Wine Spectator examines the world of wine from the vineyard to the table and delivers expert reviews of more than 15,000 wines each year, along with tips on how to enjoy them—from storing and serving to food pairing to wine-country travel.
For years, some of America's top researchers into the genetics of grapevines have been working in borrowed, cramped quarters. Now they're moving on up, and it should eventually lead to better American wines. On Feb. 26, Sen. Chuck Schumer announced that $68.9 million in federal funding will be devoted to building a long-awaited federal grape-genetics research lab at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, N.Y.
The facility will allow for the expansion of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service's Grapevine Genetics Research Unit (ARS GGRU). The unit's mission is to employ cutting edge genomic tools to aid traditional grapevine breeding, helping create better vines for vintners.
"What the facility does is look at the genetics of grapevines, then [the researchers] give the info to breeders," said John Martini, owner of Anthony Road Wine Company in New York's Finger Lakes. He has been an active supporter of the GGRU's work. "These are not [genetically modified organisms] we are talking about. They are vines that have been conventionally bred using cutting-edge genetic information from the GGRU to reduce the amount of time and effort it takes a breeder to get from point A to point B."
"Since this unit was formed, we have been renting space from Cornell, so this facility was imperative for us to continue our work," Gan-Yuan Zhong, director of the GGRU, told Wine Spectator. For many years, the space was small and outdated. In 2003, the USDA did a feasibility study for the project, but the project was sidelined until now due to lack of funding.
The unit's scientists have typically addressed challenges such as breeding for fruit quality, disease resistance and cold tolerance. "Our focus is to generate genetic knowledge which we can then pass on to breeders," said Zhong. "We currently have three researchers on staff, each focusing on a different area or problem, and are looking to hire a fourth soon."
As the global climate changes and as vintners try to use less chemicals in farming, the researchers' work is becoming increasingly relevant. Zhong is focused on using genetics to improve fruit quality and vine architecture, while Lance Cadle-Davidson, a plant pathologist, is focused on developing vine resistance to powdery mildew, a big problem in the northeastern United States. Cadle-Davidson says his aim is to "develop eco-friendly disease resistance that will last for future generations" and reduce the need for fungicides.
Geneticist Jason Lando's work is aimed at understanding how vines respond to abiotic stress factors such as temperature shifts due to climate change, drought, flood conditions, salt, heavy metals and changes in light. Zhong says he would like to have a fourth member of the team who is focused on improving flavor and aroma compounds.
The new building also cements a partnership between the GGRU and Cornell University scientists. "We benefit so much for having them present here," said Cornell instructor and grape breeder Bruce Reisch.
"The grape industry drives incredible growth in New York state, providing $4.8 billion in economic benefits and supporting thousands of good-paying jobs in the Finger Lakes region," Sen. Schumer said in a statement. "The outstanding ARS researchers at the GGRU are working diligently to revolutionize this industry. It is vital that the federal government invest in its own scientific workforce and provide them with the necessary resources to keep pace with innovative, state- of-the-art technologies."
What's next? "Our next step is to get the relevant parties together, choose a site, and plan the changes that may need to be made, all before the construction can even begin, " said Zhong.
Are you ready for the perfect storm—of wine, food, Napa vibes and all-star entertainment? The headliners of the 2019 Auction Napa Valley have been announced, and one of the biggest charity wine events in the country is going full red-carpet this year, with singer Katy Perry kicking off the bidding and chef–cookbook author Ayesha Curry serving up fare for attendees after the lots are gaveled off.
The 39th annual Auction Napa Valley also serves as a celebration of the 75th anniversary of Napa Valley Vintners, the winery organization that runs the event. Last year’s auction, which featured race-car driver–winemaker Danica Patrick, raised $11 million in live bids and $13.6 million overall for local charities that help community health programs and childhood education efforts, making it the second-biggest charity wine auction in the country. Napa Valley Vintners, through ANV, has donated more than $185 million to such programs in total over the decades.
“We are thrilled to have someone of Katy Perry’s talent and energy add to the excitement of Auction Napa Valley,” said Paula Kornell of Kornell Wine Company and one of 25 past Napa Valley Vintners board chairs co-hosting this year’s event. The charitable work that benefits "the children and families made stronger by Auction Napa Valley proceeds aligns beautifully with Katy’s global philanthropic efforts."
While always a big-ticket event, ANV, to be held May 30 to June 2 this year, will get an extra injection of pizzazz from Perry, who will perform some favorite hits to fire up the bidding. The multi-multi-platinum singer of "Dark Horse," "Roar" and, of course, "California Gurls," was last spotted in this space partying with Armand de Brignac "Ace of Spades" Champagne, but that was way back when the New York Giants last won the Super Bowl, and she’s clearly found her way back to Cabernet country since.
Enjoy Unfiltered? The best of Unfiltered's round-up of drinks in pop culture can now be delivered straight to your inbox every other week! Sign up now to receive the Unfiltered e-mail newsletter, featuring the latest scoop on how wine intersects with film, TV, music, sports, politics and more.
Yesterday marked six years since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio got promoted to Pope Francis I. Knowing Il Papa's devotion to wine and wine parties, Catholics around the world raised a glass to the anniversary, or at least sent happy P-Day wishes that "every day you may experience the oil of the Holy Spirit and the wine of ecclesial communion," as the Italian Bishops’ Conference did.
But one winery remembered that among Francis' many decrees in his busy tenure was a wine request he made two years ago: that the Eucharist wine be made "natural … pure and incorrupt." So it was written, so it shall be done, they decided.
Courtesy of the Agricultural Institute of Todi
White wine, red wine, it's all the fruit of the vine.
"Pope Francis strongly called for a 'correct' origin and production of the wines for Holy Mass. 'The wine must be natural, from the fruit of the vine and not altered,'" winemaker/educator Gilberto Santucci explained to Unfiltered via email; the pope's circular also requested wine made with "honesty, responsibility and competence." In response, Santucci and his team created a Grechetto (a white wine, curiously, for the Eucharist) made at the Agricultural Institute of Todi, Umbria, about two hours via Popemobile north of St. Peter's. Santucci is the educational farm coordinator; the vines are tended and grapes harvested in nearby vineyards by students of the institute, assisted by occupants of the community's homeless shelters. A teaching winemaker oversees clean techniques in the cellar.
The Diocese of Orvieto-Todi then checks bottles for churchworthiness. "[This is a] wine that perfectly corresponds to the provisions of the Code [of Canon Law], being subjected to all the required checks and ecclesiastical authorizations," said Santucci—making it an Official Wine of Catholic Mass. The conscientious viniculture and submission for ecclesiastical oversight are in keeping with Francis' circular. As a collaboration of students, the diocese and charities, they decided to call the wine Berit—"Alliance."
