Chris Raftery is the fifth wine director in Gramercy Tavern’s 25-year run—a long relay from Paul Grieco to Juliette Pope, with the baton briefly passed to Justin Timsit. Raftery’s career included stints at Momofuku and Corkbuzz Wine Studio before he joined the Gramercy Tavern team as a sommelier in early 2017. By that fall, he had taken over as wine director, managing six sommeliers and building the list to its current 800 SKUs, 100 more than he started with.
What accounts for those additional 100 wines?
Justin had stepped up the Burgundy game at Gramercy Tavern, so he already had done all the work there. What I always loved at Gramercy were the surprises, the assorted unconventional selections. So, I went back to fill in around the classic benchmark appellations. Lately, we’ve been trying to add a lot of Madeira and, on the bottle list, a lot of old Napa, sourcing from auction. We get a lot of requests from our guests, and our sommeliers get excited when they sell Napa with age—more than when they sell young New World cabernet. It’s a history lesson for them. We have tasting menus that include a lot of fish and vegetables; we’re not super meat- heavy. If Napa cabernet has some age, it’s a little friendlier with our tasting menus.
Are any regions booming?
We are seeing people ask for Austrian reds. And I’m a huge Austrian proponent. It’s one of my favorite countries to drink. We just sold two rotgipflers in the tavern room. One was to a table of sommeliers and the other was a solo guest. The wine directors before me laid that groundwork—Juliette and Paul were big proponents of Austrian wine. I remember, in 2016, we used to pour the Stadlmann Zierfandler—the 2012 Mandel Höh. So, there’s a history [with Austrian wines]. But now we’re seeing people come in and ask about the reds, which is funny. Blaufränkish and zweigelt—which some producers are now calling rotburger [because of the political history of its namesake, Dr. Zweigelt].
You report that wine sales, as a percentage of the restaurant’s total sales, increased significantly, even as wine prices remained steady.
We saw a lot of excitement celebrating Gramercy Tavern’s 25th anniversary. And we had our Tavern Takeovers with GT alums, both back of house and front of house. We asked the front-of-the-house alums to feature their own by-the-glass wines for the night and to select some wines for the pairings. Or, if they were back-of-house alums, to make some dishes they would offer for the night. Our current staff got to connect with ghosts of GT past, and we’ve decided we’re going to keep doing the Takeovers.
Another thing I was toying with for years, was offering Library Pairings in the dining room. Bottles we normally wouldn’t open for pairings, we would offer them at a premium price and we would Coravin the bottles. I don’t love using the Coravin at the table, but our guests liked it, and we kept using it even though we didn’t necessarily need to.
We’ve opened Château d’Yquem’s Y, Raveneau Montée de Tonnerre, Marquis d’Angerville Volnay Champans, Bartolo Mascarello Barolo. And we’d alternate between older Bordeaux and older Napa for the main course—we had Calon-Ségur 1994, since 1994 was the year GT was founded. And for dessert, the Rivesaltes D’Ambré, Domaine de Rancy 1948.
Our normal pairings are $99 and this was $299, but these were bottles on our list between $400 and $700. It allowed people who did want to spend a little money to have a seamless tasting experience. Sure, it’s great if you can come in and drop $800 on a Bordeaux, but is that going to be the best option for marinated fluke?
I read the reviews for GT every morning, and most of the ones that were mentioning the wine program were from people who were doing the Library Pairings. Maybe it took me so long to do this because I was terrified about the people doing the classic pairings [at $99]. I didn’t want them to feel that those weren’t amazing and interesting pairings. Maybe the Library Pairings are less of a discovery; they are benchmarks across the board. For the classic pairings, we get to nerd out and show people wines and vintages they may have never seen.
So, that helped revenue, because it was a hit. And because it was $299 per person—that’s a lot of money—we wanted to make sure people felt they were getting their money’s worth.
You list two Willamette pinots on your list of top-selling wines, and mention another as your best new success.
Willamette pinot certainly is strong. It’s more affordable than California pinot, in terms of the producers we list. And we do see an interest from our guests. People are coming in and asking for Willamette; I think Willamette is getting their message out loud and clear with consumers because it does seem to be working. I see our guests asking for California when it comes to cabernet and Willamette when it comes to pinot noir. I just ordered some Big Table Farm Sunnyside today.
As for chardonnay, the only one on your top-ten is a Chablis
I’m not saying Chablis is an affordable region, but it has a lower barrier to entry if people want to drink white Burgundy. We are getting a lot of asks for unoaked chardonnay. People in the past, when they asked for chardonnay, it was almost a code word for rich, oaked and buttery. We still do that follow-up question: “Would you like something fuller and richer or lean and mineral-driven?” Now people are responding with “lean and mineral-driven.” Which is great. It’s what sommeliers have hoped for twenty years. That wine—Agnès & Didier Dauvissat 2017 Beauroy—at $110, is a great value. It’s premier cru and sees neutral oak. It’s everything you want for a bright, refreshing expression of chardonnay.
And a Chianti Classico comes in at number one on your list of top-selling wines.
To be completely honest, I was surprised to see Chianti Classico there. I think price has something to do with it [$89]. People are familiar with sangiovese, which the list says at the top of that page. It’s selling itself. And sangiovese works well with our food—as does tempranillo: That savory note that they both have carries through in both rooms [the dining room and the tavern]. A well-balanced sangiovese or a well-balanced tempranillo won’t be aggressive with tannins; it will always have acidity and that savory quality adding umami or seasoning to the dish. People are comfortable ordering tempranillo from Rioja. I don’t know about other Spanish regions with the guests, but most people know Rioja.
Right after the Chianti Classico, you hit with a Right Bank Bordeaux.
I think the further we get away from Sideways, people are realizing that merlot is delicious. And for less expensive Bordeaux, it’s merlot. It goes back to how easy it is to pair with food. You’re getting everything people like in the New World—big ripe fruit, spice, chocolate and plum, everything that people who drink California are going to be cool with. The acid is integrated into ripe fruit so it’s not austere or scary for a New World wine drinker. The tannins are soft, rounded, velvety. For a long time, people would say that zinfandel is a somm’s guilty pleasure, but merlot is scratching that same itch for our guests. It’s pretty hard not to like. That St-Emilion satellite is the pairing whenever we run beef—there’s meat and potatoes, mushrooms, a little black truffle, and it’s perfect with that wine. It’s a combination of price and exposure: We are putting it in front of the guests because it’s the pairing wine. And people are just getting around to the fact that merlot is pretty delicious when it’s not abused and exploited and taken advantage of.
A 10 Year Tawny is your most popular after dinner wine, but then you list Château d’Yquem 2002 right after it, for $50 a glass.
For a while, during 2019, that was the only Sauternes we would offer by the glass; it was just a decision I made to put it on the glass list for a ridiculously low price. It was a huge success: People who know order it because you almost feel dumb not to order it. What, d’Yquem for $50? And with age. We don’t use it on a pairing; it’s selling because of the price.
No one is going to skip the Martini or the aperitif at the beginning of the meal to plan for the dessert wine. It will always be an add on, so even if a few people order it, it helps the bottom line. We used to have d’Yquem by the bottle and it would just sit there. And I said, Let’s put it on the glass list and see what happens, and it kind of flew. I ordered a six pack in September, twelve bottles in November, and seven bottles in December. Which isn’t crazy, but it’s significant. In the past, we probably wouldn’t have to order it at all, all year. Now we’re going through inventory, raising check averages, getting staff to taste it more.