James Conley of NYC’s Keens Steakhouse on California Reds and a New Generation in Rioja - Wine & Spirits Magazine

James Conley of NYC’s Keens Steakhouse on California Reds and a New Generation in Rioja

Prior to studying social anthropology and demography in graduate school, James Conley had studied Italian wine for six years while working at Le Madri. Back in NYC with a degree in hand, “I saw that I was either going to work for NGOs or maybe the World Bank,” he recalls. “Or possibly get into the lower rungs of academia. It just seemed like to be a happily married man, I’d be better off and make the same money working as a restaurant manager.” That’s how he booked a two-decade stint as the Service Director at Keens Steakhouse, only to take over wine from John Clement when he left in 2018. Conley had already been collaborating with Clement, handling the bulk of the wine education for the staff and overseeing wine service. “It just seemed a good chance for me to break out of what was a very demanding service position and get a little bit more involved with the nuts and bolts of managing our inventory and buying wine,” he recalls. —Joshua Greene

James Conley

A Focus on Reds

We are a classic steakhouse, so people come with a high expectation for cabernet sauvignon–based wines—Napa Valley and the Médoc. After that, in the broadest way, Italian wines, and the vast bulk of those will be Chianti or Brunello.

Grgich Hills cabernet, year after year, is a tent pole for us. Grgich is unstoppable here. We charge $140 a bottle, and we’re just wrapping up the 2018 vintage right now. Along with that, I’ve done very well with the Cain Concept; I really admire the way that estate’s been run. They had a rough go with Glass Fire in 2020, so I insist on having Cain Wines on the list, and we do very well. And I like Bruce Neyers’ Neyers Ranch Cabernet for steakhouse wine.

The waiters love to come to me and say, ‘Our customers say they don’t see anything they recognize in the Napa Valley Cabernets.’ It reflects that we’re going on how things taste. Big brands can be on the list, but they’ll suffocate anything interesting.

High-end wines do very well. The Arkenstone NVD, which is a second tier for them, was a very strong wine for us. A producer like Vineyard 29 produces what is really a wine designed for restaurants, called Cru, which is at a better price point. It’s produced using some purchased grapes, but it’s got more of their estate production. It’s more affordable so I can get it on the list for under $200.

I do very, very well every year with the Mascot bottling from Harlan, and that’s on the list at $325 a bottle. It doesn’t sell at the same volume as a wine that’s $140, but it’s a steady seller throughout. It’s surprising to me—I sold 220 bottles last year. I’m buying it 24 bottles at a time and making steady orders.

I have big stakes in wines from Peter Michael, I have big stakes in wines from Spottswoode and Shafer and I’m holding those back and doling those out slowly.

It’s been a philosophy that’s driven the wine department here, the idea is that if you come to Keens, you’ll find some stuff with some bottle age and that’ll surprise you, and it’ll be surprisingly affordable. I did a deep dive into our inventory and pulled out the Cariad 2003 from Colgin Cellars. I had a case and we’ve had it on the list for $650 and I think I’m down to maybe two bottles. I thought, maybe that’s a little long in the tooth, let’s get it out there. And I’ve only gotten very warm feedback from our guests.

• California Curious

For me, when we think of the history of the wine industry in California in the seventies, eighties and nineties, I really love the notion of smart, curious people who were able to establish wineries and go their own way—before the market really exploded for vineyard space. It’s really satisfying to present wines from Cathy Corison and get them out there and get a great reaction to them. We’ve talked about Steve Matthiasson and what he’s meant to the industry out there. And it’s great to get wine from producers when I feel like I align with their values. Bedrock is another producer that I really love to work with, and I’ll do big buys to get an exclusive of one of their wines whenever I can in this marketplace. I really like the idea of people that go out not to satisfy their ego so much as to satisfy their curiosity about what tilling the earth is all about, what being involved in agricultural production and then the artisanal production of fine wines on top of that is. That excites me quite a bit.

• A New Generation in Rioja

What I’m seeing coming from Rioja and to a lesser extent from Ribera del Duero is exciting to me. They’re very well-regulated areas and very large concerns, many of them doing excellent work. But I feel as though the door has opened somewhat for a new generation of winemakers who can manage more vineyard-specific wines, more minimal-intervention wines, and don’t feel hide-bound to lots of American oak. I find very good energy and creativity coming from lots of regions of Spain, but it’s been a lot of fun to see minimal intervention wines coming out of Rioja that aren’t necessarily dependent on tempranillo, and also more plot specific wines. The wines are compelling—there’s more acidity. It’s not coconut and vanilla over Titanic, high alcohol wines. The wines are elegant and I think they open the doors for people. We have a wine from a producer called Cuentaviñas, a single vineyard wine, Alomado, from the 2020 vintage. Really dense, but lively and ready to drink and not at all part of the heavy American oak regime or French oak regime that we see. And not a hint of reduction, but just a very bright, lively wine that I think offers some excitement for the guests when they taste it. So, that would the genius Alomado 2020, it’s something I’m excited about.

Lately, if I’m tasting Spanish wines and, to some extent, Portuguese wines, I’m likely to be impressed by how varied the selections have become, which I feel as though wasn’t necessarily that true before.

• Pinot at Elevation

There are impressive pinot noirs coming from many California regions—I love Anderson Valley and I love true Sonoma coast wines—Santa Cruz pinot noirs have the structure, they have the tannins, they have the length. I think it’s a sweet spot for California pinot noir. You can get a firm wine that is legitimately age worthy, and I put a value on that. I love, for example, what Rhys has done lately. Their Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir represents a very good value.  I also like Trail Marker, a smaller producer; I don’t think they own any vineyards, but they go in and they identify vineyards and sign long term deals.

I’m not going to say our clientele is conservative, but I’m going to say our clientele is very educated about what they like and they’re accomplished people and they trust their own intuition. Sometimes the wines that I would like to be able to show a bit more, in particular, pinot noirs that skew a little bit more towards the natural, can be a hard sell. And I get it. Pinot noir is a premium varietal. It’s expensive to produce and it’s expensive to buy. And people, sometimes, just want something that they feel is reliable.

• Single Malt with Steak

I would say with our history here, we’ve done a lot over the years to promote single-malt whiskeys with food. And I would say we have a good number of people here who I would trust tableside to walk people through a selection of whiskeys. And certainly we have bartenders I would trust with single malt whiskeys to promote those with steak. And I think that’s an easy win situation. A beautiful Islay whiskey is going to be pretty nice with the sirloin steak. I’m a little bit skeptical about whether Bourbons work as well with food. And also the same thing with the agave-based spirits. I think there are agave cocktails that might be great with food, but I don’t really feel as though the gastronomic potential is the same for most spirits compared to wine.

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.

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