Over the last two decades, New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer has asked himself a lot of questions: "Who says you can't do fine dining in a rustic tavern?" "Why can't museum food be destination-worthy?" Meyer's success—at last count, his Union Square Hospitality Group included 10 restaurants, one catering company and over a thousand employees—is due to his ability to challenge convention when it comes to all aspects of a restaurant. This is especially true when it comes to wine-and-food pairings.
Take Tabla, Meyer's elegant Indian-inspired restaurant. "I laid out everything from my experiences with Indian restaurants," Meyer explains, "and when I realized wine wasn't a part of it, I said, 'There is an opportunity.' Just because people may be less familiar with Indian flavors doesn't mean they shouldn't enjoy wine with them." Another example is his Blue Smoke, a barbecue joint that proves wine is as well suited to ribs as sweet tea and beer. And Shake Shack, an outdoor food stand specializing in exceptionally good burgers, hot dogs, frozen custard and wine served in plastic cups.
The diversity of Meyer's restaurants means that his wine programs appear, on the surface at least, to have very little in common. "I've made a conscious choice," he explains, "to let each restaurant have its own chef, wine director, general manager—its own flavor in every respect." At all of his places, however, there's an absence of wine-geek pretense that is entirely deliberate. "I think staff education is a huge part of it," Meyer says, explaining that many of his wine directors started as cooks (Juliette Pope at Gramercy Tavern), servers (Christopher Russell at Union Square Cafe, Chris Murray at Terrace 5, Terry Coughlin at Tabla) or reservationists (Mark Maynard-Parisi at Blue Smoke) and got hooked by the company's in-house wine training.
Meyer writes in his new book, Setting the Table, that the service at each one of his restaurants—including the wine service—should leave each guest feeling like the recipient of a really great hug. "The old-school wine director tells you what you should be drinking, what you should not be drinking," he says. "But the wine director's role is primarily about hospitality. The first talent I look for in a sommelier is an emotional talent—the ability to derive joy from delivering pleasure."
There's probably a French word that describes such a person, but Meyer, never one for stuffiness or tradition, made up his own: hospitalitarian.
Carla Lalli Music, General Manager
Riesling + Hot Dog with Pickles and Relish
Philosophy "Shake Shack is about more than just burgers and fries. People love to come for a glass of wine in a beautiful setting. We're trying to offer great value and a great experience."
Creating the Wine List "We offer three whites and three reds by the glass, six to eight half bottles, a Champagne and a rosé. We thought about doing an all-American list, but an Italian wine like the Querciabella Chianti goes great with our burgers."
Pairings "A sweet, fruity Riesling is nice with the pickles and hot peppers on our Chicago dog. The whole thing is very refreshing."
Terry Coughlin, Wine Director
Zinfandel + Indian-Style Short Ribs
Philosophy "A lot of times, the first thing people think of drinking with Indian food is beer. But the food we're doing here at Tabla is definitely not classical Indian food. I like to talk about the layers of spices, the nuances of the food, and how that can relate to wine. We look for wines with nuance too."
Creating the Wine List "At Tabla, we seek out new-world wine with lots of aromatics and some elements of spice. We even have some Indian wines on our list. In the last four years, Indian wines have really improved by leaps and bounds; a property called Sula is at the forefront. It makes Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Zinfandel, Shiraz and a sparkling wine. We have two of them on the menu."
Pairings "Focus on the spices. If it's a dish with a lot of spices, I'll look for something to balance that—a white with lots of aromatic fruit notes or a red made from a big, bold grape like Zinfandel or Shiraz. We do a lobster dish with a spiced crab curry that I think is much more compatible with a light red that has nice acidity, such as Pinot Noir, than with a white wine. People often wonder, 'Why are you bringing out a red wine to pair with shellfish?' But in my opinion, the sauce is actually the main component of the dish."
Juliette Pope, Beverage Director
Grüner Veltliner + Bacon-Wrapped Chicken
Philosophy "Our emphasis is definitely France, Italy and the U.S., with close runners-up Austria and Germany. The priority is wine that tastes good."
Creating the Wine List "It was a toss-up between organizing the list by geography or by varietal. I chose the latter because I wanted to highlight some grapes that I thought deserved a bigger stage, like Nebbiolo, Grüner Veltliner and Chenin Blanc."
Pairings "I look for wines with good acidity, like Nebbiolo, because that's what really lifts up a food-and-wine combination. Acidity prevents a heavy dish from seeming so heavy, and it accentuates the light notes."