The first harvest of Berit was in 2016, and the school currently makes 2,000 half-bottles (the format is a nod to the Vatican's provision that the wine be "well conserved and not soured"). In addition to service at service, you can get it for moments of quiet contemplation at home under the school's Bottega Montecristo label. Santucci now hopes the wine reaches the papal palate, of course, but his heart is glad and tongue rejoices anyway: "In Berit wine, experiences, practices and values that best express the sense of [this] community, are added together."
The "W" in SXSW doesn't stand for "wine," but you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise at this year's festival, held in Austin this week. South by Southwest has brought together the brightest and hippest minds in tech, film, music, food, entertainment and politics, including Lupita Nyong’o, Olivia Wilde, Matthew McConaughey, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. But it also brought together a lot of wine—or, at least, people who wanted to talk about it.
This year, the conference series featured not one, but two speaker panels focused on the wine industry. On Monday, the "Future Wine: Millennials, Tech and Change" panel addressed some of the biggest uncertainties surrounding the industry. Led by Rob Wilder, co-founder of José Andrés' ThinkFoodGroup and creator of the WineGame app, experts in wine-tech and generational studies discussed hot topics ranging from the youth of today's apparent lower interests in wine to whether NBA star LeBron James' #winestagram posts can save the industry.
Courtesy of Rob Wilder
From left: Rob Wilder, Heather Watson of the Center for Generational Kinetics, and Heini Zachariassen of Vivino
"Nobody has the silver bullet, but we can try to establish the framework to think differently about how [we] are going to get people excited about their products in new ways," Wilder told Unfiltered.
After the panelists hashed out their opinions, the audience was more than eager to weigh in as well. "It's fascinating that people are really thinking about this deeply—and this is not a beverage industry conference!" Wilder said. "I was really impressed by the comments that people made, and they were thinking about these questions and coming up with answers, leading me to the optimism that we're going to get this right."
On Wednesday, "Name Brand: The Age of Celebrity Spirits and Wine," put another polarizing wine topic on the SXSW stage. Featuring Jesse Bongiovi—co-founder of Hampton Water Wine Co. with his father, Jon Bon Jovi—the panel chatted about the rise of celebrity-backed wine and liquor brands, and the difference between a celeb who simply endorses an item and one who's putting in the work.
Part of the food track of SXSW, wine shared the spotlight with leaders in dining: Chef Dominique Crenn, of Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winning spot Atelier Crenn, was a big hit on the featured panel, "Localizing Food to Restore Human Health." On Wednesday, Andy Chabot, food and beverage director at the renowned Grand Award winner Blackberry Farm, and Kyle Connaughton, philanthropist and chef-owner of Best of Award of Excellence winner SingleThread Farms, talked about building a healthy and positive workplace on the panel "Ingredients for an Empathetic Kitchen." The kids, it seems, may be all right after all.
Hudson Yards, the opening-any-second-now real-estate development to end all real-estate developments, wasn’t the only patch of New York’s West Side drawing international fanfare and the open purses of folks who can afford to get their kids into college through the back door this past week. The Armory Show modern art fair returned to Pier 94, Champagne Pommery returned to the Armory Show, and Unfiltered returned to the Pommery Champagne Lounge. But there was also an important debut: the inaugural Pommery Prize, selected by a jury led by Champagne Pommery owner and art patron Nathalie Vranken. The winning artist would receive a $20,000 prize and the opportunity to have their work exhibited in Reims, France, at Champagne Pommery, which regularly showcases large-scale works from artists around the world.
Courtesy of Teddy Wolff/The Armory Show
From left: Louise Hayward, Eliza Osborne, Nathalie Vranken, Sandra Hegedus, Ryan Gander (front), Stanislas Thierry, Sally Tallant, Aurelie Vix and Nicole Berry
Not long after the doors to the fair opened to the public March 7, Vranken announced the winner: English artist Ryan Gander and his sculpture, titled Het Spel (My neotonic ovoid contribution to Modernism).
“We are thrilled to sponsor the Armory Show again and to enhance our continued commitment to the art world and carry on the legacy of Madame Pommery,” Vranken said at the show. “We look forward to welcoming Ryan to the domaine to find inspiration and be able to showcase his artwork among the existing collection.” Unfiltered couldn’t help but notice that Gander’s work bears a remarkably similar hue to that of the Pommery label, but the artist assured us it was pure coincidence: “Blue is the color of impossible, immeasurable opportunities,” he said. “Blue is the color of the sky … and [Het Spel] happens to be Pommery blue!”
Enjoy Unfiltered? The best of Unfiltered's round-up of drinks in pop culture can now be delivered straight to your inbox every other week! Sign up now to receive the Unfiltered e-mail newsletter, featuring the latest scoop on how wine intersects with film, TV, music, sports, politics and more.
In Pennsylvania, strict liquor laws make it particularly challenging to build a wine program, especially one that stands among the best in the world. These 10 destinations defy the odds with Wine Spectator Restaurant Award–winning wine lists, enhanced by rich histories and well-executed cuisines. So the next time you find yourself in Philly, skip the plethora of BYOBs for superior wine experiences at these standout spots.
Best of Award of Excellence Wine list selections 775 Inventory 5,000 Cuisine Chef Mark Twersky serves an updated take on steak-house cuisine, with plenty of seafood dishes and salads. The star of the menu, though, is the Barclay Prime Cheesesteak, an opulent homage to the city’s famous sandwich. Instead of basic sliced beef and Cheez Whiz, this version layers wagyu ribeye with foie gras, onions and truffled Cheez Whiz on a fresh sesame roll—and if you though it couldn’t get any better, the cheesesteak is served with a half-bottle of Gaston Chiquet Champagne. Wine strengths Wine director Hai Tran is in charge of the wine list, which represents regions around the world but highlights California, France and Italy. While there are some value-driven picks, there are plenty of labels to splurge on from big names like Opus One and Ramonet. New-age steak house Like the menu, the look of this steak house is far from traditional. French architect and designer India Mahdavi decorated the dining room, and the result is a lavish and highly modern space with crystal chandeliers, playful patterns and pastel banquettes. Starr’s city Barclay Prime is part of Starr Restaurants, Stephen Starr’s Philadelphia-based group that includes 16 Restaurant Award winners across the country. Seven of them are located in the group’s home city, including Rittenhouse Square staple and Award of Excellence winner Parc, and Best of Award of Excellence winner Butcher & Singer.
Bistro Romano specializes in Italian dishes like lamb ragù.
