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.
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.
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.
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.
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
actively do you participate in the floor sale of wines?
Do you steer your customers away from, shall we say, less
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.
what did he end up drinking?
G: A bottle of '95 Vineyard 29. Very
happily, I might add.
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.
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.
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
Room at the Four Seasons.