Aldo Sohm of Le Bernardin in NYC on Exploring Iberia - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Aldo Sohm of Le Bernardin in NYC on Exploring Iberia

Plus: How to save a conversation—with or without Champagne

Ever since Aldo Sohm came to Le Bernardin, Eric Ripert’s pescatarian temple in midtown Manhattan, he’s been bemused by chef Ripert’s love of red Bordeaux with Dover sole. Finally, Sohm reports this year, chef Ripert has taken a liking to red Burgundy. Meanwhile, Sohm has moved far beyond Bordeaux and Burgundy, in search of red wines that sing with fish. Last year, it was a blaufrankisch, which isn’t surprising, given the Austrian provenance of Sohm and his right hand, Katja Scharnagl. This year, it’s a grenache from the mountains west of Madrid, Comando G’s La Bruja de Rozas, a $65 bottle at a restaurant where the four-course prix fixe runs $160. Iberia is all over Aldo Sohm’s top-selling wines this year, from Galicia to Bierzo to that red from Madrid.

You list a Spanish grenache—the Comando G Castilla y Leon La Bruja de Rozas Grenache ($65)—as your biggest new success at a seafood restaurant?
I shifted last year and pushed André [Compeyre, at Aldo Sohm Wine Bar  and Katja [Scharnagl, at Le Bernardin]. I said, ‘Wine prices are going up in traditional regions. It’s easy to bash Burgundy for that, and Rhône as well. At Le Bernardin, we have established clients who can afford those wines, but what will a 25-year-old drink? They won’t drink a $400 bottle of wine.’

When we started drinking wine, those Burgundies and Côte Rôties were relatively inexpensive, maybe $65 or $85 on a list; we could afford to buy them. So, what can we find for those young people—something that’s delicious to drink, offers value and doesn’t kill them? We looked to Iberia. That’s why the Comando G went in there. I tested it on two guys at the wine bar. I knew they would tell me exactly what they thought: When God gave out diplomacy, these two guys were absent. If I can see it works on them, it will be good. One somm at the wine bar said to me, “Aldo you were right, he loves the wine.”

This is high-elevation grenache. It’s not as boozy as Châteauneuf du Pape; there’s not an oxidative fruit component. It reminds you a little of pinot noir…ish. For that price point, I mean, it gives you talking points. “Grenache? Grenache tastes like that?” Yes, Sierra del Gredos: This is the new Spain, not the classical regions. I research a lot in Spain and also in Portugal—there’s a lot of stuff happening, to me I think they are the most dynamic right now.

Recently, I opened a Canary Islands wine for some people in the trade. They wanted to taste blind, and I told them, “Good luck on that one.” Listán is not on your blind tasting radar; it’s a tricky one. If you know what to look for, you might get it. Canary Island wines—there’s so little quantity that it wouldn’t make it on the top-selling list. We got 10 cases of Juan Francisco Farina Perez, Los Loros Sobre Lias. We did super well with that and people said, “Wow, what is this?” My team, they all poked me that I’m on this Spanish/Portugal rant.

Now we have Envínate at both the Wine Bar and Le Bernardin, and now I have this apple cider from Spain—Malus Mama. It’s an apple ice cider. When I first read about it, I thought, ‘What kind of BS is that?’ Then I looked into it. If you make ice cider, you reduce the water content, so the alcohol goes up to 11 percent. It’s delicious. And it’s expensive—$60 wholesale. I think 10 cases came into New York and I took them all. Already, I’ve had several clients pointing it out to me, and going crazy that I had Malus Mama. I had a client from Mexico who said, “Wow, you have Malus Mama, how did you get that?” At first, my team thought I was berserk: “You’re buying this wine for such a price?” Now they are selling Malus Mama like there’s no tomorrow—$50 a glass at Le Bernardin. And people buy it.

