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Staying on His Toes
In the Cellar
By ROBERT SIMONSON
On a recent evening at Eleven Madison Park, Danny Meyer's French restaurant in the flatiron district, wine director John Ragan was trying in vain to please a table of Frenchmen.
"We talked a bit and we weren't getting too far as to the wine," Mr. Ragan, 33, recalled. "They wanted to drink only California things because they'd never been to America before, but they definitely wanted to keep the wines in a Burgundian style. Finally, the guy stopped me and said, ‘Do you know the Coche-Dury wines?' I said ‘Absolutely, those of some of the greatest white Burgundies out there.' He said, "Well, this is Mssr. Coche-Dury."
The lesson for Mr. Ragan: Better have your game on if you're going to work the wines at a top Manhattan dining destination. "It keeps you on your toes," he said. "In New York, more than any other city, you never know who's coming in that night, whether it be Hugh Johnson or whoever." The influential British wine critic dined at the restaurant one day last year. Mr. Ragan amused him by suggesting a 2004 Albert Boxler chasselas from Alsace.
Mr. Ragan is part of a West Coast double act that has put Eleven Madison Park in good graces with the critics lately. He worked for three years with the restaurant's chef, Daniel Humm, at Campton Place in San Francisco. Mr. Meyer tapped Mr. Humm for Eleven Madison Park, a 135-seat restaurant set in a spacious former meeting room in the art deco MetLife Building, in early 2006. Mr. Ragan, as he put it, "just tagged along."
"I think I just insisted on it," he joked. "We had a lot of fun in San Francisco. I think the whole ideas of food and wine are pretty inextricably tied. That's my one gripe about some restaurants: You look at the menu and look at the wine list and they don't necessarily have anything to do with each other."
You wouldn't know it from his smart suits and crisp manners, but Mr. Ragan's first wine tasting was a distinctly humble affair. As a teenage busboy working in an Italian restaurant in his hometown of Kansas City, Mo., he would down the dregs of bottles left behind by customers, just to see what they tasted like. "That's when I got the bug. I ended up leaving one restaurant to go to another." Better pay? Higher position? "They had more wine. I was still bussing tables." A wine geek was born.
He took a degree in urban planning at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and promptly discovered he detested his chosen field. Yearning to escape, he used an airline ticket that was a graduation gift to visit his sister in San Francisco. "I went to wine country," he recalled. "It was a amazing." He never returned to Missouri.
He won his job as Campton Place in 2003. So, how do San Francisco and New York oenophiles stack up? "I think that both cities are adventurous when it comes to wine. New York clientele is much more steeped in the classics, yet they're adventurous. San Francisco people tend to order California wines. It's the default. It's a comfort zone."
Mr. Ragan would rather diners not fall back into that zone. The wine menu at Eleven Madison Park — a much more international affair than the predominantly French list the restaurant boasted 18 months ago — is arranged not by country, but varietal. It's a setup he used at Campton Place to shake people out of their ruts. Pinot noir lovers who drink exclusively Burgundy cannot just flip to the French section, but also must learn that the grape produces good wine in Oregon and New Zealand, too.
Mr. Ragan said he also wants drinkers to form a fresh perspective on wines they think they already know — such as Champagne. "It's quite easy to have a nice list of expensive Champagnes," he said. "But by the glass, it's overlooked. Usually, there's only one. I think of that as the equivalent of having one red wine by the glass; no one would go for that. We have five Champagnes by the glass. With the first half hour of dinner, it is really crucial for people to unwind. I think with a glass of Champagne and some hors d'oeuvres, you're well on your way."
Mr. Ragan is also aware that a diner's biases are not the only impediments to a wider wine experience. "Quite often the restaurateurs are the ones holding the restaurant-goers back," Mr. Ragan said. "They don't have the right selections, they don't have the right things available. It's a matter of having the right things and getting the guests' permission to drink it."
Of course, you can't always teach an old dog new tricks. Mssr. Coche-Dury drank a number of California wines during his evening at Eleven Madison Park. "But in the end," Mr. Ragan said, "the last bottles were Burgundies."