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The wine trade in New York has its work cut out feeding the intellectual demands of its customer base

There can be few products apart from wine that most lend themselves to the obsessive, trend-observant, I-must-do-the-new-thing-first attitude of New York’s young, affluent, professional classes. Technology? Meh, Apple only release a new phone once a year. Theatre? OK, but getting tickets can be a real hassle. Eating out? Yes, this comes quite close: there’s nothing more likely to get a group of New Yorkers talking over one another than if a foreigner (i.e. me) asks for a restaurant recommendation.

Wine fits many of the behavioural ticks prevalent among New York’s upwardly mobile segment. It has encyclopaedic complexity and history which sharp brains can reduce to a single pithy line; it tends to feature in restaurants that are new, interesting, incorporating Peruvian-Asian fusion sushi (among other things). Ultimately, wine, or knowledge of wine, is a piece of cultural capital which you can carry round with you as a way of demonstrating you are worthy of attention, in a city where classic attention-grabbing possessions such as fast cars or big houses are simply not a realistic possibility.

All this makes the New York wine scene a fascinating place to visit, as I do regularly. Wine lists are often dozens of pages long, and often carry an unusual breadth, and depth, of certain regions or styles. On the other hand, it makes for a serious headache for those in the New York wine trade. As well as dealing with the storage constraints imposed by the urban density of Manhattan, the more on-trend retailers, restauranteurs and distributors alike must be on their toes to bring in that new product just at the right time, and create a buzz that will fill their tables on a midweek night, or keep their regular customer base coming back to them as opposed to the shop 2 blocks away.

For those producers selling into the New York market, the churn of fashion can be a help as well as a hindrance. If your importer / local distributor is doing their job, and your marketing people have put samples into the right hands, listings can follow. Unfortunately, these presences on wine lists at the upscale hotels and restaurants can last only a few months – or even a few weeks – until the next round of tastings and list changes. As one veteran wine director of a leading New York hotel beloved of foodies and oenophiles says, “This is a tough crowd to please. I’ll know when I’m behind the curve because my seats don’t get filled.”

On a more positive note, the diversity of the city’s offerings, and highly attuned (and monied) customer base, does offer opportunities for genuine innovative thinking. A good example: the work of Daniel Beedle, wine director at Indian Accent, a high-end Indian restaurant in midtown with a sister establishment in New Delhi, and yet another to open soon in London’s Mayfair. With Indian food having no real connection with wine historically, he has been able to address the construction of his wine list from first principles, mixing his sommelier training with his university degree in Chemistry to come up with some wine styles and wine-based cocktails that compliment the complex, spice-heavy but sometimes delicate dishes created by award-winning chef Manish Mehrotra. His revelations so far: Madeira can work very well, as can Vermouth; cocktails featuring tea + wine (or spirits) seem to function well. In more classic wine varietals, aromatics like German Riesling, Austrian Gruner Veltliner, Pinot Blanc and Gewürztraminer, and Chenin Blanc all work well. Reds are harder work because the tannin tends to mix poorly with spice, but he has found that Oregonian Pinot Noir is doing well, among others. Check out his long and interesting wine list here.

Author: Richard Halstead