Thursday, July 24, 2008

In the Cellar at Tabla

Well, quite a lot of cocktail posts, haven't there been?

Time for some wine. A month ago, I met and interview Leo Barrera, the wine director at Danny Meyer's Indian restaurant on Madison Square, Tabla. I'd been to Tabla before and been impressed by their emphasis of bracing white wines, such as German rieslings, that go well with spicy food. Leo's story is quite inspiring. From Mexico—hardly a land of wine—he studied in New York State and just never moved back. Like many of Meyer's wine professionals, he began his career at the Gramercy Tavern, and moved up and over.

Here's the story:

From Mexico to India, the Wine Way


Leo Barrera, the wine director at Tabla, Danny Meyer's temple to Indian cuisine, was born into the hospitality business. His family owned hotels first in Acapulco, Mexico, where he was born, and then in Cancun. Growing up, he was a south-of-the-border version of Eloise. "Until my teenage years, I resided in hotels," he said.

He was not, however, born into a world where wine held great sway. "We don't really drink wines," he said of his native Mexico. "We have a small wine industry in Baja. But for the most part, we drink beer, tequila, and brandy. The big Spanish brandy outfits have branches in Mexico. I've looked at the figures. We drink a lot of brandy."

His Mexican heritage, however, came in handy when he was put in charge of the wine program at Tabla, after stints at Gramercy Tavern and Craftsteak. Confronted with chef Floyd Cardoz's inventive Indian cuisine, he realized he was not entirely in alien territory.

"My first introduction to Indian culture was 'In Light of India' by Octavio Paz," Mr. Barrera said, referring to the book-length rumination about India by the Mexican writer and poet, who was his country's ambassador to India between 1962 and 1968. "He deduced that moles" — the traditional Mexican sauces that date back centuries — "are actually derived from curries in India. At the time, India and Mexico had a lot of exchange, cultural and commercial. The basic mole, it's ground spices mixed into a sauce. If you look at it in a very simple way, that's what a curry is."

Thus feeling a natural affinity for Tabla's cuisine, Mr. Barrera, 30, knew where he stood, wine-wise. He also know he had his work cut out for him, because another commonality between Indian and Mexican cuisines is that, in the popular imagination, they both match up best not with wine, but with beer. "People don't see this as a wine destination because of the perception of beer going with the food," Mr. Barrera said. The restaurant's ardent regulars, however, know better. When Mr. Barrera began work last October, he was surprised at how many of his patrons realized a German Riesling was just the thing to go with rice-flaked halibut served with watermelon curry, or a Shiraz was perfect to wash down a pulled-lamb sandwich served on nan bread.

He went about trimming the list from more than 300 selections to a comparatively compact 250, retaining its accents on German and Austrian Rieslings (a full page) and Rhone varietals drawn from France, California, and Australia. At the same time, he added 20 wines from Spain and Portugal, a region he's passionate about. And he brought in some smaller producers, working with twice as many wine distributors as his predecessor did, in order to lend greater variety to the cellar.

Mr. Barrera also wanted to change a few minds on the matter of demi-sec wines — a big bogeyman in the collective consumer mind-set, which equates sweet with insipid. "I feel there is absolutely nothing wrong with residual sugar in the wine," he said. "As a child, I drank aqua fresca. Whatever fruit was in season was made into a drink." During a recent trip to Mexico, he accompanied a lunch with a tall glass of watermelon water. "That's what they have in the middle of a hot day. There's a sweetness behind those drinks, and sweetness works well with spices."

Mr. Barrera's mind rarely rests in its pursuit of beverages that marry well with Tabla's spicy menu. Also in charge of the cocktail program, he is not neglecting that area. At the back of his cellar, on a wire rack, sits a collection of boutique gins. These constitute his new "project," due to be unveiled in the near future. "I find that gin, at least in theory, should work really well with the food because of the botanicals," he reasoned. He thinks a gin cocktail and appetizer pairing might make for a good match. "Cardamom, ginger — a lot of those spices are in the cooking."

And then there are those bottles of Mexican wine in the cellar that he hasn't sampled yet. Might India's and Mexico's cuisines meet yet again, this time in the wine pages of Tabla? Mr. Berrera is not committing himself. "I'm very proud of my Mexican heritage, but I'm an equal-opportunity wine guy," he said. "If the wine is tasty, I don't care where it's from. But if the wine is not up to standards, I'm not going to put it on the list, no matter where it's from."

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