Prior to being tapped as Wine Director at the newly reopened Union Square Cafe, Jason Wagner had made a name for himself as wine director of the Michelin-starred L’Atelier de Jöel Robuchon and, most recently, as partner, beverage director and general manager of Chinatown’s wine-geek mecca, Fung Tu. There, he built an especially inventive, well-priced program, stocking the list with plenty of savory, umami-forward wines, natural wines and sherries to complement the Chinese-American flavors coming out of chef Jonathan Wu’s kitchen.
At Union Square Cafe, a veritable city institution that defined the “classic” New York restaurant for a generation of diners, he was tasked with something different entirely: putting his stamp on a new list, while grappling with three decades of collective, institutional memory. “I wanted to pay homage to wines that were historically carried at Union Square Cafe, then take that ethos and update it,” Wagner tells Zachary Sussman of the list. By stocking the old-standard bearers alongside new, experimental producers, he’s managed to recast the restaurant’s wine program while staying true to its past.
So what does Wagner do when he’s not eating, drinking or working service? Here, he tackles out Lookbook Questionnaire to share his strangest hobbies, the best (and worst) things he’s ever drank and the one thing he wishes would disappear from wine lists forever.
Wine Director at Union Square Cafe and Daily Provisions.
What do want to be when you grow up?
I don’t want to grow up.
Best thing you ever drank:
1959 Chateau Musar white. I can’t even begin to explain it. I also can’t begin to explain how the best thing I’ve ever consumed was a 60-year-old white wine from Lebanon.
Worst thing you ever drank:
Malort. What is wrong with you Chicago people? It tastes like back-wash and butyric acid with hints of star anise. Also, I’ve had some really rank baiju. It tastes like “hospital smell’ .
First time you ever got drunk:
I’m not sure I remember the very first time I got drunk. It was probably at my friend Cameron’s house with a bottle of Southern Comfort. I think we were hanging out in a walk-in closet because after a few shots of Southern Comfort you just want to hide from the shame.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Either Weird Al’s The Food Album or Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
I’m not sure it counts as a hobby but let’s just say that I know enough about Thomas the Tank Engine to win a trivia contest.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
Not stuff about Thomas the Tank Engine.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
I once did an iced coffee cocktail with Maraschino cherries, absinthe and coffee liqueur. It actually came out great but that was strictly luck.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Playing with my son. Or sleep. Man, I love sleep.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
The one I get most often is “you know, something like a pinot noir or a malbec.” But I (twice!) had someone ask to see our selection of rossese (no, not rosé, the Ligurian red grape).
Your favorite bar:
I love The NoMad Bar. It has everything I could possibly be in the mood for and it is all well executed.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
This is a super hard one as I’ve been very fortunate to have had many excellent meals in my life. One of the most memorable was when I was working at Robuchon and the chef made a breakfast for us of steak and eggs. The steak was wagyu and the eggs were with white truffles. We washed it down with Bruno Paillard rosé. It was pretty glorious and simple.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Remember the Maine.
Depends on what the focus is of the place, but usually something white and on the more esoteric side of things.
Bourbon and ginger ale.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime:
Aspirin, Shake Shack, water, coffee.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
Long-winded explanations and treatises explaining the layout and philosophy of the list. If you simply must write something, keep it sort and sweet. It’s not about you.
The last text message you sent:
“Omg wha happennnnnn?”