I have been lucky to work in New York for nearly ten years, and if I have learned one thing, it’s that this truly is the city that never sleeps, and that is because it is continually reinventing itself. Never resting on laurels and driven by a palpable energy, the New York wine scene is in a constant state of evolution—and it has never been better than it is right now. Thanks to great mentors and some exceptionally driven professionals, we have a fantastic group of both seasoned and new Masters and many more in the making. With twenty-plus sommeliers studying for their Master’s Exam and a much larger number going for the Advanced Exam, chances are that even your cab driver knows the new sub AVAs of Paso Robles. But New York is not the place where you only read about or study great wine; this is where you taste it. Never underestimate the New York diner: this city has room for deep traditions, cutting-edge innovations, and everything in between. Any vinous point of view can flourish here, just as long as it is warm, thoughtful, and delicious (on top of being expertly executed and profitable.) Every wine fetish has its place, from old school to new school and beyond. Madeira from before the Civil War? No problem. The newest farmer in Champagne or the oldest farmer in the Loire—someone probably pours it BTG. Pet-nat or Pétrus, New York tastes it first. If it is ungrafted, unrectified, unreleased or undiscovered, chances are you can find it here. As New York sheds its skin once more, the most exciting new wrinkle is a casual, friendly, "on your side" mentality that restaurants have applied to wine in recent years. Great restaurants care about value—they look for ways to share the best wine with their guests for less, rather than more. The best sommeliers emphasize hospitality and education over exclusivity and intimidation, while the best restaurants are looking out for their wine-loving guests and New York is looking out for those restaurants in return. No longer do you need an expense account, a tie, or even a reservation to enjoy a great bottle of wine in New York. The following sommeliers embody that spirit of warmth, open-mindedness, and evolution, and each of them is doing something original and exciting in a city that demands no less.
-John Ragan MS (Director of Wine & Restaurant Operations, Union Square Hospitality Group)
Featured below are Pascaline Lepeltier MS (Wine Director, Rouge Tomate), Hristo Zisovski (Beverage Director, Altamarea Group), Mia Van de Water (Wine Director, North End Grill), Morgan Harris (Sommelier, Aureole Restaurant), Jane Lopes (Sommelier, Eleven Madison Park), Jonathan Ross (Sommelier, Eleven Madison Park), Jeff Kellogg (Wine Director, Maialino), Yannick Benjamin (Head Sommelier, University Club) and Jerusha Frost (Head Sommelier, Chefs Club NYC)
What are the advantages and disadvantages to running a beverage program in New York?
Mia: On the one hand: the restaurant culture is entrenched and fantastic, and there are an incredible number of passionate, talented, creative people to work with. Your audience is so large as to be nearly infinite, so you can essentially do whatever you want (assuming you can find interested investors)—an all Austrian list? Sure! Organic, biodynamic, or sans soufre only? Why not? All agave all the time? Los Feliz has been killing it on that premise for years. You have the luxury of access to virtually everything, wine-wise, so the world is your oyster in terms of supply. Plus, you get to live in New York City.
On the other hand: competition is fierce—for jobs, for real estate, for cover counts, and for all of that fabulous, highly allocated wine that comes through the ports (you may theoretically have access to Ganevat; getting an allocation is a different story). Also, you have to live in New York City.
Hristo: New York is the most diverse city in the world for dining, with such educated wine consumers—both local and tourists from all over the world. The breath of wine you can offer and sell to your guest is amazing, and the largest market of wine available is at our fingertips. Physically running a program is made easier by our State Liquor Authority (SLA) rules of payments: net-30 terms keep you aware of and disciplined with spending. Of course, being the busiest food city in the world equals the longest work hours for restaurant people in the country. It’s an exhausting city and a young person’s game unless you pace yourself. I have 14 years of NYC experience and this city never sleeps! Plus, with such high rent and food costs for restaurants, the beverage dept. needs to make money—that means higher price-points and lower COGS demanded to survive. This is what needs to be understood when looking at pricing here vs. other cities. Also, the negative side about the SLA is its firm grip on wine vendors. There is no room for flexibility on negotiation without planning because all pricing needs to be posted for at least six weeks. Also, the SLA looks at retail and restaurants in the same light: restaurants can’t get a break with retail finding out.
