Jeff Harding of Waverly Inn in NYC on Dirty Martinis and Big Spending - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Jeff Harding of Waverly Inn in NYC on Dirty Martinis and Big Spending

Jeff Harding has been the beverage director of NYC’s Waverly Inn for 11 years. This West Village mainstay features a predominantly traditional French list with special attention to Bordeaux, the Roussillon and Southwest French appellations like Madiran and Rivesaltes.

Have you noted any change in wine drinking habits over the course of the pandemic?

We’ve definitely noticed—since the first year of the pandemic—a lot more people drinking liquor, like Martinis. I can’t find olive juice for dirty Martinis at the three big brands—there’s an olive juice shortage no one is talking about!

In the first year we kind of figured it was because clubs and bars were closed—we noticed that the clientele was much younger, and we attributed it to kids who couldn’t go out to regular nightlife. So they came out and had a hamburger and five Martinis. I’m not even kidding. It’s gotten a little bit back towards our normal thing. But Martinis are crazier than ever.

I think almost everybody has something to drink, so wine-by-the-glass sales have increased. And I think that that is more because, if you think about the people who two, three years ago, weren’t having a drink with dinner because they are more cautious or are on medication or whatever, I think those people are staying home. Honestly, the people who come out are drinking.

Are they spending more?

Sporadically you’ll get someone on a Tuesday that will blow lot of money on a wine, but I feel that there used to be more expense-account dinners and Wall Street guys who’d have six $300 bottles, and you don’t see that anymore. But somebody will come in like last night: This guy comes in and says, “well, we’re gonna get this bottle, but oh, you have the Krug ’96 at $1,300. Well, we’ll take that, too.” It’s just randomly, out of the blue, somebody will drop $2,000 on a Puligny on a Tuesday for two people. Some are spending more; some are spending less.

December was different. Before Omicron put the kibosh on it, when everybody goes out for the last time with their friends before the holiday break or after their gift shopping, or it’s a Christmas party or it’s a post-Christmas party, all of those people came out like, “Oh, well, normally I spend $200 on a bottle of wine, but I haven’t been out for six weeks. Let’s get a $400 bottle.”

You noted that you hear more calls for sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon.

I think it’s just a tried and true. And one of the hardest things for me as a wine director that you put together this fascinating list, and you’re in love with these wines and oh, this great guy is making biodynamic wine from diverse vineyards in Southwest France, and oh, you want a Sancerre? Okay, fine. But in a way it’s crushing. But when somebody comes out to see their friend that they haven’t seen in two years, they just want something to drink and they don’t want to think about it. It’s “get me a Sancerre, because I know it and I know I can afford it and it’s just a safe bet.” People don’t want to think about it. In a way it’s like a comfort food.

But often instead of Sancerre I have sauvignon blanc from Bordeaux as my by-the-glass because I love Bordeaux. And then I have a cabernet from Sonoma, as it’s a little more European style and those make me happy.

On natural/orange wine

I don’t get that many requests because we’re not a wine bar. We’re not a hip downtown place. We’re a bit trendy in like a middle America way, not like a hipster trendy. Now and then someone asks me. I ask, “do you want biodynamic and organic and skin contact? Or do you want Cameron Diaz’s clean wine, or something that tastes like a hoppy beer? It’s frustrating because it’s such a broad category and often they don’t know what “natural wine” is.

On the everlasting popularity of rosé

We were selling a lot more rosé by the glass this year—even more than last year. And who knows why, but I think people are used to drinking rosé year-round. It’s also it’s as versatile as Champagne in that it goes with everything. If you don’t know what to drink, get a rosé. I’m shocked at my rosé by the glass. Usually, I put on a darker rosé, like a Bandol or a Sancerre rosé or something that’s a little bigger, and this year I overcommitted on my Provence, so I just kept it on, and it did really well. Every time I had to order three more cases of rosé in December, I’m like, what?

On sparkling wines in coupe glasses

In the spring, there was that moment when it felt like, “COVID is over. It’s going to be the Roaring Twenties! We’re going to have a blast!” And so I switched to coupe glasses. We were very clearly wrong about that, but people love the coupe glasses—everybody comments, ‘oh, you have coupe glasses!’ They really don’t do a favor to tasting the wine, but they are fun to drink out of. And so, I don’t think that increases the sales because they don’t know it comes in a coupe until the drink comes to the table, but maybe they have a second glass because of that.

On après-ski in the city

Last winter, I did this après-ski thing—my friend Carrie Strong said she was going to an ice festival in Pennsylvania, so I got this idea— this was last December and January, when we were all outside during COVID—let’s do something to tell the world, “Hey, put your ski pants on and come out! If you bundle up, it’s actually kind of fun to sit outside.” And so, I partnered with some Champagne companies and a fashion brand. There was a woman who organized trade shows for clothing companies, and she hired a videographer and a professional photographer, and I did three fashion shows on the street with Champagne. And it was because they couldn’t get to trade shows. That was a bizarre thing to be a part of, but it was a lot of fun to pour Champagne outside in a fashion show in the middle of winter, and it got people out—we were full on a Sunday night.

is W&S’s editor at large and covers the wines of the Mediterranean and Central and Eastern Europe for the magazine.

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