Inside the Wine Cellar at Union Square Cafe
MAY 15, 2017 | Story: ZACHARY SUSSMAN | Photos: LIZZIE MUNRO
In “Anatomy of a Wine Cellar,” we go behind the scenes of the world’s most notable restaurant wine programs. Up first, Union Square Cafe, where wine director Jason Wagner is putting his stamp on a New York classic—plus five bottles that define the list.
hen it first opened its doors on 21 E. 16th Street in 1985, Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe introduced a formula that would go on to define the “classic” New York restaurant for a generation of diners: a seasonal, market-driven approach in the kitchen, casual yet hyper-attentive service and the kind of inviting atmosphere that managed to suit every occasion, from a quick solo bite at the bar to a formal business dinner.
So when the legendary spot lost its lease in December of 2015 and reopened a year later in a soaring new space on 19th Street, it confronted an exaggerated version of the challenge any landmark establishment inevitably faces: how to recast its modernimage while remaining true to the past.
As some have pointed out, the mythic stature of this past is a defining feature of the new Union Square Cafe. In an otherwise glowing review, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells observed that “almost everything about the new place caters to… memories of the original, fetishizing the restaurant’s own idiosyncrasies to an amazing degree.”
Initially, the beverage program seems to follow suit. Wine director Jason Wagner—formerly of Michelin-starred L’Atelier de Jöel Robuchon and, most recently, Chinatown’s wine-geek mecca, Fung Tu—will be the first to tell you how profoundly the restaurant’s legacy informed his vision for the current list, which covers France, Italy and the United States.
Unlike the typical turnover scenario, wherein a new sommelier is tasked with putting his or her own stamp upon a predecessor’s selections, Wagner found himself in the daunting position of inheriting three decades of collective institutional memory. “It’s not the easiest thing to do, to open a restaurant that has been around for 30 years,” he explains.
His solution? Take a deep dive into that history and mine its depths to make it new. “I wanted to pay homage to wines that were historically carried at Union Square Cafe, then take that ethos and update it,” Wagner says. “When I was putting the program together, I looked back at decades of old wine lists and talked to Danny [Meyer] about the producers he’s championed through the years.”
The results of this painstaking research translate into a “30 Years of Friends and Family” section, which highlights many wines that have shaped the restaurant’s beverage program from the very beginning, including touchstones like Vouvray’s Domaine Huet, Napa’s Robert Sinskey Vineyards and Montalcino’s Talenti estate.
Just as we might not immediately appreciate how revolutionary the restaurant was at that time, now that its influence has become so ubiquitous, wines like these might strike us as familiar—even expected—reference points. The more you consider the selections in a historical context, however, it becomes clear how visionary Meyer’s engagement with wine has always been.
Take that bottle of 2015 Domaine Huet Vouvray Le Haut-Lieu Demi-Sec, for instance. Today, no one questions the Loire estate’s canonical status. But in the 1980s when buttery chardonnay reigned supreme, the prospect of serving off-dry chenin blanc would have been downright edgy. Similarly, by contemporary standards, the 2014 Shafer Merlot might read like an obvious choice. But back then, difficult as it might be to imagine, Napa wasn’t yet “Napa,” and the wine’s pedigree had yet to be established. In fact, the first vintage of Shafer’s merlot wasn’t released until 1985—the very same year that Meyer opened Union Square Cafe and added it to the list.
This track record for identifying the classics of the future speaks to the larger quality that has always separated Union Square Cafe from its contemporaries: the paradoxical ability to be both timeless and timely, to remain at the height of fashion while appearing to transcend it completely. After all, this is exactly what the classics—whether in wine, literature or art—are supposed to do.
This winning streak shows no signs of ending under Wagner’s reign. Beyond the “Friends and Family” section, his list reads like an updated field guide to the next generation of classics. This means profiling a younger wave of producers who are injecting an experimental spirit into iconic regions (such as Burgundy’s Fanny Sabre), as well as new standard-bearers in emerging areas like the Jura (Jean-François Ganevat), Savoie (Domaine Belluard) and Sicily (Arianna Occhipinti, Salvo Foti).
“I’m not trying to be too esoteric,” says Wagner. “There’s the stuff that will be familiar to you if you’ve been coming to the restaurant for years, but if you just rode the L train from Bushwick and you’re at the cutting-edge of what’s new, you’ll find what you want to drink, too.”
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Domaine Huet "Le Haut-Lieu" Vouvray Demi-Sec
Now synonymous with the appellation of Vouvray, the wines of Domaine Huet “used to be fairly uncommon” on wine lists, Wagner says. This “demi-sec,” or off-dry bottling from the storied single-vineyard of Le Haut-Lieu displays the classic interplay between searing acidity, textural density and (just a kiss of) sweetness for which Loire chenin blanc is now famous.
Domaine Valette Viré-Clessé
Like the restaurant itself, the wines of Mâcon-based Domaine Valette offer something for everyone: accessible enough for the mid-western mom looking to satisfy her chardonnay fix, yet, according to Wagner, “still able to claim some natural street cred.” This is a textbook value-driven white Burgundy with universal appeal.
Philippe Pacalet Gevrey-Chambertin
An early natural wine icon known for his sulfur-free, minimal-interventionist expressions of Burgundian terroir, Philippe Pacalet numbered among the first representatives of that countercultural movement to gain widespread attention stateside. As Wagner puts it, “he has a direct line to the past but also a fresh perspective,” as evidenced in this pure, elegant articulation of classic Gevrey notes of cherries and spice.
Arnot-Roberts El Dorado Gamay
Well before the category evolved into a sommelier fetish, Union Square Cafe championed the food-friendly, affordable crus of Beaujolais. “Fresh and super bright and within the reach of the everyman,” as Wagner puts it, this domestic interpretation of the signature Beaujolais grape from “New California” producer Arnot-Roberts ushers that tradition into new territory.
Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé
“Everyone who has been to a Union Square Hospitality Group restaurant has probably seen this listed,” Wagner says of the esteemed Billecart house’s bubbly pink wine, an archetype of the genre. “It was even served at Danny’s wedding. Though it might not have the cachet of being a grower Champagne, this is a perennial classic that has never gone out of style.”