The last time I talked to Stanley Tucci, he was going to see a man about a horse, literally. It was the final night of shooting the first season of a new public television show about wine, Vine Talk, for which Tucci is the host and I, to my own continuing surprise, am the resident wine expert. We were standing in the green room—the place where actors and wine editors pretending to be TV hosts hang out when not on camera—winding down after the shoot. Tucci was off to England from New York City in a couple of days; he'd just accepted a role in a big-budget adaptation of the Jack and the beanstalk fable, of all things, to be directed by Bryan Singer, who made The Usual Suspects and the first couple of X-Men movies. "I have to go pick up my trusty steed," he told me.
"They're giving you a trusty steed? That's excellent," I said. And here I'd always thought my job was an enviable one.
We were both holding glasses of wine, which is the sort of thing one does after finishing up a wine-show shoot, and more to the point, it was a wine we both liked: a crisp, citrusy Tuscan Vermentino from a producer named Bibi Graetz. Ironically, we'd started the season drinking fairly abysmal green-room wines, and replacing them with choices like the Vermentino had taken some doing. But Tucci and I decided that it was essential. If you're shooting a wine show, especially one in which guest chefs like Daniel Boulud provide snacks for celebrity guests like Nora Ephron, then everybody in the green room—the guests, their publicists and friends, and just about anyone else hanging out backstage—will want a little wine. Just to sip, in a convivial way. And they will certainly expect that wine to be good.
But when we shot our first episode, back in December, the wine that appeared in the green room—no one, not even the producers, was quite sure where it came from—was not particularly good. In fact, Tucci, who is rarely without opinions, took one sip and made a face that expressed something between skepticism and complete alarm. I took a sip, too. The wine was an Italian Pinot Grigio I'd never heard of. Now, Pinot Grigio, if it has any flaw, is usually said to be characterless. But this had character: It was bad. Tucci said, and rightly so, "We ought to do something about this wine."
So that was the task that brought the two of us to the restaurant Ai Fiori on an afternoon in January, for a quick lunch (Tucci needed to get back to his computer to finish up work on a script he was planning to direct), accompanied by 12 bottles of wine. They were all fairly inexpensive wines: Vine Talk is on public television, after all, and public TV budgets aren't exactly extravagant. At $15 or less per bottle, these were wines anyone could afford—not just movie stars, but the people who like to watch them, too.
We needed to pick a red and a white, so I brought a selection from a few good wine shops and also pulled a couple of wines from the Ai Fiori list. Though the restaurant is pricey, its beverage director, Hristo Zisovski, has a knack for unearthing remarkable values that pair extremely well with chef Michael White's Italo-French-Mediterranean menu.
Then Tucci and I tasted, talked and ate, which meant that what we were doing was pretty similar to Vine Talk itself. On the show, Tucci, a chef and two or three guests do a blind tasting of six wines. While they taste, they talk—about the wines, about food, about anything, really. It's a little as if we decided to throw a dinner party and thought it would be fun to film the whole thing while we were at it.
Julianne Moore, for instance, mentioned all the terrific red wines in her Oscar-nominated movie The Kids Are All Right but confided that personally she drinks only white; luckily for us, the producers had scheduled her on a white wine show. Zachary Quinto, the up-and-coming young actor who played Spock in the recent JJ Abrams reboot of Star Trek, talked about being in the Broadway revival of Angels in America, partly because he didn't want to talk about being Spock. (Possibly he'd taken a cue from the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, who was driven in the 1970s to write an entire book entitled I Am Not Spock.) Nathan Lane, who is essentially a human machine gun of one-liners, compared one unfortunate wine's aroma to the smell of a gay bathhouse in the '80s—though I have an odd feeling that line might get cut.
At the end of every show, Tucci and the guests and chef choose a group favorite. Somehow he manages to orchestrate this each time, which is sort of a miracle, since getting two or three tipsy actors and an equally tipsy chef to agree on anything is a little like restaging the Yalta Conference—but with better snacks.
At Ai Fiori, though, Tucci and I were the only ones who needed to reach a consensus on green-room wines. The first bottle we opened proved a winner: the 2009 Jean-Marc Brocard Kimméridgien Bourgogne Chardonnay, a wine that's effectively a Chablis, though from just outside the border of the Chablis appellation (and hence a great value). "I love Chablis," Tucci said, taking a sip. "You're just enabling me." Admittedly, this wine was a bit of a cheat on my part. If there's one thing I learned while doing the show, it was that Stanley Tucci does not like big, oaky, butterball Chardonnays. But that makes sense. He's a gifted home cook, tending toward rustic Italian dishes like branzino roasted with thyme, garlic and rosemary, or rabbit stuffed with fennel, prosciutto and salami ("Rabbit is such an underused meat," he told me), and so he tends to think of wine in terms of the food that will go well with it. And the truth is that sumo-wrestler-style Chardonnays go well with just about nothing.
