Veritas: Do you detect a big difference between the wine programs in top restaurants in New York and California?

Greenlee: Well, of course, I've never worked in California so my experience is limited to my travels. But, yes, I have seen a clear difference. In New York, where we're only a five-hour flight from Europe, our customers are much more conversant and comfortable with international lists. They know what they're looking for and not mystified by lesser-known appellations such as St.-Aubin, Montagny, or Mâcon La Roche. They're hunting for Loires, both red and white, reaching out for white Graves, and combing through the Douro. Californians, in contrast, seem more often intent on trying the new cult wines or locating hard-to-find wines like a Kistler Pinot Noir; or to rely on old favorites like Caymus Special Select and Opus.

In California, I seldom see a really exceptional, internationally balanced list. They seem more heavily California-written. It's not really so much that New York customers are more sophisticated than California ones. It's that our proximity to Europe gives us easier access to familiarity. And that leads to broader consumer demand, which, in turn, translates into more options on the list.
Another difference in New York, I think, is that wine professionals are so often challenged by the combination of dynamic customer demand and competitive pressures. We are driven to search constantly for new things, to taste ever more varietals from new winegrowing regions. We continuously stretch our knowledge in order to develop and maintain distinctiveness in our program.

V: Gotham Bar and Grill has a truly outstanding list of more than 900 wines including everything from First Growths to white Merlot from Italy. What's your secret?

G: It's no secret at all. As is invariably true with all world-class lists, we enjoy the support of owners who understand that a fine wine program is one of the best investments in the success of a restaurant. We're also fortunate to have owners who are as passionate about wine as they are about food.

V: Michael, it's not like you to be too self-effacing. You must have played a key role in developing the program?

G: Actually, it's all about the restaurant first. For example, if I were writing a list for Chinois-on-Main in Santa Monica, it would be completely different from our list here at Gotham.

The two most important considerations in designing a list are, first, customer wine preferences and, secondly, the particular requirements of the food. Only after those prime objectives have been satisfied can I finally weigh in with my own preferences and passions. At the same time, it takes all three elements, I believe, to create a well-designed list. So I guess I can make a contribution. But for me to go out and say that I'm going to build a shrine to my own taste in wine would be an exercise of folly as well as ego.

V: How actively do you participate in the floor sale of wines? Do you steer your customers away from, shall we say, less inspired choices?

G: Well, I'll certainly go back to a table if I feel uncomfortable with the order taken by the waiter. Last week I went out to a guy who'd ordered a $200 bottle of Opus '95. I suggested to him, carefully of course, that I'd rather sell him something similar that was currently drinking better.

V: And what did he end up drinking?

G: A bottle of '95 Vineyard 29. Very happily, I might add.

V: With all the emphasis on new releases, how hard is it to sell good but secondary Burgundy vintages such as '94?

G: I think it always ends up with that certain percentage of restaurant goers, the serious ones, who know their stuff. They appreciate how expensive the '93, '95 and '96 vintages have become and the relative value that inheres in vintages such as '94. Those wines are very forward, the fruit is very ripe, and they are showing very well young.

V: How do you do with older Bordeaux vintages?

G: We do a great business with older Bordeaux. Compared to the current releases, we can buy them well and show good value on our list. I can only hope that the fine '75s, '66s, '64s and '62s will go out to the people who really appreciate their flavors and take pleasure from what those wines are all about.

V: What do you intend to drink personally on Millennium Eve?

G: Truly wonderful stuff. They've developed complexity that's unmatched.

Michael Greenlee is the Chef Sommelier and Director of the Wine Program at Gotham Bar & Grill in New York City. Previously, he held similar positions at Peacock Alley at the Waldorf Astoria, Le Cirque Restaurant, and the Dining Room at the Four Seasons.

© Veritas Imports, LLC. 1999