Henry Beylin of LA’s Gjelina on Eastern European Finds - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Henry Beylin of LA’s Gjelina
on Eastern European Finds

Henry Beylin has been managing the beverage program for the Gjelina Group more or less since its inception in 2008, and was helping establish the group in New York City’s NoHo neighborhood in January—itself a six-year struggle—only to have the restaurant shuttered just weeks after opening by a kitchen fire. The Group has plenty to fall back on in LA, with two restaurants, a commissary, a dry goods store and a hotel in the works, all of it anchored by its bustling flagship property, Gjelina, on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in the heart of Venice Beach. —Patrick J. Comiskey

Photo: Trip Davis

What are some of the exciting new places for wine on your list?

Well, luckily the wine world keeps expanding, keeps on being interesting. I think wines are [now] made so much better everywhere; Portuguese white wines are just so much more relevant than they were even eight years ago. Greece is coming along, too—not just Santorini, but from the mainland, northern mountains. I’ve been pouring this Nerantzi assyrtiko for some time now, from Serres in Macedonia. It’s much fuller and more earthbound than any wine you’d get in Santorini. Santorini versions are basically oyster wines, but, on the mainland, assyrtiko has a completely different character: you get this dry-hay, earthy, textural minerality, pretty savory but not in your face. It acts as a great conduit, almost like a broth in the way it blends flavors, dynamic but not obvious, you know? And it’s priced well; Santorini assyrtiko could never be a glass pour, but this one is terrific.

What else is on your radar?
Hungary—I have six different Hungarian bottlings on the list right now. It’s partly because I love furmint; I’m still pouring Kiralyudvar, one of my favorites, maybe Tokaji’s most classic producer. It sort of acts like a fuller-bodied chenin. Hungary might be my favorite wine country right now, just because it has so many great wines, it’s so underrated—and it’s a classic region. Classic, but unknown.

Also, Georgia; I know Georgia is on everyone’s short list. I kind of grew up with them in New York; my best friend was Georgian. Though there are fewer different styles in Georgia, and the quality is more uneven than in Hungary, I think.

And your most successful new wine was a sauvignon blanc from Slovenia?

Yeah, well, sauvignon blanc has caught people’s imagination for reasons I can’t grasp fully. I could put a sauvignon blanc from Wyoming on the list, and it would sell. But that wine (Poljsak, from the Vipava Valley) is legit, man, like a thicker-boned Sancerre. It’s from Vipava Valley, right across from Friuli; it’s firm, compact, it has density, it tastes like you want your Sancerre to taste like: grassy, herbaceous, with a brilliant core of minerality. Unlike a lot of sauvignon, it’s picked at full ripeness, so you don’t get those boxwood, cat-pee flavors. It’s sauvignon in the stone-fruit category.

And an Austrian Cabernet Sauvignon? I’m pretty sure I’ve never had one…

I’ve been a huge fan of Thiery-Weber’s grüner for years. I love it; it’s as consistent as the dude himself, so precise and Austrian. At Vie Vinum, I tasted his wines, all these different levels of grüner and riesling, and as a joke I said, “All right, now give me your cabernet,” and he takes it from under the table. I go, “what the fuck?” And he tells me that in the ’70s his father thought it’d be fun to plant some cabernet because it was popular in California. It’s like an old-school California cab—not overdone, cassis, berries. Plummy, minty, not over-fruited, not overripe. Talk about a crowd pleaser.

What other trends are you seeing?

Winemakers are like restaurants, they have to keep looking for what’s new. This trend isn’t exactly new—it’s old. In fact, people have mixed red and white wines historically, until the AOCs and DOCGs started to discourage it—but I’m seeing so many more blends of red and white wines, light savory reds that are actually mostly white juice with some red. Generally, I find them to be awesome food wines. There’s a little fruit, but they have the clarity and intensity of white wine, especially the ones from Central Europe—the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Hungary, Romania. It’s a new thing, and so relevant, not just new to be new; not only does it make logical sense, but sensorially makes sense for a menu. After so long a period of categorical and classified wines, it’s nice to be moving way away from that. There’s this cool mélange of super-different flavors now. The fewer rules you have, the less the local government is in your face, the better more dynamic the product will be. The more freedom winemakers have to make what they want, then the more the general public has, too. It’s weird, so much of the first part of my career was all about learning AOC and DOCG laws.

I have this other wine I love, a Venetian wine called Orto, a white blend made on San Erasmo, one of the outer islands in Venice, their garden island. I’ve been following that wine since before I was at Gjelina. A French guy bought land on this island and had the Bourguignons analyze the soil and he ended up blending malvasia istriana, fiano, vermentino—very savory and salty, bitter melon. The wine is phenomenal, even better on the second day, so I’m doing it by the glass. It’s stuff like that that keeps me going.

Patrick J. Comiskey covers US wines for Wine & Spirits magazine, focusing on the Pacific Northwest, California’s Central Coast and New York’s Finger Lakes.

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