Neal McCarthy of Miller Union on Playing Favorites and Knowing the Classics

The force behind Atlanta’s James Beard Outstanding Wine Program semifinalist talks when you can, and can’t, drink hipster.

Born in Essex, England, and raised in Kent, Neal McCarthy began his restaurant career began where many others did: working in McDonalds. When he moved to Philadelphia at age 18 he took those skills to a cheesesteak place. Eventually, he moved to Atlanta and landed at Sotto Sotto, where he worked his way from busboy to GM. It took another 10 years for him to open his own restaurant—Miller Union—alongside chef Steven Satterfield in 2009. Citing Italian wines as his first love, McCarthy initially built the wine program at Miller Union around the classics, then went on to cut his teeth on the rest of the world. Today, the restaurant has been a repeated James Beard nominee for Outstanding Wine Program.

Domaine Faury St-Joseph and Alain Voge Cornas top your bestsellers.
Syrah is definitely a thing I’ve been going through lately. I love the classics; I love drinking old Côte Rôtie. I went to Chave last year; listening to him was one of those moments in my life when I thought, ‘I will never be the same.’ Sitting in a cellar with a million bottles of wine going back to the 1800s, and listening to this man talk about wine and the history of it, gave me a huge understanding…. The Alain Voge Cornas—being as it was ’14, the retailers didn’t buy it, so I think it went on inventory reduction, and it’s such a great wine at that price point ($132) that I was able to move quite a few bottles. And the St-Joseph is on the list at $56; it gives us the chance to upsell from something we have by the glass without intimidating [customers]. It’s just like, ‘hey, this is a kickass bottle of wine for $56; you’re getting some really pure fruit.’

Great Grüner Veltliner
I always look at regions and ask, ‘what’s the best wine in that region for the money?’ Obviously, we can’t drink DRC and first-growth Bordeaux, and now we can’t drink the upper echelons of Barolo, but I can still drink the best of best of Austria’s grüner veltliner. This [Weingut Prager Wachau Achleiten Grüner Veltliner] is one of the best bottlings of grüner veltliner, and at $100 on the wine list, it’s really in the sweet spot. Being able to offer it at that price, and with grüner veltliner being one of the most versatile wines to serve with about with anything—and we’re pretty veg-centric—I can sell those all day.

On Beaujolais
Morgon—I’ve been buying Foillard since the day we opened. We tend to always have a gamay on by the glass. Again, it’s, ‘what’s the greatest bottle you can drink from that region?’ I don’t have to spend more than $100 to have best-of-the-best of [Beaujolais]. It is one of those things where you do have to change people’s perceptions—the vast majority of people still associate Beaujolais with Nouveau—but [the Morgon] is good and it’s not expensive.

On Classics
What I’ve come to understand is, if you don’t understand the classics first then you can’t drink the hipsters. You’ve got so many young sommeliers that skip the basics, the classics, and go straight to the Jura. If Bordeaux’s not your thing, that’s fine, but understand that if it wasn’t for those regions, then all of these other places wouldn’t be on wine lists at all.

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