Wednesday, March 28, 2007

In the Cellar at Prime Grill

My February "In the Cellar" column for the New York Sun dwelled on The Prime Grill, which offered a unique perspective since The Prime Grill, being a glatt kosher steak and sushi house—possibly the best and most expensive in New York—has an all-kosher cellar. And the wines having to be kosher is not the only limitation the wine director Rick Bruner must deal with. Every bottle must also bear the OU kosher certification symbol AND be mevushal—that is, flash-boiled, so that gentiles may handle the bottle without spoiling the contents.

Now, I have the same problems with kosher wine that most wine lovers have, particularly when the lucious juice is willfully boiled. But I've drunk enough kosher vino over the years to recognize that Prime Grill had probably the best little cellar possible under the circumstances. Plus, the list contained two bottles from Chateau Valandraud, the famed garagiste Bordeaux, and, for my money, the best kosher wine on the planet.

Here is the link to the full article. The text follows.

On the face of it, the wine cellar run by sommelier Rick Bruner doesn't look measurably different than those at other Manhattan restaurants. It's a bit smaller, perhaps, less grand. Still, it's a sterile room full of bottles like many others. But this collection is different, for every chilled vessel on display once felt the brief kiss of red-hot flame.

Mr. Bruner, you see, works at Prime Grill, about as high a high-end kosher restaurant as you're likely to find in New York City. Every vintage on the 50-count wine list is not only kosher — that is, made by observant Jews and according to Jewish dietary law — but also mevushal, meaning the wine is boiled.

"As part of our kosher certification, and as an effort to make it easier on the guests, all the wines are mevushal," Mr. Bruner said. "That way, they don't have to worry." What's to worry about? Well, who handles the wine, for one. Only a kosher wine designated mevushal can be opened, toted, and poured by any pair of hands, be they Jewish or not. The stricture goes back to ancient times, when pagan faiths used wine for idolatrous ceremonies. It was then thought that, if the wine was pasteurized, it would be unfit for pagan worship, and thus safe for Jews. Though pagans are harder to find these days, the stipulation is still upheld, particularly in Orthodox circles. And for Prime Grill, a mevushal lineup is an imperative, since few of the waiters are Jewish.

The process that makes a wine mevushal is not as brutal as one might think. Nothing is boiled in a pot. The method used nowadays is known as flash pasteurization, and is akin to flash-frying a fish. "The wine is laid out to a few millimeters thick," Mr. Bruner explained, "and flash boiled and then cooled down, in an effort to maintain some of the complexity, some of the body. Because when you do boil it, as a matter of fact, you are breaking down the wine. That's why your zinfandels and cabernets will hold up much better. The pinot noirs and Rhone wines are a little harder."

The thought of wine being boiled — even momentarily — can make a wine purist fall into a dead faint. Some kosher winemakers aren't so crazy about it, either. Mr. Bruner, in an effort to increase the breadth and quality of his list, spends some of his time trying to coax vintners into making a mevushal product. Prime Grill — like Solo, its sister restaurant nearby in Midtown — has a number of exclusive mevushal selections on offer, and the wine director wants to see more.

"We're trying to grow our Israeli list right now," he said. "There are a lot of high-end Israeli wines that refuse to do mevushal." One of those list exclusives is the top-priced wine on the list, a 2002 Grand Cru Bordeaux from St. Emilion's tiny, but highly rated Chateau De Valandraud. It goes for $760. It also bears an OU certification, as must all of Prime Grill's wines. "That's another thing that defines our boundaries," he said.

Mr. Bruner, 30, had to take a crash course in kashrut and hechshers when he joined Prime Grill four and a half years ago. At the time, he wasn't familiar with even the most established kosher names such as Baron Herzog and Abarbanel. These days, part of his job is to make his clientele comfortable with the labels on the list that go beyond Herzog and Abarbanel. "A lot of families are more apprehensive about trying the Italians or French wines," he said. "They don't recognize the names."

Mr. Bruner is also in charge of the liquor supply and here, again, his job can be a challenge. Most spirits, being made of grains, are automatically kosher, but there are exceptions. "With your single malts, it cannot be aged in Madeira or Sherry casks, because that's wine," he said. "Those casks aren't kosher. And the only flavored vodkas we can carry are Stolichnaya, because they're the only ones who have an OU certification."