Best of Award of Excellence Wine list selections 750 Inventory 4,800 Wine strengths Organized by grape variety, the wine list is filled with diverse international selections that excel in Italy (especially Tuscany) as well as California. Overseeing the list is wine director Michael Granato, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Joette. Cuisine Bistro Romano’s standout Italian wine selections complement chef Michael DeLone’s menu of classic Italian antipasti, pastas and main courses such as filet mignon and veal saltimbocca. Romantic destination In addition to the exceptional wine program, the restaurant is known for its particularly cozy atmosphere. Dine by candlelight in the 18th-century space with exposed brick walls, set in Philly’s historic Society Hill neighborhood. Knowledge-enhancing events For a deeper dive into wine, guests can participate in Bistro Romano’s many wine dinners and tastings. The restaurant also hosts a Cellar Club; members meet five times a year in the private events room to enjoy dinners with wine tastings and guest speakers.
Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group
Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse features a grand dining room with a 40-foot wine tower.
Best of Award of Excellence Wine list selections 1,500 Inventory 10,000 Wine strengths The wine program is strongest in California, Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône, Italy, Australia and Spain. Wine director Crystl Faye Horton supplements the list with a page of personalized picks from each member of the sommelier team. Cuisine Chef Guillaume Thivet executes the menu of steak-house staples, plus some creative signature items like cheesesteak dumplings and salmon with crab hash and lobster-tomato jus. Golden picks from the Golden State The Del Frisco’s brand is known for outstanding California offerings, and the Philadelphia location upholds this reputation with eight pages of California Cabernets. Enjoy an extensive selection of verticals like seven vintages of Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eisele Vineyard and eight vintages of Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District Hillside Select, in addition to various large-format options. Nationwide name Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group includes 12 Restaurant Award–winning locations of the steak house, including a Grand Award winner in New York City. Also in the Del Frisco’s family are 14 Restaurant Award–winning Barcelona Wine Bars and 21 Restaurant Award–winning outposts of Del Frisco's Grille.
La Famiglia Ristorante
La Famiglia Ristorante has been owned by the Sena family for three generations.
Best of Award of Excellence Wine list selections 1,000 Inventory 15,000 Built on tradition Carlo “Papa” Sena opened La Famiglia Ristorante in 1976, after moving to Philadelphia from Naples, Italy. Today, the restaurant is owned and operated by the second and third generations of the Sena family. Cuisine Chef and co-owner Luigi Sena carries on his father’s legacy of authentic Italian fare with house-made pastas (which are available in half or full portions) and entrées like the fish of the day filleted tableside and chicken involtini. Wine strengths During its 40-plus years in business, the restaurant has built an enviable collection of Italian wines. Peruse aged gems like Gaja labels going back to the 1960s and Barolos from Giacomo Borgogno & Figli going back to the 1940s. Managed by Papa Sena’s son, wine director and co-owner Giuseppe Sena, the list also shines in California and Bordeaux.
Lacroix at the Rittenhouse
At Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, dine with a view of one of the city’s busiest squares.
Best of Award of Excellence Wine list selections 1,485 Inventory 7,520 High-end experience Set in a luxurious hotel in Rittenhouse Square, Lacroix creates an opulent experience with sweeping views of the park and features like afternoon tea service. Cuisine Chef Jonathan Cichon matches the restaurant’s upscale feel with a regional American tasting menu of six courses for $115. Wine pairings are available for $90, with a reserve wine-pairing option for $60 more. Wine strengths Run by sommelier Michael Ringland, the lengthy list shows strength in a range of regions, especially when it comes to France. Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhône, Bordeaux and the Loire stand out, as does California, Italy and Germany. Immersive option A private chef’s table inside the kitchen puts guests at the heart of the action. Treat yourself and up to six guests to a custom tasting menu with wine pairings specifically selected by the sommelier team.
Panorama’s by-the-glass options let guests get a better taste of the extensive wine list.
Best of Award of Excellence Wine list selections 700 Inventory 6,000 Wine strengths Wine director William Eccleston built a balanced collection of international wines, with particular strength in Piedmont, California, Tuscany and France. Cuisine There’s plenty to pair with on chef Matthew Gentile’s menu of Italian favorites, from small bites and salads to pastas, pan-roasted meats and sharable plates. By-the-glass bliss Panorama offers more than 150 wines by the glass, 120 of which are available on tap through a custom-built dispensing system that serves as the centerpiece of the dining room’s wine bar. There are also 28 flights to choose from, each composed of five 1.5-ounce pours. Splurge-worthy supplement A designated reserve list presents higher-end picks from some of the world’s most renowned producers. Highlights include a five-vintage vertical of Pio Cesare Barolo going back to 1985 and benchmark French names like Château Margaux and Louis Jadot.
Experience an ever-changing tasting menu in Vetri Cucina’s cozy dining room.
Best of Award of Excellence Wine list selections 500 Inventory 2,500 Cuisine After being welcomed with snacks and a cocktail or a glass of prosecco, guests work with their server to tailor the $165 tasting menu to their individual tastes. Chef Matt Buehler’s Italian menu is ever-changing, but expect starters like sweet onion crepe with Parmigiano-Reggiano and white truffle fondue, and pastas like maltagliati with pork ragù. Major destination, intimate space Vetri Cucina has just 32 seats, but the concept recently expanded with a larger-scale version in Las Vegas. The second location opened in a sky-high space atop the Palms Casino Resort in November 2018. Wine strengths Several of the restaurant’s seven sommeliers are regularly present in the restaurant, a particularly impressive feature considering the intimate dining room. The experts guide guests through wine director Bobby Domenick’s Italian-focused list. Wine pairings are available for an additional $135 per person and change on a daily basis to complement the tasting menu. Seasoned leader Co-owner Marc Vetri is a prominent local chef and restaurateur who was born in Philadelphia and trained in Italy, opening his eponymous restaurant in 1998. Vetri is also the man behind Best of Award of Excellence winner Osteria Philadelphia, which offers a wine list of 400 mostly Italian selections.
Gran Caffe L’Aquila
Discover authentic Italian dishes including house-made pastas at Gran Caffe L’Aquila.
Award of Excellence Wine list selections 150 Inventory 2,000 Wine strengths Co-owner Riccardo Longo also serves as wine director, overseeing the all-Italian program. The inexpensive wine list is an excellent source for values, with most bottles priced at under $100 and dozens under $50. Cuisine The restaurant spotlights a particular Italian city each week, supplementing the traditional menu with specialties from the region. A Veneto-focused menu, for example, included beef carpaccio (a dish that originated in Venice) and a specialty of calf’s liver in wine sauce, along with wine picks from the region. Array of authentic eats The full menu and wine list are available in the dining room on the second floor of the bi-level concept. Downstairs, you’ll find a gelato bar, coffee roaster and a wine bar serving small plates and at least one wine by the glass from all 20 regions of Italy. Reincarnate concept The original Gran Caffe L’Aquila was located in central L’Aquila, Abruzzo, where it was destroyed by a major earthquake in 2009. On a culinary tour of Italy, Longo met the owners of the original café (Stefano Biasini and Michele Morelli), and they teamed up to bring the concept to Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square.
