This is the first in a series about people working in the wine trade.
Carla Rzeszewski is the wine director across April Bloomfieldâ€™s irreverent restaurant empire: The Spotted Pig, The John Dory and The Breslin. Those are disparate restaurants require a wine guru who fits their impressive profile. Indeed, in addition to being, at various times, an actress, a bartender and a nude model. Rzeszewski is sharp, capable, profane, and a strong advocate of sherry. We spoke recently over a beer, of all things, at her local in the East Village.
David Coggins: Itâ€™s funny that you suggested meeting at a bar specializing in beer. Does that mean that when youâ€™re not working youâ€™re a beer drinker?
Carla Rzeszewski: When Iâ€™m not working or if Iâ€™m just relaxing with a book, itâ€™s always with a beer, iâ€™s never with a glass of wine.
DC: So youâ€™re a believer in wine with food.
CR: For sure. They historically have gone together, and theyâ€™ve been nurtured together.
DC: So when wine is tasted officially and thereâ€™s no foodâ€”
CR: Itâ€™s a joke. Quiet wines, wallflower wines have a beauty and complexity all their own. They donâ€™t stand out in a huge lineup. Other wines have a broader structure and bully their way to the front.
DC: Then how do you, as a director of a wine program, introduce people to these quieter wines, especially if they havenâ€™t heard of them before?
CR: Well the Dory serves more delicate food. Whites, for the most part, and light, low-tannin reds. A lot of those whites are too acidic on their own and yet with the food it works perfectly. Like the razor clam ceviche works very well alongside a Pigato, or even a Sherry. They need food and when they have food they begin to sing. The other day at the Dory I had this clam Iâ€™d never seen before. Itâ€™s got excess levels of hemoglobin so itâ€™s bloody. Itâ€™s pretty but sinister. Alongside this basic Chablis, you put them together and itâ€™s awesome. But the Chablis on its own isnâ€™t as excitingâ€”it needs the food to wake up a bit.
DC: Do you think people are ready to allow that to happen? It feels like there can be the tyranny of the scoreâ€”the assurance of 98 points. Are people willing to give up some control and try something new?
CR: A lot of my lists donâ€™t even have those wines that get high scores, so that eliminates that option for them. [Laughs.] There are some well-known producers, but I donâ€™t buy wines that way. You have to know whoâ€™s scoring them and what they like. With different importers tooâ€”with Neal Rosenthal or Kermit Lynchâ€”these guys have a very specific palette and you know that if itâ€™s Rosenthal itâ€™s going to be a very traditional, very staid, very quiet wine.
DC: I love those wines and Louis/Dressner. You see them more and more. Do you sense that thereâ€™s this movement toward restrained, more natural wines?
CR: Oh for sure. If some Pigato very mineral driven crisp whites. And that works for somebody looking for a basic Pinot Grigio. Thatâ€™s really a fun part of the job. You can invite people in.
DC: Is must be exciting to develop a list for these different restaurants, with their different menus.
CR: Hell yeah! [Laughs.] Of course it is. When I first started, one of the joys was finding wines that work well with Aprilâ€™s food. Aprilâ€™s food is not shy: pigâ€™s foot is not a light statement. People say they want a strong wine to stand up to that. But I tell people that they may want something that plays the supporting character. Making sure the wine doesnâ€™t overwhelm the food is part of my job. You can even have a full-bodied white. It can be a fun idea to take the conversation somewhere else.
DC: Itâ€™s funny you say that, because the sommelier at Arpege in Paris recommends aged white wines with cheese, he said, about eight out of ten times. Old white Burgundies. And I had one, and of course it was incredible.
CR: Old white burgundiesâ€”yes, absolutely.
DC: So if the season changes and thereâ€™s turnover on the menu, do you sit down and taste everything?
CR: More so now than before. When the Breslin opened, then the Dory, then Salvation Taco, Sherry Fest was thrown in there so there was a lot happening. It wasnâ€™t easy to sit with the chefs. But now itâ€™s great. The chefs make something and we all sit down and I bring four or five bottles. Every single one of the chefs says they wished they knew more about wine but donâ€™t have time. Sometimes they serve four or five dishes, so I bring ten bottles.
DC: Thatâ€™s when I want to show up.
