Born in Belgium, Cedric Nicaise moved to the States when he was five, though he spent time in Europe every year while growing up. He graduated from Ithaca College with a history degree and remained in upstate New York, working in restaurants. In 2009, he took a job at Aureole in NYC, developing his skills as a sommelier and bar manager before joining Eleven Madison Park’s wine team in 2012. Nicaise has been wine director at the three-Michelin-star dining room since 2015, and he and his team manage a 5,000-bottle list. He reports that 90 percent of guests at the restaurant order wine with dinner: “Even people who start with a cocktail will still have some wine.”
It surprised me to see selections as disparate as a California zinfandel (Mount Peak), an Alessandria Barolo and a López de Heredia Rioja as your top-selling wines. Is that just a random occurrence, given the breadth of your list?
We sold eight bottles of that zin, eight bottles of López, eight of Alessandria. Once you remove by-the-glass wines, there are eight wines of which we sold eight bottles, three wines that sold seven bottles, fifteen that sold six. It’s like 1,000 wines that sold three bottles. We sold 1,600-plus individual wines [by the bottle] in three months. It’s a total coincidence that we happen to sell eight bottles of one thing. I eliminated all of our private dining room wines [for the purposes of the poll], but we do allow guests in the PDR [private dining room] to order off the restaurant list—honestly, eight bottles of one wine could all be ordered on the same day. When you have 5,000 different SKUs, the chance that one gets ordered even in a year isn’t high. If we buy a case of something, we’ll sell it over three or four years.
It’s an important point, which is why, for the purposes of the poll, we only consider the data in aggregate, spread over all the respondents. But specifically, at Eleven Madison Park, what are the most important categories for wine sales right now?
California cabernet and Bordeaux are both big categories. My gut says that cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir make up fifty percent of our red wine sales. But we also sell a lot of syrah—eighty percent of it from the Rhône. In some ways, there’s much more value in syrah in the Old World than in the New—great Napa Valley syrah is expensive, and even Arnot-Roberts is hitting the list at $150-plus. Syrah is a big category because it’s the best natural pairing with our most popular dish, the whole roasted duck. The duck is always covered in Sichuan peppercorns, lavender and honey. It’s just a perfect match—the spice in the duck and the spice in the syrah, and the fat of the duck with a syrah that’s naturally high in acidity. It’s as close to a home run as you can hit.
What’s the stealth order at Eleven Madison Park?
I have a huge Beaujolais section on our list that is never being picked—fifty SKUs of Beaujolais. You can drink 2013 Lapierre for $105. And there’s tons of other great stuff. What’s unique about the EMP list is the amount of value. It’s important to have the really expensive, culty wine because that’s what a big portion of our clientele wants. But a lot of our guests are people celebrating a birthday or an anniversary, and they’ve saved up to have a great night. We’re close to 800 wines under $150 on the list. To me, that’s the price point I drink in, so if I’m not respecting what I drink, I’m a hypocrite.