Hemant Kala of Ninety Acres in Peapack, NJ, on up-and-coming Italian Whites - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Hemant Kala of Ninety Acres in Peapack, NJ, on up-and-coming Italian Whites

Ninety Acres is set in the carriage house of the 1,000-acre estate Walter and Kate Macy Ladd established in 1912—Natirar, the name an anagram for the Raritan, the river that crosses the property. Somerset County owns the property today, and established a public-private partnership on 90 acres, including the original mansion and the 12-acre farm that provides produce for the restaurant. Hemant Kala joined Ninety Acres during the pandemic as lead sommelier, after a stint as chef sommelier at Joël Robuchon in New York City. Now the food and beverage manager, Kala has doubled the size of the wine list and worked to introduce staff and guests to more unfamiliar regions and varieties. —Caitlin Griffith

How has it been at Ninety Acres coming out of the worst of the pandemic?

Now people are coming out more to dine; they are more confident and don’t mind sitting inside. In general, spending, and, more specifically, holiday spending, are not quite there yet when comparing to pre-pandemic levels, but still much better than during the height of the pandemic. Then, it was just me on the team. Recently, I hired one more sommelier and am looking to add another to the team.

The wine list sat at around 315 SKUs when I started. By the end of 2022, we had 768 SKUs and now we are working to build the wine list further. We are sourcing great, valuable Bordeaux bottles, Rhônes, Italian reds and whites. We are also sourcing bottles that people are not necessarily familiar with—under-$100 wines—and folks are loving this price point.

Guests have definitely changed their expectations about wine service since I’ve been here. From what I’ve heard from the staff who worked here before was that they would just open and serve the wine, and that’s it. I wanted the experience to be more. Now we talk more about the wine, talk more about the food, talk more about the wine and food together, talk more about the chefs, the staff, and the wine—really bringing everything together for the guests.

Wine sales are up at Ninety Acres in general, and particularly with sparkling wines.

I think the increase in wine sales in 2022 is due to a combination of lots of things—more people dining out, an increase in people ordering wine with dinner, the growth in my wine list. And discussing wine more in depth with the guests. To give one example: If a guest is a Silver Oak fan, we have a few different SKUs from their favorite producer or can introduce the guest to similar wines that they may grow to love.

One reason sparkling wine sales have increased is because I’m bringing in new Champagnes and other sparkling wines options, like six- and twelve-liter  bottles to serve during events. I’ve added a large section of grower Champagne that really wasn’t common in this area of New Jersey before. This category is more reasonably priced and is a real expression of Champagne. For me, the go-to is Gaston Chiquet Brut Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs from the Aÿ region. It’s priced at $135 on the list, and people love that wine. Blanc de Blancs Champagne is usually priced in the $200-$250 range, and this is really half the price. 

As you’ve built your list, you mention that 13 percent of the wines are from lesser-known regions, and that sales of those lesser-known wines decreased in 2022.

The town where Ninety Acres is located is a big Napa Valley red and oaky, buttery chardonnay town. But lots of guests are curious and interested in learning about new wines. You really have to understand the guest before offering something they don’t know, talk to them to understand more about what they are looking for. I am excited to offer guests something at one-third the price, but totally comparable in quality and taste. Guests are excited, too!

Our lesser-known regions and varieties mostly focus on Italian whites from the Marche region or fiano or falanghina from Campania. Often, you see lots of these wines in Italian restaurants, but for most restaurants these are little-known. Pinot grigio is usually the most popular Italian wine, I am trying to expand into less-known Italian whites. There is also this bottle we have,  the semidano from Sardegna! Pedra Niedda is the producer and the wine is a rustic, big, bold, dry white that you can have with a steak. People are really finding it fun. Guests are not following what others are saying [i.e., what is trendy] but really drinking what they like.

Caitlin Griffith knew her future career would entail food and drink when, at the age of six, she munched an anchovy from her father’s Caesar salad thinking it as a small strip of bacon—and was more than pleasantly surprised. While enrolled in New York University’s Food Studies program, she learned the secrets of affinage in the caves of Murray’s Cheese.

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