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Linda Milagros Violago on the Wine Program at Contra

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She worked at Trotter's during what might have been the high point of that restaurant's fame. She revamped the wine list at Mugaritz. There have been stints in Australia, in Denmark, in Japan. Now Linda Milagros Violago is in New York City, and busy with the opening of Contra, the upcoming Orchard Street venue inspired by the neo-bistros of Paris. What kind of wine program is she envisioning for the restaurant? Eater caught up with Linda to find out.

How did you meet Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske of Contra?
I'll be honest. We met on Facebook. Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske are the owners and they're mates. They've known each other since culinary school. And they're both quite young. They've both worked in Europe. Fabian has traveled and worked in some of the same countries that I have, although we never coincided in the same countries at the same time. And Jeremiah spent some time in Paris, working in a place called Rino and there's this guy, whose name I won't say, but he's a very regular guest at pretty much all the restaurants in Europe at a certain level or a certain style (i.e. not classic in style). And I'll call him my matchmaker because he put me in contact with Geranium where I was just working in Denmark and In De Wulf where I was working in Belgium and he spoke with Jeremiah and said something about me. After Jeremiah left Paris he and Fabian found themselves together in New York again and decided they wanted to do a project.

At first it started as a joke — Jeremiah reached out to me and we started talking about food and wine. Maybe I could help out with their program? And that ended up becoming a reality. At some point, I don't know, maybe 18 months ago, we were all in Paris at the same time and met at this café. And we probably talked about the potential project for maybe five minutes. It just felt right and we just ended up getting along and talking for another hour about other stuff. I never had to ask them about the food. I never had to ask them about anything. We just seemed to be speaking the same language and we got along immediately. That's it. That's how we met.

You were working on the wine list for the Charlie Trotter restaurant in the Time Warner Center that never opened, and that's the other time you've done a list for New York. In the years since, you've worked around the world, but not in New York. What's your perspective on building a list in New York? What was it like for you?
Well, when that was happening, so that was maybe 2005, when I started coming back and forth to New York, I met a lot of the sales reps, I went to a lot of the big tastings. I worked La Paulee a couple of times. I did a James Beard dinner. So I was lucky enough to get to know a number of people: sommeliers or importers or reps and all these very good acquaintances in the wine community here. While living in Europe I would keep coming back every once in a while and just visit because it's a good city to visit. Coming back here, in some respects, almost felt like coming home because I'd been here enough that I could get around the city a little bit, I knew some of the wine people that were still here. Maybe they'd moved around, but they were still here, and I still have some friends here. In one respect it was like coming home. I was just like, "Now I can see your wine list again and now maybe I can buy your wines, finally." On the other hand, there are some new players in the game that I didn't know and I'm getting to know that. But, for me, that's no different than when I drop myself into another city and have to get to know the wine situation there.

It seems that the price point of Contra is set a bit lower than Trotter's or the restaurants you were working with in Europe.
That's right. From everywhere that I've worked previously, probably. There will be a prix fixe menu that will change every day at Contra. That's five courses for $55. And they're working with small producers, small farmers that work very respectfully. They'll be using local products for the menu. So it didn't make sense for me to do expensive classics for the wine list. And so I'm working with small producers again. They work respectfully in the vineyards and in the winery. We've got a fun little wine program going on. The wines that I'm working with now aren't too different than the wines I was working with most recently in Denmark. Actually, some of them are the exact same wines. I just had a very high mark up out in Denmark.

You have mentioned that there will be frequent changes to the wine by the glass lineup?
We're going to have two wines of the wines offered by the glass that will change every day, that's right.

And what does that bring to the experience? What is your rationale for why that's good?
Well part of it is that the menu is changing every day. Not every course will change every day, but there will be a big enough change that it makes sense for me to change a wine or two that would follow along with the menu if a guest wanted to go in that direction. I've always liked to, instead of working with a set wine pairing, just play it up with the guest and see what the guest wants and follow what they feel like having with the meal. And it's just more fun for me and for them, I think, if we can change things up and have a lot of different options.

How many wines will be on the list?
Well, we started quite small. I think we're going to work up to 150, maybe 200 selections.

And then how many of those are by the glass?
We are building a list where most of the wines that are available by the bottle will eventually be available by the glass, to give you an idea about the pricing of the list. How I'm planning it, for example, is for my first week I have 10 different wines by the glass. So five days, five services. That's two glasses of wine per day that are new. Those are 10 new wines at the end of the week that are then on the list, or that might already be on the list but are now represented by the glass.

