Born in Belgium, Cedric Nicaise moved to the United States with his family when he was five, but periodic trips back across the Atlantic allowed him to take in the food and culture of Europe. He graduated from Ithaca College in upstate New York and worked at a number of restaurants in that region before moving to Manhattan. He began working at Aureole in 2009, and joined Eleven Madison Park as a sommelier in 2012, working under Dustin Wilson. He was promoted to Wine Director in the spring of 2015.
On managing a 3,800-bottle list
Actually, I think running a big list is almost easier than a small, carefully curated list. If you think about Chad (Walsh) at The Dutch, he has a smaller list that’s filled with only amazing wine, and that’s super-hard to do. Our challenge is to always have the best of the best, but also continuously look for the new guy or up-and-coming producer. I have an amazing team who helps me do that, six somms who are constantly bringing things to my attention. I also go to events, talk to tastemakers and travel to wine regions. Sometimes it’s hard to get out of the restaurant, but it’s important to go to the regions and talk to the winemakers, the top tier-producers, and see what they’re drinking. That’s the best insight on what’s new. If you ask (Jean-Marc) Roulot who the next important Burgundian winemaker is, that’s what you listen to.
Every Monday one of our somms teaches a wine class that’s open to everyone [on staff], and covers tasting, service and theory. Every Wednesday we have what we call “happy hour,” a long-running tradition here that’s mandatory for most of the staff; sometimes we have winemakers come and talk, or our somms will teach about a wine region they visited.
Ditching the Negroni
The younger generation is starting to spend more on wine instead of cocktails, and people are more interested in bottles than going by the glass. At EMP, in some ways we live in our own little bubble of higher-echelon restaurants, where most people can’t get through our menu with just one bottle. So we see some combination of bubbles, a glass of something, a bottle or maybe two over the duration of the meal. For most people who come here, doing two glasses over a three-hour meal just doesn’t cut it.
What rises to the top
The nature of EMP is that we don’t sell a lot of the same wine. There are only about six wines that we sell more than ten bottles of, and about 400 wines that we sell between two and six bottles. We sold 2,400 different wines in the last quarter, so once you get out of the top five, we’re almost talking single bottles. And there are so many wines that we get very little of, like great white Burgundy. The Domaine Eden Cabernet Sauvignon and the Lieu Dit Sauvignon Blanc [his two top-selling US wines] were two of the few that we could get in enough quantity to keep on the list for the entire year, so their numbers go up.
We try not to be influenced too much by trends. We really sell the whole world on our list. Beaujolais and Corsica are trends that we’ve succumbed to; Beaujolais happened a few years ago, Corsica is happening right now. We probably have about 100 different wines from Corsica on our list, including 13 Corsican vermentinos in different price ranges, some made in amphora, some from different types of terroir and some going back to 2010. They go really well with our food, especially crab and lobster, and they’re a great bridge to do something different than white Burgundy. One of the things we emphasize is that our guests don’t come here to be educated, but if you can show them something new and different, that’s pretty cool.