Italian wine in New York long suffered a dearth of sommeliers, which is surprising given how much Italian has become the common language of New York dining. But where French and New American restaurants staffed their dining rooms with sommeliers in the late 1980s and the 1990s, the classic Italian restaurant often left the wine buying up to the owner, who might also be the chef. Or if there was a sommelier it was often an Italian expat who, perhaps understandably, eventually could not continue to resist the call of family and lure of superior pasta, and returned to Italy, taking their acquired wine knowledge with them. Occasionally a skilled American sommelier with an expertise in Italian wine would be found working the floor, such as David Lynch or Morgan Rich, but those two also left — Lynch to SF and Rich to the distribution side of the business. And so there isn't that line of New York sommeliers associated with Piedmont or Tuscany in the way that some have been known for Burgundy or the Rhone Valley.
But as American restaurateurs have increasingly opened restaurants focused on Italian cuisine, so more sommelier positions have been created to cater to wine drinkers navigating Italian lists. Joe Campanale was one example of this trend, which in recent years has only accelerated. Where are the next generation of Italian wine proponents working? Here are the places to go and the names to remember:
Jeff Kellogg, Maialino
Since arriving from the west coast in mid 2013, Jeff Kellogg has wasted no time in transforming Maialino into one of the top Italian wine destinations in the country, and the long list of old Nebbiolo that you can find there is one of the most impressive collections of that grape that you can drink from anywhere in the city. Pricing is reasonable (multiple examples of 50-year-old Barolo can be found for less than $200 each), and the wine selections perfectly wrap around the food on offer. Jeff has a light touch at the table, never trying to dominate a discussion, but carries with him informed opinions and a sure palate. Simply put, this is a place to find and drink profound wines well.
Go For: Maialino's recently launched Barolo Bar. With several options by the glass highlighting the different communes of the region, it is the best possible complement to truffle season.
[Photo courtesy of Maialino]
Grant Reynolds, Charlie Bird
The Charlie Bird wine list is an object lesson in just how few wines it really takes to make an excellent list. Imagine you were looking through a voluminous wine list, running into the dozens of pages. Now imagine that you took a pen and highlighted on that list only the wines that you really wanted to drink right now — that could be the list at Charlie Bird. That this economy yields such consistently good results is a testament to Grant Reynolds's acumen, but what he really is is a caring server. He goes the extra mile. He is there with a new fork when you have dropped yours on the floor. He makes the bottle presentation nice when it might well have been just left there. He works hard so that you can enjoy yourself. Plus he knows wine. What else really matters?
Go For: Grant Reynolds' humble and caring service style.
[Photo courtesy of Charlie Bird]
George Hock, Barchetta
George Hock is a major talent, by which I mean exactly this: When he puts a wine next to a dish they are going to sing together, and when he puts a wine on the list it generally has an extra quality to it; an X factor that might be summed up as soulful. These are the attributes of a star sommelier, but in this case the total wattage has perhaps received less glare owing to George's quiet demeanor. Not an attention seeker or an outsize personality, George diligently polished his skills before this at Scarpetta and on journeys to Italy, and by this time they are as glowing as the antique decanters that he holds over candlelight at Barchetta. Make no mistake: this is a complete pro at work, and if you haven't seen him ply his trade with the bottles, go.
Go For: George Hock has an excellent knack for picking extra special wines, and an even better knack for pairing those with food.
[Photo courtesy of Barchetta]
Jack Mason, Marta
It is hard to go to Marta without running into a local sommelier or two dining there on their night off from work, and this is because the word has started to get out about Marta's low wine markup. You can drink well at Marta for less than $40 a bottle (the Crivelli Ruche' 2011 is $37), or for less than $100 a bottle (the Quintarelli Valpolicella 1999 will run you only $95). Or, you can splash out and still get a good value, such as the Bartolo Mascarello 2000 for $198. Sometimes the prices on the list actually seem like they might be misprints, such as with the Terredora di Paolo Taurasi 2008 for $48. Jack Mason, who previously worked in Texas, could choose to frame the low pricing with basic, pizza parlor level service, but he doesn't. Instead, he seems to look for ways to add a flourish to the wine service, a kind of professionalism and attention to detail that you might not expect to find amidst the rush of a new restaurant opening or the demands of a packed room.
Go For: The pricing and selections on the Marta list make it the closest equivalent that Manhattan has yet seen to the departed ‘inoteca, which was for a great while the stand-bearer of casual Italian food and room combined with affordability and sophisticated wine options.
[Photo courtesy of Marta]
Jeff Porter, B&B Hospitality Group
Quietly, and without anyone really noticing, Jeff Porter has become likely the single most important buyer of Italian wine in the country, as he now oversees the wine programs at Batali and Bastianich group stalwarts Del Posto, Babbo, and Lupa, among others. The combined buying power is extraordinary, but Jeff Porter remains an everyman, happy to help move boxes or to craft lists that actively seek to balance the esoterica of Italy with the Tuscan and Piedmont names that people know. Jeff is the kind of person who became a sommelier because he genuinely likes to eat food and drink wine — he finds that fun — and he is a reminder that it really doesn't have to be any more difficult than that.
Go For: Have you seen the list at Lupa lately? It is larger these days, with lots and lots and lots of options, and a good example of the kind of commitment to extensive wine program.
[Photo courtesy of B & B]
[Top Photo: Marta by Daniel Krieger]