So it won't be a huge list, in terms of the by the glass selection?
No, no, no. No Coravin here.

What are your thoughts on the Coravin?
You know, I've not yet had a chance to try a wine from the Coravin so I don't know what that's like. But I personally think that it's a fun idea. You know you don't have any waste, but on the other hand I think it just opens up a whole new opportunity for better counterfeit bottles and I'm surprised no one's really discussed that.

While you were working in Spain, you developed a list with an emphasis on natural wines. How did that come about? Will you have a similar emphasis here?
Well it happened when I was in Spain. I was working at a restaurant called Mugaritz. It was a very special place and the way that Andoni had and continues to prepare his menus and his food is that he works with small farmers. Local, local, local. And his food is more than just local and organic, it's very, very delicate. He's known for not using any seasoning and so these are very delicate, pure flavors that we are dealing with. Nothing is a very big flavor. There's no big sugars. There's no big salt. There's no big acid or anything. So, for me, it didn't make sense to follow the trend with all of the big, new, modern, oaky, extracted wines. I didn't like that style and I didn't like how it went with the food. It just didn't go with the food.

I knew that I had to keep some of those wines for some of the guests, of course, but from there began my search for natural wine. Coincidentally, I'd always also known Jenny Lefcourt from Jenny & Francois. I'd met her while I was still working in Chicago. And so I knew about these wines and we'd stayed in touch and met in Paris a couple of times after that. While I was in Spain, at some point I'd taken a trip up to Paris and Jenny was there and Pascaline Lepeltier was there at the same time. And that's how I met Pascaline. I spent a little bit of time with her and it inspired me. I visited her restaurant, the Rouge Tomate in Belgium, and I saw what she could do with these kinds of wines and it was a lot of fun. That gave me a lot of hope and inspiration. But then after that I was working mostly in Scandinavia after I left Spain or in Belgium or in restaurants that wanted to focus on these kinds of wines. So it was very easy for me after that.

What kind of dishes are coming out of the kitchen for Contra? What is your game plan for pairing?
I don't have a game plan. I never have a game plan.

When you say to me that at Mugaritz the food didn't have big flavors and you didn't want to have big, oaked wines as a result, what are your thoughts on the food at Contra?
Jeremiah and Fabian's food will not necessarily be so austere in flavor. They will be some simplicity, certainly. There might be a piece of protein, let's say fish, and maybe two or three other ingredients. So I will want to play off whatever the main ingredient is, the fish. We'll never know. I can't really think about it as we don't have a menu for the opening because we don't know when we are going to open. I've seen some of the food and I like how it works. I've done almost all of the pairings for all of the pop ups that they've done - they've probably done six or more - without having tasted the food and I've been told that they work ok so I'm just going to run with it.

And are you thinking that you'll be pairing individual wines for each course or will you mostly be selling bottles that can go with the whole menu?
A little bit of everything.

In the past you have worked at places that really emphasized pairings.
Well, that's right. In Denmark there were nights when I had 100 percent wine pairings. 45 guests, 12 courses, you can do the math. It wasn't interesting for me and I'm not sure that it was completely interesting for the guest. It certainly wasn't that interesting for the staff to do 45 guests with 12 glasses each. That's insane. But I want to change it up. I'm happy to do wine pairings. I'm happy to do by the glass. I'm happy to do it all. I'm ready. I've worked one service since May 13th so I'm ready to do whatever I need to do now.

You're going to be working the floor?
Oh yeah, I will be working the floor. That's part of the shtick. I don't ever get onto a project and not work the floor. I need to work the floor.

And you have a six month agreement with Contra?
Well, we're just going to leave it open for now. Let's just leave it that way.

You have worked in the States before. You worked in Chicago. You were in New York for a bit. You were in San Francisco for a bit. How do you think the dining tastes have evolved in terms of wine, food, or style of restaurant since the late '90s?
Well, from a consumer point of view I think we've got really savvy, savvy, educated guests now that we didn't have maybe 10 years ago at all levels of dining, I think. But I also see worldwide, and it's not just America, that people aren't spending like they used to. So even if I was working at a restaurant with all the classics, I definitely wouldn't be selling the wines that I was selling 10 years ago. I'm okay with that.

