Yesterday was Ryan Fletter's birthday. It was also the day he finally got to tell his mother that he'd bought Barolo Grill, after six months of working out the details of a deal that Barolo's founder, Blair Taylor, had suggested to his longtime employee. Yesterday, Fletter and Taylor also shared the news with the extended Barolo family. "The chefs are thrilled, the staff is thrilled, the landlord is thrilled, the customers are thrilled," Fletter says. Of course, his mother is, too. They made the announcement on Fletter's 41st birthday — and Taylor just happened to be 41 when he opened Barolo more than twenty years ago.
By then, Taylor was already a Denver restaurant veteran, having opened the legendary Dudley's in the late '70s, which turned into Chives a decade later. Taylor's contributions to the Denver dining scene elevated him to a spot in the Colorado Restaurant Association's Hall of Fame last year — but Taylor isn't just a restaurateur. He's also in the wine business, traveling the world, and when he finally realized that wine was taking up more and more of his time, Fletter was a natural choice to take over the restaurant. For the past five or so years, Taylor told Fletter, he and the staff had basically been running the place: "'Really, it's yours, anyhow.'"
Fletter had started working at Barolo on the day after his twentieth birthday, on June 1, 1994. By then, he'd already been working in restaurants for seven years; his resume includes time with Radek Cerny at the European Cafe, with Kevin Taylor at Zenith, and at Sacre Bleu, where "I learned a ton," he remembers — including the fact that partnerships could implode. When that one did, he returned to Barolo as bar manager in 2001; his wife, Erin, already worked there, but she would soon have their first child.
After eighteen months, the couple decided to take their baby and move to California, where they'd be near Erin's family and where Fletter could learn to be a winemaker. He got a paid wine internship — "how cool is that?" — and then a job as a front captain in a fine-dining restaurant. He'd had some "really amazing experience," he remembers, when he got an offer to open a wine shop in Denver. He loved Denver but didn't love retail, and in 2003 Fletter jumped back to Barolo, where he got even more serious about his wine studies. He trained as a Master Sommelier, and passed the first part of the test on the first try.
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He was going to go for a second exam this year when Taylor approached him about buying Barolo. "That thing really sidelined me off the master somm exam this year," Fletter says. And how: While Fletter continued to work at the restaurant, creating a new wine program with a "world-class wine list," he was pulling together the deal, without backers or "anyone who can derail this incredible Barolo history," he says. And so it will be business as usual at Barolo, Fletter promises. Taylor will keep his office across the street, and promises to bring his wine customers in to dine at Barolo.
Fletter says hopes that the fact that he was able to buy Barolo without some rich uncle or company, just with "honest, hard work," will be inspirational to others. And in any case, it's a hell of a birthday present.