James Conley has been working in restaurants since 1984, spending time in Philadelphia and Providence before landing a job at Keens Steakhouse in NYC in 1999. Last year, he took over the wine program, channeling his three decades of restaurant experience into a wine list strong in cabernet but with plenty of interesting outliers.
Cabernet sauvignon dominates your list of best-selling wines, which isn’t unusual at a steakhouse, but you do well with Argentine wines as well, such as the Zorzal Pinot Noir.
My general manager, Bonnie, always says, “We don’t want to be the fancy pretentious people, we want to be the place where people come in and talk with friends.” The steakhouse wine category can be predatory, but it’s really exciting to buy wines that have integrity and that people can have a good time with. You can come here and find wines that are $600 but you can also find wines on the list that are $40. Instead of something dismal in that price point, I’d rather have something from Mendoza. There’s been a shift and importers are trying to get wines to the US that are expressive and not too high in alcohol. They have nuance and are way more exciting to work with. Zorzal is making site-specific wines; production is lower but they can do great prices. Carmelo Patti is another producer we’ve been using for a few years, and somehow momentum built up—it’s a traditional style, multi-use barrels.
The vast majority of your best-selling cabernets are from Napa, but one from Paso Robles [Austin Hope] makes the list, too. In what cases are customers looking in that direction?
Austin Hope is a producer that we’ve used a couple years running. I’m looking for cabernet sauvignon that will impress people, that has power and punch. Paso Robles wines deliver on that—they have a directness and immediacy that gets lost, say, in the more expensive parts of Northern California. When Napa and Sonoma wines get to the size that Paso Robles has, they turn into collector wines, but in Paso Robles, you get roundness with acidity, and people have not bought into big oak programs. [The wines are] rustic and more direct. Generally, we’re also looking for things with bottle age. We were pouring the 2015, so it had some age and a bit of time in bottle, and for us, that makes all the difference.
Have you seen any unexpected wines gaining ground?
The thing about Keens is that a lot of people are going for the comfort of a big steak and a cabernet or Bordeaux. But gamay has been growing a lot by the bottle. We have two on the list, and I’m stunned by how well they do. There’s also a higher tolerance for wines that are less sulfured. I ran a declassified Cahors by the glass; it’s on the wild side, and people embraced it. Even with a conservative clientele, there’s a trend toward more organic-style or non-sulfured wines. I did La Clarine Farm’s petit manseng, and still wines from xarel-lo. The bartenders know how to sell those. Our bar has a real New York feel and we have people that are repeat customers and look for wines that are outliers.
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