Wednesday, January 23, 2008

In the Cellar With Four Seasons've interviewed enough sommeliers and wine directors by this time that I'm rarely intimidated by the prospect of meeting them. But I had a rare case of butterflies before meeting Julian Niccolini, the longtime co-owner and wine man at the legendary Four Season. The majesty of the restaurant's landmarked interior is enough to cow anybody but the Pool Room regulars. And the suave, beautifully tailored, Italian-born Niccolini's taste and palate is celebrated.

Turns out, I worried for nothing. Niccolini was one of the most relaxed and open interview subjects I've encountered in the wine world. He did not censor or overly think out his responses. He said what he thought, and he laughed often. He also displayed a healthy sense of humor for the haughty and high-powered world he polices.

A little side story that I did not include in the interview: toward the end of our talk Niccolini leaped up to greet a friend who had just climbed up the stairs. It was restauranteur Jonathan Waxman, whose Barbuto had receive a good review in the New York Times that very day. The two took a seat at the bar and Niccolini opened up a bottle of Krug to toast the happy news. Julian was considerate enough to send a flute of the bubbly stuff my way. I was happy to toast Waxman's good fortune, particularly since it meant a glass of free top-flight Champagne sipped in the empty, peaceful environs if mid-afternoon Four Seasons.

My interview with him, in the , is below:

Supply & Demand
In The Cellar

There is no question as to the provenance of any of the wines to be found on the list at the Four Seasons restaurant. At the top of every page, in italics, is a proclamation that reads, for example, "Julian Niccolini's Selection of American Wines." Mr. Niccolini is co-owner of what may be Manhattan's most awe-invoking restaurant (architecturally, culinarily, and monetarily); the wine list there has been an intimate concern of his since he developed his palate at the elbow of his late mentor, Paul Kovi, who co-owned the restaurant for more than two decades.

Ask Mr. Niccolini about his role as cellar tastemaker, however, and he strikes a modest, even self-deprecating, note. "It's entirely up to me," he said, waving his hands grandly during a recent interview at the restaurant. "If I have a customer who likes one particular wine and comes in all the time, I make absolutely sure he has this particular wine."

Thus, while Mr. Niccolini may be in charge, it's the appetites and the wallets of the celebrated clientele at the Four Seasons that call the tune. "You want a wine list that's selling on a daily basis, not a cemetery," he said.

This reasoning dictates many of Mr. Niccolini's decisions. For instance, the 49-year-old restaurant — its list was, in early days, dominated by the classic French wines — used to buy Bordeaux futures. But no more. They have become too expensive, Mr. Niccolini said, as collectors troll the auction houses, causing prices to spike. Furthermore, you have sit on the bottles for years before they can be drunk.

Another example: Spanish wines are very hot right now, but they're not to be found in the restaurant's Pool Room dining area. "The wine list today is basically 30% California wines, 30% French wine, 30% Italian wine, 10% of the rest," he said. "We still don't have any Spanish wine on the list yet. When we have more customers request Spanish wines, we'll bring it in."

It's all very pragmatic. But wait! What about that 30% of Italian wine? Could it be that Italy is so well represented because Mr. Niccolini was born in Lucca, in northern Tuscany, and has a soft spot for that country's wines? He says patriotism doesn't enter into it: "Sure, I'm Italian. But, in the 1980s, there was a tremendous request for Italian wine, for Barolo, for Barbaresco, for Brunello."

If he is unsentimental about his native country's wines, he is even less so about those of his buttoned-down, Swiss-born business partner, Alex Von Bidder. (The two men bought the restaurant in 1995.) When questioned about whether there might be room on the list for one little Chasselas — the obscure varietal that Switzerland has made it own — Mr. Niccolini laughs so hard one wonders if he is going to stop."We tried a couple times to have Swiss wine on the list," he said, noting that the Swiss are producing some fine Cabernet Franc and Merlot. "But there's never been any requests."

And Mr. Niccolini is not about to give his customers a wine they don't want. He has great faith in the taste of the diners he serves. "We believe the customers should make up their own minds when it comes to wine," he said. "We think the customer is smart enough. Not to be a snob, but when they go to a restaurant like Daniel or Four Seasons, I'm assuming they know what they're doing."

He'll back his customers to the end, even if they drink Taittinger Comtes de Champagne on ice, as one customer has been doing for 30 years. "It is fine with me," Mr. Niccolini said. (As for the late architect, Philip Johnson, who designed the landmark and had his own table for many years, he was a vodka drinker.)

It may seem odd for the majordomo at such a high-flown, power-lunch see-and-be-seen place as the Four Seasons to be so unpretentious about wine. But, then, Mr. Niccolini is of humble origins, being the son of the owners of a small osteria that served food and wine to local families. Furthermore, he has seen a lot of oenophilic bubbles burst in his time. The Four Seasons, after all, was among the first New York restaurants to begin carrying fine California wines in the early 1970s, when most restaurateurs and winemakers looked down their noses at the Golden State's output. And Mr. Niccolini was present the fateful night in April 1989 when a New York retailer sought to impress the owners of the old Bordeaux house Chateau Margaux by showing off a bottle of Margaux reputed to be from Jefferson's collection — only to watch in horror as a waiter's elbow sent the vessel crashing to the floor. The Jefferson bottles have since fallen under suspicion as likely frauds, a circumstance that further fuels Mr. Niccolini's mirth as he recalls the incident. "I tasted it," he said. "It tasted like mud."

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