The first mention of wine in a weekly New York Times restaurant review was concise: “Wines in bottles and carafes.” It appeared on May 18, 1962, in the first installment of a series called “Directory to Dining” by Craig Claiborne describing Gaston, an “inspired French kitchen” at 48 East 49th Street. Over the course of Claiborne’s decade-long role as a critic, the father of the Times’ restaurant review never wasted much ink on wine. Even when these short missives developed into starred evaluations in 1963, wine was mentioned when it comprised the base for a bordelaise sauce, or when a misstep in service provided Claiborne with occasion to cast his sly humor on the interaction. Every so often Montrachet, Pouilly-Fuissé or Saint-Émilion got a generic shout-out, sometimes with a vintage, but wine mentions were mostly deployed as a scale of pricing.
To be fair, there wasn’t very much to write about in those days. Only three decades removed from Prohibition and the Great Depression and two from World War II, America’s cellars were still relatively homogeneous. If you were eating Italian, you drank Italian. Anywhere else, you drank French. When a wine list was written up as “good” or “adequate,” there was little explanation for what constituted such a conclusion. Colman Andrews, co-founding editor of Saveur, recalls the state of dining criticism in the late 1960s, when he began writing: “I noticed critics around the country almost never mentioned wine, or when they did, it was quick mention, not very considered,” he says. “There was a lack of awareness of what constituted a good wine list.”
This trend of glancing appraisal continued through critics Raymond Sokolov (1971-1973), John L. Hess (1973-1974) and John Canaday’s (1974-1976) tenures at the paper. But in 1976, something shifted. Not only did May 24th’s famed “Judgment of Paris” (the first instance in which California wines were rated over French in a blind tasting) bring domestic wine into the global spotlight, but Mimi Sheraton joined the Times as food critic, giving the post a new sense of studied authority.
A tireless researcher who once famously collected 104 corned beef sandwiches in a day for a piece about delis, Sheraton began to call out wines by producer. It wasn’t very often, and it rarely garnered more than a line, but her choices strayed from the traditional. In a 1977 review of Gargiulo’s, in Coney Island, she notes a Bolla Bardolino for $6 a bottle and “a tangy, refreshing Sicilian Alcamo Rosso” for $7.50 (about $26 and $33 today, respectively). In a 1977 review of Pantheon, a Greek restaurant in the Theater District, she enjoys “a sharply astringent resin-tinged retsina.” At Red Tulip, in 1978, she tastes a “dry, gold-colored Tokay Szamorodni” and an Egri Bikaver, a historic Hungarian red blend, both for $8.50 a bottle. In 1980, she writes about the joys of Austrian whites at the four-star Upper East Side restaurant Vienna ’79 and takes pleasure in a “smooth Spanish red Rioja bottled by Federico Paternino[sic]” in 1984.
Sheraton also began the practice of evaluating wine lists, calling out the now-institutional Raoul’s back in 1976 for not listing prices, and faulting Le Cirque for its expensive, “unimaginative and unexciting” list in 1977. She praises “21” for its “outstanding collection” rife with “exceptionally good buys” including a 1976 Châteauneuf-du-Pape for $15 and a 1969 Nuits-St.-Georges at $18 (today $62.07 and $75, respectively). In 1980, she deems Grand Central Oyster Bar’s selection a failure, calling its repertoire of California whites laudable, but its lack of reds unfortunate.
“While Claiborne and Sheraton broke ground, Miller ushered in a new way of seeing restaurants.”
As with her criticism of food, Sheraton was unflinching in her evaluation of wine, but it was still mostly in service to scene-setting and comparative pricing. The real turning point arrived with Bryan Miller’s tenure in 1984, following a short stint by Marian Burros. While Claiborne and Sheraton broke ground, Miller, during his near-decade career as critic, ushered in a new way of seeing restaurants. “Bryan was pivotal by nature of being there at a pivotal moment,” says current critic Pete Wells, describing the rise of chef-oriented dining culture in America, and with it, the introduction of carefully honed restaurant concepts. Miller took note of this new milieu as well as the currents shaping wine: the introduction of Australian and South African wines; the inertia of California and Washington; the Cruvinet microtrend; the advent of wine pairings; Wine Spectator–sponsored lists, ratings included; and Brooklyn’s first wine bar, De’Vine, a Park Slope haunt with 45 wines by the glass.
