Sarah Sutel Looper of NYC’s Almanac on Italy, Spain and New York - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Sarah Sutel Looper of NYC’s Almanac on Italy, Spain and New York

Sarah Sutel Looper worked with the beverage programs at Blue Ribbon, Elsewhere and The Metropolitan Opera House before signing on as wine director at Chef Galen Zamarra’s Mas (farmhouse) in 2013. She helped open sister restaurant Almanac in November, 2014, and now presides over the wine lists at both.

On Italian wines

Italy makes wonderful supporting wines for fish. They don’t steal the show like a Puligny-Montrachet might. I’ve added falanghina, fiano, catarrato—whites that can work with chef Galen [Zamarra]’s fish preparations that are super light in a clean crudo style, or roasted oysters with parnip fondue that is really rich and deep. I’m pairing that oyster dish with La Rivolta Falanghina del Sannio from Taburno. The smoky flavors are delicious with the oysters.

I find pinot gris is one of those few wines that’s friends with cauliflower. I pair the Köfererhof Pinot Gris with the cauliflower and roasted scallop dish and people will say “Pinot gris—really?” and I can see in their eyes that they’re not expecting much. I pour this into a Bordeaux glass to give it room and let it’s hair down to show that beautiful crushed alpine rock minerality and acidity. It’s an amazing pairing.

With short ribs, I want Brunello or Barolo, and so do my guests. Having sangiovese and nebbiolo from Italy on the list makes such a difference, especially in the winter when your body craves full body, tannins, acids, because you’re eating foods that want those flavors.

On New York State Wines

Because chef is trying to work so seasonally, I wanted to look locally. I went on a trip to the Finger Lakes about three years ago. Two of the wines that impacted me then were the Tierce Riesling—ripping acidity—and Sheldrake Point.

There was a dinner where the winemaker from Sheldrake paired some of his back vintages and they were beautiful. It showed me that his wines can age beautifully and gracefully. He poured an auslese-style wine from the 90’s with a rich pork and caramelized onion dish and it was insane. Sheldrake’s Dry Riesling is so delicious and it’s only $40; for a wet-your-whistle wine, how can you not love that?

The Ryan William Estate Riesling is like a middleweight fighter, not as feather light as Sheldrake Point, with a barely there kiss of residual sugar so you can feel it but not taste it; it’s a great food wine.

I don’t have any New York State reds. I’m not as enchanted with those as I am with the whites.

On a Ribera del Duero as the biggest new success

Peter Sisseck’s Psi is like ‘Pingus for the People’ and it satisfies the California cab drinker. It has high-toned red fruit peaks, not as much oak, and the texture is beautiful. That wine makes me want to eat.

I don’t have a ton of Spanish wines on the list yet. That’s a rabbit hole I could totally run down, but I decided, why not make my Spanish section short but killer. Why not just get a few wines from really great producers that are completely different from one another?

The Viña Sastre Ribera del Duero Crianza is more black fruited, and shows more oak influence.

And I can get the Hermanos Peciña Rioja Gran Reserva 2001 for a fraction of a grand cru ‘01 red Burgundy, and it’s so classic and traditional. Delicious.

Ninja Cider

Cider was one of those categories that I never quite paid attention to. I was inspired to add cider to the list by two of my servers (we call them ninjas because they wear all black and go in super stealthy to clear tables). They decided to make their own cider last spring, I tasted them and some were delicious. I ended up going to Cider Week and tasted some really good ones, but the Aaron Burr Ciders were head and shoulders above most of others. I decided to add a little cider category with just a few examples from this one producer that I really love. I only charge a little bit above retail to keep them affordable and encourage people to try them.

And Dessert

We do a fair amount of dessert wine; it’s a way to put an exclamation point at the end of a meal. Sometimes I make it part of the pairing menu—when chef does duck liver I like to pair it with Sauternes. People are sometimes confused when it comes early in the progression, but there’s so much acidity in it that it cleanses your palate and makes you ready for the next dish. I’ll throw down three-quarters of an ounce with an amuse—what a great way to start a meal. We sell a lot of Cascina Ca’Rossa Birbet sparkling brachetto for $8—that’s the price of a latte at Starbucks! It’s pink, effervescent, tart, with just a little sugar and enough acidity—who wouldn’t want to end a meal with that? You can pair it with fruit, sweet things like lingonberry marshmallows, savory desserts like chestnut and almond, bittersweet chocolate and hazelnut. Pairing the right dessert wine is like a gas pedal and brake at the end of a meal—“Whoo, what a great way to finish—and now I’m done!”

is the Italian wine editor at Wine & Spirits magazine.