At R2L, guests are wowed by chef Daniel Stern’s cuisine as well as the restaurant’s panoramic views.
R2L Fine wines and unparalleled views 50 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, Pa. (215) 564-5337 www.r2lrestaurant.com Open for dinner, daily
Award of Excellence Wine list selections 135 Inventory 1,350 Wine strengths Wine director Dana Madigan presents a well-balanced collection of the world’s top wine regions, with an emphasis on California and France. Cuisine Daniel Stern trained with powerhouse chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud before helming the kitchen at R2L. Stern’s American menu has something for everyone, from raw seafood to hearty mains like a duo of braised short rib and filet mignon, to vegan and vegetarian options. Top notch, sky high The dining room sits 500 feet above ground, on the 37th floor of Two Liberty Place. That means uninterrupted views of the city that stretch for miles, on display through the restaurant’s wraparound windows. Cause for celebration With upscale fare and a show-stopping setting, R2L makes for an ideal special-occasion spot. The restaurant can accommodate events for up to 150 guests, but with more than two dozen Champagnes on the wine list, you can turn any dinner into a celebration.
The Restaurant School delivers an excellent dining experience while training the next generation of wine experts.
Award of Excellence Wine list selections 100 Inventory 790 Educational aspect The concept is part of Walnut Hill College, an institution specializing in culinary arts and restaurant and hotel management. The Restaurant School is a key part of the coursework, allowing students to train in a professional restaurant. Cuisine Guests can choose from several dining options, each with its own menu: “Italian Trattoria,” “American Heartland,” “International Bistro” (a changing concept operated by graduating seniors) and “the Great Chefs,” the school’s more upscale concept. Chef Todd Braley oversees all of the culinary operations. Wine strengths Available throughout the Restaurant School ventures, instructor Philippe McCartney’s wine list excels in France, Italy and California. The list is presented on an iPad and used as a learning tool in various on-site wine courses, and by the student-run wine club, whose members write the tasting notes accompanying each selection. Advantageous pricing McCartney aims to keep wine prices low to give students more opportunities to practice their wine-service skills. Most labels on the inexpensive list are under $50, and additional discounted bottles are often available on a designated “Chairman’s Selections” list.
When wine director Laura Santander and chef Abel Hernández opened Eloise Chic Cuisine in 2013, the restaurant made waves in the quiet Mexico City neighborhood of San Ángel. The elegant French restaurant earned Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence that year, and four years later, the duo opened Loretta Chic Bistrot just up the road. Though its wine list is slightly smaller than its older sibling’s, Loretta Chic Bistrot also holds an Award of Excellence for a 200-label list uniting Old and New World styles. Spain, Italy and France are the highlights, but in addition to the classics, you’ll find regions that are hard to come by on Mexican wine lists, like Bulgaria, Lebanon, Armenia, Slovenia and Croatia. Santander’s goal is to offer an amusing and surprising program to pair with Hernández’s cuisine, which blends Mediterranean inspiration with North African recipes and local ingredients. Distinctive dishes include baked feta cheese with candied cherry tomato, smoked beef with potato froth and tagliatelle with a wild-pig ragù made with olive and cocoa. The menu format is particularly sharable, encouraging guests to experience the wide range of flavors and textures.
June Rodil is leaving her position as vice president of operations for McGuire Moorman Hospitality (MMH) to become a partner at Houston-based group Goodnight Hospitality. During her nearly five years at MMH, Rodil directed the wine programs for numerous concepts across Austin, Texas, and Aspen, Colo., including Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners Jeffrey's and June's All Day.
Starting April 1, she'll bring that expertise to Goodnight Hospitality, which owns a honky-tonk called Goodnight Charlie's and plans to add three concepts this year: retail shop Montrose Cheese and Wine, casual neighborhood eatery Rosie Cannonball, and fine-dining restaurant March. Rodil will work with partners Peter McCarthy, chef Felipe Riccio, and sommelier David Keck to steer the direction of the wine programs and the Goodnight Hospitality brand.
Rodil says "the process of letting go is very difficult," but she's confident in her replacement, Ryan Arnold. As the former wine director for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Arnold oversaw more than two dozen wine programs including three Best of Award of Excellence–winning locations of Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab, and Best of Award of Excellence winner Booth One in Chicago.
"I'm really, really excited for all that he's going to bring to McGuire Moorman," Rodil told Wine Spectator. "He's extremely savvy, he's got a lot of [experience] in multiple outlets in multiple regions, he's definitely coming in with an open mind."
With Rodil remaining a partner in June's All Day, Arnold says he's looking forward to maintaining open communication with Rodil to keep her involved in her namesake restaurant.—J.H.
Ojai Valley Inn is one of the best luxury resorts in Southern California.
Ojai Valley Inn & Spa in Ojai, Calif., the resort that houses Best of Award of Excellence winner Olivella, is putting its new 30,000-square-foot event space, the Farmhouse, to good use with a months-long culinary series featuring chef dinners, cooking demonstrations and more beginning April 17. The team brought on celebrated chef and cookbook author Nancy Silverton, owner of Best of Award of Excellence winner Osteria Mozza, to be its culinary ambassador.
"We've always been big fans of Nancy Silverton, who is an architect of California cuisine," said Ojai Valley Inn vice president of marketing and sales Chris Kandziora. "We couldn't think of anyone more perfect to help us curate events for the Farmhouse at Ojai Valley Inn."
"Like an ambassador to the U.N., I'll be representing," said Silverton. "But, I'll also be a curator, bringing major food talent from around the world to show their skills off at the Farmhouse." There will be at least 17 events in total. Silverton will co-host 11 of them, including a dinner alongside renowned Italian butcher Dario Cecchini with wines from Chianti producer Fontodi, a grilled-cheese pop-up, as well as a brunch with Krug Champagne that will conclude the series Dec. 8.
"Hopefully [the series is] a wonderful memory [attendees] will cherish and tell their friends and family about," said Silverton. "I'm pretty sure they'll bring some new skills and techniques to their own kitchens."—B.G.
On Feb. 25, chef Timothy Hollingsworth debuted his takeover of the Hudson in West Hollywood, Calif. A local mainstay for almost a decade, the restaurant closed in November for renovations and now sports a new food menu and beverage program.
Hollingsworth, who also owns Best of Award of Excellence winner Otium in Los Angeles, honors some of the original restaurant's beloved items with his own updated versions, like a mac and cheese with cheddar Mornay. Other dishes on the seasonal menu include lamb ribs with wildflower honey and coriander yogurt, and crispy cauliflower with tarragon-lemon mayonnaise.