When he can't find something he wants among the available kosher intoxicants, he tries to make it himself. "I went to a food show a couple months ago and they had a green tea liqueur," he said. "But the tea leaves to make their liqueur were not inspected by a rabbi, so they're not kosher. So I said, ‘OK, I'll try to make my own.'" He took a bottle of Prime Grill's house vodka, Zenkoff, put in a couple cups of sugar, some food coloring, and tea leaves and let it sit for a month.

There were no lightning storms over Prime Grill when Mr. Bruner went in for this bit of mad-scientist experimentation. Nonetheless, the waitstaff has since nicknamed him Dr. Zenkoff.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

In the Cellar at Babbo

Since July 2006, I've been writing a monthly column for the New York Sun newspaper called "In the Cellar." It's allowed me to get a peek at some of the New York restaurant world's most storied wine collections and interesting cellars, from the "21" Club's Speakeasy-era space with its hidden door to the graffiti-scrawled walls of Daniel to the dusty Barolo-stuffed rooms of Barbetta.

This month this restaurant in question was Mario Batali's Babbo, which, though wedged into the tiny space once occupied by The Coach House, has a surprisingly spacious cellar. Wine director Colum Sheehan (that's him, left) showed me around. Like most of the people I've met through this running assignment, I've found him to be friendly, open and approachable—the opposite of the haughty cliche of the sommelier. He may have been presenting this face for the sake of a journalist, but still...

Here is the link to the article.

And, since that link expires in 45 days or so, here's the full text as well:

A Wine Wonderland, Three Feet Taller

Babbo, the celebrated Italian restaurant off Washington Square, has a big reputation and a bigger celebrity chef in Mario Batali. So why shouldn't it have a sizable wine cellar to match?

Well, because Babbo is located in the old Coach House space on Waverly Place, a cubbyhole of an address that once had a basement so shallow you had to stoop over as you entered. But that all changed when the contractors excavating the cellar of the building next door offered to do the same for Babbo; the owners, Mr. Batali and Joe Bastianich, jumped at the chance.

"We went from ‘Being John Malkovich' to ‘Alice in Wonderland,'" the restaurant's wine director, Colum Sheehan, said recently, referring to an office in "Being John Malkovich" with a floor that was half the normal height. Work began in mid-2005 and concluded last summer. The floor was lowered a good 3 feet — you can still see where the original stonework ends — and workers broke through the back wall, digging through solid earth until the basement extended fully beneath the kitchen. The grand double doors lead to the cellar, where the room once ended.

To walk through those doors is to pass into a wine wonderland. Babbo surely has one of the roomiest wine cellars in New York, a room equal in size to the first-floor dining area. There is elbow room between the stacks and each square wine nook has plenty of space for more bottles. "I love to bring industry people down here and show them what we have," Mr. Sheehan said with a gleam in his eye. "I can't jump up and touch the ceiling. And there's lots of room still."

The wines enjoying all this breathing room are exclusively Italian, save for a few champagnes, sherries, and ports. They have a friend in Mr. Sheehan, a native of upstate New York who has been a fan of Italian wine since his days as a student in Italy during the mid-1980s. His pronunciation is conscientious to a fault; terms like " Valle D'Aosta" and "Passito di Pantelleria" pop out in high relief.

"If distributors don't know we sell only Italian wine, and they bring out something else, we tell them to put it away," he said. The list of roughly 1,000 labels has not changed much in spirit since Mr. Sheehan took over the wine directorship a little over a year ago from David Lynch, who was moved up to general manager of Babbo. ("If it ain't broke, don't fix it.")

However, Mr. Sheehan did flip the list on its head. Sharp-eyed diners will notice that the lineup of whites travels from Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the north down to Sicilia and Sardegna. But the red selections begin in Sicilia and move up in latitude.

"It's a little roundtrip of Italy," he said. "On our wine list, it's very difficult to fit everything on to a single page in a lot of situations. You don't want it to be just a random representation of regions. You try your best to make it make sense. … Part of the logic of going from the south to the north with the reds is it puts Tuscany and Piedmont toward the back of the list, so people will page through the other interesting selections before they get to the same-old same-old."

Among the whites, the best-represented region is Friuli, which, with its mineral-driven sauvignon blancs and Tocai Friulanos, has become Italy's pre-eminent white wine region. This is not surprising: Mr. Bastianich has vineyards there. Several of his bottlings — including Vespa Bianco, a blend of several grapes — are featured at Babbo.

