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Wine

Can a Wine List Be More Than Its Wines?

September 30, 2021

Story: Leslie Pariseau

art: Nick Hensley

Wine

Can a Wine List Be More Than Its Wines?

September 30, 2021

Story: Leslie Pariseau

art: Nick Hensley

At Harlem's Contento, sommelier Yannick Benjamin is the latest to envision a program as a means of representation beyond territory and terroir.

Yannick Benjamin was always going to own a restaurant. He knew it from the time he was young. Dressed in a deep blue suit, gold chain peeking from beneath a crisp white shirt, Benjamin explains how he imagined it would be a traditional French bistro named Dumas, after his favorite writer. Instead, his first establishment is a little Peruvian spot in Harlem called Contento.

He describes his wine list as a showcase of the undersung, a declaration that has become de rigueur; featuring the Itata Valley over Priorat and minimalist methods over traditional winemaking has become the battle cry of the 21st-century wine list. But in a moment where much worship is performed at the altar of all things cult, underdog and allocated, within Benjamin’s work is a deeper quest to understand—though not necessarily broadcast—what inclusivity means when applied to a collection of wines. It is less about the explicit sociopolitical statement, and more a living, breathing set of values that is fashioned to adapt to a world of living, breathing humans.

Raised in Hell’s Kitchen by two French immigrants, Benjamin grew up with a speech impediment, a French–New York accent, a very Breton first name and a traditionally Hebrew last name (though his family was deeply Catholic) among Latino and Irish kids. People were always confused about where he was from. But his home life was French, through and through.

His Bordelaise mother arrived in New York as an au pair, while his dad, who came over from Brittany, worked as a dishwasher at La Grenouille, where Benjamin’s uncle was the maître d’. His other uncle worked at the bygone Lutèce, where his cousin Joël was sous chef, eventually becoming the executive chef at Le Périgord. Meanwhile, Benjamin went on to work at Le Cirque and Jean-Georges. In his hybrid accent, he explains how the Bretons—though at odds with the larger French state—populated the front and back of house at so many of New York’s traditional French establishments back in the 1970s and ’80s. Between stints at The Ritz-Carlton and the University Club, Benjamin joined Jean-Luc Le Dû, the late beloved retailer, at Le Dû’s Wines in SoHo. Coincidentally, their fathers are from the same village, Gourin.

While Contento is the first program over which Benjamin has had full creative control, he says, “The concept of the wine list was always in the back of my mind.” He calls Contento, whose kitchen is led by Lima-born chef Oscar Lorenzzi, formerly of Waverly Inn and Nice Matin, “a Peruvian restaurant with a very French bathroom.” He has decorated the restroom’s walls with menus from French restaurants of days gone by as well as those he was reared in: La Caravelle, La Côte Basque, Daniel, Felidia, Oceana.

Benjamin and his partners’ (who include Lorenzzi, sommelier Mara Rudzinski, George Gallego and Lorenz Skeeter) dedication to inclusivity at Contento is more than a platitude. Benjamin and Gallego both use wheelchairs after accidents left them paralyzed (they met when Gallego became Benjamin’s mentor back in 2003). The table and bar heights accommodate wheelchairs, and adaptive flatware is available for guests with mobility impairments.

Plenty of wine lists prior to Contento have been intent upon making a social statement: Tartine Manufactory offered an all-female list; at the shuttered Rouge Tomate and later Racine, lists have investigated agriculture; and further back, Shalom Japan’s list was dedicated to the Jewish diaspora. But Contento’s cellar is not meant to shine a light on the far-flung or obscure for the sake of doing so; rather, Benjamin is interested in giving space to people like him. “The reality is, not a lot of people with disabilities work in fine dining,” he says.

The wine list is as much about the people as it is the wines, which requires a level of research beyond tasting and Googling. Effectively, it’s a background check to vet not only technical values, but humanity. For Benjamin, this means seeking out makers and growers “who are breaking social barriers, opening up the doors for so many people and also leaving the doors open. Their objective is not to be the first,” he says, “but not to be last.” The first category on Benjamin’s list, “Wines of Impact,” is a subtle but deep gesture toward this notion. The kibbutz-style Kishor Winery in Israel, for instance, employs people with intellectual disabilities. Cantina Ceci Licataa is owned by two African American New Yorkers. Hope Well, in the Willamette, uses agricultural methods that go far beyond regenerative.

The list is not only intellectually inclusive, but eclectic in a way that foregrounds geographical difference. A section called “East Coast Terroir” features a sparkling blueberry wine from Bluet in Maine and a tocai friulano from Millbrook Vineyards in New York’s Hudson Valley. “People talk about carbon footprints and regenerative farming and no pesticides and it’s great, but you go [and] look on the wine list and there’s no wine within a 100-mile radius,” says Benjamin, who feels charged with showcasing his home state. “Wines of the Ancient World,” which include a yapincak from Pasaeli in Turkey and a rosé of barbera from Shvo Rosé in Galilee, is meant to provoke conversation around the origins of wine before European domination. There is, of course, plenty of South American territory covered in “Heaven on Earth: Latin America,” as well as French selections and cult classics that hold up beyond Instagram.

Beyond the conceptual, Benjamin has also endeavored for affordability. Though there are a handful of wines on the list above $200, many bottles hover between $45 and $75, with nearly all the by-the-glass options at sub-$15. These kinds of markups are admirable in a moment where the ceiling for by-the-glass has somehow inched toward $22; for bottles it’s seemingly limitless. Even after going as deep as he has, Benjamin is still asking how to include everyone, especially his guests, whether they know it or not.

“The key is,” says Benjamin, gesturing toward the door, and the neighborhood beyond it, “How do you build a restaurant that’s inviting for all?”

Photos by Mikhail Lipyanskiy

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Tagged: wine lists