Erin Healy arrived at Gramercy Tavern in March, 2022, the restaurant’s first dedicated beverage director since the start of the pandemic. She started with two sommeliers and has built the team to five, plus a beverage apprentice, staffing that has kept pace with the boom in wine sales. She’s also been building out the list, which hovered around 800 wines in 2019 and is now reaching 1,150. Though you might not know it from the energy and knowledge Healy brings to her new gig, wine was not her first career. She began at the State Department, working in a communications role adjacent to diplomatic security. But France and its wine, particularly Champagne, called her back “home”—the air-quotes are hers, as she lived in that home for six weeks as an exchange student when she was 15, then often on weekends and school breaks when she was studying in Ireland and later, working on her dissertation in Paris. Her second family taught her a love of Champagne, which brought her to train to be a sommelier. At Gramercy Tavern, it brought her to explode the “Champagne chapter” of the wine list from one page to 12. “Champagne was a passion project I thought could work at Gramercy Tavern— and it did work. It’s really exciting for my team to play in that part of the list. And it’s getting longer.” —Joshua Greene
When you started, were you tasked with building up the inventory for the list?
One thing I respect about Union Square Hospitality, during my interview, my corporate superiors asked, “How will someone know it’s your list?” There’s a certain amount of personality they want in the list.
It took me about six months to see what were our biggest movers. Burgundy was a big section and I augmented it. California cabernet was a big chapter, and I added zinfandel, Rhône varieties and some esoteric things, gamays, trousseau… I also expanded upon the white domestic and New World section, which was almost nonexistent when I started—chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. We had a lot of Barolo and Barbaresco; I augmented that not only by the number of SKUs, but also by depth—spreading the deck—so, now Barolo and Barbaresco are divided out by commune; that went from two to six pages. We might as well be an Italian restaurant; the demand for Italian wine here is tremendous. I would be doing a disservice if I did not focus on Piedmont and Montalcino.
Champagne has been its own evolution. Demand followed the design of the program, so it was something I never really had to explain or justify. Now that it’s such a huge chapter and such a significant part of the program, it draws the eye and people spend time on those pages. In the beginning, we didn’t sell a ton, but as the somms became more comfortable with all the producers and the styles, they felt more confident talking about it and driving the conversation there. If the Champagne list is here for the industry and savvy wine lovers, so be it, but it does start a conversation if someone’s thinking about drinking sparkling wine. All Champagne lives in one chapter—Coteaux Champenois, big bottles, little bottles. It’s organized alpha by producer. Each producer then has the village where the winery is based and what subregion it’s from. I will argue until my dying breath that grapes, dosage and region are all second to the hand of the winemaker when it comes to style of the wine.
You mentioned wine’s share of Gramercy’s total sales is up substantially, while prices are only keeping up with inflation (or less than that, at five percent). What is the underlying factor there? What has changed?
The primary facet is that people are back in New York and we’re busier than ever; our numbers last year were relatively equal to 2019’s. I think the sheer volume of bodies in the restaurant effects it. And we upped the somm team. I have a young, incredibly energetic somm team; they’re really excited to sell in a busy restaurant.
Also, in June, everything we got in new, we competitively priced. We priced our DRC competitively with retail, and other items like that—Krug Clos du Mesnil, Liger-Belair… Our pricing is so competitive, we saw a huge spike of people coming in and drinking that wine. We saw a week in June when we sold a bottle of DRC every night of the week.
When guests ask for Piedmont, you direct them to Cavallotto’s Freisa. How do people respond to this rarity?
We’re currently pouring it as a pairing, so it’s open by the glass. We do a Nebbiolo by the glass, but our team is really pumped about the other grapes, in the Tavern specifically. At the price point, the quality and value, it’s a great burger wine and it flies. At one point we had four or five freisas, a couple grignolinos, and some barbera. People do love Piedmont in this restaurant. Our average price for these “other” grapes of Piedmont is between $75 and $120. (Overall, at the restaurant, the average bottle goes out about $175 to $200. It’s high.)
I don’t think of grillo as a Gramercy Tavern staple. What is it about the Feudo Montoni that the staff got behind?
It’s one of our most popular wines. I put it on the by-the-glass menu in May or June. The price is right in the Tavern—it comes in at $19 a glass, so, under the $20 price point. It’s salty, it’s fresh, it’s herbaceous. It falls into that Not Sancerre but Sancerre category and it’s great with our food, with raw oysters or with roasted oysters with fennel or leek. Amazing with multiple salads on the menu. The staff just thinks it’s delicious, and whenever you get your team behind a menu item like that they are going to hand sell it.
And the Rossignol Aligoté?
Also a team favorite. California chardonnay makes a lot of sense at Gramercy Tavern. But to get great white Burgundy, at $35 or $40 a glass, it’s outpriced. Aligoté is one of the great underdogs of the wine world. When you get wonderful producers of aligoté, the wines are great, value-driven, and make sense by the glass, a great Burgundy for $24 a glass. I have 13 Bourgogne aligotés and two Bouzerons on the list—a lot of aligoté. We don’t sell a ton by the bottle, but it sells like crazy by the glass.
The Rossignol is super leesy—aged nine months to a year on the lees—and it has the richness, reduction, acid in the background. If you close your eyes, you feel like you’re in Burgundy. Great if truffles are on the menu.
For us, non-traditional wines sell incredibly well by the glass, but not by the bottle. We have a lot of delicious non-traditional by-the-glass wines and guests like experimenting. When you’re having a conversation with guests about a bottle, it’s really centered around Burgundy, Bordeaux, Piedmont, California. It’s night and day when you’re talking about by-the-glass and by-the-bottle wine. It’s almost a split personality. We have an amazing Ligurian section and we hardly sell any of it. It’s like pulling teeth.
What significant change, if any, have you noticed in relationship to how guests approach wine as we have come out of the pandemic?
In volume. I don’t think we’re seeing the 1920s golden-era boom necessarily that was expected full blown, but I will say that people are out to drink. Two bottles for two people is not uncommon. It feels very European in the way people are consuming. When I lived abroad, you always had wine with dinner and it wasn’t uncommon to go through two bottles with food. People aren’t sitting at the bar guzzling wine. I feel like, in the past, there’s been this concept of the volume of wine you drink; we couldn’t have more than one bottle. Now, I’m going to drink wine because it works with my food. So if you need another bottle for the steak, that’s the instinct. It’s not like people are getting wasted. It’s this idea that they want wine with their food and want the right wine with their food and are more open-minded about going on a journey and having a progression of things, rather than just a bottle of red, or I’m just going to have one cocktail.
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