Does Gramercy Tavern Have the Best Wine Program in America?

What, exactly, makes a wine list great? Jon Bonné on the new tenets that define a successful wine program, and why he believes Gramercy Tavern is a perfect reflection of how we, at our best, drink today.

Does Gramercy Tavern have the best wine program in the country?

I’ve posed that question several times this past year. It’s not a fair question, because no one ever successfully chooses a bestie—best restaurant, best friend—without facing the consequences. Choose a best, and parlor games are played to second-guess you.

Still, I’ve posed it repeatedly.

Gramercy Tavern is arguably the crown jewel in Danny Meyer’s restaurant empire, especially as Union Square Café prepares for a swan song of sorts. And if quality has oscillated since its much-heralded opening in 1994, today, chef Michael Anthony has returned Gramercy Tavern to its role as the quintessential American restaurant.

But it’s beverage director Juliette Pope’s work that, for me, makes Gramercy whole. She has taken the restaurant’s reverse-mullet mission—tasting menus in the back, party in the front—and allowed it to fully live up to the tavern in the name. You can drink an extraordinary range of beverages that hit equally well high or low. And when I sit down to drink on East 20th Street, I never fail to be delighted.

To understand why, in my estimation, Gramercy is the best, you have to consider that Pope’s work is part of a long tradition, built on the work of pioneering sommeliers like Steve Olson and Paul Grieco. Their time at Gramercy helped reshape American wine service.

From Gramercy’s earliest days, the wine offerings were built to a scale appropriate for a restaurant that intended to rewrite the very notion of fine dining. Gramercy was engineered to be democratic rather than lofty. So while Pope’s current selection of some 500 bottles might seem less than encyclopedic by today’s standards, consider that Olson originally hoped to offer about 200, according to a New York magazine piece at the time. And Meyer, wary of the pretense of wine-list creep, made him cut that to 98, invoking (not surprisingly) a baseball park analogy: “It might be better if you had 10 kinds of mustard for your hot dog, but it would be ridiculous.”

So while Pope appreciates what she calls her “big stage,” she hasn’t forgotten: Too many choices begin to feel like wandering the aisles at the Strand. What seems at first like abundance ultimately drowns you. Each section of her list feels perfectly composed, one stop short of too much. It reminds me of a teacher’s line from John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation,” explaining her students’ seemingly outsized talents: “I just know when to take their drawings away from them.”

While a lot of wine directors coming up today seemingly need the paper taken out of their hands, Pope understands, implicitly, when to stop. She finesses an elusive balance, in that her choices are comprehensive but also tightly edited. That, to me, is the definition of a great wine list.

But that’s not the only thing. A great list also needs to be a personal expression of taste, passed through a profit-loss filter. In her range of wines, Pope has perfected the trick of being intensely personal and broadly inclusive, probably because her philosophy of wine, when you talk with her, is just as inclusive. It’s hard to locate a bias, aside from a deep affinity for mostly small and earnest producers. Want a glass of savagnin from the Jura’s Domaine des Marnes Blanches? You can have that. Prefer a California chardonnay from Talley Vineyards? You can have that too.

Pope’s work is doubly impressive because, even if Gramercy occupies a senior place in the expansive Meyer empire, she has solid internal competition. Jeff Kellogg has turned Maialino into an irresistible shrine to nebbiolo and Champagne; at The Modern, Michael Engelmann has continued Belinda Chang’s work on a list to make white-wine lovers joyously weep.

Greatness today is too often measured in units of drama and flair. Perhaps we give too much credit for deliberate walks on the fringe. Or maybe we’re too tolerant of sommeliers striving to stand out: one too many bottles of unicorn Champagne or seemingly unattainable Burgundies, and nothing to drink. Because of that, I think Pope’s tendency to operate at a slight distance from the inner sanctum of New York wine people—she’s not a frequent presence at industry tastings and parties—may be an asset.

Yet Gramercy always feels a bit more magisterial among the group. I’ve tried to understand why, and what I return to again and again is this: Pope, 47, is ineffably confident, a grownup in what is increasingly a young person’s game.

This isn’t to dismiss youth; Jack Mason, at Gramercy’s sister restaurant Marta, recently scored his master-sommelier pin at 27. But Pope has the benefit of selling Chianti and California cabernet in pre-post-ironic fashion. At the same time, she’s fully conversant in what today’s cool kids want to drink. Gramercy has always paid homage to American craft, so in addition to California there’s a bounty of New York wines, plus domestic ciders and beers. Riesling, grüner veltliner and gamay noir all make strong showings. And when you read her selection of 15 chenin blancs, you can’t help but think: Why doesn’t everyone do this?

