An Italian Wine-Pairing Summit
Choosing wine pairings for Italian chicken recipes. Photo © Michael Turek
There are few people who know more about grand cru Burgundy than Robert Bohr. But what does a self-professed wine snob do when the wine list at his new restaurant, Charlie Bird, will focus on affordable Italian bottles? His answer: Hold an emergency wine summit. And make sure to invite his wife.
That’s because Bohr’s wife, Jordan Salcito, is also a sommelier (she’s the wine director for David Chang’s Momofuku group). What’s more, she’s the proprietor of Bellus wines, which emphasizes great, inexpensive bottlings from France and Italy. Salcito’s taste is less rigorously high-end than that of her husband, who has worked almost exclusively at places known for serious, rarefied wine lists, among them New York City’s Daniel, Babbo and the now-shuttered Cru. Though Bohr courted Salcito with his Burgundies, the truth is that she’s more likely to open an offbeat, organic white from Italy’s Lazio region, for instance, from a vineyard owned by Cistercian nuns.
Bohr knew he needed a strong selection of wines in the $50 and under zone for Charlie Bird, which is one of New York’s most anticipated openings. Bohr’s partner is celebrated chef Ryan Hardy, formerly of Aspen, Colorado’s Montagna at The Little Nell hotel. Hardy’s style of cooking is Italian, with a strong local and seasonal bent. Incorporating local produce is his forte—in 2007, for instance, when he couldn’t find good arugula and artichokes in Aspen, he launched the 27-acre Rendezvous Farm, and grew his own.
Recently one afternoon, Bohr, Salcito and Hardy holed up at a friend’s fabulous, art-filled apartment overlooking the East River. They wouldn’t leave until they had found a few wines that would pair perfectly with one of Hardy’s main courses: a crispy roast chicken served with a Tuscan fennel-escarole bread salad and braised peas and prosciutto. Then, once the tasting was done, there would be a dinner for their friends and investors. Another backer, former Island Def Jam CEO and hip-hop visionary Lyor Cohen, says, “I typically don’t think investing in restaurants is a rational, prudent thing. But investing with Robert is something I feel honored and privileged to do.” (Bohr, it should be noted, is a hip-hop fanatic.)
Hardy plated the chicken, and the two sommeliers started pulling corks. The first contender was a Sicilian white from Marco de Bartoli, made from the little-known Zibibbo grape, which usually goes into dessert wines. The two wine experts sniffed, swirled, tasted—and promptly disagreed with each other. Salcito felt the wine had the kind of brightness you might find in a good New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Bohr, on the other hand, was less impressed. “I find it a little shrill,” he said with a shrug. “I like a little acidity, but I just want more balance.” Salcito shot back, “I like balance, too, and I define it differently.” It was clear that they enjoyed this sort of sparring.
Hardy sneaked some sautéed chicken liver into the bread salad, adding richness and funk; that added another consideration for the pairings. “There’s a lovely sweetness in the juiciness of this chicken,” Salcito said. “Ryan, what is that?” Hardy leaned over and said, sotto voce, “Antibiotics,” cracking everyone up.
Some wines had been included in the tasting simply because they were delicious on their own, like a juicy 2008 Vino Nobile di Montalcino from Poderi Sanguineto. But in the end, Bohr felt that many of these choices just weren’t interesting with the chicken. The ones that did work were more like up-and-coming Sicilian winemaker Arianna Occhipinti’s slightly wild, herbal blend of Nero D’Avola and Frappato, one of Salcito’s favorites. Similarly, while an eminently drinkable Sauvignon Blanc from the Friulian producer Venica & Venica was ruled out as too light for the chicken, the winery’s more edgy 2011 Malvasia worked beautifully with the savory-sweet dish. One of Salcito’s own Bellus bottles also made the cut: the 2007 Bellus Girasole, a graceful, herb-scented red from Montalcino, in Central Italy.
Does this new focus on value-oriented Italian wines mean that Bohr is done searching for the greatest and rarest bottles? Not at all. “I will always love big-game hunting,” he says. “But that’s not what this restaurant is about.”
Jon Fine last wrote about the world’s most exclusive restaurants in F&W’s July 2012 issue.