Pascaline: Rouge Tomate is my only experience in the US, so I can only compare it to Europe—France and Brussels. The obvious advantage is that you can have access to an incredible amount of wines. There is a geographical diversity, producer diversity, vintage diversity. It's a candy shop! I think we forget it sometimes… you can have a real personality in your wine list if you want to do so, or if you are allowed to do so. And there are tastings, seminars and wine events all the time, almost every day! The other advantage is the level of knowledge and expectations of your clientele. NY guests are spoiled, and they can really pick and choose. So you need to be very good: in the quality of the restaurant, the quality of your selections (originality, depth, rotation, etc.), your prices, and the service you provide (which is SO important). There are just so many great restaurants with great wine lists today, and it seems guests' decisions are now based almost equally on the quality of food and wine. But rather than just creating competition in the hunt, this environment leads to a very exhilarating sense of emulation amongst sommeliers and wine buyers in the city. We all work in the same direction to give a better wine experience, all of us in our own way. It is a really fantastic community!
The biggest disadvantage is the three-tier system! Coming from Europe it was pretty difficult for me to adjust to, as I was used to working either directly with the producer or with a single agent/distributor. In New York it is almost more important to know the importer and distributor than the producer—that can be frustrating. The number of distributors is huge! To build the list I wanted at Rouge I had to work with more than 85 distributors… a lot of time spent tasting, emailing, etc., sometimes for just a couple of bottles of wine. Another issue is in finding really good staff. It is probably the same in other cities, but here finding experienced, humble, hard-working, dedicated, enthusiastic sommeliers is a challenge. There is a desire to become a wine buyer or a wine director immediately; thus some people tend to want to take shortcuts. This job requires some time to understand the fundamentals!
What are some of the best value wines you are working with right now on your list?
Jane: Non-traditional Nebbiolo (Valtellina, Lessona, Boca, Ghemme, Gattinara, Roero, Langhe), grower Champagne (we price it super-aggressively!), German rosé, and oddball Italian whites like Skerk Malvasia and Vajra Riesling.
Morgan: Top-tier Beaujolais has been a staple of my personal drinking and programs over the last few years. With the popularity of Pinot Noir and Burgundy in particular in New York, there's not much value to be had in the category anymore. You can drink the greatest producers of Beaujolais top bottlings for $80-$100, whereas you'll have a hard time making it into decent producer's village wines in Burgundy. It's really a no-brainer and also an easy up-sell. You want to drink a $60 dollar bottle of Bourgogne Rouge from some random producer or a top bottling from one of Morgon's greatest producers for $80?
Otherwise, I think B-list Rhône is killing it right now. Great bottlings from Saint-Joseph, Croze-Hermitage, Collines Rhodaniennes, Gigondas, Rasteau, etc., are all way over-performing for crowd-pleaser reds at list prices under $100. I sell a ton of Grenache to New World wine drinkers who want to get into Old World wine. The same is true on a more producer-by-producer basis through the whole western arc of the Mediterranean: Corsica, Provence, Languedoc-Rousillion, and Eastern Spain.
Pascaline: The Loire, Languedoc-Roussillon and Southern Italy are all great for value. With older vintages, Alsace is a must—you can find treasures for a great price.
Jonathan: I really like the collection of Bourgogne blanc we have assembled. Roulot, Boisson Vadot, PYCM, Carillon, Jobard, Ente, Sauzet—with a few vintages to choose from in the $50-$80 range. DOC Nebbiolo from a variety of appellations and Loire Valley Chenin Blanc are two places I often take guests. I love when a table of four says that they would like two bottles for around $100 each, and I can give them three or four for the same $200. There are a lot of people that save their pennies to visit us. To help them spend their money wisely and get the most joy they possibly can from it—this is our number one responsibility.
