Sarah Looper of NYC’s Mas (La Grillade) on US wines for a French list

Prior to joining Mas (La Grillade) as wine director in the middle of 2013, Sarah Looper worked at the Grand Tier of the Metropolitan Opera House (she’s been in the restaurant business for almost as long as W&S has been conducting its Annual Poll). Stephanie Johnson spoke with Looper about her new role in the West Village.

What are the most important factors driving your choices for the wine list at Mas (La Grillade)?

Chef Galen Zamarra wants a predominantly French list with some American influence, to pair well with the French-influenced style of the cuisine. He cooks very seasonally, and has personal relationships with purveyors, so part of my job is to follow that lead with wines. Right now he’s doing a lot of rich roasted meats and game, so I’ve gone with wines from Bandol, Bordeaux and the Rhône to match his menu. We have a small cellar, and can carry only about 125 selections, so the wine list changes almost daily. I need to keep tasting all the time and looking for new wines. I’m not building the list with wine awards in mind, I’m really trying to true to the chef’s style and what will work best with his menu.

Your biggest success last year was from Bordeaux. Did that surprise you?

There are guests who say they want something big, so you need to have those wines for them, and if they go to France, often they feel more comfortable going to familiar name like Bordeaux. The 2006 Château La Peyre Saint-Estèphe tastes like real Bordeaux should—it has pencil lead, eucalyptus, it’s not all polished or velvety, and I can sell it for $85 a bottle. How can you beat that? It’s like a quick trip to Bordeaux in a bottle.

Sancerre also did well for you last year.

The 2012 Domaine Pastou Sancerre Les Boucaults was our second best-selling wine. Sancerre is in fashion now. People know what it is, and this is a big generalization, but I think people’s palates are starting to gravitate to wines with more minerality and less “buttery” flavors. That’s a far cry from where things were 10 years ago.

Although your list is predominantly French, your top-selling wine by both bottle and glass is Cristom’s Pinot Noir, their 2011 Mount Jefferson Cuvée. What makes it so popular? 

I had been pouring a French pinot noir – the 2010 Hippolyte-Reverdy Sancerre Rouge – but the vintage ran out. Cristom hit all of my criteria for wines by the glass. First and foremost, any by-the-glass selection has to be delicious, and the Cristom is. It tastes Burgundian, is varietally correct, pairs well with a wide variety of dishes on our menu, and over-delivers for the price. Beyond that, Cristom is an easy name to pronounce, and I think people like to support domestic wines. Pinot noir as a variety typically sells well because of its versatility, but this one has been a runaway train. I can’t keep it in stock. 

You have a number of interesting California selections on your list. What are you looking for when making domestic selections?
As with most selections, I’m looking for delicious wines that have great food-pairing capabilities. Not all domestic wines pair well with our menu. I don’t look for big-scoring, impressive labels. I look for the “liquid sunshine” that’s characteristic of California, but not in an extracted way. I’m interested in the smaller California vintners who are doing the right thing in their vineyard practices—people like Paul Draper at Ridge, Ted Lemon at Littorai, Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope, Cathy Corison, Tegan Passalacqua, Celia Welch, Bob Varner…all of the class acts who pay attention to microclimates and soil.

I love Steve Matthiasson; he’s a farmer at heart. His wines reflect what he is doing viticulturally, and they are absolutely delicious with very fine foods. Kevin Kelley of Salinia is a rock star. I added his red Rhône blend from Sun Hawk Farms vineyard in Mendocino. It’s chewy, funky, naughty, $75 on the list, and people love it. The roles of viticulturalist and winemaker are really dovetailing now in California.

Did you make any changes when you took over the list?

When I came on board, I tried to put myself in my guest’s seat. What would I be looking for? Mas (La Grillade) can be a destination for people on special occasions, and sometimes people want more affordable wines. They might get sticker shock and feel uncomfortable. I tried to make sure that we had a nice variety of sub-$60 and sub-$80 wines on the list, like the Picq Chablis at $65 and the Chanteleuserie Bourgueil at $45. Bottles like these make it feel a bit more affordable, and sometimes help us get a second bottle on the table. I try to focus on things to make the guests feel comfortable, while always keeping the deliciousness bar very high.

Tags  2014 Restaurant Poll