This is the first in a series about people working in the wine trade.
Carla Rzeszewski is the wine director across April Bloomfield’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: It’s funny that you suggested meeting at a bar specializing in beer. Does that mean that when you’re not working you’re a beer drinker?
Carla Rzeszewski: When I’m not working or if I’m just relaxing with a book, it’s always with a beer, i’s never with a glass of wine.
DC: So you’re a believer in wine with food.
CR: For sure. They historically have gone together, and they’ve been nurtured together.
DC: So when wine is tasted officially and there’s no food–
CR: It’s a joke. Quiet wines, wallflower wines have a beauty and complexity all their own. They don’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 haven’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 I’d never seen before. It’s got excess levels of hemoglobin so it’s bloody. It’s pretty but sinister. Alongside this basic Chablis, you put them together and it’s awesome. But the Chablis on its own isn’t as exciting–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 score–the assurance of 98 points. Are people willing to give up some control and try something new?
CR: A lot of my lists don’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 don’t buy wines that way. You have to know who’s scoring them and what they like. With different importers too–with Neal Rosenthal or Kermit Lynch–these guys have a very specific palette and you know that if it’s Rosenthal it’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 there’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. That’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 April’s food. April’s food is not shy: pig’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 doesn’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: It’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 burgundies–yes, absolutely.
DC: So if the season changes and there’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 wasn’t easy to sit with the chefs. But now it’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 don’t have time. Sometimes they serve four or five dishes, so I bring ten bottles.
DC: That’s when I want to show up.
CR: That’s the shit.
DC: When you try a dish how do you decide to recommend something more daring? There’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 that’s friendly: â€œI have something over here, and I know you didn’t ask for it but trust me and let me give you a taste of something, follow me here. You’re safe. You don’t have to commit. My biggest desire is to help to.â€
DC: Right. It’s like Riesling. It’s so great but can be hard to order because you don’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 I’ll put myself at the front of the pack. And yet it’s important to be humble about what you don’t know. And I’m not a huge lover of ripe fruit–my natural inclination is toward minerality and acid, like every wine person. But now I’m loving fruit in wines. Something is happening in Australia and cooler climate regions.
DC: Does that mean your taste is changing or they’re making wines that are less alcoholic?
CR: Yes–they are. I don’t think it’s less ripe fruit. They don’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 you’re studying wine.â€ And I wondered how he even knew because I hadn’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 I’m not ready for this, but you can’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€œYou’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: That’s nice–just give a kid a chance. So how much leeway did you have?
CR: My first question was â€œWhat’s my budget?â€ which was a total bluff. I just knew that that was a question that people asked. He said you don’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 Carla’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. (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.