Another novelty on the list is its full page of Italian dessert wines. Most oenophiles are familiar with Piedmont's Moscato d'Asti and Tuscany's Vin Santo — though Mr. Sheehan cautions this is "the real McCoy," not "the industrial-produced imitation Vin Santo that comes compliments of the house with a plate of cookies." But beyond that, local treats from Calabria and Alto Adige, both white and red, are probably unknown to all but the most discerning Italophiles.

Mr. Sheehan likes it that way. "One of the advantages of selling only Italian wine is you have a lot more space to bring in the less-thought-about regions. I don't have to waste my pages on wines from Napa."

Monday, March 26, 2007

Red Wine Fiends

Since we're just getting started here, I should probably make some of my biases clear. One for phenomena I'm sure to rail against from time to time are the half-brained status-seekers I call Red Wine Fiends. These are poor, misguided folks who drink red wine to the exclusive of all else, and still consider themselves wine afficianados. (In fact, they consider themselves MORE expert than the poor fools who would waste their palate's time on white and rose.)

These myopic nuts constitute, in my opinion, one of the most idiotic aspects of the current wine world. I've encountered Red Wine Fiends regularly in my travels and everyday life. You're having a nice conversation about likes and dislikes, favorite bottles, passions and such. Then you ask them whether they've tried such and such a Pinot Gris or Albarino, and they let go the fatal response: "Oh, I only drink red." Just like that, one half of the world's wine shoved off a cliff like so much refuse. After that, I'm afraid I lose all interest in them as oenophiles. You see, it's not that they've tried all the whites out there, given the matter serious consideration and decided red was their poison when it came down to it. Preferers of red I can understand and heartily applaud. Stand by your likes, by all means! The drinkers I'm talking about don't buy or drink white on principle. It's unworthy, weak-flavored swill. Feh!

What does red mean to the Fiends? It means seriousness. It means important wine, a wine worth its high price. It's a wine that will overpower you and therefore demand your respect. It has alcohol. It has fruit. It has reputation. It the Porterhouse of wines. White is—what?—the quiche. You can blame big red lover Robert Parker Jr. for this state of affairs. You can blame the point system. But whoever you blame, it's the way Americans have been taught to appreciate wine, and it makes about as much sense as shunning all coffee in favor of tea and visa versa.

The Fiends are everywhere, and carry themselves with blustery confidence. I took a series of wine classes years ago. They were conducted by a woman at the Brooklyn wine shop Heights Chateau and help at the kitchenware store A Cook's Companion. Every time the Heights woman brought out a white wine, the Companion owner begrudgingly tasted it with barely a crack in her mind open. "It's not red," she would explain. This, from a woman in the food business. The sommelier at The Oyster Bar in Grand Central once told me of a memorable patron who washed down his several dozen oysters with an old Bordeaux. Oysters! My wife's doctor asked me to recommend a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon under $20. I responded that I knew of few good ones at that price, and mentioned a few other less familiar reds and whites that would proved much better drinking for the money. He shut me down. No: only Napa Cab. Otherwise, don't bother me.

Let me say, that I know of what I speak, because, in my small way, I began my wine life as a Fiend. When I began to teach myself about the ways I wine, I accepted as a matter of faith that the best wines in the world were red wines. I don't know where I got this information, but I assumed everyone understood it as gospel. White wine was insipid, silly, for dilettantes and Ladies Who Lunch. But, with every class I took, every bottle I drank, every book I read, it dawned on me how very wrong I was. In time, to my own amazement, I was wooed over the white camp, astounded by the variety of varietals, flavors and textures. Discovering the misunderstood Riesling grape was like opening a secret door leading to a gleaming treasure trove of lost treasure. Viognier, Ribolla Gialla, Tocai Friuliano, Albarino, Fiano, Falanghina, Pecorino, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner, Gruner Veltliner, Chassales, Aligote, the mind-boggling variousness of Sauvignon Blanc—the miracles kept on coming. Dessert wines were another hidden vault of riches.

I'm a sucker for the underdog and I've been a white wine champion every since. I still love all kinds of red, of course. How can you not? But I care deeply about white. And, in most cases, when I sit down to eat, it's the color I want by my side. Red's a bully and will often beat up on my meal. White tries to find a way to make friends with dinner.

Now, if only the Fiends can make friends with it.

