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Inside the Wine Cellar at Empire State South

In “Anatomy of a Wine Cellar,” we go behind the scenes of the world’s most notable restaurant wine programs. This round: Empire State South, where Steven Grubbs has applied an Old World sensibility to match the Southern menu—plus, five bottles that define the list.

In August, 2010, when Steven Grubbs moved to Atlanta to open chef Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South, he brought with him a love of simple, honestly made Old World wines and lessons learned from almost ten years pairing with the chef’s food. Prior, he’d worked his way up from busboy to managing the beverage program for Acheson’s Five & Ten in the college town of Athens, Georgia.

Given that there’s never been much of a gastronomical tradition of pairing wine with Southern food, Grubbs (who serves as wine director and is also a partner in the restaurant) was offered carte blanche in designing the list. Stocking it aggressively with German riesling and little-known Burgundies, he soon realized that the Atlanta clientele was a far cry from the adventurous young students and professors he’d been used to serving back in Athens. In his new town, drinkers’ comfort zones revolved largely around established California names. Yet Grubbs’s opening list, in a part-subversive, part-naïvely optimistic move, eschewed California entirely.

“There were a lot of angry people,” says Grubbs. “You could see it on their faces.” To alleviate customer anxieties about ordering a bottle they’d never heard of, he started peppering the list’s descriptions with jokes and puns, proving the wines were there to be enjoyed—not to be taken too seriously.

If Atlanta wasn’t ready for his offbeat selections and dressed-down attitude then, it’s certainly on board now; the wine program has been on the James Beard semifinalist list two years in a row, and, between his lists at Empire State South and Five & Ten, Grubbs has a collective six nominations under his belt. What’s more, drinkers now routinely request new wines they discovered on previous visits. Some order based on the quirkiness of his written descriptions (“A txakolina cult legend’s impossible-to-find Champagne impersonation,” for Ameztoi Extra Brut; “Ah. Pousse it. Pousse it real good,” for Domaine de la Pousse d’Or Chambolle-Musigny.)

Still, the list has changed considerably since the restaurant first opened. In early conversations, Grubbs and Acheson were interested in the intersection between the nostalgic, country-inspired feeling of the menu and the likeminded tradition of European wine. And, considering the bold nature of most flavors in the Southern and modernist repertoires, the wines demanded acidity to hold their own. Grubbs took that notion and expanded upon it as the menu worked through its own growing pains.

“We focused on Burgundy at first because it didn’t cost a billion dollars for anything above Bourgogne level at that time,” says Grubbs. “But I found that Piedmont worked even better.” Wines like barbera and dolcetto, he argues, have similar liveliness and fruit as red Burgundy, but also more rusticity and power—two qualities needed to handle loud flavors. “Those are indestructible wines,” he says.

Grubbs’s stance on California has since evolved, too, as more wines from the state that align with his Euro-centric palate became available in the market. An exploratory trip to Carneros in 2011 also made an impression: It proved to Grubbs that the category wasn’t limited to bombastic cabernets. “I had to work a little harder to find them,” he says, “and in doing so, I got to know not just hip, new producers but venerable old producers like La Jota and Chappellet. Or the folks like Qupé, Au Bon Climat and Ridge that have been making great wine this whole time.”

As for the current list, he describes its breakdown as being 80 percent classics—from both the Old World and New—and 20 percent “fringe wine,” like skin-macerated whites.

“There’s this pantheon of wines that matter for all time and these other wines that matter right now,” he says. “That sums up the whole world of wine, in a way, and that’s what I’d like this program to reflect.”steven grubbs empire state south wine

Empire State South in Five Bottles

COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico

This frappato and nero d’avola blend from cult Sicilian producer COS wasn’t available in the Georgia market until Grubbs read about it in Wine & Spirits Magazine and requested that his distributor bring it in. “It seemed like it would have the acidity, space and vibrant aromas to work well with the cuisine here,” he says. It has been on the list at Empire State South since the opening of the restaurant and is a great counterpoint to the more robust Italian reds that Atlantans were familiar with, he adds.

  • Price: $32
  • Vintage: 2014

Domaine Louis Michel & Fils Chablis

Louis Michel’s village-level Chablis is as pure and mineral as they come—“a little less manicured and precious” than whites from the Côte de Beaune, according to Grubbs, and “a little easier to drink and have a great time with.” Because it’s aged in stainless steel, it’s more consistent in its expression of classic Chablis notes than oak-aged wines from the region, making it versatile enough to pair with dishes from any season.

  • Price: $27
  • Vintage: 2015

Mauro Molino Barbera d’Alba

Cru Barolo may be Mauro Molino’s calling card, but Grubbs likes the unassuming style of his barbera. “It matches the vibe you get from Mauro,” he says. “He’s a sweet, grandfatherly guy, and this trattoria wine is like the sweet grandpa of his lineup.” Piedmontese reds became a focal point of the Empire State South list once Grubbs realized that more delicate red Burgundies were getting lost under the boldness of Southern flavors.

  • Price: $16
  • Vintage: 2014

Domaine du Bagnol Cassis Rosé

Cassis rosé is often overshadowed by the structured wines from nearby Bandol. Yet this particular bottling matches Bandol’s complexity and has “extra liveliness and aromatic high notes,” says Grubbs. It has been featured on his spring by-the-glass list for the last five years in a row, and regulars routinely go through multiple bottles in one sitting.

  • Price: $28
  • Vintage: 2016

Cristom Pinot Noir Mt. Jefferson Cuvée

“Tasting the Willamette pinots from Cristom for the first time was one of the experiences that made me eat a little crow,” says Grubbs, who had formerly avoided stocking domestic selections. “They were quite literally the most profound American wines I had had up to that point.” He’s been aging some of the producer’s single-vineyard wines to list when they’re mature, and has been pouring this particular cuvée by the glass for a few years.

  • Price: $31
  • Vintage: 2014

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Carson Demmond was born in Atlanta, Georgia, into a food-centric family. She graduated summa cum laude from Skidmore College with a degree in French literature, having spent half of her college career abroad at Sorbonne-Paris IV and Paris X Nanterre. She served as a sommelier on Belinda Chang's team at The Modern in New York City for three years before taking on the role of Associate Editor and Tastings Director at Wine & Spirits Magazine. She currently peddles Bordeaux, but can oft be found sipping chenin or champagne. She lives in New York City.