[Jeremiah Stone and Fabian Von Hauske by Krieger]
You've worked with some of the great, well-known, big name chefs. How do you view these younger chefs that you are working with, in comparison?
I think it's different. I'll speak for the last few chefs that I worked with, as well as Jeremiah and Fabian. I can lump them all into the same category: they're young, they're enthusiastic, they're still hungry to learn more, they're very, very open minded which may or may not have been the case in the past, but they're also very interested in the wine and the service aspect of what's going on in their restaurants as opposed to some places that I've worked. Jeremiah, for example: I was here in April to meet with a lot of the wine distributors and taste. I think I had 20 appointments in one week and Jeremiah was with me for almost every one of them. And he continues to taste with me now. And I think that's great because he's got the perspective on the food. We agreed on pretty much everything we tasted. It's great to have that perspective beside me, that chef beside me tasting.

And what about the staff? Are you thinking you're going to train them up and have them help with the wine service? Are they with you in tastings all the time as well?
We had a difficult time looking for staff, which is normal, I reckon. And then there was a little glut and we were mentioned in Eater and we were mentioned in Time Out and my podcast interview with you actually came out at the same time. And after that we got a couple of really interesting résumés. So our staff is good at the moment, both front and back of the house. I do plan on doing a lot of training. We've already done a wine tasting session with the front of the house staff. I'm all for it. So we're going to be doing a lot of that. And because we have daily changes we'll be tasting every day and we will also be tasting bottles that we probably won't be serving by the glass. There will be a lot of tasting.

And what do you think about the difference between some of the younger people who are interested in being a sommelier today and younger people who would have been interested in being a sommelier in the late 1990s when you began? Do you see any changes? Are they same person? Are they different?
I am surprised that the people that I've spoken to lately, and I'm talking about the young people that purportedly have an interest in wine, and now have access to the internet, which I didn't really have back in the late '90s and early 2000s, that there isn't the eagerness and hunger for knowledge that I had expected them to have. I mean if I was just getting into wine right now, I'd probably be on the internet all day. I already am. I'm actually using it for work. But some of the candidates that we interviewed, it got to the point where I would just ask everybody, "Do you know where Sancerre is?" and a lot of the candidates didn't know and I was really surprised because they would come to us saying, "I've got some good basic knowledge. I'm really interested in learning about wine." I was a little disappointed in that. But then there is the other side where someone's taken a course. Everyone's taking the same course and now everyone thinks — they're 25 years old, they're taking this course, they've got this piece of paper, whatever piece of paper it might be, and all of a sudden they get the job and run a big program at a big restaurant and people forget that they need to still start at the beginning and learn. It's not going to happen overnight to be a really good sommelier, I don't think.

You have one of the more interesting careers in the business that I'm aware of. There are people out there that have had amazing careers as well of course, but yours has been pretty awesome, at least from my perspective, from the outside. So what would you say to someone that wanted to have a successful career, building off of what you just said? What would you say to a young sommelier?
Keep tasting. Always take notes and keep studying. And don't be afraid to get your hands dirty, whether it's in service or whether it's in a vineyard.

And at what point is this a pursuit or a profession that is physically intensive enough that there is an age cutoff? Is there an age cutoff?
I'm not the person to ask. Maybe you should ask Roger Dagorn. I was at 15 East and he was still working the floor. I love that. I don't know. I mean, for me, if I didn't have yoga I might not be working service, but also at Charlie Trotter's we had three flights of stairs and those I don't have to run up and down anymore. I don't know if I could do that. But I don't think there's a cutoff. I don't think it's about age, physical age, if you're healthy. I think it's all about mental age and youthful spirit and enthusiasm that will carry you. Absolutely that's important. I've been talking about trying to retire for ages, for years, since I was in Spain I've been joking that I needed to find a backup plan. But, first of all, I don't know what my backup plan is so I'm going to continue working service. More importantly, there might be one night in six months where I just had an amazing service. Where I had a whole lot of fun and I sold a lot interesting wine or I had some great interactions with guests and that's it. That will keep me going for another six months. Absolutely. And then I see the younger people. I see people like Pascaline that are doing so well. Having so much fun. I'm living vicariously through people like that. It's inspiring. It pushes me to want to keep studying and working.

What is a great wine for you?
A great wine for me is something that I can keep talking about and, more importantly, is something that the guest can keep talking about. It doesn't have to be in abstract terms. It doesn't have to be anything fancy like a DRC, or an old Bordeaux like it used to be for me, the big wines. But it has to be something that's provocative. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's good, right? That sounds like I'm happy to serve someone crap or something they don't like. Not true. But I hope that it's a discovery, whatever the wine is. That means that I've sparked something.

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