Wednesday, June 4, 2008

In the Cellar With Solera

Solera in the east 50s of Manhattan was the subject of my May "In the Cellar" column at the New York Sun (which appeared, ahem, on June 4). I was attracted to it because of its singular devotion to Spanish wine. An exclusively Spanish wine list is a relative oddity on NYC. Wine director Ron Miller was so polished and suave that I was ready to mistake him for being of European birth. I guess you develop that gracious sheen after spending a few decades at the front of the house. Here is the article.

One Sommelier and His Pioneering All-Spanish Wine List

June 4, 2008

'The Italians do it," Ron Miller of Solera, the Spanish restaurant on East 53rd Street, said. "The French do it. Why not us?"

Do what? Use their wine list as an expression of national pride and culinary purity, that's what.

At Babbo, you'll be looking in vain for a wine not produced on the Italian boot. The list at Balthazar has a thick Gallic accent. Such oenophilic exclusivity is common in Manhattan eateries that focus on French or Italian cuisine. For some of the city's Spanish restaurants, though, it's been a harder trick to pull off. But Solera has found success with an all-Spanish cellar for more than a decade now.

It wasn't always that way. When Solera opened in 1991, it offered diners the usual array of American, French, and Italian wines, with some Spanish bottles thrown in because — well, it was a Spanish joint.

But Mr. Miller, the self-described "maitre d', general manager, sommelier, and chief dishwasher" of the restaurant, changed all that after taking a trip to Spain in the mid-1990s. "My first impression was, this is a great opportunity. There are so many great wines here; why don't we make the list all Spanish?" he recalled.

Mr. Miller — a courtly man with a reassuring purr of a voice — and the owners of Solera made their commitment just as Iberian juice had started to capture the attention of the American market. Since then, they have profited from every trend in Spanish wine. When the intense reds of Priorat, a rediscovered region in the northeast corner of the nation, were the talk of the critics, Mr. Miller was happy to pour plenty of glasses of the inky stuff. A couple years later, Bierzo was declared the next hot region, and Solera was not caught unprepared. What about now? "La Mancha wines are starting to come in," Mr. Miller said. "And Méntrida," he added, citing the little-known wine-producing region west of Madrid. "Who knows Méntrida?" he asked. (If anybody wants to sample its wares, they can order a bottle of Arrayan Petit Verdot at Solera.)

But there is still much to be learned, despite Solera's ongoing advancement of Spanish wines for the New York palate. Mr. Miller noted that customers, when selecting a red Rioja, will almost always go for a reserva over a crianza, simply because they are less comfortable with the latter term. (Crianzas are aged for at least two years; reservas for three.)

Mr. Miller tries to gently nudge people's education along by offering tastes of wines when certain appetizers are ordered. A plate of assorted fried and marinated seafood arrives automatically with a glass of Manzanilla, the light, sometimes tangy form of sherry, a common pairing in southern Spain. He says that fino and Manzanilla sherries can be an acquired taste. "If you don't have something that complements that food-wise, it's going to be a fairly strong drink," he said. "When you pair it with food, you get a nice association."

Additionally, this leads his patrons to the idea of habitually having wine with their food, and vice versa. "A lot of Americans still enjoy wine as a cocktail as opposed to a food-and-wine match, which never happens in Spain," he said. "When you take a copita of sherry in Spain, you always have something to eat with it. That's the tapas concept. A morsel of food was placed on top of a glass of wine. It was a giveaway item. Here, I'll see someone have four glasses of wine with some olives, and that's dinner."

In another pairing, a selection of cold tapas is accompanied by a sample of Spain's famous sparkling white wine, cava. Often when restaurants opt for a one-country wine list — and that country isn't France — the sparkling category is where they break their own rule by including a selection of French Champagnes to please the crowd.

Solera, though, sticks to Spain through and through. If you want something that bubbles, there's a selection of seven different cavas — and nothing else. And there's a bonus: Cavas are notoriously cheap. The most costly of the cavas (which are made in the same method as Champagne, but with Spanish grape varietals) ring in at under $80, while the least expensive is $36.

"The price format has always been one of Spain's assets," Mr. Miller said, "and it still is, even with the dollar-euro scenario we have now. It's really refreshing for people to see such quality at such a price."

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