That’s the irony and that’s what I’ve learned. On the one hand, a couple of years ago, the press put a lot of pressure on, saying that restaurants should have wines under $50 or $60 a bottle, that it’s imperative, and that’s why I’ve added all this Spanish wine. On the other hand, if you work midtown, we have to cater to people who sometimes pick the wine from the right side of the page—they just closed a deal, they want to celebrate. The truth is somewhere in the middle, not at one extreme or the other.

You regularly list Sancerre and Meursault as the number one and two best-selling wines at Le Bernardin. This year, they fall in line again, with four chardonnays on your list of best-selling wines (a Meursault, Chassagne, Chablis and Sonoma Coast). Why is that?
I ask myself this question all the time, because I’m conservative when it comes to those things. When you come to Le Bernardin, you [Josh Greene] would drink Champagne. So would I. I’ve tested it in 2018, because I’m in the process of writing a book. In my field research with young people, Champagne is something to celebrate, but for dinner, it goes over their head; they’re not excited about it. I went out with six young women, they were foodies, they knew the basics about wine, not starting from zero. I brought Agrapart and, from Raj [Parr], the Sandhi sparkling. Those two sparkling wines were completely unnoticed. Then, I brought chardonnays and dry and off-dry riesling. And, in between, one of them ordered a natural wine. It was volatile, ciderish, but not bad. Their eyes lit up and they were super excited. I said, ‘Why? You could have saved money and bought a cider.’ And then, suddenly, I felt like the right-wing conservative talking to liberals. And as an Austrian, you don’t want to be right-wing conservative. I almost lost the conversation, and only won it back for one reason: I asked, ‘What is it that you like so much?’ It’s different: That’s what they like so much.

Still, I come back to my belief that no matter how many points a wine has from this critic or that one, the best bottle of wine is the one that is finished first. Or, if you go out, the best bottle is finished after the appetizer, when you wonder how it disappeared so quickly. Who drank it with you?

At the end of that dinner, the Champagne bottles were empty; the chardonnays, empty; the Rieslings, empty. The only bottle with wine left in it was the natural wine. I asked, ‘Would you order another bottle?’

The reason I like to taste with women—they are better tasters, we know that—is that they could care less what’s on the label. If it’s La Tâche or a Beaujolais, they could care less. It has to be delicious. They take the ego out of that—it’s delicious or it’s not.

Those six women, they were all excited about a natural wine, but their speed of drinking slowed down considerably. Still, they pushed me to have natural wine at Le Bernardin. I put a questionnaire together; I interviewed Raj Parr and got so many interesting notes. So, I thought, I should ask Alice Feiring, and I learned a lot. Then I launched a 9 p.m. pour of natural wine, which confused everyone. I put on a magnum of Giuseppe Rinaldi; it’s not considered natural wine among natural wine people, but among wine people it is, and no one disputed it on social media.

How does Bodega Chacra—a pinot noir from Argentine Patagonia—make it onto your list of top-selling wines?
It’s not difficult to understand. We have a very good relationship with Piero Incisa [de la Rochetta, the proprietor]. He came several times and did tastings and explained his farming philosophy. And Maya Cardinal, one of our sommeliers, went down to work harvest as an intern. It’s an interesting alternative, an interesting pinot noir and pinot noir sells at Le Bernardin very well. People say, “I like a Sonoma pinot noir or a Burgundy pinot noir, but I want to try something new.”

At Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, the two pinots that made your top-selling list are both from Oregon’s Willamette Valley: Cristom Mt Jefferson at #8 by the bottle, Lingua Franca Avni at #2 by the glass.
At first, when we opened the wine bar, I wrote a rather mushy list. What I mean is, I could change it in no time one direction or another. I left myself a lot of flexibility and assumed it would be related to Le Bernardin at a lower price. What I’ve learned is that they are completely unrelated. People at the Wine Bar like domestic pinot noir and cabernet. Cristom is at a sweet spot. And, the team really liked the Lingua Franca: Larry Stone is one of the stars, and Dominique Lafon as well; they like the story. It wasn’t cheap, but it did really well. A little more fruit-forward style of wines—that’s what guests like at the wine bar. I think it’s a different customer; maybe it’s the context as well.

photo by Thomas Schauer

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.