December 14, 2010

Article at SOMM Journal (Sommelier Journal)

Bottom Line: The State of Esoterica

Refosco, a Venetian cultivar once considered one of the most ordinary grapes, now producing wines featured in the toniest Manhattan restaurants and wine bars.
Refosco, a Venetian cultivar once considered one of the most ordinary grapes, now producing wines featured in the toniest Manhattan restaurants and wine bars.

How far is too far?

The value of esoteric vs. “comfort” labels, or unknown vs. well known wines, on our wine lists has been an issue for as long as I remember. Thirty years ago, believe it or not, Chardonnay was actually a hard-sell, and Merlot and White Zinfandel were totally cutting-edge. That changed quickly, and by the late eighties it was varietal wines like Chenin Blanc and Riesling – once our bread and butter in the on-premise trade – that faded into fruitless obscurity.

Which is not to allude to the fact that I’m an older dude – a sommelier who actually used to walk around in a tux with white gloves in my pocket and a chained tastevin around my neck (for the record: I hated that). It’s only to make this simple point: what seems esoteric or cutting-edge today may very well be boringly common tomorrow; and ironically, vice versa.

Esoterica, in other words, is as much a state of mind as it ever was. What’s been consistent in our business is this: you can sell anything, as long as it’s good and worthy, and you and your staff are positive, or authoritative, enough to sway your guests. The pursuit of esoterica, for instance, has been the stock and trade at New York’s Gramercy Tavern from their day one. Their current wine by the glass list sports an Austrian Neuberger and Zweigelt Rosé, an Italian Refosco and sparkling Lambrusco, a Tokaji Sec from Hungary, a Jurançon Sec from France, not-so-scary Pinot Noirs from Oregon and Germany, and a regionally sourced Long Island Merlot.

Crazy, you say? Not so crazy, it seems, to keep Gramercy Tavern from being voted the most popular restaurant in New York six of the past ten years. Leading to the more salient question: are local New Yorkers, or the hordes of Zagat reading out-of-towners that descend upon Gramercy Tavern every night that much different from people who dine at Bern’s in Tampa, MK in Chicago, Rioja in Denver, The Ivy in Beverly Hills, Rowhouse in Topeka, or Vincent in Minneapolis? 

I don’t think so. Wine consumers are wine consumers, whether toting Discover or Amex Platinum. They want to be entertained, and newish wines can be entertaining.

No, I think it’s more of, as Marshall McLuhan once famously put it, of the medium being the massage: You can manipulate how a wine is perceived precisely through how it’s presented. In the political world, it’s call spin. One master masseuse, or spinster, is New York’s Paul Grieco; formerly of Gramercy Tavern, and currently the GM/beverage manager of the Terroir wine bars as well a more formalized restaurant concept called Hearth.

Hearth and Terroir's Paul Grieco
Hearth and Terroir's Paul Grieco

During a recent visit to Hearth I was struck by three ways in which Grieco is able to make wines like a 13-year-old Loire River Muscadet (by Jean Aubron) and a Lebanese red (Château Musar’s second line, Musar Jeune) look like perfectly reasonable, everyday-drinking wines by the glass:

  • My server gushingly told me so (seems obvious – but hey, it starts somewhere).
  • There were lengthy descriptions on the wine list (we learn that the Muscadet has “steely minerality” and that Musar’s Serge Hochar is a “heavenly” spawn of “Jesus and Satan” – if you can dig that).
  • The wines were served with perfectly comforting, far-from-scary dishes like house-made charcuterie and lamb pappardelle.

Okay, so we also enjoyed some not-so-common dishes like salmon belly and sweetbread alla piccata with these and other wines, such as Marcel Deiss’s unusually pungent, fleshy, stone soaked Berg (a Riesling/Gewürztraminer field blend) and a fairly classic Barbera d’Alba by Vietti. The point being: you can serve any wine as long as you are able to intelligently present it, especially in a sensible food context – and win friends and influence people in the process.

So how far is far when it comes to esoteric wine these days? Only as far as you make it in your own mind, and in your guests’ minds. But remember, what goes around comes around: wines like Lambrusco, Riesling, Muscadet and Barbera, for instance, became so “everyday” for many of us years and years ago, that we stopped paying attention. It’s good to see professionals like Grieco pick them back up, and present them with missionary fervor. After all, if it’s good, it can be useful; and if it’s useful in classic wine/food contexts, then if fits in with exactly what our business is all about!