Special Wine Feature
Photography by
Noah Fecks
New York’s renowned chefs get lots of attention, but at the city’s most lauded restaurants, a new group of accessible sommeliers is leading diners to unexpected, but highly enjoyable, wines.

Here, they tell us what they’re excited about for 2017, and how they can help diners navigate the city’s best wine lists. Everything you need to know about wine from those in the know.

Aldo Sohm

Aldo Sohm, Wine Director, Le Bernardin, 155 W. 51st St., 212.554.1515; Partner/Wine Director, Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, 151 W. 51st St., 212.554.1143

Q: How do you take away the intimidation that some people feel when ordering from a wine list?

A: I love this situation because I love to work with people. Let’s not forget: We all started with zero knowledge, and we know how intimidating it can be. The first thing I try to do is to make the customer comfortable before discussing the wine itself, in a playful way. I usually ask what wines do you enjoy? Lighter, fuller, reds, whites? Even if they say big Cabernets, which are a bit difficult to pair with the food at Le Bernardin, we find options.

Q: Le Bernardin is known for its fine fish and seafood. What are the challenges to pairing wine with this cuisine?

A: It’s simple, but not so simple: If the preparation is poached, I’ll stay closer to white. If it’s grilled, I may have room for red wine and, of course, it depends on the sauce. If the sauce has a red wine base, I have room for red wine. I can’t do a Cabernet Sauvignon from California with 16-percent alcohol, but I can do a Pinot.

Rules are really just guidelines, and should sometimes be broken. In Italy, if you have grilled chicken breast and a bit of tomato sauce, you’ll get red wine, and it’s delicious. If you go to southern France, they’ll serve chilled red wine with grilled fish, and it’s delicious.

Q: What about wine by the glass?

A: If you’re two people with a four-course meal to finish, a bottle is not very difficult, so typically I’d always order a bottle. That said: If you order a bottle and find the wine’s too fruity, too dry or too tannic, we want to know. The sommelier wants you always to have the best possible wine in a comfortable price range for you. We’re here to make you want to come back, have a great time and build a relationship.

Q: What’s the etiquette when establishing a comfortable price range?

A: If you have the wine list and the sommelier approaches you, give a price span, so they see your budget. If you don’t want to say it out loud, you can point to two wines, and then the sommelier knows immediately what to suggest. It’s a clear signal without letting your dining partner know your budget.

Q: Which regions and varietals are popular right now?

A: France is a big area for us. We sell a lot of Champagne because it works especially well [with our dishes]: Burgundy is also very big for us.

Strangely enough, we sell a lot of Austrian wine: I think, because I’m Austrian, people think I know a thing or two about it. It’s such a great time for wine drinking, because people are reading and taking classes and are excited by it.

Q: You mentioned Austrian wines. Tell me more.

A: Austrian wines are clean, dry and different from German wines. They are very food-friendly and go great with raw seafood. People hear Riesling and think of sweetness, but the majority of Prosecco has more sugar than Riesling. It’s more perception than reality. With Riesling, the sweetness is only on the tip of the tongue.

I like Grüner Veltliner, the signature varietal of Austria, paired with Tasmanian sea trout. It’s perfect. On our tasting menu, we pair a seafood pasta with a glass of 100-percent Austrian Chardonnay. It’s rich, powerful and fresh.

Q: What should you know before going to dine at a restaurant with an impressive wine list?

A: Of course, you can go online and do research, or we can even send our list to you, but the bottom line is you don’t know the dishes like the sommeliers do. If you come here, we really care about what we do and that you have a great experience. Our only goal is to serve and that you have a great time. I might recommend guests ask for a pairing, which is a great way to learn about wine in a very playful way.

Q: Are there any misconceptions about sommeliers that you’d like to dispel?

A: When you look at the wine scene over the last five years in New York, it’s pretty impressive. The younger sommeliers are so passionate. I’m 45 years old and one of the dinosaurs here. When I started out, we were able to taste all the big Burgundies and all the big Bordeaux, because they were affordable. The younger sommeliers have different angles because they weren’t able to taste all of those things anymore. To have that diversity in flavors and tastes is great and a very important thing.

Q: Do you use a sommelier yourself?

A: When I go out, I often put myself in the hands of the sommelier. That’s how I learn. If I am somewhere with a very big wine list, I don’t want to take the time to go through it because I see my partner so rarely anyway and I don’t want to waste time reading. I usually will say to the sommelier, “This is my budget. Don’t kill me. I just want to have a good time.”

Francesco Grosso

Francesco Grosso, Beverage Director, Marea 240 Central Park So., 212.582.5100

Q: How would you respond to a diner seeking basic advice about choosing wine with his or her meal?

A: Our wine list is updated every day online: That’s a good tool to use. People will sometimes call in advance for advice. We have three sommeliers on the floor for dinner and one or two for every lunch service, so we can speak with every guest who would like us to. It’s important to be honest about what’s most important to you in terms of wine. Do you have such strong tastes that you want [a bottle of] Cabernet Sauvignon no matter what you’re eating, or do you want us to help you match the wine that best goes with the food?

