It has been a blockbuster year for the wine teams of the Union Square Hospitality Group. Back in September of 2015, the New York Times praised their "collective excellence" in wine across the different restaurants. Gramercy Tavern, Maialino, The Modern, Marta, North End Grill, Untitled at the Whitney, and Union Square Café were all noted in the piece for their wine programs. Then Food & Wine praised the same set of restaurants by awarding "Sommelier of the Year" honors to the head sommeliers at each (minus Union Square Café, which had closed). It was the first time that the honor had been given to a company wide group. There were plaudits from other publications as well, including the Wine Spectator and yours truly. But now there have been several changes within the much praised group, as multiple sommeliers have departed and others have been hired or promoted to assume those duties.
At Maialino, Jeffrey Kellogg has served out his last days and handed over the cellar keys to Jenni Guizio (formerly of Felidia and Del Posto). Kellogg had quickly taken the credible and diverse Italian-centric list he inherited and turned it into an old wine powerhouse — a wine –centric destination that became a must stop for wine savvy visitors to New York. Kellogg focused on back vintages of benchmark Italian wines, especially Barolo and Barbaresco, and offered those for inexpensive markups. He also allotted extensive space in the cellar (which seemed to always be adding shelves) to Champagne and an assortment of Italian amari. The response from the wine crowd was almost immediate, and Maialino became a regular watering hole for those who wanted to explore back vintages. Guizio, who has extensive experience with Italian wine and who took over as the head sommelier at Maialino late last month, is particularly well-suited to take over a buying position that demands familiarity with both ancient vintages of the classics as well as knowledge of the little known grape varieties of the Italian firmament. Kellogg is back in San Francisco, where he worked previously, to head up the wine side of a restaurant group there.
Jack Mason of Marta did the impossible and studied well enough for the difficult Master Sommelier exam that he passed it while simultaneously handling a much scrutinized restaurant opening in a major media market. Attempting that combination is exactly the opposite of what anyone in the industry would advise trying to pull off, simply because of the sheer stress of it all, but Mason managed the trick. He will soon head back to Texas, where he is from, to helm the wine side of a steakhouse operation. Taking over his role at Marta will be Katie Morton, who was for a long time Jeff Kellogg’s chief lieutenant at Maialino. She has moved a few blocks over to work with Mason until he leaves later this month.
When Juliette Pope departed Gramercy Tavern back in June there was a great deal of speculation as to who would assume her duties there. Pope was a well-loved legend who nonetheless shunned the limelight, and was considered a tough act to follow. While she has moved into the distribution and wholesale side of the business, sommelier Justin Timsit has in the last few days moved into her old office. Timsit was an unlikely choice, a little known talent who had been working in Philadelphia, and still early in his career. Whereas Pope really declined to think of herself as a sommelier, and really fell into a job that she ended up excelling at for years, Timsit is more in the contemporary mold of the highly driven sommelier focused on the long term. Undoubtedly, this next year will be one of the most important of his career.
Jason Wagner, formerly of Fung Tu, will be heading up the wine side of Union Square Café when it reopens. Wagner is well versed in the unusual as well as the classics, and the USHG team is promising a list that continues their emphasis on seeking out drinking values instead of hipster cred. Expect wines from benchmark appellations that may have been a little neglected around town in recent years. Meanwhile, Eduardo Porto Carreiro continues to fine tune the seasonal selections at Untitled at the Whitney, Mia Van De Water is continually adding to her selection of back vintage California Cabernet at North End Grill, and Michael Engelmann is building on his extensive program at the recently reopened The Modern, where he has made something of a specialty of wines from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.