining experience, and he takes his role seriously. He currently curates Casa Bovina's wine list during non-service hours. During service hours, you would find him serving tables, making beverage recommendations, and working to make every guest feel at home.
"There are a lot of wines that taste good, but we're looking for those that come with stories."
Casa Bovina builds its menu around Piedmont, Italy, where our Certified Piedmontese cattle originated. From world-renowned producers to artisanal wineries with devoted followings, Casa Bovina's sommeliers and beverage director have worked to pair it down into a concise list of food-driven wines offering a startling depth into the Piedmont region.
Piedmontese beef at the restaurant has a long and robust history, and so do the wines. As a general rule of thumb, when choosing wines, Casa Bovina sommeliers love to dig deeper into the producer and nuances about the region. Bennet feels strongly about this. "The thing I love about Italian wine is all about the stories they tell. Many families have produced wine on the same land for over 20 generations. It's not just wine and how well it plays off the food, it's about the people."
Wines that come with stories are just another part of entertaining guests for the night. When guests decide to pair a glass with their dinner, servers at Casa Bovina don't just serve them wine. They tell you how it tastes and why it pairs well with your dish. They also tell you where it's from, which producer made it, their process, and why the wine tastes this specific way. "Whether the guest is a wine nerd or knows nothing about wine, having a story attached to your wine just takes the experience further."
For a relatively small region in Northwest Italy, you'd be surprised by the diversity of wine in that tiny region. Bennet's favorite is Barolo. "It has a pleasant, floral, full body. Powerful, but also delicate." Barolo is made from the Nebbiolo grape native Piedmont region and is, in many ways, Italy's prized possession. It is highlighted in Casa Bovina's wine program, rounded up by selections from France, Germany, and more.
"Casa Bovina's focus is Piedmont. We take you on a stroll through what Piedmontese cuisine has to offer. We have one of the best Piedmont wine selections in the area to pair with the Italian-inspired dishes and Italian-heritage beef served at the restaurant."
Bennet thinks wine is fascinating. "You're never going to know everything about wine. The most talented master sommelier is still not going to know everything. I'm always moving on to the next thing because there's just so much to learn. There is always so much more; you want to taste it all and learn everything. You can dive deeper and deeper and deeper and never reach the end."
"It's not the hardest thing in the world to curate random, good wines... what we want is to create a memorable experience."
Bennet feels that Casa Bovina has all the necessary criteria for a first-rate establishment. "We have the good food and wine, the nice space, and a staff that works. The tricky part is how to make people feel appreciated."
How can I make my guests feel welcome and comfortable? This is the question everyone at Casa Bovina asks themselves. Bennet explained, "Because all these people had a free night, and they are choosing to spend it here. We want to show them how much we appreciate it."
Bennet always goes the extra mile to make a guest feel at home. "What we want is for you to have a memorable experience, and that is hard."
Jordan played a key role in defining hospitality at Casa Bovina. "He cared about the guest experience so much more than your average person," said Bennet. "For Jordan, it's all about hospitality – how we make people feel. I say that all the time now."
There are no absolute rules when it comes to wine service in a restaurant, and Casa Bovina is a place where enjoyment always takes precedence. When a guest is unsure of what drink they would like for the night, Bennet takes it as a personal challenge to find out. Whether it's a spur-of-the-moment complimentary tasting flight or a surprise dessert cocktail, he strives to ensure that even the unspoken requests of the guests are met perfectly. "Sometimes, it's just about making memories."
Bennet recalls a couple who walked in one night, not anticipating a restaurant of Casa Bovina's caliber. Seeing guests overwhelmed by the menu, Bennet made a simple offer. "If you'd like to, let me take you through it." He talked to Executive Chef Zach, and the Casa Bovina crew came together to give the couple the best dinner of their lives. In the end, the couple loved the 7-course tasting menu with wine pairings, were wowed by the amuse bouche and complimentary drinks, and left with chocolates and satisfied smiles.
Casa Bovina's regular guests aren't just drawn to its superb food. It's the entire atmosphere created by a wonderfully cohesive team. "We have good people here. The things that come from the kitchen are so beautiful and talented. Everybody cares so much; they work so hard. It's very fulfilling to work with a team where everyone wants to see the restaurant succeed. It feels like a pirate crew." Bennet finds the collaborative environment invigorating.
"Casa Bovina and the people here are truly something special."
Bennet thinks he will always be partial to serving guests personally. It's the most effective way to gauge how well I'm doing as the Beverage Director – take a table myself and serve them for the night, and I'll be able to see the reactions of guests up close and get their direct feedback."
"I like talking to people," said Bennet, "so it's easy for me. I think all guests that walk into Casa Bovina deserve a stellar experience and nothing less than the finest meal they've ever had."
Servicing is not an easy job. It is demanding on the best days, and there are times when things take a downward turn. "One thing I had a hard time learning was to accept that sometimes things just don't go well. When things go wrong, I can't help but take it personally. I think you'll find that many of us feel the same."
Things might go wrong during service. Sometimes guests might have an unexpected preference or different expectations that the restaurant does not provide, and not everyone leaves in high spirits. "I know it happens in every single restaurant in the world, but it's tough not to take it to heart," said Bennet. "You feel personally responsible for an unhappy guest because you just want so much for everyone to have a good time."
When Casa Bovina was newly opened, the restaurant was severely short-staffed. Every person on the team had to juggle multiple hats. "We were all scraping by as we worked out how things are going to be, but it was also a lot of fun." The beautiful bar area the restaurant now has was not always there. In those early days, Bennet bartended out of a display case in the corner of the restaurant. "Every night, we'll set up in the corner and serve from there." He now calls those the good days.
"There was a sense of uncertainty that slowly tapered off as the crew grew bigger and learned our way. Looking back, it was all worth it."
Bennet admits that he fell into the life of a bartender and now Beverage Director of Casa Bovina through a series of fortunate chances. "A lot of people think I'm here because of some long-term game plan. In reality, I got asked if I wanted to do this, and I went, 'Yeah, let's rock and roll. This is going to be fun.' And here I am."
Bennet wrapped up the conversation with one takeaway. "I love this place. I love the people. It's built from scratch in the middle of nowhere. There's just something special here."
When you are in Casa Bovina and happen to flip the menu around, you'll see a stylized map highlighting the family ranches partnered with Certified Piedmontese. A map on the back of Casa Bovina's tasting menu highlights wine regions, helping people visualize where their wines came from. Bennet was the one who designed these illustrations.