Jeans and Blue-Chip Wines Collide at NYC’s Aldo Sohm Wine Bar
Welcome to "The List," a column exploring the country's most notable wine lists. This week, New York columnist Zachary Sussman visits Aldo Sohm Wine Bar to find out what "casual" means to the team behind three Michelin-starred Le Bernardin.
Despite Aldo Sohm Wine Bar’s reputation as a more informal effort from the team behind three Michelin-starred Le Bernardin, on the subway ride uptown, I worried whether I might feel uncomfortable wearing jeans. Named after the celebrated sommelier responsible for the beverage programs behind both establishments, the spot’s illustrious pedigree still managed to fill my mind with images of tuiles, tastevins and all manner of fancy silverware.
For the record, most of the men gathered around the large, cream-colored couches that comprise the space’s main seating area were attired in business suits. At 7 p.m. on a Thursday in Midtown, this should have come as no surprise, but implicit within my question was a larger one: How would two of New York’s most exacting restaurateurs—chef Eric Ripert and the eponymous Sohm himself—go about translating this supposed “low key” vibe into the content and structure of the beverage program?
There’s always a fine balance to strike whenever an upscale establishment stages a more democratic spinoff. And let’s be honest: When seafood mecca Le Bernardin represents the point of comparison, “casual” becomes a fairly relative term.
From the “art gallery chic” décor to the hyper-professional level of service and feather-light Zalto stemware, it’s clear that Sohm Bar never fully intended to abandon its white tablecloth roots. Rather than appropriate the countercultural “street cred” of downtown venues like Ten Bells, Pearl & Ash or Terroir, the space manages to accomplish something quite unique; it elevates the wine bar concept to a new level of “fine dining” sophistication.
“We didn’t want to create a second Le Bernardin,” Sohm explains. “From the start, we knew we wanted to do something more casual. But the important thing is that ‘casual’ doesn’t necessarily mean rustic.”
Sohm Bar reads its upscale audience well. Eschewing rusticity, it manages to be eclectic without fetishizing the esoteric. This isn’t the place, in other words, for fans of pét nat, orange wine or similar iterations of the wine world’s countercultural fringe. Rather than an allegiance to the weird, it demonstrates a clear penchant for classically made wines of balance, purity and transparency, which feel right at home in fine crystal.
A more informal attitude, of course, isn’t always reflected in pricing. To its credit, Sohm Bar appears to have made a conscious effort to avoid predatory markups. About half of the list clocks in at under $100, and even areas like Burgundy and Bordeaux offer several entries below the $60 mark. On the whole, the list provides ample “wiggle room” to drink well within these parameters, but to say that it mainly targets this end of the spectrum would be a definite mistake.
As price-inflation continues to run rampant within the industry, it’s understandable why exploitative wine lists remain such a sore spot among journalists. It’s easy to forget, however, that for a certain demographic of diners, the main attraction consists in shelling out small fortunes for the rare and impressive. In this regard, Sohm Bar isn’t so “casual” as to preclude the appearance of some serious “whale bait,” as high-end collectible wines are often referred to within the industry. Case in point, the bottle of 2001 Romanée Saint Vivant from Domaine Romanée Conti listed at $2,650.
Hard as it may be to imagine who might throw down for a bottle of DRC in a wine bar setting—even accompanied by small plates courtesy of Ripert—Sohm Bar reads its upscale audience well. Eschewing rusticity, it manages to be eclectic without fetishizing the esoteric. This isn’t the place, in other words, for fans of pét nat, orange wine or similar iterations of the wine world’s countercultural fringe. Rather than an allegiance to the weird, it demonstrates a clear penchant for classically made wines of balance, purity and transparency, which feel right at home in fine crystal.
In this way, iconic bottles from legendary producers like J.J. Prum in the Mosel or Dauvissat in Chablis co-exist with established classics from the “natural wine” canon (imagine the elegance of Lapierre Morgon rather than, say, the funkiness of Cornelissen Etna Rosso), blue-chip items such as old Vega Sicilia or first-growth Bordeaux, and a smattering of thoughtfully chosen options from California, the Southern Hemisphere and beyond.
