Chris Dunaway grew up in a small farming town in Kentucky, spending many evenings at large family meals using garden produce and—for the adults—featuring homebrewed wine from his grandfather’s vines. He cut his teeth in the industry in New York City before Carlton McCoy signed him up as Head Sommelier at The Little Nell in 2015. Upon McCoy’s departure in 2019, he stepped into the Wine Director role and has steered the program through closures and canceled New Year parties, all while opening plenty of collectible bottles in this pandemic playground. —Corey Warren
Have you noticed a change in your clientele as the world re-opens its borders?
I think, numbers-wise, we’re still seeing the same number of people. But a lot of Americans are traveling abroad. We still see them, but with not as much frequency. We’re starting to see traditional international traffic from Australia and Brazil. January for us is summer holidays for them. We get a massive influx of Australian and Brazilian guests that are keen on great wine.
You noted that only a small portion of your list comes from lesser-known regions. How does this big-name, heavy-hitting list feed into guests’ expectations? Does it make your job more or less challenging?
When it comes to having these heavy-hitting classics, especially for allocated things, it becomes very difficult. Our guests are very hungry for some of these allocated wines. We started a wine club back in 2018. Essentially, you can buy up to 16 bottles and we can store them here for you. You buy on release at a discounted price. We’ve had a lot of success cultivating a good membership with that club.
The flipside is, with so many members interested in allocated Burgundy, it becomes difficult to keep that stuff in stock at any depth. Coming up with wines from other regions that are less celebrated, there’s a lot of value in that to be able to present different options for guests.
If someone’s interested in Côte d’Or Burgundy, I can take them to the Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais. It’s a warmer climate, so you can find a lot of value in there. I’m a big fan of the wines of the Jura. That gives me an opportunity to say, “Hey, have you considered the neighbor across the valley?” As technical acumen and wineries have sharpened over the years, you can find exceptional wine at a very good price in relation to Burgundy. I’m a huge fan of Spanish wine as well. There are so many great forgotten treasures of the wine world that have been rediscovered over the last seven years. Comando G [in the Sierra de Gredos near Madrid] is a great example of that. [Even these “alternative”] wines are starting to become very expensive, but it’s still a fraction of what you pay for things like Rayas. It’s bringing attention to these forgotten places and will help stabilize the volatility in the market in the long run.
You noted that more and more people are asking for red Burgundy under $120. Were they disappointed to find that it barely exists? How did that conversation go?
It’s people who like Burgundy but they’re coming in for lunch or a weeknight, and they don’t want to spend on grand cru. Or they want to learn more about Burgundy before they go all in, they want to ease into it. And there is value that exists. I try to have some good options on there. One of my favorite wines that fits that is the Côtes de Nuits-Villages from Didier Fornerol. It’s exceptionally well-made, very serious wine at an approachable price point. With climate change as well, it’s important that we look at the hillsides that are exposed and windy. Those wines used to be more austere and tart, [and now] they’re starting to come into their own because of more consistent warmth. You’re getting boosted ripeness and you start to get more value.
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