Jerusha: Raventós i Blanc "de Nit" Cava. NOT just a Champagne substitute! Delicious in its own right!!
Are there any local beers, wines or spirits you are currently working with in your program?
Yannick: I am born and raised in NYC and ashamed to say that I finally went to the Finger Lakes for the first time this past year! It was a wonderful trip; Christopher Bates MS is such a great ambassador to the wine region and is making great wine from the Finger Lakes region as well (Element Winery). So many passionate winemakers there and so many impressive wines. I truly believe they are developing their own particular style of Riesling—and I am sure in a few years it will be showing up in blind tastings...
Jonathan: We currently do a lot of work with Aaron Burr Cidery, a great little project that started with a couple of wild, uncultivated apple groves—they do amazing stuff for us. We feature a number of other Hudson Valley cider houses too. In beer we look for balance so Southampton’s Saison is a favorite of mine. We have collaborated with Brooklyn Brewery many of times and are currently aging a Brooklyn beer on Arron Burr cider lees—in a used Macari cask no less. Ithaca made a killer "Picnic Basket Ale" for our previous season’s cheese course. Back on the wine side, we are about to feature the Wiemer Nobel Select, Josef Vineyard. It’s by far the top botrytis wine I’ve tasted from the Northeast, and at 350 grams of residual sugar, you could almost serve it like eszencia!
Morgan: On Long Island, Channing Daughters definitely gets the "most exciting" award. Christopher Tracy is a really dynamic winemaker and is totally pushing the boundaries with a lot of their wines: Pinot Grigio done ramato-style, 10+ variety field blends, and more. In the portfolio there are wines that are really typical and drinkable and others that challenge and excite, but quality across the board is great. And then there's the vermouth...
How often do you use auctions houses or other sources beyond regular distribution channels to add to your wine program?
Hristo: Very often.
Jeff: Constantly. If you subtract BTG purchases, we buy more from secondary sources than we do from distributors. I don’t know how you develop a unique program by only buying the same current-release selections that everyone else has access to. Obviously it is also very difficult to build vintage depth quickly without secondary sources.
Mia: Out of 550-ish SKUs, our auction and grey market wines make up less than 75 or so. Generally speaking, we use alternative channels to source back vintage California Cabernet, which has proved to be a great niche for us down in Stockbroker Land (for the record, 1980s Philip Togni is killer).
Jonathan: It’s become a sizeable portion of our purchases and a necessary evil with our list—it's the only way to keep it truly deep, diverse and interesting. This creates the need to be pretty detailed when deliveries come in; we operate like a sorting table. There are some great, reliable sources out there, but purchasing pre-owned wine comes with a higher risk. Bottles need to be checked not only for authenticity, but for color and label quality, fill level, and so on. We have used the Coravin in some instances to check the condition of a warm delivery, but you can’t send back a spoiled wine that you have accessed. A lot of purchases are final, so you can end up eating the bill. We had 10 of 12 half-bottles of Dauvissat '06 Le Clos that came corked. Sometimes bottles are completely oxidized. This means the sommelier serving the bottle needs to have a keen sense for flaws when tasting in the middle of service. And sometimes the label is beyond servable, so it just has to go into the fun bin!
As a side note, there are a lot of fun and educational things to pull out of auctions. We recently bought a bunch of '60s and '70s Napa reds for a Napa history class a couple of somms will be teaching. Also, I was also able to force a ’69 Egri Bikaver onto my colleagues over dinner. It wasn’t very good.
What percentage of your guests are regulars?
Hristo: All of our restaurants and locations are different. But overall? 40-50%.
Mia: Lunchtime, over 50%. Dinner is probably closer to 30%, much of which is the bar. Because Battery Park City (where North End Grill is located) might as well be New Jersey to most New Yorkers, we take cultivating regulars very seriously; a sizeable chunk of our regulars are folks who live in the neighborhood and come in at least once a week, and we love them for it (the rest work in the neighborhood, and come in more than that.)
