Chef Sang Yoon Makes a Case for Bubbles
This summer, chef Sang Yoon is teaming up with chef Douglas Keane to open Two Birds/One Stone in Napa Valley. But here's why he'll pick Champagne over Napa Cab any day.
You're one of the few chefs I've met who's as obsessed with wine as with food—particularly Champagne. Why so much passion for it?
I fell in love with Champagne at a very young age. I remember the exact moment. I was working in Paris as a line cook, and a sommelier tried to coerce me into trading some foie gras terrine for half a glass of '79 Salon. I took him up on it. This wasn't in the dining room of a beautiful restaurant, by the way—this was in the alley behind the kitchen, with the kitchen guys smoking their Gitanes and the somm handing me a plastic cup. Like, "Here, you must be thirsty. Now where's that foie gras you promised me?" But with that first sip I was hooked. I thought, If I ever make anything of myself, I never want to run out of Champagne. And I've kept that promise.
But what if there were a zombie apocalypse where suddenly all of the Champagne in the world vanished? What would you drink then?
Whatever alien death ray wiped out all the Champagne, I'd jump right in front of it, too. But I like a lot of wines besides Champagne, just not reds. I do everything in my power to avoid red wine. I appreciate it, I can properly pair it with food, but I could be eating boar tartare and I still wouldn't drink red. But really, no Champagne after the zombie apocalypse? No bubbles ever? Wow. That's just so sad.
OK, we won't wipe out all the Champagne. But what other wines do you love, particularly during the summer?
I like Grüner, Riesling, Müller-Thurgau—bright, high-tone white wines. I'm a fan of Txakoli [from Spain], which, again, is a little fizzy and just terrific. And bone-dry rosés, Domaine Tempier, that kind of thing. And I've also gotten into the col fondo style of Prosecco, with the yeast still in the bottle.
Two of those white wine categories are sparkling, so are you basically a fan of bubbles overall?
You're catching that drift? I just really like carbonation. I like sparkling water. Bubbles add a third dimension to what you're drinking. With wine, I call it "wine in 3D." It's more interesting and more fun to drink. I've gone to the extreme where once I was at a party at somebody's house and no one had any sparkling wine, but they did have a soda maker. So I took a bottle of wine, put it in and dispensed it like it was soda. And said, "OK, this is mine. Don't touch it."
I guess the love for bubbles explains why you're a beer fanatic, too?
Yeah, though my tastes have changed over time. It happens—you go from loving very hoppy beers to very yeasty ones, and then you sort of explore the genres. And then you settle in. For me, I've ended up at Belgian ales and farmhouse-style saisons. And sour beers. I love them. I always loved them, way before the style became so trendy. To me, they're like the crossover between wine and beer, like snowboarding is to skiing. I know a lot of snobby wine drinkers who won't touch a beer, but you pour them a sour and down it goes.
Do you think people sometimes take wine too seriously?
Oh, yeah. Infinitely. I've always been of the mind that wine needs to get over itself. I'm a huge fan, but as much as I love it, I often feel that the wine industry is its own worst enemy.
How do you mean?
I see a lot of wine lists nowadays that aren't about the restaurant, they're about the sommelier's ego. They're trying to show you how cool they are; if you've heard of the grape, then it's not going to be on the list. But that's true of a lot of chefs, too. The coolest restaurants right now, there's no drywall, just bare walls and concrete, and everyone is wearing T-shirts, and you have to have a full beard and a sleeve of tattoos, and you put nasturtiums on everything. The chairs are uncomfortable, but, man, they're uncomfortable on purpose.
You and chef Douglas Keane—both tattooless, I should point out—each had a hand in the wine program for Two Birds/One Stone. What's it like?
We're doing a bunch of things differently. Our by-the-glass wines come exclusively from kegs. We're calling it "Wines by…" with the name of the winemaker for each one. They're one-off field blends, stuff that's unavailable anywhere else.
Plus, we're not charging corkage for Napa or Sonoma wines. You can't put everyone's wine on the list—what are there, like, 800 wineries here?—so it's more egalitarian. Because everyone who visits Napa ends up driving around with bottles of wine anyway. With some people it's like the back end of their rental car is sagging. Either they've got two dead bodies in there or four cases of wine.
With two big-name chefs working on a project together, there must be disagreements occasionally. How do you resolve those?
Menu questions are really the only things we've had issues with, like, you want to serve X, but I want to serve Y. Doug and I decided we'd do rock, paper, scissors—the winner gets his way and the loser gets an expensive bottle of Champagne.
7 of Sang's Favorites to Try
2015 Txomín Etxaníz Txakoli ($22)
"This lightly sparkling Basque wine tastes like fresh limes, and I love anything involving limes. Plus, Txakoli's subtle fizziness is great. But the traditional Spanish way of pouring it from a few feet above the glass—why do that? All it does is kill the fizz!"
NV Costadilà 450 SLM Col Fondo Prosecco ($24)
"I usually don't like Prosecco, but this is a very surprising wine: an ancient style, with a yeastiness that recalls some Belgian farmhouse ales. And it's stick-dry. I buy six or seven cases for my house every summer and drink them all."
2015 Domaine Tempier Bandol Rosé ($42)
"This wine's dual identity is cool—it's serious, with beautiful structure and complexity, but it's also a rosé. The first time I tried it, I was like, ‘Wow, all the hype about Tempier is real!'"
NV Pierre Péters Cuvée de Réserve Blanc de Blancs ($60)
"This great blanc de blancs [a Champagne that's made entirely from Chardonnay] is razor-sharp, with vivid acidity; it's the kind of Champagne that begs for ceviche. Everyone's crazy about Péters now, but I discovered the wines at least 15 years ago, so I'm a real OG Pierre Péters fan."
2013 Bott Határi Hárslevelű ($35)
"We sell this white from Hungary at my [Culver City, California] restaurant Lukshon, in part because it goes so perfectly with the southeast Asian flavors we use: palm sugar, fish sauce, Chinese black beans. But it's a weird wine. The first time I tasted it, I thought of Lana Del Rey, that song ‘Summertime Sadness.' That's what it tastes like—like the memory of summertime fruits."
2014 Keller Kirchspiel Grosses Gewächs Riesling ($72)
"This Riesling is one of my two favorite exports from Germany. (The other one is Heidi Klum.) But don't have it in a restaurant! Just order takeout—the wine's so statuesque and structurally gorgeous that Americanized Chinese food, like kung pao chicken from Panda Express, actually seems to be the best foil for it."
NV Bouchard Roses de Jeanne Val Vilaine Blanc de Noirs ($75)
"Cédric Bouchard was the great Champagne producer Jacques Selosse's understudy. But unlike most people making bad Selosse knockoffs these days, Bouchard honors his Jedi training. This is probably one of my favorite Champagnes in the world."