"The Hudson has been an amazing institution in Los Angeles," Hollingsworth said. "We're very excited to go in and be able to offer a little bit of a revamp."
The team is selling through the Hudson's current inventory before launching their own wine program in the coming weeks. Hollingsworth is working with partner Ricky McIntosh to create a list of 15 accessibly priced selections, all offered by the bottle or by the glass. They will range from a Henry Marionnet Gamay to Château du Cèdre in Cahors. The team is also reviving the Hudson's Wine Wednesday special of half-priced bottles.—J.H.
Leaving Jeff Ruby's was a tough decision for McClure, who described the move as "totally serendipitous." He says he was drawn to Nemacolin Woodlands for its supportive family leadership and numerous first-rate dining concepts, including Lautrec, which features a 1,350-selection wine list.
"As a beverage professional, we're talking about the opportunity to come here and really practice my profession, my passion, at the highest level in the industry," McClure said. He plans to improve the program further, and get creative with it, including working on the by-the-glass offerings.—J.H.
The Award of Excellence–winning Beverly Hills, Calif., location of Wolfgang's Steakhouse by Wolfgang Zwiener closed March 10 after more than a decade of service. The restaurant offered a California-focused wine list of 265 selections to complement the classic steak-house menu. The brand still includes 12 Restaurant Award–winning outposts around the world.—J.H.
The west end of Midtown Manhattan is an odd place. The New Jersey–facing piers that were until recently the neighborhood's defining feature feel far removed from the bustling crowds that canvas the rest of the island.
If you've passed through in the past year or two, you’ll have noticed that a patch of glistening skyscrapers has protruded high into the air like a futuristic vision. But Hudson Yards, the 28-acre real-estate development at the northern terminus of the High Line, is not a thing of the future: It's here, finally, and it's opening to the public March 15. The complex has eight residential and commercial buildings sitting on a huge public plaza. It's ornamented by British designer Thomas Heatherwick’s 150-foot-tall honeycomb-like functional sculpture titled Vessel, open to visitors, which comprises a looping staircase with 2,500 steps and 80 landings.
Developed by Stephen Ross, founder and chairman of Related Companies, the real-estate development firm behind the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, Hudson Yards was designed as an all-encompassing live-work-shop-dine neighborhood in and of itself. Luxury apartments are available for sale or rent, and several companies are opening offices or relocating their headquarters here, including WarnerMedia and L'Oréal USA, among others.
The majority of the dining venues are located at 10 and 20 Hudson Yards. This will include 10 full-service restaurants by big-name chefs like Thomas Keller, David Chang and Michael Lomonaco; a sprawling food hall by José Andrés; and popular quality-focused fast-casual eateries like Shake Shack and Sweetgreen. Several of these renowned restaurateurs have Wine Spectator Restaurant Award–winning concepts in New York and elsewhere for their excellent wine programs, and their new operations will be no different. Here's your guide to finding great wine at Hudson Yards.
Mercado Little Spain
Courtesy of Hudson Yards
Mercado Little Spain will be chef José Andrés' first restaurant in New York.
Chef José Andrés recalls that 30 years ago this year, he came to New York City for the first time. He was in the Spanish army, and his ship docked mere steps from the area that would become Hudson Yards, where he is opening his newest eateries this month. He believes it's destiny.
Mercado Little Spain takes up the entire ground floor of 10 Hudson Yards. It's a colorful food court with a main seating area at its center, and several full-service restaurants and bars scattered around. The 10 food kiosks offer focused counter service: The Jamón y Queso kiosk, for example, serves just ham, cheese and cured meats. There will be a tapas bar with counter seating, as well as a Spanish wine bar, Vinos, and a cocktail bar, Bar Celona. Two retail shops will sell canned goods, books, gifts and more. Three restaurants will top it off: Leña, which will focus on paella and grilled meats; Mar, focusing on seafood; and Spanish Diner, a casual all-day eatery with a retractable wall for fair weather. Only two kiosks and Bar Celona will open March 15; the rest will roll out in the coming weeks.
Andy Myers, wine director for Andrés' ThinkFoodGroup, is overseeing the all-Spanish beverage program for the entire Mercado Little Spain. There will be between 250 and 300 selections available, with around 40 by the glass, at all the restaurants and bars. The lists, while offering the same wines, will be formatted differently for each venue according to what styles go best with the food and concept.
"Our goal is to introduce America to the wonder and the bounty and the sheer diversity of Spanish wine," Myers told Wine Spectator. While there will be staples like Rioja and Ribera del Duero, the list will also branch out into areas like Sherry, Sierra de Malaga, the Canary Islands and beyond. "We're super-excited to show everybody [that] Spain is a much more diverse place in wine than anybody knew."
TAK Room's Four Story Hill Farm chicken in thyme jus is carved tableside.
TAK Room will serve classic continental cuisine, overseen by chef Jarrod Huth, on Level 5 of 20 Hudson Yards. The wine list will offer 400 to 500 selections, with more than 20 available by the glass, as well as a dozen half-bottles and about 30 magnums. It was developed by chef Thomas Keller and his restaurant group's beverage director, Michel Couvreux.
"To follow TAK Room's iconic menu, I have selected wines that represent some very classic appellations from France, mainly Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône Valley," Couvreux told Wine Spectator. There will be some verticals of Bordeaux first-growths like Châteaus Mouton-Rothschild and Latour. California will be another main focus, particularly Cabernets and bottlings from Napa Valley.
Champagne and other sparkling wines will be served by the glass tableside from a gueridon that was custom-built for TAK Room. Keller will also open a Bouchon Bakery on the fifth floor.
Chef Eunjo "Jo" Park was a cook at Momofuku Ko before taking over the kitchen at Kāwi.
Located on Level 5, Kāwi feels like a slightly more upscale iteration of David Chang's slew of Momofuku restaurants, with dimmed lighting and a sleek open kitchen. Chef Jo Park will helm the kitchen, serving inventive Korean-inspired fare.
The wine list will have more than 300 selections highlighting small-production vintners who practice "responsible farming." It will focus heavily on France, as well as rising stars in the New World; look forward to a sparkling Gamay from Beaujolais' Frank Besson, as well as a Pinot Noir from Oregon's Hope Well. Behind the program are Isabella Fitzgerald, the beverage manager at Kāwi who did an eight-year stint at Best of Award of Excellence winner Gramercy Tavern, and Jake Lewis, who has been the Momofuku group's beverage director since 2016.
Chang will also open Peach Mart, a takeout spot adjoining Kāwi, and an outpost of Fuku, his fried-chicken joint, on the second floor.
Hudson Yards Grill
Courtesy of Hudson Yards Grill
Hudson Yards Grill will be a more casual restaurant than Michael Lomonaco's Porter House.
