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By Robert Simonson
The wine director at Tribeca Grill, David Gordon, sips what he sells.
The restaurant's list purports to have more Châteauneuf-du-Pape — roughly 300 bottles — than not only any restaurant in New York City, but any restaurant in the world, including those in the southern Rhône Valley, from whence the wine hails. ( Mr. Gordon admits that this boast is anecdotal — not scientific.)
When asked what he drinks at home, however, Mr. Gordon does not reply "riesling," as many sommeliers who manage red-heavy lists often do. He says " Châteauneuf du Pape," without any hesitation. "I really like those wines."
Mr. Gordon is the only wine director Tribeca Grill has ever known; he began his tenure when fellow Cornell University graduate Drew Nieporent and actor Robert De Niro opened the eatery in 1990. Since then, he has found myriad ways to keep himself interested in his job.
After a few years hawking a selection of about 60 wines, he itched to expand the list. Waiters began handing diners a supplementary "all-American reserve list," which proved a hit; tables were ordering $100 bottles rather than $40 bottles. It got Mr. Gordon thinking. "In our group, Drew owns Montrachetand Rubicon. These were two wine destinations. Why can't we be a wine destination? Maybe Tribeca Grill is a big place and it's more casual, but there's no reason why we can't have great wine."
And so he started buying. Did Mr. Nieporent approve of the new expenditures? "Oh," said Mr. Gordon, not missing a beat, "we didn't tell him." Tribeca Grill now has 1,800 wine selections.
In contrast to many wine directors, who often ooze self-conscious refinement, Mr. Gordon comes off as a man of the people. He has the straightforward, unaffected demeanor of a garrulous garment district sweater manufacturer. The Tribeca Grill list begins, after all, with a populist-spirited page called "Dave's Picks." It's unlikely you'd find a similarly named feature at, say, Le Bernardin.
"For the customer who comes in and doesn't care about wine, or doesn't care that much, he can go to the first page and see we recommend 30 or 40 whites and reds," Mr. Gordon said.
Mr. Gordon has a touch of P.T. Barnum in him. The Tribeca Grill wine list didn't grow in a simple, linear fashion. Instead, it began to sport what could be called "added attractions." In addition to the Châteauneuf-du-Pape cache and the "Dave's Picks" page, Mr. Gordon began spotlighting zinfandels and — in a sentimental move — vintages from 1990, the year Tribeca Grill was born. (By a nice coincidence, the vintage proved to have been a good one in many parts of the world.)
"I don't want to have just a laundry list of wine, page after page after page," Mr. Gordon explained. "It's kind of boring. So I tried to make certain categories. I was just trying to find ways to differentiate this list from other lists."
Among his first such special sections were pages of 1994 and 1997 California cabernets. Those wines have since been exhausted, so the pages are gone. But the 1990s hang on. "They're higher-priced," he said. "We keep trying to find them but we're looking for bargains. The market is very high. It's not a time to buy."
Toward the end of the Tribeca list is yet another notable invention of Mr. Gordon's — a tallying of all the bottles Wine Spectator magazine has named "Wine of the Year" from 1988 to the present.
Mr. Gordon already had some Spectator wines in stock when he hatched the idea, and soon after started looking for the others. Of course, when the Wine Spectator crowns a product "Wine of the Year," its readers — who tend to view the magazine as a gospel of vino — quickly buy up that wine. "It becomes very hard to find the wine all of a sudden," he said. "The price increases, everyone wants it."
The wine Mr. Gordon has had the hardest time keeping in the cellar on a regular basis is not any of the rare and pricey reds from Bordeaux or Napa, but the once-plentiful Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay 1994. "No one's putting it away to collect," he said. "It's white. It's being drunk. Even Beringer doesn't have any of it. But I'm still finding some."
Another white wine Mr. Gordon makes a point to always have on the list is the Hermitage Blanc by the renowned Rhône wine producer Jean-Louis Chave. It's not a Wine Spectator wine, or a Dave's Pick. It just happens to be one of Robert De Niro's favorites. And so a case arrives like clockwork every year. "He likes whites," Mr. Gordon said. "He likes what he likes. He's not a snob."
The two men must get along well.