Q: What are your thoughts on red for meats and whites for fish and chicken?

A: I think Dover sole and white Burgundy are perfect together, but white wine with pasta and fish is an antiquated idea. We also serve a lot of seafood-friendly reds. They’re mineral-driven, higher acid wines like Etna Rosso from Sicily and Rossese di Dolceacqua from Liguria.

Q: Marea has an impressive list of Italian wines. Are diners appreciating Italian wines more?

A: We get calls for obscure Italian varietals all the time. Recently, we had a well-known musician ask for a white varietal from the Marche called Pecorino. Usually, when I hear “pecorino,” I think of cheese: Luckily, we had a bottle, so I didn’t look stupid at the table.

Q: Any up-and-coming wine regions?

A: Etna, Sicily, one of the fastest-growing regions in Europe. For a white varietal, I love Carricante, an indigenous white grape. Etna Bianco di Se, which we also sell by the glass, is an unusual blend of Carricante, Catarratto and Minnella grapes. For reds, I love Nerello Mascalese and another appellation called Faro.

Arvid Rosengren

Arvid Rosengren, Wine Director, Charlie Bird restaurant 5 King St., 212.235.7133

Q: Some people enjoy wine, but don’t know much about it and get overwhelmed by a huge wine list.

A: We’re seeing a movement now for restaurants doing smaller wine lists that are equally good. We have about 145 wines on the list at Charlie Bird, and I’d like to think it’s all wines people want to drink. For novice wine drinkers, I recommend the website eater.com, and an app called pickabottle, that digests wine lists at restaurants in New York City.

Q: How should diners communicate their budget to a sommelier?

A: Simply say what you want to spend. I love when young people come in and they say, “we really like wine but we can only spend $45.” If someone tells me that, I’m likely going to find them something really great and only charge them $45, even if it’s a more expensive bottle.

Q: Are the rules—red is for meats, white is for fish, pasta and poultry—still applicable?

A: I think less in terms of color and more in terms of weight and structure of a wine. You can have a big, bold white that will go with lamb or stew, but you don’t want to pair a heavy red with oysters. I’d err on lighter wines with heavier food than the opposite.

Q: Any regions particularly fashionable right now?

A: The trend at the moment is for lower alcohol, more elegant wines. People want that as opposed to the big, powerful wines from the late 1990s and early 2000s, when California, Bordeaux and the Barossa Valley were gaining huge scores from critics. We’re back to more viable wines with higher acidity, less heaviness. Burgundy, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir-based wines, and their counterparts in America or New Zealand, are all popular now, as are Champagne and Bordeaux.

Justin Timsit

Justin Timsit, Wine Director, Gramercy Tavern 42 E. 20th St., 212.477.0777

Q: How do you suggest customers approach sommeliers?

A: I would say the best thing for people to do is to know that there’s someone here to help them find what they like. The spirit of our restaurant is that people feel extremely comfortable and not alienated by the wine list. Find a budget you’re comfortable with and ask for assistance if you need it. The sommeliers and all of our wine captains are all trained to help with that. I’ll ask two or three questions and then deliver what you like.

Q: How about people not wanting to name a price in front of their dining companions?

A: I’d typically ask a guest if there’s a wine he or she drinks frequently. If they say, “Armand Rousseau Chambertin 2005,” I know price is not necessarily an issue. If they say, “I had an interesting wine from Oregon, I think Pinot Noir,” that will signal to me that maybe they’re still learning about wine. I can use that to understand what they’re asking for. There’s also a way to do that visually, where when you’re showing the guest a wine list you’re drawing their eyes to the price column and you can from there, without announcing it, follow their eyes and see what makes them comfortable.

Q: Whites for fish and poultry, reds for beef: still applicable?

A: It’s like saying don’t wear white after Labor Day. Those “rules” are only meant to be only guidelines. Sometimes red wine with fish can be an interesting pairing, depending on the style of the dish and the structure of the wine. Red wines can be lighter than whites, and pairing a white wine with a heavy protein like lamb is perfectly acceptable. I’ve also had scallop crudo with Beaujolais.

Q: What changes are you seeing in how your clients drink wine?

A: I think now more than ever people want to know what’s in their wine, how it’s made and where it’s coming from. People are also looking for value. The Jura is an amazing region for great value, especially if you drink Burgundy. Beaujolais is another one, probably one of the greatest price-to-value ratios that exists in wine.

Q: What’s the most interesting wine question you’ve been asked?

A: I had a new guest ask for an all-biodynamic wine pairing. I didn’t understand why, and she said she thought non-biodynamic wines give you headaches. I don’t know how true that is, but I wasn’t going to try and dissuade her if it made her happy. We put together a biodynamic tasting, and we explained the story behind every bottle. That was her first time at Gramercy Tavern, and, since then, she and her husband have been back on a regular basis.