Hudson Yards Grill, on Level 4, is a collaboration with Himmel Hospitality Group, a Boston-based company that owns Grand Award winner Grill 23 & Bar, as well as Best of Award of Excellence winners Post 390, Harvest and Bistro du Midi.
The bright red leather booths give a classic American comfort vibe to the restaurant, but a touch more upscale. In the back, a large open kitchen sprawls across the entire width of the space. It will serve a cornucopia of cuisines: Preview dishes included thin-crust pizzas, sliders, gumbo and sushi, and the kitchen is set up with a rotisserie oven for various meats.
The wine list, crafted by Himmel beverage director Brahm Callahan, will offer 75 selections by the bottle and 20 by the glass.
Other noteworthy venues
Wine lovers will also want to check out restaurateur Costas Spiliadis' two-story venue on Levels 5 and 6; Spiliadis owns multiple seafood-focused restaurants in the U.S., Canada, Greece and the U.K. Milos Wine Bar, downstairs, will champion Greek wine with around 100 selections from the country. Spiliadis wants to raise the profile of Greek wine, and will introduce Hudson Yards diners to native grapes like Assyrtiko, Agiorgitiko, Xinomavro and more. Go up a spiral staircase (or the elevator at the center) to reach Estiatorio Milos, the main restaurant with an outdoor patio and raw bar.
Courtesy of Related-Oxford
Estiatorio Milos will have the largest outdoor patio of the complex.
Other full-service restaurants opening March 15 include Queensyard, by D&D London, celebrating all things British; Wild Ink, by the Rhubarb group, serving Asian-inspired cuisine in a swanky, art deco–like space; Belcampo, the sustainable and ethical Northern California meat company owned by Anya Fernald; and the Zodiac Room, on the top floor of a Neiman Marcus department store, which occupies a corner of the building and has gorgeous views of the Freedom Tower and the Statue of Liberty. There will also be a Citarella, the gourmet seafood-focused market.
But there's even more to come. Restaurateur Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group, owner of Restaurant Award winners like the Modern and Gramercy Tavern, will open Cedric's this coming April at the Shed, a performing and visual arts cultural center on the complex. Additionally, an unnamed Stephen Starr restaurant is in the works at Equinox Hotel; Starr owns 16 Restaurant Award–winning restaurants across Pennsylvania, New York, Florida and Washington, D.C., including Le Coucou and Barclay Prime.
French President Emmanuel Macron wants to eliminate the weed killer glyphosate from France within three years, and he is encouraging winemakers, in particular, to take the lead. Speaking at the Paris Agricultural Show Feb. 23, Macron said, "I believe we can create the first wine region in the world without glyphosate."
That's a bold statement considering how widespread the herbicide is in modern farming. And it comes as the chemical and wine are once again in the news together. A recent study by an American nonprofit advocacy group found traces of glyphosate in beer, wine and cider. Although the levels were far, far below all U.S. and E.U. food-safety standards, the test results show the pervasiveness of glyphosate and have added to consumer concerns.
Is a trace of glyphosate a trace too much?
Few agrochemicals stir emotions as strongly as glyphosate. The primary ingredient in Roundup and other herbicides, it is the most widely used weed killer in the world, worth $4.75 billion in annual sales. It has also become a lightning rod for activists.
On Feb. 25, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) Education Fund released the findings of a study it commissioned that tested beer, wine and hard cider brands for glyphosate. Out of 20 alcoholic drinks, including five wines, 19 showed traces of glyphosate, even the organic wines and beers.
All of the levels of glyphosate were significantly below levels the EPA considers unsafe in beverages. An average-sized man would need to drink 44 bottles a day of the wine with the highest recorded levels of glyphosate to exceed the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment’s proposed recommended daily allowances, which are stricter than the EPA’s. And some scientists have questioned the methodology of the PIRG study.
U.S. PIRG acknowledged in its report that the amounts in the beverages were relatively low compared to levels found in common foods like cereal. Similar studies have found glyphosate in organic whole wheat bread, cereals, crackers and ice cream. Because the chemicals can drift in the air and enter water supplies via airborne soil particles, they’re widespread.
A Monsanto scientist discovered that glyphosate had herbicidal properties in 1970. The company, purchased by Bayer AG last year, is also a major producer of genetically engineered crop seeds, designed to resist glyphosate. This means growers can spray Roundup and other glyphosate-based sprays on their fields to kill weeds without destroying their crops. It is widely sprayed by farmers on corn, soybeans, wheat and oats. Cereal producers use it as a drying agent so they can harvest sooner. Winegrowers use it to kill the weeds at the base of the vines to prevent them from taking nutrients from the vines.
But Roundup isn't just for farming; it's a cheap and effective way to keep train tracks, playgrounds and roadways tidy. However, some weeds have grown resistant, leading to heavier applications. Glyphosate is now used in more than 160 countries, with more than 1.4 billion pounds applied per year, according to Monsanto. That's believed to be why traces are found in organic and sustainably grown vineyards, where vintners don’t use synthetic herbicides.
Monsanto has long claimed that its product was safe, but environmental activists and some scientists have disputed that. There are two questions: Is glyphosate unsafe for farm workers exposed to high doses? And is it unsafe for consumers exposed to trace amounts in the food they eat?
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic in humans.” But the EPA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have both declared that glyphosate is likely not carcinogenic. A 2018 study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health monitored more than 50,000 American farm workers for more than 10 years and found no evidence of higher cancer rates. (Scientists at the EFSA questioned the IARC's methodology, while environmental groups have expressed concern that agro-chemical industry lobbying may have influenced government agencies.)
In 2018, a California court ordered Bayer-Monsanto to pay $78.6 million in a case where the jury found that Roundup was the cause of cancer in a school groundskeeper and that the company had tried to hide the risks. The company faces some 8,700 lawsuits.
As for evidence of harm to consumers, government agencies have ruled that small amounts in food are perfectly safe. But that hasn’t satisfied environmental groups that argue that we don’t know the effects of long-term consumption.
An ambitious French plan
Whether or not glyphosate is a health risk, many consumers are concerned. The city of Paris banned glyphosate in 2015. Macron wants France to lead the way to a glyphosate-free planet, and he's willing to take on the agrochemical industry and his European neighbors to do so.
His efforts are part of a wider campaign for a "European Renaissance," published in newspapers in all 28 member countries last week. He's pushing for E.U. reforms like cyber-security, protection for democracies from foreign meddling, a common policy on asylum and immigration, an E.U. minimum wage, a food-safety force and a European Climate Bank. The European Climate Bank would finance a transition to "zero carbon by 2050 and pesticides halved by 2025."
He's already won some ground against glyphosate. In 2017, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) and many E.U. member governments wanted to re-authorize the use of glyphosate for 10 years. The French fought back, and slashed the approval to five years. "We want to get out of glyphosate as rapidly as possible, in three years," said Macron. "This is an opportunity for a number of sectors to evolve profoundly."