Miller also makes, according to my research, the first mention of a sommelier by first and last name (back in ’72 and ’73, Sokolov tipped his hat to “Victor,” a tastevin-wearing sommelier at Brussels on East 54th Street). In 1985, he writes about Hubert’s, a three-star “untraditional American” restaurant, saying, “Few restaurants in the city make such a serious attempt to match food with wine. Josh Wesson, the encyclopedic and erudite sommelier, never fails to come through with felicitous suggestions, which often include little-known wines that are a delight to discover.” In subsequent reviews, he shines a light on Philippe Nusswitz, a 23-year-old “wine Wunderkind” at Coq d’Or, and Raymond Wellington, who caters to “sophisticated wine drinkers” at The Post House. Miller, whether he and his successors realized it or not, set a standard for the kind of attention a New York Times restaurant critic would be expected to devote to the subject and its relationship to American dining culture.
In 1993, when Ruth Reichl ventured east from Los Angeles, where she had been the food and restaurant editor at the Los Angeles Times, she’d already given plenty of thought to how wine should be treated in a review. In that previous job, she often assigned short supplemental wine columns to writer Dan Berger as a way to balance the short shrift given to wine programs in the reviews themselves. “I’ve never understood why that isn’t done more. It had a huge impact on both the quality of the lists and the price of the wines,” says Reichl, explaining the reviews’ power of checks and balances on restaurant markups.
There was a real chauvinism in wine that changed as sommeliers started to be women, as women started to be hosts.
During her six years at the Times, Reichl, known for her many disguises and diplomatic lens, took note of not only the blossoming role of sommeliers as personalities, but also of wine service, and its relationship to socioeconomics and gender. In a wonderfully ferocious review from 1993 she states, matter-of-factly, “Women and wine are an uncomfortable mix at Le Cirque,” going on to recount the way in which a waiter snatches a wine list from her, before insisting that the half-bottle of riesling she’s ordered doesn’t exist. (In a redemptive 1997 review, she gives credit to the restaurant for its inclusive list, put together by Ralph Hersom.) She tells me that while dining with another woman at Palio, a Midtown Italian institution, she discovered the bottle they’d ordered was corked; when she alerted the sommelier, he dismissed her out of hand. “There was a real chauvinism in wine that changed as sommeliers started to be women, as women started to be hosts,” she says.
In those years, French food still had a hold on the New York dining scene, but a new wave of restaurateurs—Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Alain Ducasse—were reevaluating the approach, and along with them arrived a cadre of apt sommeliers. Reichl writes of Roger Dagorn’s bighearted approach to wine at Chanterelle (“few restaurants offer such pleasant and such unintimidating wine service”) Jean-Luc Le Dû’s taste for the unusual at Café Boulud (“his eyes shine when he tells you about the people who make them”), Nicola Marzovilla’s excitement for Barolo at Tempo and Daniel Johnnes’ everyman approach at Montrachet (he “reels off a list of delicious and inexpensive bottles, discussing them as lovingly as if they were grand crus”).
Little gets by Reichl’s studied eye: a stenciled glass decanter at the theatrically old-school Il Giglio in 1997; stemless wine glasses at the polemical, boundary-pushing Tabla in 1999; and a deftly reprinted menu at the lavish Lespinasse to reflect the cellar’s up-to-the-second status, prompted by her order of a sold-out 1992 Chassagne-Montrachet La Romanée from Verget (she is offered an older vintage from Colin-Deléger for the same price). She also notices when Jean-Georges hires women and people of color, noting “it is so rare in fancy French restaurants.” In Reichl’s distinctive rendering, wine in the pages of the Times revealed the progress and anachronisms of a city in flux.
The dining scene Reichl left behind for Gourmet in 1999 is one still embroidered with the old world—including lingering gender norms—but teed up for the gastronomic boom of the early aughts. By the time William Grimes settles in as the Times’ critic, farmers market fare is no longer solely Californian, Keith McNally and Danny Meyer have secured a permanent slot in the spotlight, and prestige cellars built upon financiers’ private collections are the norm in fine dining. The city Grimes turns his eye upon is rich with drink. Expectations for which wines were appropriate to a restaurant’s theme had been set, and he goes about making the point that a wine list can and should complete a restaurant’s point of view.
Continuing in the tradition of Reichl, Grimes spends a great deal of time observing the burgeoning role of sommelier. Andrea Immer of Wild Blue in the World Trade Center is noted for her 1,200-bottle list. Le Dû, now stationed at Daniel, champions Oregon alongside Chablis and Côte Rôtie. Robert Bohr appears for the first of many times at Colina after a stint at Babbo. And at Ilo, Kim Anderson has become a “missionary” for Madeira. Following September 11, Kevin Zraly garners his own paragraph in Grimes’ 2001 ode to Windows on the World. “The wines at Cellar in the Sky came from an extraordinary list developed by a 25-year-old wine salesman named Kevin Zraly, who so impressed Ms. Kafka that she urged Mr. Baum to hire him. He never left.” It’s finally in Grimes’ era that wine comes to bear regularly in a review. He demonstrates that sitting down with an original wine list can hold the same promise of adventure as any food menu.
