At 3:45 p.m. on a Tuesday, Juliette Pope is presiding over Gramercy Tavern’s private dining room. Cooks and servers are elbow-to-elbow, each with their own six glasses of madeira pulled from the restaurant’s list. Pope, the Beverage Director at the restaurant since 2004, has just returned from a trip to the Portuguese archipelago of the same name, “where banana trees compete with grape vines,” and has made the island’s wines the subject of today’s hour-long intensive. Between shooting off historical facts and listening to participants’ tasting impressions (“I get varnish and soy sauce in the Barbeito”), she throws in casual, often humorous observations. By the end of the tasting everyone in the room feels like they, too, have just returned from a whirlwind trip to Madeira.
This is what Pope terms “tongue-on” training. It’s about familiarizing the staff with different categories of wine through key examples, and pushing them to experience the drinks independently. To some, this dedication to mentorship on behalf of a beverage director might not seem novel. But in an age where the light is shining bright on the sommelier scene—and catching a piece of it seems to be of the utmost importance—her behind-the-scenes approach is becoming ever rarer. In fact, there are few people in the industry more allergic to the limelight.
Pope is the link in a chain of great wine mentors that have done time at Gramercy Tavern, including Paul Grieco of Terroir and Hearth, who she counts as her mentor. “He must have known a sucker when he saw one,” she says of Grieco, who sent her to industry tastings and made her a “cellar rat” soon after her transition from the kitchen to the dining room. She started out as a line cook at Gramercy Tavern and switched from back-of-house to front (her physical efficiency is a lingering reminder that she cooked seriously for years) when she began researching a restaurant she planned to open with her chef husband, Ralf Kuettel. He went on with Trestle on Tenth as she fell deeper into wine at GT. “I’ve only done this here,” Pope explains about her homegrown ascent.
While structured and substantial, her education is never stuffy; neither is the service. In its collaborative, educational nature, Gramercy Tavern’s beverage program is uniquely American. Every member on the floor can step into wine advising mode (it’s the opposite of the French sommelier paradigm where one person is appointed that job) and Pope is not dogmatic in her point of view, opting instead for passing along her contagious enthusiasm to her staff and letting them form their own opinions. As such, she’s inspired a number of forward-thinking wine professionals and bartenders, such as Jim Meehan of PDT, who, thanks in large part to Pope, began experimenting with things like sherry and port long before they were on every cocktail menu across the city.
To get a sense of what a typical week in the life of Juliette Pope is like we asked her to keep track of the best wines under $75 she drank last week. Here’s the damage:
Puffeney Savagnin 2009 | $33
“Salty, savory, nutty goodness. It works with almost everything at the table. Or my table anyway! Flor + oxidation = magic in the mouth.”
Foillard Beaujolais Nouveau 2013 | $18
“Nouveau typically gets no respect in this age of cru Beaujolais reverence—I am guilty to be sure—but this old-school master’s version changed my mind. Or at least opened it! Love when a bottle of wine does that.”
Ameztoi Txakoli Rosé 2013 | $20
“Happy for springtime to finally be here because with it comes this brisk, briny, zesty, spritzy rosé. We can hardly keep it on the shelf here, it flies out so fast and is in ever-short supply. And not just because I am taking it home.”
Zusslin Riesling ‘Clos Liebenberg’ Monopole 2011 | $40
“Marie Zusslin blew me away in person and in the bottle. What stunningly concentrated wine from 13th-generation Alsatian vignerons. Biodynamically farmed fruit, strictly selected in vineyard, concentrated and popping with acidity and minerality.”
Ceci ‘La Luna’ Lambrusco NV | $19
“Our staff thinks that I am obsessed with Lambrusco. Not true: I am obsessed with THIS Lambrusco. With a burger at home on our deck or in the tavern, this is the money wine. For relatively little money. Careful, it goes down way too easily for a red.”