New York's wine scene has never been more vibrant and diverse as drinkers discovers the wines of the world. RANDALL LANE meets five new faces behind the change
New York has always been a city blessed by geography. Its harbor and Hudson River made it unstoppably big, its bedrock foundation made it impossibly tall. This also plays out oenologically: like London, New York became a landmark wine city not because it had any nearby wine growing, but specifically because it didn’t. Paris and San Francisco will always hopelessly play favorites, but New York’s combination of money, free trade and good taste made it, on paper, a meritocracy.
Yet New York for many decades has been surprisingly provincial in its wine preferences, leaning heavily toward Bordeaux and California at the expense of all others. Even five years ago, these two regions accounted for half of all wine sales, according to Zachys, the largest, broadest store in the New York area.
What a difference, however, five years makes. Those two regions combined now top out at 31%. Spanish wines are exploding in popularity. So too are wines from the Rhône and the Languedoc, Oregon and Washington State. Calfornia’s Central Coast. Australia. New Zealand. New York City is finally falling in love with the rest of the world’s wines.
There’s a bit of chicken-and-egg playing out here. New York palates – primed by veterans like Kevin Zraly, the well-known teacher and author (see p44–46), and Josh Wesson, whose Best Cellars retail formula has made wine fun and accessible – have become more adventurous. And a new generation of wine professionals has been pushing New Yorkers in the same direction. As the world saw after the 9/11 tragedy, New York is a proudly resilient city. With sales booming after 9/11, wine is another avenue to reinvention. Here are five new faces shaking up the city’s wine business – understand them, and you’ll understand the evolution in the Big Apple.
Andrew McMurray doesn’t just love the wine business—he married it. His father-in-law, Don Zacharia, owns Zachys, the giant wine retailer located 15 miles north of New York City, in Scarsdale. From that one store, Zachys sells 1.3 million bottles of wine a year. And the prodigal son-in-law, McMurray, 35, now ultimately buys it all.
Because of its volume, Zachys sales prove excellent statistical bellwethers. Over the past five years, McMurray has seen Spanish wine sales zoom from 500 cases to 11,000. In the past year alone, Rhône cases have jumped from 2,000 to 5,500.
But McMurray’s true love is Italian wine. That was how the boss tested his new son-in-law when he joined the family firm ten years ago with little more than a stint as a wine store stock boy and an eagerness to learn. McMurray was eventually put in charge of Italy, a Zachys backwater, which represented just 5% of its volume. He began pressing to offer more high-priced offerings, particularly Super Tuscans. Zacharia was skeptical, telling his young charge that people don’t spend more than $20 on Italy. But McMurray correctly saw that Italian producers were making more approachable, food friendly wines, in a more international style, and that New Yorkers were taking notice. ‘Now we have bottles going up to $150,’ he grins, ‘and they all sell.’ In five years, Italian case sales have moved from about 3,000 to 30,000 – and now account for 28% of Zachys’ business. And McMurray has earned his promotion to head wine buyer.
His job will get a lot tougher in the coming months, however. After partnering with Christie’s for much of the 1990s, Zachys will now sponsor its own auctions beginning this autumn. ‘We have the customers to sell the wines, and the clientele who want to buy them,’ says McMurray. ‘So it’s a natural step.’
JEAN-LUC LE DU
France is the land of wine, USA the land of rock and roll. Growing up in Brittany, Jean-Luc Le Du just wanted to play guitar. In New York to pursue his dream, he instead fell for the grape. Watching the 37-year-old prowl the 63-degree cellar of Daniel, where he is the head sommelier, in tapered blue suit, designer eyeglasses and brushed steel corkscrew lapel pin, you can see elements of both passions.
Like his peers, Le Du both promotes and reflects an increasing appreciation for the wines of Spain, the Rhône and the Languedoc. He’s become a particular fan of Austrian Riesling. ‘There are great wines all over the place,’ he says. But he also has to work within some traditional confines. Daniel is, after all, the best French restaurant in a city that prides itself on such places – Champagne or Bordeaux will always remain in huge demand, and chef-owner Daniel Boulud, a native of Lyon, has always prided himself on the Burgundy selection.
So the self-taught Le Du, who cut his teeth at Bouley, brings the new New York spirit into play by prowling for hard-to-find artisan wines within the classic, old-growth areas. ‘It’s a better experience when you know the face of the people you’re working with,’ he says, holding an obscure Loire Saumur, one of the restaurant’s 1,600 selections.