CR: Thatâ€™s the shit.
DC: When you try a dish how do you decide to recommend something more daring? Thereâ€™s a white from Ajaccio in Corsica, which is great, and I saw on your list.
CR: Love, love, love Corsican wines. Yes. Sometimes you have to sell it to people in a way thatâ€™s friendly: â€œI have something over here, and I know you didnâ€™t ask for it but trust me and let me give you a taste of something, follow me here. Youâ€™re safe. You donâ€™t have to commit. My biggest desire is to help to.â€
DC: Right. Itâ€™s like Riesling. Itâ€™s so great but can be hard to order because you donâ€™t want it to be too sweet. You want acidity, brightness, all those bracing Riesling flavors. You had three Rieslings at Dory and it was great.
CR: You had that flight? Great, yes you get a sparkling, dry and off-dry, line them up and have a conversation.
DC: What are you enthusiastic about right now?
CR: California and Australia have been maligned and Iâ€™ll put myself at the front of the pack. And yet itâ€™s important to be humble about what you donâ€™t know. And Iâ€™m not a huge lover of ripe fruitâ€”my natural inclination is toward minerality and acid, like every wine person. But now Iâ€™m loving fruit in wines. Something is happening in Australia and cooler climate regions.
DC: Does that mean your taste is changing or theyâ€™re making wines that are less alcoholic?
CR: Yesâ€”they are. I donâ€™t think itâ€™s less ripe fruit. They donâ€™t have to taste like an Old World wine. You need balance. If your focus is on the structure then you can play. Structure equals freedom.
DC: How did you get this job?
CR: About three and a half years ago, I was working at the Dory and had been studying wine on my own. I came downstairs and Ken was down there and said â€œGo get yourself a pint.â€ I sat down and was very worried. He said â€œI hear youâ€™re studying wine.â€ And I wondered how he even knew because I hadnâ€™t told anybody. Somehow he found out, and he said â€œHow would you like to take over the wine program here?â€ I thought Iâ€™m not ready for this, but you canâ€™t say no. I said â€œI actually have some ideas about your wine program.â€ Which was of course a total lie. Months later I asked Ken why he did that. And he said, â€œYouâ€™re a scrapper. And I knew if I gave you something and you were afraid that you would challenge yourself and work your ass off.â€
DC: Thatâ€™s niceâ€”just give a kid a chance. So how much leeway did you have?
CR: My first question was â€œWhatâ€™s my budget?â€ which was a total bluff. I just knew that that was a question that people asked. He said you donâ€™t have one, do what you want. I came into something that was nonexistent. There was never supposed to be a somm. on the floor, that was not the idea. But I was there nonstop, I threw myself into it. I wanted to be on the floor talking to people about the wine.
Initially, I found a lot of wine that I thought was interesting and goes with the food. And then I singled out a few things and fine tuned it. At the Breslin it was much more esoteric than it is now. After a few years of hearing what people were asking for and how the clientele changed I realized that we needed more domestics and a few Malbecs. Nobody taught me to have a balanced list.
And then I just kept tasting like a motherfucker.
Five of Carlaâ€™s current favorites under $25, along with her tasting notes:
Valdespino â€œInocenteâ€ Fino (Jerez, Spain)
Umami, chalk, medium-full body, dry as a bone Sherry. Think jamon, fresh seafood, gazpacho
Clemens Busch Vom Roten Schiefer Riesling 2010 (Mosel, Germany)
Mineral-driven, spicy, opinionated Mosel Riesling with a wonderfully flamboyant nose. One of my favorite producers of the moment. Period.
Domaine L’Ecu Expression de Granite Muscadet 2011 (Loire, France)
Mineral, bone-crushing linear drive. Summer and the beach and salads and oysters and drinking straight from the bottle.
Montenidoli Canaiuolo Rosato 2012 (Tuscany, Italy)
Again, mineral-driven (see a theme here?), petally, pretty as can be, one of the most layered and intriguing roses I’ve come across recently. Â (Shameless plug: available by the glass at the Pig)
Lagier Meredith Rose 2012 (Mt. Veeder, Napa, CA.)
The opposite of the above: fleshy, darker fruits, full-bodied and meant for BBQ and lamb.
Top photo via.Â