It wasn't by accident that the French president decided to shine the spotlight on winegrowers. Wine is a symbol of French culture. What’s more, the country's winegrowers have been moving toward using zero herbicides for years now. They do this by working the soil mechanically or manually, both of which are more expensive. (By comparison, angry wheat farmers, who are more dependent on glyphosate, heckled Macron at the Agricultural Show.)
More than 40 percent of French independent winegrowers are certified organic or environmentally sustainable, and another 40 percent are working toward that. In St.-Emilion the appellation rules forbid the use of blanket herbicides.
Macron lauded the winegrowers' "effort, innovation and will to mobilize," and promised that the French research institute INRA would find new, greener solutions.
But going completely glyphosate-free may be more challenging. Bernard Artigue, president of the Gironde Chamber of Agriculture and winegrower in the Entre-Deux-Mers told Wine Spectator that roughly 15 percent of French vineyards have no immediate technical solution for abandoning Roundup. One reason he gave was the steepness of the slopes, which makes it difficult to manage weeds by hand or by machine. "President Macron said we will leave glyphosate, but he also said we'd look for substitutions,” said Lartigue. “Three years doesn't seem possible to me. We don't currently have a substitute molecule."
For growers who need help making the shift away from Roundup, the Gironde Chamber of Agriculture is offering a program. The Bordeaux wine trade group, the CIVB, also runs a program through its technical commission to support growers.
The challenge is colossal, but Macron likens glyphosate to asbestos. "Glyphosate, there's no report that says it's innocent," said Macron. "In the past, we said asbestos isn't dangerous. And the leaders who allowed it to continue, they had to answer for that." Macron believes French winegrowers could lead the way.
Eight ingredients, plus pantry staples. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a feast for family or friends.
Sometimes the simplest dishes are the most delicious. A shining example is cacio e pepe, which translates to “cheese and pepper,” and those—plus butter—are pretty much the only ingredients you’ll need to dress this pasta dish. It’s enticingly creamy and rich, with a lingering kick from plenty of freshly cracked black pepper. In just a couple minutes more than it takes to make spaghetti with store-bought sauce, you can prepare this satisfying dish at home.
The trick to this recipe is one that can be applied almost any time you’re making pasta: utilizing the pasta’s cooking water.
Too often neglected and sent down the drain, this water is full of thickening starches that help the sauce fully coat the pasta rather than just sitting on top, transforming quick, home-cooked pastas into restaurant-worthy plates. Also, if prepared correctly, it serves as a seasoning component. The water is your first opportunity to infuse the pasta with flavor, so it should be fairly salty; I like to use about a 1/2 tablespoon per 1 1/2 gallons.
Here you’ll slightly undercook the pasta and finish it in the pan. This gives the ingredients a chance to fully integrate without sending the spaghetti into mushiness—arguably the biggest offense in Italian cooking.
For this classic Italian dish, I turned to a classic Italian grape: Sangiovese. Chianti seemed like the right fit for its savory notes and tart acidity. Poggio Bonelli Chianti Villa Chigi 2016 made an ideal choice, accenting that pleasant funk with its own floral, herby notes. This wine offered enough acidity and slightly drying tannins to counterbalance the butter and cheese, relieving the palate and calling me back for another forkful.
1. In a large pot, bring 1 1/2 gallons of water to a boil with 1/2 tablespoon of salt. Add pasta and cook for 8 minutes. Drain, reserving 3/4 cup of the pasta water.
2. Place 3 tablespoons of butter and 1/4 teaspoon of salt in a large skillet over medium heat. Once the butter is bubbling, add the pepper and cook for 1 to 2 minutes until the pepper is fragrant but the butter has not browned.
3. Add 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water to the skillet, reduce heat to low and simmer for 1 minute. Add the pasta, both cheeses and remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Toss to coat and simmer for about 2 minutes until the sauce has slightly thickened and the pasta is al dente. If the sauce is too thick, add more of the reserved pasta water 1 tablespoon at a time.
4. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil, if desired. Plate pasta and sprinkle with extra Parmesan. Serves 4.
Morning light streams through the dining room’s oversized windows, but you can already feel the anticipation of tonight’s service at Eleven Madison Park, the crown jewel in chef Daniel Humm and Will Guidara's Make It Nice group. Facing its namesake park in Manhattan's Flatiron District, “EMP” is in that rarefied orbit of restaurants in the conversation of The Best—in New York, in America, in the world.
But it's a workplace for wine director Cedric Nicaise, 39. He has just settled in to his “office,” which is actually a laptop on a table in the dining room.
From his air of calmness and grounded nature, you wouldn’t guess that Nicaise works at one of the most infamously intense institutions of hospitality, tasked with maintaining one of the best wine programs in the world. The fine-dining icon is renowned for its luxurious seasonal tasting menus, as well as Nicaise’s Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning list of 4,900 wines. Nicaise is typically in the restaurant five days a week, unless he’s traveling for Make It Nice ventures in London or Aspen, or to Europe to meet winemakers.
Since the cellar renovation began, a dining-room table serves as Nicaise’s desk.
First on his to-do list today is checking in on the renovation of the restaurant's massive cellar, which is nearly complete. Nicaise makes a pit stop to grab a container of breakfast rice and beans in the kitchen, where chefs have been prepping since 6 a.m., and continues through to the wine cellar. The yet-to-be-finished cellar is already a showpiece for EMP’s 22,000 bottles. Wines are stacked on floor-to-ceiling wooden racks engraved with the restaurant’s signature four-leaf logo.
Motioning toward a display wall filled with the world’s most coveted Burgundies, he says, “This is definitely the most ostentatious thing we’ve ever done as a company … It’s definitely made me realize we don’t have enough DRC, though.”
12 p.m. Burgundies, If You Please
Back in the dining room, Nicaise greets Joanna Sherman of local importer and distributor David Bowler Wine and welcomes her to a central table. Joined by assistant wine director Andrew Rastello, they taste through eight wines, starting with a Champagne and ending on a Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Classic regions like Burgundy, the Rhône and Bordeaux are the heart of the program; Nicaise finds value in those areas by seeking out declassified wines. “I’m not necessarily looking for the next up-and-coming region in, say, Slovakia.”
The new cellar features a wall filled with prized Burgundies.
In addition to maintaining the overall list, Nicaise and Rastello do these tastings with the upcoming spring menu in mind. Dishes are constantly evolving in the kitchen’s pursuit of culinary perfection, sometimes until the day of the menu launch. It’s an obvious challenge for creating the wine pairings, but Nicaise is used to it.