Next, I poured a 2008 Alsace Pinot Blanc from a biodynamic producer, the Jean Ginglinger Cuvée George. Because Pinot Blanc is less well regarded in Alsace than Riesling, it's slightly lower in price, though the wines are often equally good. "There's a nice density to that," Tucci said. The wine also went well with White's tender roasted cod with clams and watercress pesto. So did the brighter, more citrusy Bibi Graetz Bianco di Casamatta, a Tuscan choice. The name translates as "white wine from the crazy house," more or less—what you get when the young winemaker is also a somewhat off-the-wall visual artist.
We moved on to red wines and to White's veal agnolotti, which he serves over a pool of something brown with black flecks. "What's that?" Tucci asked. It was a red wine and black truffle ragù, the server replied. "Sounds terrible!" Tucci said. He was clearly joking, but the server did look a little disconcerted.
For the reds, I had kept to the warm Mediterranean rim—Sicily, Sardinia, Jumilla in Spain, southern France—since Tucci's tastes run toward big, rich bottlings. One clear winner was the 2008 Argiolas Perdera from Sardinia, a cherry-scented red wine made from Monica, one of the island's local grape varieties. "Sardinia in a glass," Tucci remarked after tasting it. Mariano Murru, Argiolas's longtime winemaker, would have been happy to hear that, I thought. Argiolas is probably Sardinia's most famous winery, and it makes impressive wines at pretty much every price level.
"And they try to make the label look like Solaia, so you think you're getting Solaia for 15 bucks," Tucci added, amused. Solaia, one of the top Super-Tuscan wines, runs roughly $300 a bottle. I suspect Murru might have been less thrilled to hear that, but hey, life is tough.
We went on tasting and talking and eating, but at the end I realized we'd missed one wine—we were having too good a time, and there were too many bottles to keep track of. "We forgot the Michele Chiarlo," I said. "The Barbera. Here." Chiarlo is a renowned producer whose Barolos sell for $75 or more, but its basic Barbera, Le Orme, is typically a terrific bargain.
Tucci regarded this last glass of wine. "Jesus Christ," he said. "I have to try to write after this. And then do a wine show." But after taking a sip, he added, "You know, you could drink this with that rabbit dish I make. Really nicely."
Stanley Tucci & Ray Isle's 5 Top Wine Buys
Stanley Tucci and I tasted 12 different wines at our lunch, most of which I found at New York City wine shops for under $15 retail. Below are our five top picks.
2009 Bibi Graetz Bianco di Casamatta ($11)
The winemaker and talented Tuscan artist Bibi Graetz produces a wide range of wines, among them this vibrant, citrusy Vermentino.
2008 Argiolas Perdera ($12)
Monica, the grape in this juicy red, came to Sardinia with either the Spanish or the Saracens—historians are still arguing the matter centuries later.
2008 Michele Chiarlo Le Orme Barbera d'Asti ($12)
Italy's Chiarlo is known for its great Barolos, but those wines are quite pricey. Its aromatic, berry-rich Barbera d'Asti, however, is a steal.
2008 Jean Ginglinger Cuvée George Pinot Blanc ($13)
Ginglinger has been making wine in the French town of Pfaffenheim since the 1600s. That experience shows in this full-bodied yet fragrant white.
2009 Jean-Marc Brocard Kimméridgien Bourgogne Chardonnay en Sol ($14)
Though this crisp white isn't labeled Chablis (a prestigious designation that ups a wine's price), it's grown in the Chablis region's distinctive clay-chalk soil. Kimméridgien refers to the era when the soil was formed, when brachiosaurs roamed the area, not winemakers.
Video: Wine Tips with Stanley Tucci and Ray Isle
Best Wine Pairing Experience: Stanley Tucci talks about his best wine-pairing experience ever.
Favorite Family Dishes: Tucci reveals his favorite dishes to cook at home for his family.
Favorite Wines: Tucci describes his most-loved wines, from Argentinian to French.
Favorite Supermarket: Tucci explains why Stop & Shop is his go-to supemarket.