How much time do you spend training your staff?
Mia: All day. Every day. Isn’t that the job?
Past that – I write a weekly beverage education packet for the team, which always includes wine education (both academic and specific to bottles on our list), liquor education (usually Scotch-related, as we have over 125 single malts in house, plus blends, other whiskies, etc…), a service point, and points of interest about the two wines we are currently featuring (in addition to the BTG menu, we have a rotating selection of “Wine As You Like It,” which is available by the glass, half-bottle, bottle, and sometimes magnum). Between 10 and 15 minutes are dedicated to beverage education every night at line-up, where we discuss the contents of the packet, and may taste new wines, cocktails, and beers, and play service scenarios. At the moment, I am absolutely blessed with a team that is passionate and hungry and excited to learn, so my job is also to keep coming up with new and interesting challenges for them!
Jeff: Working with an all-Italian list many of the guests are very unfamiliar it is even more important for us to have servers fluent in Italian wine. We spend 10 minutes of lineup everyday tasting a different wine, and conduct a weekly comparative tasting for the servers.
How does the local sommelier community work together to become better?
Yannick: There are so many blind tasting groups that are happening now; none of this existed just 10 years ago. However, The Court of Master Sommeliers has grown and is now very influential in the NYC market. The Guild of Sommeliers has played a big role and social media presence has made the sommelier community even tighter. I host an annual wine tasting with over 50 of NYC’s top sommeliers to raise money for my non-profit Wheeling Forward, and I never have an issue getting volunteers for the event. It is amazing to see all the sommeliers together in the same room and how positive and supportive they are of each other.
Jane: This community is THE BEST. I would not be where I am in my career, my studies, or my personal life without the people I’ve met in New York. From the first day I moved to New York, I've had people reaching out to me to include me in tasting groups, events, classes, and other social and educational opportunities. Before I took my Advanced Exam, I had unsolicited offers from other somms to proctor mock service and tasting exams for me. It’s truly astounding. And I try to give it back whenever I can! I think there’s a really strong energy in the city right now that we all want to help each other achieve more, be better, and push harder. It’s quite inspiring.
Jonathan: Tasting groups and study groups are alive and thriving more than ever. Peers visit each other’s place of work and it’s always nice to see a familiar face at your restaurant. One of my study groups has by now held five mock services at EMP for various advanced candidates over the past few years. I think it’s important to share the venue space when you have it.
How does your philosophy as a sommelier change after working in New York City?
Yannick: In NYC you need to be quick and to the point. Most 3-Star Michelin Restaurants around the world do one seating; in NYC you can do two or more in a top restaurant. It is important to be efficient, pragmatic, and to always remain composed—if you lose your mental composure both the staff and customer will feel this. You have to be aware of your body language and energy—if you have a nervous energy about yourself, everyone around you will feel it. I think that once you move outside of NYC you notice that everything seems a bit slower and perhaps less chaotic; everything is always much more intense in a NYC restaurant.
Jeff: I don’t know that my philosophy changed as much as it made me work harder. There are so many talented somms and great programs in New York that to separate yourself you have to work really hard. I don’t mean carrying a bunch of weird wines that are flawed and terrible—just hunting down great sources, developing relationships, all while spending as much time with guests on the floor as possible!
Jane: New York makes you see the business side of being a sommelier even more. Restaurants open and close in the city constantly, so running a successful and fiscally smart beverage program is all the more integral.
Mia: I have actually never worked as a sommelier anywhere else—my whole philosophy is built on New York! I will tell you that having worked here, I find it nearly impossible to think about living and working anywhere else…
Morgan: As a "homegrown" New York sommelier who's never worked outside of this market, I would say that New York and its intensity provided me with the crucible that formed my career. Working as a bartender in winebars in 2008-2009 with 200+ reference lists in a "casual" venue in New York teaches you a lot quickly. Like everything in New York, things move faster. The bar is always very high. And if you're ready to work hard, you will learn a lot quickly simply because of the expectations and exposure.
