You were a judge at the 2019 competition – how was it to return as title-holder?
I was nervous, not for my sake but for all the candidates, as I know how nerve-wracking it is and the level of expectation and pressure on you to perform. You are judged on a lot of theory that’s as deep and esoteric as wine knowledge can get. And then there’s the blind tasting.
In the months leading up to the 2016 competition I was not allowed to look in my home refrigerator. The further you get in the competition the more service is involved so I put in a lot of work on becoming more efficient – not losing time or elegance – down to the point where when I open a bottle of wine I have the same exact pattern. My hands move the same way every time, which sounds obsessive and weird and it is but that’s what it takes to get to that level.
So, I know the pressure that is on the candidates but the level was impressive and we saw some incredible performances – even from unexpected candidates, which was refreshing.
It’s been said that you were the first winner to bring a more accessible and fun element to wine – true?
I think that’s fair to say. People often ask about how many Michelin stars we have at the restaurant. We don’t. And we don’t operate like that – our goal is to have fun with wine. The older, mainly European sommelier community, is so locked into that mode of thinking and it took people a while to understand.
It might have happened first in New York but you see the same thing in Paris and London where the greatest wines of the world are opened in very down-to-earth restaurants, focusing more on having fun and a welcoming atmosphere that allows everyone to participate. That’s what is happening right now – it’s a general trend and I think it’s a good thing.
Last year, you opened the restaurant Legacy Records in NYC with a handful of partners. What experience can customers expect?
It’s a high-profile à la carte restaurant but we’re about creating an atmosphere where people feel welcome and can have some fun, aiming for a level of service that’s disarming and friendly.
The menu is broadly Mediterranean if you have to put it into a category, leaning towards Italian. Our pasta is rolled in-house every morning, we have a bakery on site and we have one chef whose sole job is dedicated to making risotto.
And the wine list?
My philosophy is that the era of giant wine list is over. Going out to restaurants with my wife is all too rare these days but our rule is that I have 8 minutes to look at a wine list – and I’m a professional, I know what I’m doing! Unless you are real wine nerd, trawling through a long wine is really useless and it’s a poor use of a sommeliers’ time too.
So, I keep the wine list roughly at a selection of 300. That means I don’t list vertical vintages of the same wine because when a wine drinker looks at ten vintages of the same wine, they are going to ask me which one to pick so might as well do that job for them – the one that’s drinking best now is what’s going on the menu. I have about 900 wines on site and another 1,000 in offsite storage that’s firmly rooted in the classics of Europe – mainly Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhône Valley, a little bit of Bordeaux, Barolo, Tuscany, southern Italy and Spain – more for younger wines.
But with the format I have, when I taste a great wine from Hungary, Greece, the US, Tasmania – wherever – I can put it on the list and have some fun with it. I use those smatterings to make it interesting and showcase what’s happening in the world of wine beyond the classics.
What drives your passion for wine and what does your palette prefer?
It satisfies both my nerdy side that likes studying and figuring out why things are the way they are (Arvid quit studying Nanotech Engineering before venturing into wine). I can ask ‘why does this wine end up tasting this way?’ and dive into climate, geology and wine-making practices.
For me, wine is one of the last major connections that we as consumers have to production and farming – the land – in a more romantic sense. That’s what I think is really interesting about wine. Even if you buy a cheap bottle of Chablis, just looking at the label tells you the village it was made and the address of the producer –
In terms of flavor, I prefer simplicity and transparency. I‘ve never been a fan of wines that are made to impress and punch you in the face – regardless of whether it’s a 10-dollar bottle or a 100-dollar bottle – it’s still in the same.
What’s your best piece of advice for wine enthusiasts?
The most important thing is to keep challenging your taste. Just because you liked something five years ago, that doesn’t mean you are still going to enjoy it or it’s getting better. We can be obsessed by age-ability and good wine should be able to age but I don’t think that everything has to reach 30 years old.
Never buy just one or two bottles because you’ll be attached to them you’ll never open them. At least give yourself a chance to explore your palate – otherwise you’ll end up with a collection of random bottles that you cellar forever and perhaps don’t even like the result.
Practically, when you start collecting, there’s no way of getting around good storage. Temperature is key; keep bottles out of direct sunlight and making sure humidity is decent so corks don’t dry out. I’d say temperature is number one – when wine is cooked it’s just gone and there’s no way of recovering from that.
You’ve achieved a lot already so what ambitions do you have left within wine for the future?
One thing that I haven’t done a lot of over the last two years is travel so that’s something I want to get back to. I want to talk with the producers and taste through vintages but when you’re in New York people from the world of wine are always here.
Almost every day there’s a winemaker who wants to meet so you’re seeing them but not necessarily in the right context. I do want to get to a place where I can explore a little bit more – now when I travel it’s always about what’s relevant to my business.
I would love to get back to Galicia – I think north-western Spain is a really exciting region and in the last decade it’s been on such an upwards trend with so many unique wines coming out of the area. There’s an ancient culture of growing wine that sort of fell apart in the last 100 years but is now recuperating and the potential there is insane.
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