Stephane Colling, Wine Director
Riesling + Olive OilPoached Salmon
Philosophy "Shocking can be very good. We're trying to take the 'modern' theme to another level. I have no problem starting a tasting menu with red and finishing with white."
Creating the Wine List "I mainly look to Alsace. Chef Gabriel Kreuther is Alsatian, and I'm Alsatian as well. We have 250 bottles from Alsace on our list of 1,100 wines. Our clientele is very international and some of them will only drink wines from their own country. Right now I'm working with wine producers on Long Island and in Slovenia and Argentina. There's some very interesting stuff going on in Tasmania."
Pairings "Lately I've been pairing yuzu wine with desserts. It's low in alcohol and very refreshing."
Wine Service "Education is the lifeblood of the company—we help each other, we are all very hands-on. The staff tastes wine with me almost every day. Helping them to understand what wine is all about makes us all better at our jobs."
ELEVEN MADISON PARK
John Ragan, Wine Director
Chenin Blanc + Beet and Apple Salad
Philosophy "The wine is a complement to the food. Not to say that wine isn't important on its own, but we make all the choices for the wine list with food in mind. We're not interested in having a super-comprehensive list just to be able to say we do. As elementary as that sounds, it's something that gets overlooked a lot."
Creating the Wine List "We've opened up the list quite a bit from just French wines, which is where we started when we launched the restaurant in 1998. Burgundy and Alsace will always be a focus, but chef Daniel Humm's food really asks for a big selection of German wines."
Pairings "I think people are starting to understand how great German wines are with food. The excitement level is almost palpable now. When discussing German wines, people used to just say 'I don't like sweet wine.' Now they're starting to understand that a little sweetness is great when it's balanced with acidity."
Sourcing "We go through a lot of small distributors to get our wines, which is unusual. A lot of decisions in this industry are made out of convenience. But I'll go through whomever I have to go through to get the wines we want."
UNION SQUARE CAFE
Christopher Russell, General Manager
Sangiovese + Frascatelli Carbonara
Philosophy "The restaurant is an American bistro with an Italian soul. As for pairings, we have a straightforward philosophy that when it grows together, it goes together."
Creating the Wine List "Back in 2003, before I took over as general manager, the list was very global. We decided to refocus on Italy, America and France. Our list is done classically; it's very old-world. But everything old is new again."
Pairings "I had a customer recently who realized, 'Oh my God, I can have Domaine de Chevalier with a tuna sandwich!' That's what I love about Union Square Cafe. Another guy had a bacon-cheddar burger and a bottle of the 1982 Cheval Blanc—a $13 burger and a $1,400 bottle of wine. I thanked him and invited him to come back the next day."
Mark Maynard-Parisi, General Manager
Rhône Red + Hanger Steak
Philosophy "We see the wines as condiments for different types of barbecue. We used to joke that the wines were like different kinds of barbecue sauce—smoky, tangy, sweet, fruity."
Pairings "One of our barbecue sauces has 21 ingredients, and then there's the pork and the smoke the pork was cooked in, so the flavors in the food are really complex. That's why we look to wine with lots of flavors. The more layers in the wine, the greater the likelihood one of them will latch onto one of the flavors in the food."
The Artistry of Wine "One of the interesting things about wine is that—and this is something Danny has taught me—it's all about farming. The people making the wine are very humble but expert. They're artisans. And I do see a strong parallel between the artistry of winemaking and the artistry of barbecue."
Chris Murray, Beverage Director
Sherry + Maple Pecan Tart
Philosophy "We really try to focus on drinks and desserts, to stand out that way. Danny always says the goal of Terrace 5 is to refresh."
Creating the Wine List "One of the first things I did when I started was to design a half-bottle list featuring wines from New York, Oregon and California. We have many smaller groups of customers who might not want to commit to a full bottle since they'll want to spend the rest of the afternoon walking around the museum [Terrace 5 is inside the Museum of Modern Art]. We offer a Starry Night Zinfandel from California because we're literally located 40 feet from Van Gogh's The Starry Night."
Pairings "We always try to think seasonally. We offer a late-harvest Gewürztraminer that's really great with our ice creams for summer. We also have some nice port and Madeira that work well with fall and winter flavors."
Defining Success "Our challenge is to have customers leave raving about the food and wine and thinking, The art? Eh, that's okay."