Jerusha: Best city for lady somms!
How do you balance time between work, New York, and yourself?
Jeff: I have been here just over a year and haven't figured that out yet. There is definitely a huge portion of my time devoted to work, and all of the fun that New York offers is hard to pass up. Study time and sleep have been heavily neglected.
Morgan: In many fine dining restaurants in New York, your last table on Friday or Saturday won't sit down for a 3+ hour meal until 10 or 11. That means desserts are likely going down close to 2 AM. You've been at the restaurant since for over 12 hours. You're back tomorrow for a double, but now your co-workers want to go get a beer. Maybe you go home—but you probably go get the beer. And it's never just one. The bars close at 4:00 AM, so, you get home at 4:30-ish, go to sleep, wake up the following day at 10:00 and do it again. This will be compounded if you have a 45+ minute commute from Queens or Brooklyn, as is often the case.
It's not always like this, but that's easily what it can be. You do this 5-6 days a week. Floor sommeliers are looking at a minimum 55-hour week, but probably more like 65. In some general management positions and in special circumstances as a beverage director you will easily work 80- or 90-hour weeks. I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with sommeliers about spending nights on banquettes because it just doesn't make sense to go home. You have to be very guarded with your time, your health, and your energy here.
Which restaurants and beverage programs around town inspire you the most?
Morgan: Of all the super-fancy restaurants in New York, I love Eleven Madison Park best. No other restaurant is as spiritual and inspirational for me in New York. I've staged there twice and their dedication to their guests and to exceptional service is unwavering. There's something wonderfully egalitarian and gracious about the service that I've never quite experienced in any other restaurant; it has one of the most finely tuned internal service cultures I've ever seen.
Jeff: Charlie Bird does a great job, and it gets better every time I go. Pearl & Ash seems to only carry great wines and is such a fun atmosphere. I love going to the Library at the Nomad for wine or the great cocktails.
Hristo: Pearl & Ash, Rouge Tomate, Estella.
Jane: I could go on and on…Momofuku’s magnum program and the cocktails at Booker & Dax, the large-format drinks at the NoMad Bar, insanely priced back-vintage Alsace at Colicchio & Sons, Paul Grieco’s engaging and entertaining lists, the (no longer) best-kept-secret that is Nice Matin, the Ti Punch at Betony, the half-bottle program at Charlie Bird, Champagne Campaign at Corkbuzz… New York is never short on inspiring, imaginative, and brilliant restaurants and beverage programs!
What's your guilty pleasure for eating or drinking in New York?
Jane: Flavored daiquiris the size of my head at Dallas BBQ.
Jeff: Since I never have to drive in New York, my real guilty pleasure is combining a night-cap Negroni with my subway ride home in a to-go coffee cup.
Mia: Ddukbokki and haemul pajeon at Wonjo on 32nd Street. Good anytime—ideal at 4 AM when you’ve been kicked out of two bars and everything else is closed.
What one word best describes the wine scene in New York City?
So THAT's what's in the to-go cup….
As a new Sommelier in NYC just wanted to say thanks for putting this together. This really helped define NYC for me in the wine industry and made me realize how much I need to grow in this city. I just opened a new wine program at LIMANI in Rockefeller center. A huge leap for me but very exciting. I very much look forward to becoming a part of such a rich food and wine culture.
Thank the New Yorkers! Great to have so many awesome sommeliers taking the time to respond.
Hit the nail on the head. Definitely our number one responsibility!
"Jonathan: I love when a table of four says that they would like two bottles for around $100 each, and I can give them three or four for the same $200. There are a lot of people that save their pennies to visit us. To help them spend their money wisely and get the most joy they possibly can from it—this is our number one responsibility."
Thanks Matt for another great feature!