Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In the Cellar at The Modern

My February "In the Cellar" column in the New York Sun too a look at Belinda Chang, the talented new wine director at The Modern, who comes to New York by way of Chicago and San Franciso. One of the rare women in the business, she is also one of the most vivacious sommeliers I've ever met. She's wears on her sleeve the enthusiasm for wine most sommeliers hold in their heart.

Chang was open and generous enough to let me sit in on a Wednesday tasting with various distributors, who were all trying to get their wines on The Modern's list. This was fascinating, and not only because of the wide variety of wines sampled, but because of the wide variety of salesman that paraded by. Every type from the typical, nervous flop-sweat hawker to representatives that reeked icy-cool confidence, gracious and long-winded Europeans to former Garment District workers who could do their job blindfolded.

The Perkiest Sommelier in Town
In The Cellar

February 27, 2008

The new wine director at the Modern, Belinda Chang, presides over what may be the most global dining room in New York City. Situated in that tourist haven known as the Museum of Modern Art, the Danny Meyer restaurant attracts not only the blue-chip businessmen and publishing executives from Midtown, but also the hordes of art-loving European and Asian travelers who are taking full advantage of the low dollar.

"I have those whole days in the dining room where I don't hear any English," Ms. Chang said, with a laugh. "I got to practice my Chinese tonight, spoke a little French there, a little German over there." Catering to so many nationalities means keeping a wide variety of wines on hand. New Yorkers are happy to choose from among the classic Burgundy and Rhône and other European selections that have been the list's mainstays since it opened in 2005. But vacationing Europeans don't want to order what they can easily get back home. "We have a lot of internationals who are all looking for California and Washington and Oregon wine because they're visiting the States." As a result, Ms. Chang, who only arrived in New York three months ago, is beefing up the New World side of the list.

The peripatetic nature of many of the Modern's patrons shapes the list in other ways as well. Leisurely diners may want a bottle, but passing tourists on their way from MoMA to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and business people cooling their heels after a long day, are looking for an intriguing glassful. "We go through so much of our wine by the glass, we never have any problems with anything going stale," she said.

On a recent afternoon, while tasting the wares of a parade of wine distributors, she peppered the sellers with requests for magnums. She believes the big bottles add a bit of drama to the by-the-glass game. "I think that they're gorgeous in the dining room," she said. "People see them be poured at the table and they get thirsty for them. I'm definitely obsessed with magnums. They're so fun to pour!"

She said this, as she said almost everything, with a wide smile and a burbling laugh. To say she is bubbly is an understatement. It's little wonder that such an exuberantly cheerful person has no trouble selling barrels of vino to strangers. But anyone who thinks her giddy manner and tendency to label wines "super" and "neato" are the earmarks of a lightweight will be quickly set straight. Ms. Chang knows her stuff, bandying wine terms and winemakers back and forth with lightning speed, and twirling a pen around her knuckles at a rate that would rattle any salesman.

Ms. Chang has a reason to be impatient. There was a bit of a lag between her predecessor's departure and her arrival, and though the Modern's cellar contains 10,000 bottles, she's still got some holes to fill. "They drink a lot of wine here," she said simply. And "they" are not just anybody. They are New Yorkers, who are among the most demanding oenophiles in the world.

Ms. Chang, who was born in Massachusetts, has worked at restaurants in Houston, San Francisco and Chicago, where she handled wines at Charlie Trotter's."New Yorkers were always my favorite restaurant diners to take care of," she said. "They're good at it. With a guest in Chicago, we'd be futzing around with what they want to drink. Everyone's sort of a professional here, and really well-dined. They've seen everything. They know what they want. We're definitely striving to still surprise you."

Toward that end, she is keen on snaring every "exclusive" she can for the wine list — "cherries" as one distributor called them. "So many of our regulars are the Café Gray regulars, are the Daniel regulars," she explained. "They don't want to drink the same thing everywhere they go."

Ms. Chang has been so enmeshed in her new work that, even though she can see MoMA from her apartment window — where her closet if stuffed with innumerable black suits — she hasn't yet had time to actually tour the museum. But that doesn't mean she hasn't been thinking about what's hanging on the institution's walls.

"I'm putting a lot of thought about how the art in the museum has to do with the wine in the cellar, because I think that could be interesting to explore," she said. "I look at wine as art. It's about choosing wines for our list that are varietally correct and terroir-specific."

She added: "We've all had that Pinot Noir that tasted like Syrah, or that Cabernet that was too light to be a Cabernet. What was happening there? That was manipulation — not purity, not art."

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