Pope’s baked-in sense of wisdom might come from her unusual path up through the ranks. She began not in service but as a cook, first at Union Square Café, then at Gramercy. In 2000, entranced by wine, she moved to the other side of the kitchen door, where Grieco took her under his wing. (“I guess he knew a sucker when he saw one.”) It took another seven years for her to become beverage director.

All this makes her an unlikely figure to shine in a dining world that’s now obsessed with flair and best-of lists—and oddly dismissive of the drinking part of the equation, especially in a flourishing era for wine service. Too many publications have turned away from the important task of providing signposts to help thirsty diners choose where and what to drink. Restaurant reviews, fighting the eternal battle of column inches, tend to dispatch beverages in a line or two, even if all our drinking helps pay for finesse in the kitchen. The various plaques and awards meant to be hung up by restaurant doors seem more about trophy-hunting—Gaja and Harlan and Vogüé acquired by the original wooden case—than a consideration of whether mere mortals can find something to drink.

Indeed, greatness today is too often measured in units of drama and flair. Perhaps we give too much credit for deliberate walks on the fringe. Or maybe we’re too tolerant of sommeliers striving to stand out: one too many bottles of unicorn Champagne or seemingly unattainable Burgundies, and nothing to drink.

Because of that, I think Pope’s tendency to operate at a slight distance from the inner sanctum of New York wine people—she’s not a frequent presence at industry tastings and parties—may be an asset. Perhaps that makes her work at Gramercy a purer reflection of her sensibilities, and less an echo of fashion. You can see it in her choice of 22 Champagnes, a perfect balance of stars (Pierre Peters, Savart) and ingénues (Calsac), and that’s not even counting another 35 sparkling wines, from Long Island brut to well-made Lambrusco.

Either way, she’s built a deeply equitable philosophy of wine service at Gramercy. I won’t say that it doesn’t matter whether she is on the floor, because having her at your table is an enlightening experience. But all drinkers at Gramercy are treated (or at least appear to be treated) well—doubly impressive because she only assembled a full sommelier team last year. Instead, the whole Gramercy staff is taught to love wine, and to share that love with customers—not through memorizing Italian DOCGs but through daily tastings and intensive monthly classes. Winemakers (never salespeople) visit regularly. And Pope meets at least twice with each new server to taste every wine served by the glass.

Hence an ambient love of wine always seems to permeate the room. That brings to mind my best recent memory of Gramercy: On a summer night, my wife and I stopped in for a light dinner at the bar. Pope was there at 10:30 p.m., preparing for several hours of back-office work and, after listening to us dither, suggested a bottle of Christophe Lepage’s Bourgogne Côte Saint-Jacques.

The Lepage was filed under “Rosé”; it was hot, we were thirsty. But that’s not quite precise. It’s pinot gris grown in the tiny village of Joigny, one of the last spots in Burgundy to support that grape. It’s not a fashionable wine, really—more old-fashioned. The wine has been made the same way for most of a century, soaked on its skins, taking on the variety’s natural salmon hue. It was soulful and bright, reminiscent of copper and fresh tangerines.

It was also one of the cheapest bottles in the restaurant that night, not even $40. But it was served with the care and good stemware that might come with a bottle of Bâtard-Montrachet, and everyone else at the bar with us was getting the same treatment. It was also a reminder that drinking at Gramercy never feels like an exercise in cash-extraction. No $35 glasses of grenache or $20 sauvignon blanc pours here.

Does that make Gramercy the very best? I think it does. We could factor in restaurants with no choice but to impress—the French Laundries and Eleven Madison Parks—with grand lists that remain inaccessible by nature of the restaurants they belong to. We could discuss the many American lists today that share a similar berth to Gramercy’s: République’s one-page masterpiece in Los Angeles; San Francisco darlings like Nopa or Prospect; FIG in Charleston and Camerata in Houston or Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston. We could acknowledge the importance of a pilgrimage to Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa, which is to 20th-century wine what the Library of Congress is to books.

And yet it’s Gramercy Tavern that always feels like the perfect reflection of how we, at our best, drink today. Its relative democracy, with all those midtown editors and downtown bros and tourists commingling, remains a stark counterpoint to the elitism (or, worse, the faux-populism) of fine dining.

Pope remains vital to that. She’ll allow the zeitgeist through the door—this pink-crazed summer, she not only offered 20 by the bottle but also an all-rosé tasting menu pairing—but keeps it at bay. She’s not out to preach, or to score ideological points.

She just knows when to take the drawings away.


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Jon Bonné is senior contributing editor for PUNCH, the former wine editor of The San Francisco Chronicle and author of The New California Wine and The New Wine Rules. He is currently working on his next book, The New French Wine. He lives in New York City.