Now with a decade under his belt as the wine director at NYC’s Waverly Inn, Jeff Harding got his start in wine managing a château rental in the Loire Valley, where he would cook for guests from as far afield as Russia and Taiwan. In his free time, he visited wineries, and says he was primed for the sommelier classes Andrew Bell taught at the Bowery Bar when he started there as a manager. It was under the same ownership as the Waverly Inn, where he moved in first as a manager. Filling in for a sommelier, he realized how much he liked the role and a year later he was directing the program. —Joshua Greene
What categories or regions of wine interest you most?
Bordeaux, for one. When I started as wine director ten years ago, all the cool kids were doing Rhône and Burgundy, and I figured if I was going to have an identity in the world, I needed to pick a place. Nobody was really focusing on Bordeaux. And so I made a lot of changes on the list and had a lot more Bordeaux. It started getting noticed by producers—I’ve met a lot of people and I’ve been many times. So, that’s a soft spot. And I do love the wines.
Southwest France, because I went to school in Pau for a year. Which is right next to Jurançon. And then I have friends in Roussillon. I find it very charming and kind of isolated — an underdog region.
And I recently became a brand ambassador for Vinho Verde, teaching a handful of classes. I do love all of Portugal, but I know a little bit more about Vinho Verde—that was one of my favorite places in Portugal. There’s the cheap and cheerful traditional style, but then there are really well-made single-variety wines or blends. When I was over there this last time, we met Luis Seabra in a bar and he pulled out a Meursault and he’s like, “Now taste my wine.” Then he pulled out a Chablis and he is like, “Now taste my wine.” And it was just shocking that they were totally on an even keel.
What regions do you focus on at the Waverly Inn?
The restaurant is sort of a flashback to the fifties, or the seventies—the menu is traditional. We have pot pie, Dover sole, those kinds of things. And so I try to keep the list fairly classic. My focus is Bordeaux and Burgundy. I sell a lot of Italian, just because it’s New York. And I have California because a lot of our clientele is from there.
In Bordeaux, I have really good success with second wines from classified houses. It can be $200 and it’s still a fantastic wine, so I really like those. One that comes to mind is Tourelles de Longueville. Since AXA took over Pichon Baron, the wines have just been so fantastic. I know that even if it’s not a great vintage, they’ll release only great wines. People say, I want to get a cabernet. And I’m like, Do you want Bordeaux or do you want California? A lot of times they’ll say, Well, I can tell from your list, you love Bordeaux. The Tourelles is a little more of a, for lack of a better word, modern style, that shows more fruit. It’s approachable for California lovers and it’s still earthy, so it’s going to be great with food. And so that’s a pretty easy sell.
In Burgundy, my favorite thing is to go to a great producer that I know and get their Bourgogne Rouge. Like Sylvain Cathiard— Sébastien is making it, and I can sell a Cathiard wine for under $200. And it’s—I mean, this is my understanding, that you have all these cuvées and you’ve got a little bit of Romanée-St-Vivant, you got a little bit of your premier cru, and that’s your Bourgogne Rouge. Years ago, Peter Wasserman told me that the Bourgogne Rouge is actually Cathiard’s most allocated wine. He makes much less of it. So I can basically get six bottles a year. I always get it in direct import in the spring, and then my rep will say, “Hey, all the DIs are done. Some people didn’t get their stuff. Do you want to look and see what is picked over?” And there’s usually some of those in there.
Is there a new category that you added to your list this year that got some traction?
I put Portugal on for the first time this year. And people are open to it. The reds, people kind of find themselves. And the whites…you often get, I want something dry and crisp. I mean, they always say, Not sweet. And then I have some Spanish albariño, too, some of the really good ones are doing well. I think that’s albariño in general. I’ve added higher-end Rías Baixas and a higher-end alvarinho—meaning like a hundred dollars each. And they’re selling very well. When people come to the Waverly Inn, it’s a destination dinner and they don’t want a wine that they can get in the wine store for $6 to $10. For albariño, Olé & Obrigado has some really, really good producers. I am doing Muti from Alberto Orte, and Leirana from Rodrigo Méndez (Forjas del Salnés).
Was there a bottle of wine that you sold this year that really excited you to be able to sell?
Sylvain Cathiard’s aligoté was a revelation—it was kind of creamy without being fat, and it was very different than Sylvain Pataille’s style. It was just so rich and luxurious. It was hard to see it as aligoté. I tasted it in the DI round in the spring, and I was like, Oh, it’s okay. It’s nice. It’ll serve its purpose and I can sell it for under $150, which is high for aligoté, but it’s so Cathiard and I love everything he does. And so I ordered a six-pack and I had it on a list and this woman came in and she said she wanted that. My staff hadn’t opened the box and put it in the walk-in yet—it was the first time on the list. And I told her that, and I said, I can chill it for you. It’s just going to be a few minutes. And she said, That’s fine; I really want to get that one. And it turns out she’s a buyer from a restaurant in Nantucket, and she loves Sylvain Cathiard, and she was so excited to try it. We had a nice long conversation and, ever since then, I’m just blown away by it.
Is there a category of or region for wine that you would like to be able to sell but just can’t?
Sweet wine is always a soft spot for me. People are afraid of it. Did you see Jay-Z and Beyoncé were in Bordeaux, and they just put a picture up of him holding some Yquem going, That’s amazing. So let’s hope that that has an impact.
Yeah, sweet wine from all over, but they’re just so exceptional. And, again, so undervalued. I’ve written a number of articles about how you should bring Sauternes to Thanksgiving; you should have a sip at New Year’s to look back. And try to pair it with things. People are so afraid of sweet wine for whatever reason, even when they order something red and dry from the book, they’re like, Nothing sweet. And I’m like, there’s one sort-of-sweet wine in this whole book, except the last page. And then when you give them one… I had a hedge fund guy come in, and all his young bro bankers were there and they had to spend another $1,200 to make their minimum, because they had a private room.
And so I talked to the guy and I brought a bottle of Yquem around and I poured, I got 15 pours out of the seven-fifty, and everybody was like, Whoa, what is this? And then the guy who was a wine guy had to explain, This is one of the greatest wines in the world that you’re missing out on. So that was kind of fun.
I have a second wine from Rieussec that I serve at the bar in a Sauternes cocktail, and it’s just over ice with an orange twist on the rim because that’s what they give you at Yquem in the salon—their declassified Yquem. At many, many parties or for a Bordeaux dinner, I’ll greet people with that. And it’s such an easy thing to just keep a bottle in your refrigerator; when you have guests over, you have a cocktail ready.
Are there other beverage categories that are hitting into the wine sales at your restaurant?
God, yes. Espresso martinis. It’s ever since the pandemic, everybody drinks so much more liquor and espresso martinis are just, I mean, we probably do 60 or 70 a night, out of 200 people. It’s insane. And now they’re having them before dinner. I’m just, Really? Are you having a sweet coffee drink before dinner? It’s like, ugh. That and Dirty Martinis have taken over.
Is there a category in wine that you see gaining ground?
I think people are becoming a little more knowledgeable about sparkling outside of Champagne, and I hear more requests for that. But I just deal with Champagne, just because we’re kind of snotty about it. We’re the Waverly Inn; we’re going to just sell Champagne.
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