Frank Bruni’s era, which began in 2004 and ended in 2009, was one cleaved by the Great Recession. In the beginning of his tenure, he dines at Cru, watching Robert Bohr, “a man [who] lives to decant,” “mulling microclimates” and shepherding a 3,200-bottle list bequeathed by owner Roy Welland. In 2005, Bruni notes the $18 Ciroc Martini at Ducasse, as well as the list’s lack of bottles under $100. In the same year in a dispatch from Chicago, he encounters a “glass of deconstructed white wine” at Alinea (“a translucent rectangle of grape jelly with pinpricks of herbs, nuts and fruits often evoked by wine”). In 2006, Gilt at the Palace Hotel debuts a menu of red wines by the glass that range from $20 to $1,000.
Then, in 2008, the spiral downward begins. Recession specials abound, and the era of biodynamic and organic wines—“natural” was not yet common parlance—starts to take off. It’s around this time that Bruni notes a new kind of hybrid emerging, “a wine-bar evolution so thorough that nomenclature can’t keep up.” In a column devoted to Gottino, Terroir and Craftbar, he foretells the boom of wine-focused restaurant-bars to come. He tells me that he arrived to the job as a wine lover and spent a quite a bit of time thinking about the subject in relation to the restaurant’s identity and intentions, always asking the question: “Was it trying to keep an interesting wine adventure within reach?”
“He observes the concept of a wine-forward restaurant being twisted into a hideout of punk rock dissonance.”
Even as wine was experiencing a cultural overhaul, its presence in restaurant reviews falters with Sam Sifton, who served a quick two years between 2009 and 2011 before taking over direction of the paper’s food section. On the occasion he dedicates space to wine, it’s often less about context or trends, and more to note price point or spectacle. At SD26, it’s the 1,000 choices available on a tablet computer. At Annisa, it’s Jennifer Scism’s female-only producer list, a concept he calls “hamstrung by a presumably laudable conceit that would be winning if it didn’t seem so anachronistic.” On the sommelier front, Josh Nadel pops up often, Michael Madrigale takes the reins of Café Boulud and Hristo Zisovski expands the definition of Northern Italian at Ai Fiori. In context, the paring back feels austere—perhaps a harbinger of the teetotaling generation to come—but also like a missed opportunity, considering the flourishing scene.
The dearth of wine coverage follows current critic Pete Wells through the first couple years of his term. Where Wells does become enthusiastic about wine, however, is the place where Bruni’s observation about the blurring of bars and restaurants burbles over into full-on movement. Starting with Pearl & Ash in 2013, the bygone Bowery project known for its bar-top Champagne-sabering ritual, he observes the concept of a wine-forward restaurant being twisted into a hideout of punk rock dissonance. He notes sommelier Patrick Cappiello for his “humane markups” and Cappiello’s transformation from stuffy suit at Gilt into a Black Flag T-shirt–clad dissenter—unwittingly marking the moment when we’re introduced to the “somm.”
In 2014, Wells applauds Racines, the elevated spinoff of the Paris-based bar à vins, documenting its industry following. Cappiello’s 2015 follow-up, Rebelle, gets points for supporting the “small-scale winemaking rebellion.” Jason Wagner is an apt decoder of mondeuse and macabeo at the short-lived but beloved LES restaurant Fung Tu, and Jorge Riera at Wildair gets cred for championing “winemakers who believe in letting nature have its way.” Many paragraphs are devoted to Robert Bohr and Grant Reynolds, the Zalto-democratizing, celebrity-hosting duo behind Charlie Bird, Pasquale Jones and Legacy Records. And, more recently, the five-year-old Four Horsemen gets proper recognition for being not only a trailblazing concept equivalent to the American bar à vins, but emerging as a restaurant worth the full Times treatment.
“Maybe the thing I’m describing is a scene where it’s gotten harder and harder to tell restaurants and bars apart,” says Wells, articulating the nature of the topographical shift during his tenure. “At the same time, who drinks wine in New York has changed and what they drink has changed. Younger people are drinking wine with a seriousness and confidence they didn’t have 15 years ago. That’s part of what I’m seeing out in the world.”
Within the lineage of Times critics, Wells sees himself as continuing a studious tradition of documentation, of stowing textured details away in a time capsule, so to speak, so that one day they might be exhumed, and held up to the light and interpreted. (Even during this protracted suspension of public dining, he continues writing about the state of American restaurants.) For nearly 60 years, the ultimate role of the dining critic has been not only an interpreter of the present, but of the past: What does it say about us that we built these restaurants? What does it say about us that we ate this food, that we drank this wine?