For Le Du, wine pairing is like music. A meal starting with a Vouvray demi-sec and ending with a ruby Banyuls is like creating an entirely new song. He is similarly proud of the proprietary “Daniel” label wines he has created in conjunction with Boulud, including a special cuvée and a 1998 Bordeaux. Next up, of course: a Daniel Rhône. A sign of the times in the new New York.
Doug Polaner distributes wine, not spirits, but the crux of his business centres on something he calls the “soul patrol.” His philosophy when choosing a wine: does it have real character? Most wines, he feels, don’t, instead relying on fruit and oak, rather than traditional winemaking and the nature of the grapes.
Polaner, 38, rejects 95% of the wines submitted for distribution. ‘We want to focus on the unusual,’ he says. Such soulful discretion has made his Douglas Polaner Selections New York’s fastest growing wholesaler and importer. In 1999, his first year in business, Polaner sold 8,000 cases; this year, he will clear around 70,000, distributed exclusively to New York wine shops and restaurants, including Jean-Georges, Gramercy Tavern and Babbo.
As Polaner’s sales go, so go the wine list selections, and diversity is the trend. ‘Better restaurants are de-emphasising Chardonnay and Merlot, and people are responding,’ he says. Accordingly, like Zachys, as a percentage he’s moving less Bordeaux and a lot less California. Part of the reason is economic: the current slump has made New York wine drinkers more value-oriented. But the city’s palate explains still more. ‘People are more open to new tastes, new flavours, new grapes.’ That means a big boost to sales of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah.
Polaner has also been pushing Lagrein and Freisa from Italy and Grüner Veltliner from Austria. He enjoys trying to make a name for such unsung bottles. After all, he’s a former advertising executive who entered the wine world in search of a change.
His formative experience was a six-year stint at a major New York wine importer and distributor. In 1999, he broke out on his own. ‘I went as far as I could there,’ he says. ‘If I was ever going to take a risk, that was the time to do it.’
Young and bright, with the soft-brown bob and accessible manor of a breakfast show anchor, Andrea Immer looks nothing like the sommelier stereotype of a self-important middle aged man in a tuxedo. Combine the 34-year-old’s appearance with a blue-chip pedigree – three books on wine while becoming the first US woman to achieve master sommelier certification – and you have the makings of a superstar.
Immer likes where New York is heading right now. ‘Restaurants are becoming more creative and emphasising things that are new and different and better value,’ she says. Immer sees most of the attention focused on value-priced European bottles, especially from Tuscany.
European classics have always been her speciality, heeding the advice of her mentor Kevin Zraly. When she was still working at Morgan Stanley, she would sit in on Zraly’s classes in exchange for cleaning up afterwards. Zraly hired her at Windows on the World after she spent six months traveling the wine regions of Europe, and her career has emulated his: she’s gained renown as a teacher – she is now the wine pairing dean at the French Culinary Institute – and as a writer.
Her most recent book, Great Tastes Made Simple, pushes her new cause: using wine as way to make Americans treat their meals more like Europeans. ‘We over-eat and we don’t make mealtime what it could be and should be – sitting down and making eye contact with other humans. Wine really makes you stop for a second.’
Here’s a little math formula that explains what makes Tim Kopec’s job so hard. Veritas, the restaurant where Kopec is wine director, has only 58 seats. But its list boasts over 3,000 selections. Which means that each diner could personally order 50 different bottles.
‘Whatever it is,’ says Kopec, 37, ‘we have more of it, we have better, and we have the most vintages.’ Such breadth requires three inventory programmes, and encyclopaedic knowledge by Kopec, who posts the gargantuan list, probably the biggest in America, on the Internet so patrons can review it ahead of time. But it also has unique rewards: Kopec has free rein to indulge his passions. His personal favourite is Burgundy, and thus three pages are dedicated solely to Gevrey-Chambertin. He also enjoys vertical tastings: thus 35 vintages of Pétrus.
The restaurant’s co-owners have been collecting wine since the 1960s, and this forms the backbone of the list. It’s up to Kopec to add from newer, different regions.
Kopec’s parents exposed him to good food growing up, and he caught the wine bug after taking a course with his Mom. He attended the Culinary Institute of America, and from there worked as a sommelier at Montrachet. Happy there, he nonetheless recognised the opportunity that Veritas would provide. He tracked down the owners and made a direct pitch: ‘This is the place I should be.’
Randall Lane is the wine columnist for Time Out New York.
Written by RANDALL LANE