A Bottle of Chianti and Me

I wish I had that moment in time that I could point to as my rebirth as a wine lover. All the great wine writers seem to. An old Bordeaux in some chateau. An unexpected local wine in some likely cafe. I remember a self-possessed fellow named Tad, one of my teachers at the International Wine Center, telling of a glass of something or other sipped in France that instantly told him his future would be in the wine trade.

But I can't fool myself. I don't have that clear-cut moment. My interest in wine was always there in the back of my head, but never actively fed until I reached my mid-30s. I probably took so long acting on it because nothing in my upbringing told me I should respect wine or be interesting in it as anything more than an intoxicant or as something to fill up prized crystal. My parents dranks a lot of Gallo, bought is huge jugs. White, mainly. Chardonnay, most probably. They weren't discerning. They just wanted some wine on hand in case their dinner guests were "wine-drinkers," as opposed to "gin-drinkers" or "scotch-drinkers." I tried it. It was awful and I was turned off. Later on, in the '90s, they turned to box wines. As for champagne—the fine wine that finds its way into every house, however unprepossessing—I don't remember every having a glass. Perhaps on New Year's Eve. Perhaps Korbel. If so, it was sour and acidic, if taste memory serves.

In college, of course, no one drank wine. It was beer, bought in kegs, or hard liquor of the cheapest sort. My roommate lined empty bottle of Jack Daniels up on the windowsill. Still, I harbored a need to know more about wine. I knew there was a world there. Literature told me there was. So did history. But how to find out?

I few isolated moments stand out as feeding my slow education. My wife Sarah's college friend David was a lover of port. He kept a beautiful carafe full of it on a table in his Greenwich Village apartment. When we visited, he would pour us each a small glass. I believe it was good quality. Anyway, I loved it immediately and began keeping a bottle of Tawny Port around my place. Later on, I made friends with a couple of young men at my workplace: one, Dan, a neurotic New England journalist type; the other, Andrew, a friendly, sax-playing soul from the mid-South. Both had a passion for single-malt scotch. And so I learned the difference between blended and single-malt scotch and quickly came to prefer the latter. Talisker evolved as my brand. That it was made on the Isle of Skye, a place I had visited and adored, certainly helped matters. (Also an influence was a story Sarah told me of a Brooklyn drunk who waxed poetic to her one night about the virtues of Laguvulin, saying it was "friggin' nec-TAR.")

My brother Eric treated me to a dinner at the Culinary Institute or America in Hyde Park the night before my wedding. I don't remember the name or varietal of the white wine we had that night—I wish to God I did—but I know it opened my eyes to what white wine could be: stunning, magnificent, transporting.

But the most inflential bottle of my formative years was one (or, rather, several) that I drank by the side of a pool in the small Tuscan village of Volpaia. It was May 1999. My family had rented a centuries-old villa there, perched idyllically above a sunlit valley. The best view was to be had by the pool. An impossibly breathtaking, postcard-like vista. Volpaia was small, about 44 residents, and was largely taken up by the workings of a single vineyard, Castello di Volpaia (a winemaker now fairly famous, but then rather obscure). Most of the old buildings housed barrels and winemaking equipment. The vineyard's headquarters were a short walk from the villa and we used to stroll there every day to sample and buy wine. At the time, the now-fabled 1997 vintage was all the talk. We tried to buy some, but it was not to be found, so we drank bottle after bottle of 1996 Chianti Classico.

I remember not particularly liking it at first. I realize now that I was probably repsonding to the wine's youth. It was still tight, the tannins too rough and not fully integrated into the wine. By I adapted quickly and I began to drink roughly a bottle a day, slowly, while I sat by the pool, legs dangling in the water. I had never been much of a drinker before then, so this was something. I was really drinking, and thoughtfully. Those hours were wonderfully peaceful and contented. I knew that had a lot to do with the scenery and locale. But I also knew that the wine was making its contribution. It was adding a new aspect of beauty and civilization to each minute.

Thereafter, I vowed to learn more about the liquid I enjoyed so much. I became more of a buyer and steady imbiber. It was still years, however, before I turned myself into a serious student. (More on that later.) But I was on my way.

And, thus, this blog. I plan to use it to express thoughts and musings about specific wines and general trends in the wine world. I may post some brief reviews of wines that really strike me as something special. I also write about wine for a number of publications and will post links to those articles as they appear. I hope to avoid pomposity and exclusivity, things I abhor in wine enthusiasts. I will also occasionally writer about spirits and cocktails, an interest in which has grown out of my wine pursuits. Hope you enjoy. Thanks for checking in.