This shouldn’t imply, on the other hand, that the list plays it safe or achieves a bland “focus group” sort of homogeneity. In fact, what makes the program so refreshing is the way it reads like the expression of a distinct individual palate, assembled not along thematic or ideological lines, but according to what he or she actually likes to drink. The total effect seems ideally calibrated to cater to the neighborhood’s well-heeled corporate clientele while granting sufficient leeway to those in search of the overlooked or unfamiliar.
At a time when the wine world can feel so factionalized and divisive—just consider all the vitriol surrounding New York Post writer Steve Cuozzo’s rant about “esoteric or pretentious” wine lists—the kind of inclusiveness on display at Sohm Bar comes across as all the more inspired. By integrating such disparate elements into a cohesive whole, it not only straddles the fine line between accessibility and eccentricity, but has accomplished something even more impressive: For the first time, Midtown Manhattan has a decent place to drink.
WHAT TO DRINK
Sohm Bar maintains a completely separate beverage program from Le Bernardin, and there’s little overlap between the two. Freed from the constraints of pairing wine almost exclusively with seafood, the wine bar’s list is smaller but arguably more diverse, delivering versatile counterpoints to dishes like chicken drumsticks “coq au vin style” or spicy chicharones.
More importantly, any concerns that bottle pricing might keep pace with the fancy stemware are quickly alleviated. The lineup from the Loire Valley, for instance, features some of the region’s best producers, including a bottle of 2002 Olga Raffault Chinon “Les Picasses,” whose touch of complex maturity belies its $70 price tag, or the single-vineyard 2012 Vouvray “Clos Baudoin” from star winemaker François Chidaine for $65.
Similarly, willingness to explore lesser-known or emerging areas of production will reward the curious value-hunter. Consider such bottles as the 2011 Királyudvar Furmint Sec (a dry yet honeyed Hungarian white for just $50), the 2009 Frederic Lornet Poulsard (the list’s one Jura red at $48), or, for $65, the 2013 “SP68” blend from Ariana Occhipinti, one of Sicily’s most promising young talents.
Even the “by the glass” program—typically a notorious engine for restaurant price gouging—confirms the commitment to fair margins. Sure, there’s the requisite sauvignon blanc, which comes in the form of the 2013 Clos Roche Blanche Touraine at $13, but for just two bucks more one can satisfy the same “crisp white” fix with a glass of 2013 Argyros Estate Santorini, or if you prefer red, the entry-level “‘Raisins Gaulois’” gamay from natural wine legend Marcel Lapierre (a mere $10). Those inclined to splurge will find ample opportunity as well: A $65 pour of 2008 Volnay 1er Cru “Fremiets,” for example, from top Burgundy producer Marquis d’Angerville, or an $80 glass of rare 1971 D’Oliveiras Terrantez Madeira.
To those for whom money is no object, it will prove tempting to stick to the exalted appellations of France and Italy, but this would neglect one of the list’s core strengths: the wines of Sohm’s native Austria, which have been often been overshadowed by the recent rise of German wine in New York. The offerings range from a juicy entry-level blaufränkisch from young winemaker Christoph Wachter of the Wachter-Wiesler estate (just $36) up to a collection of back vintages from top producers in the hallowed Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal regions, which occupy an entire section of the “Reserve List,” including a rare 1982 Prager Riesling “Steinriegl” (still a deal at $330).
Despite the program’s Old World leanings, California represents a noteworthy focal point. It’s here, perhaps, that the list’s aesthetic affiliations come into sharpest relief. Bypassing the “new wave” of revolutionary producers that have lately redefined the state’s viticultural landscape, the selections stick almost exclusively to well-balanced classics from Napa and Sonoma. In this vein, a small but considered roster of mature Cabernet from some of Napa’s most iconic producers (the 1978 BV “Georges de la Tour” for $320, for instance, or a $380 bottle of 1980 Diamond Creek “Red Rock Terrace”) imparts the added benefit of appealing to the expense account crowd and the younger, geekier set alike—if, of course, the latter can afford the splurge.