“When I was first doing it, they’d put up a dish and they’d be like, ‘Oh, it’s pretty good,’ and I would work super hard to find the right pairing, and the next week they’d be like, ‘Yeah, that dish is gone,’” he says. “So we try not to get ahead of it too far, and then the last three weeks before the menu changes, it becomes a huge part of our day-to-day.”
2:00 p.m. Looking Ahead to London
Nicaise gets a minute between meetings to work on the wine program for Davies & Brook, the group’s upcoming restaurant in London’s historic Claridge’s hotel. The June opening was just announced last month, but Nicaise already has his eye on another Grand Award. “Claridge’s is luxury by addition, so having a massive wine list is totally in line with what they do,” he says.
Make It Nice will take over the hotel’s existing inventory—“It’s not huge, but there’s some really great stuff”—and add a few hundred labels to start. The list is currently at about 1,000 selections, and Nicaise hopes to reach 2,000 by the end of 2019.
Though many details of the program remain undecided, Nicaise says that, like EMP, Davies & Brook will boast a bounty of wines from Burgundy and California. He also plans to highlight British sparkling wines and embrace the London market’s affinity for aged Champagnes and value bottles.
3:15 p.m. Aspen Check-In
This weekend, Presidents’ Day weekend, is expected to be among the busiest at EMP Winter House, Make It Nice’s seasonal pop-up at the St. Regis Resort in Aspen, Colo. Because the wine program is temporary, Nicaise and his team are tasked with the balancing act of maintaining inventory without having too much wine left over when the restaurant closes on April 6. It’s a familiar challenge from their East Hampton pop-up, EMP Summer House, which had a two-year run but won’t return this summer; there are too many other projects going on.
Nicaise calls sommelier Joo Lee to discuss any holes in the inventory, making sure he feels empowered to purchase for the upcoming weekend. “Don’t be afraid to buy some cool shit,” he tells him.
Nicaise reminds Lee of some incoming high-profile customers he knows, noting the wines they might be interested in—perhaps early-2000s Burgundies from Roumier and Dujac—and even anticipating the exact selection of a guest he ran into last week: a ’91 DRC Richebourg. Lee confirms it’s showing beautifully.
“I’m not a good salesperson, but I believe that the most effective way to sell things is to make sure that people who can afford them and have interest in them know that they’re available,” Nicaise says. “With that sort of level of wine drinker, you know what the trigger words are and what they’re going to want.
"You could offend someone who wants to spend $5,000 on a bottle of wine by recommending an $80 bottle of wine to them just as much as you can offend someone who wants to drink an $80 bottle of wine by recommending a $5,000 bottle of wine."
For Nicaise and EMP, service is not confined within the walls of the dining room. It’s an all-encompassing experience, from bringing in special bottles to booking tables for guests at restaurants in other cities, and sometimes other countries.
As Nicaise often says, “I don’t serve wine, I serve people.”
4:00 p.m. Pre-Shift Prep
Dinner service is less than two hours away, so Nicaise must vacate his dining-room desk. He relocates to the managers’ back office, where a meeting on tonight’s guests is about to begin.
Achieving EMP's standard of service takes a staggering amount of planning behind the scenes. It all starts with the reservationists, who Google every single guest, adding relevant notes that are closely studied by the staff and reviewed in these meetings. Nicaise wheels a chair into the circle of staff as the lead host runs down her list of noteworthy details, such as which guests will likely request kitchen tours and which groups are celebrating special occasions.
The calm before the dinner-service storm in EMP’s dining room
Nicaise will hold an additional sommelier meeting if they’re expecting any particularly prominent wine drinkers. "This place breeds intensity, so I know for a fact all the sommeliers here go through the reservations every day." Of course, it’s impossible to predict the interests of every guest; last Friday, an unknown customer splurged for a $8,500 Leflaive Montrachet.
After an afternoon family meal of chicken thighs and mashed potatoes, the front-of-the-house staff gathers in the dining room for the 5 p.m. pre-shift lineup. Nicaise announces any changes to the pairings and dishes, then introduces a new server with a riff on "20 Questions": Each team member asks him something personal, from “What’s the last song you listened to?” to “What’s your favorite shape of French fry?” (His response: “McDonald’s-shaped.”)
Nicaise started on his own sommelier path at Best of Award of Excellence winner Aureole. At the time, he had just a few bartending stints under his belt and limited wine experience. "My résumé, I wish I still had it, said ‘expert-level wine knowledge,’ which in hindsight is so embarrassing because I wouldn’t write that on my résumé now.”
But he did have a hunger to learn, and read voraciously. “When I started here someone asked me what the last book I read was, and I was like, 'Other than wine? Couldn’t tell you.’"
5:30 p.m. Dinner Service Dawns
For the first few hours of service, Nicaise usually works on any ongoing projects, like planning wine dinners or moving bottles back into the cellar. But this evening he starts in the dining room, positioning himself by a corner ice bucket to steer clear of the servers and sommeliers who hurry through the dining room with the elegant precision of a choreographed dance.
EMP has an impressive minimum of five sommeliers working each night, so Nicaise can take a backseat during service and let his team shine. "Part of growing people is giving them exposure to great wines and great guests. You get facetime with Will and Daniel by impressing people in the dining room."
The energy swells as more guests slide into the jewel-toned banquettes. Nicaise scans the dining room and swoops in to help in any way he can, from topping off water glasses to pulling wines.
Eleven Madison Park
During service, Nicaise focuses on supporting the sommelier team as an extra set of hands.
After more than 20 years in the industry, Nicaise says he doesn’t feel pressure in service. "We’re allowed to be ourselves here,” he says. “So when I go to your table, you’re getting me as a person, you’re not getting some overformalized waitron character.”
There’s also no dress code (as Nicaise points out, you can eat there in sweatpants, and people have), and the wine list is surprisingly accessible. “I know the stats, because it’s something I’m really proud of: We have, on any given day, between 300 and 400 wines under $100 on the list,” he says. He wants bottles diners can engage with, and for anyone to be able to chat wine with the somms. “If we only have five wines under 100 bucks, then we’re not really talking about wine."
Each EMP wine director has put a personal touch on the program, and Nicaise wants this foundation for value to be his legacy. That, and a well-organized storage system. “I don’t need the sommeliers cursing me for the next 20 years for building a shitty cellar.”
Once the dinner rush starts to slow, Nicaise heads home, unwinding as he usually does, by walking his dog and then watching some thoughtless television. He says it clears his mind, which will soon be filled to the brim with another day’s worth of wine facts, guest demands and details of running one of the city’s most celebrated wine programs.
Want to stay up on the latest news and incisive features about the world's best restaurants for wine? Sign up now for our free Private Guide to Dining email newsletter, delivered every other week. Plus, follow us on Twitter at @WSRestoAwards and Instagram at @WSRestaurantAwards.