Gabriela Davogustto, of Clay, NYC on Nerello Mascalese and Czech White Blends

Plus, how a Harlem sommelier hooked her FedEx guy on barbera

Gabriela Davogustto completed a culinary program at Institute of Culinary Education and worked briefly in kitchens before realizing she belonged at the front of the house. She started studying wine in the WSET program and is now just one course away from the Diploma. On the way to her job at Vinateria in Harlem, Davogustto would often notice the beautiful building at the corner of 123rd and Manhattan Avenue, and in 2017 she jumped at the chance to open Clay in that very space. Davogustto curated a list of about 200 wine selections that complement the farm-to-table menu created by her husband, executive chef Gustavo Lopez. She draws largely from artisanal producers in Italy, Spain, France and California, and you have to search hard to find selections priced north of $100.

The selections in your top ten list include wines from five different countries. What are some of the factors you consider in putting together your list?
My concept for wine list was to present wines that are done with very low intervention but are still clean and precise. Some natural wines can have a flavor profile that requires a whole education before you can appreciate them. I wanted to have wines that are just delicious and clean even if you don’t know anything about them. I also look for wines that are affordable and try to offer a lot in the $60 to $70 range so people will feel comfortable trying wines that are different varieties or from different areas.

I don’t have a set number of wines per region; if I discover wines that I like or find exciting, I just add them. Lately, I have found a lot of wines from Bierzo that are exciting, especially the wines from Raúl Pérez and César Márquez. One thing I think is great is that our neighborhood and our customers have been very open to the wines and food we offer. It’s very nice to see the people appreciate all the hard work we do.

Your biggest success last year was a nerello mascalese from Mount Etna. What did your guests like about that wine?
That was one of the wines that was received with a lot of excitement. The wine (Eduardo Torres Acosta Terre Siciliane Versante Nord) is delicious, super well-made and balanced. Also, the story is great. The winemaker is from the Canary Islands and moved to Sicily to start making wines there. Both places have volcanic soils.

Your top glass pour was the Iuli 2017 Monferrato Barbera. What made that wine so popular?
The first time I tried it was at a portfolio tasting, and it was truly extraordinary. When you taste this barbera, you wouldn’t place it anywhere other than Piemonte. It’s also very approachable, very elegant and charming, and the quality-value ratio is great. There was this one guy who worked at the FedEx office on 125th Street and he had never drunk wine before. He started coming here and fell in love with the Iuli barbera, and then he started getting into all the details of natural wines. That was fun.

One of your top glass pours is a white blend from the Czech Republic. How did that wine become such a top seller?
That wine [Milan Nestarec 2016 Moravia Bel] is one-third each of grüner veltliner, Müller-Thurgau and welschriesling. The winemaker is very young. He used to work with Ales Kristancic at Movia [in Slovenia], then went back to his family vineyards. The previous vintage of this wine was a little funkier, it has a little bit of skin contact and a little RS, but this vintage is more clean and mineral, and it comes in a liter bottle. Ian Harris [chief executive of the WSET] came to dinner with Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW [director of NYC’s International Wine Center], and they ordered this wine. I was terrified he wouldn’t like it because the Brits tend to prefer classic wines, but he told me, ‘I have never tried a wine that combines all these grapes, but I love it.’

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by Stephanie Johnson