A wine list isn’t the typical forum for addressing complex issues of history, heritage and culture; we’re more accustomed to encountering them in literature, art and film.
But when Micaela Grossman describes the inspiration behind the list she developed at Shalom Japan, the hybrid Jewish-Japanese restaurant that opened last year in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, these are the types of concerns she raises.
“I wanted to reflect the strong presence of Ashkenazi Jews in New York, as well as my own personal history,” she declares. “My great-great grandfather was from Tokaj, Hungary, and along with family from now defunct areas like Baden, Silesia and Prussia, he made his way to New York. This Jewish experience is at the core of the beverage program.”
Hence the restaurant’s unique anthropological focus upon wines that, in various ways, speak to the historic flow of the Jewish diaspora through Europe and the New World. While this might sound more like an exhibit at the Jewish History Museum than the concept for a beverage program, who hasn’t noticed how the language of aesthetics haunts the way we relate to what we eat and drink?
A restaurant “opens” like a play or museum exhibition. Ambitious chefs spend their formative years “apprenticing” under veteran masters. Bartenders practice the “art” of the cocktail and contribute to what we’ve coined the “drinking culture.” The most recent addition to the lexicon is the way sommeliers are now said to “curate” a wine list—a verb once reserved for fine art professionals with PhDs in fields like Renaissance architecture or early American landscape painting.
When all is said and done, no matter how thoughtfully assembled it may be, or however many palo cortados, skin-fermented sémillons or quirky Croatian reds might grace its pages, a wine list is never going to be War and Peace. All the same, as public interest in the social and historical aspects of wine continues to grow, sommeliers and beverage directors face a new opportunity to engage audiences in unexpected ways. As a result, the conventions of the wine list as a genre are starting to widen in scope.
In this context, of course, the word simply refers to the process of discrimination that coheres into a final selection of whites and reds. But given all the analysis we tend to project these days upon what and how we drink, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask whether a beverage program could be “curated” in a broader sense, to communicate a vision beyond the basic function of telling us what might taste good with our rack of lamb.
If this line of questioning strikes you as a bit self-conscious or overblown, I understand. When all is said and done, no matter how thoughtfully assembled it may be, or however many palo cortados, skin-fermented sémillons or quirky Croatian reds might grace its pages, a wine list is never going to be War and Peace. All the same, as public interest in the social and historical aspects of wine continues to grow, sommeliers and beverage directors face a new opportunity to engage audiences in unexpected ways. As a result, the conventions of the wine list as a genre are starting to widen in scope.
How does all this translate into drinkable terms? Well, in Shalom Japan’s case, in addition to areas of Italy, France and Spain that once contained vibrant Jewish communities, their list features a diverse catalog of wines from Central and Eastern Europe, Ashkenazi culture’s ancestral home turf, whose wine industries have recently begun to revitalize after decades of stagnation behind the Iron Curtain. In this way, the program enacts a kind of liquid continuity with the past. As Grossman puts it, “It’s very easy to drink a bottle from Slovenia and imagine that a hundred years ago, there could have been a family sitting down to a Shabbat dinner drinking the same wine.”
To a certain extent, the ambitions behind the list rely upon customers’ willingness to engage more actively than they might be accustomed. For many, the prospect of navigating a complex set of choices, particularly featuring such heavily accented proper nouns as Babić and Hárslevelű, is difficult enough without having to worry about any underlying raison d’être. That said, the experience of drinking a bottle like the 2009 Fekete Béla Juhfark—a rich and smoky Hungarian white from the Somló region—is invariably enhanced when you learn that the area’s wines were personal favorites of Emperor Joseph II, who in 1783 issued the Systematica Gentis Judaicae Regulatio, a decree that officially lifted centuries of oppressive restrictions on Hungary’s Jews.
Once you take the wine list on its own terms, however, you realize that the subject at hand isn’t without its deeper complications. Given the strong historical context in which the list operates, for instance, the act of ordering a bottle of German Riesling, which I’ve done countless times at other restaurants without thinking twice, assumes a disproportionate weight. But the bottle of 2002 C.H. Berres “Wehlener Klosterberg” Kabinett I drank one evening with dinner wound up sparking a heartfelt discussion with my mother—herself the daughter of holocaust survivors from Poland—about why she finally, after many years, decided to buy a German car, and the war’s lasting impact upon her childhood in Caracas, Venezuela, where my grandparents relocated after leaving Europe.
While this isn’t exactly casual dinnertime conversation, it’s rare for a beverage program to invite this kind of dialogue or raise such far-reaching concerns. With this in mind, the overarching themes of diaspora and homecoming find a kind of completion in the domestic section, which champions local producers from the Finger Lakes and Long Island. New York, after all, is the second largest Jewish community in the world, with a native ethos of its own, and the list pays thoughtful homage to that fact. “Jews have always appropriated the surrounding culture while maintaining a sense of self,” Grossman explains. “My dad’s family owned a shoe factory in Clinton Hill, and New York is my ancestral home as much as anywhere else.”
Her only regret, she jokes, is that she couldn’t find any wine from Boca Raton.