Before taking over the wine programs at inHouse partners Estela and Cafe Altro Paradiso, sommelier Amanda Smeltz had explored just about every possible approach to wine on the casual-to-fine-dining spectrum in New York City. From the John Dory Oyster Bar to Roberta’s; from the tasting counter at Blanca to the white tablecloths of Daniel Boulud’s, and then Tom Colicchio’s restaurants, she’s seen it all. With this wealth of experience, we were curious to hear her insights and strategies when it comes to building a solid wine list.
A conversation with Amanda Smeltz:
You’ve worked with an incredibly diverse group of restaurateurs and chefs, not to mention vastly different concepts over the years. With that background, how do you go about building a wine list? And how much authorship do you have over it?
That’s a question that wine people fight about a lot, and opinions are fairly vehement on it. I believe it has a lot to do with your goals. Are they aligned with the guests you’re serving, or the business you’re working for? Put differently: are they cultural or financial?
Do you believe there’s a disconnect between those two approaches?
Yes and no. I do believe that people who are on the ground selling wine every single day — sommeliers, servers, retailers — have a very different point of view than those who are not. These point-of-sale people are tasked with translating all of the information the wine world has to offer to the masses who, in most cases, know little to nothing about what they’re drinking. Anyone who is not working in a direct-to-consumer capacity is shielded from this.
And how do they / you overcome consumer ignorance?
Well, wine is a very complex subject. And honestly what most Americans over the last 50 years have learned about wine is because of branding.
California chardonnay … White Girl Rosé … “I am NOT drinking any fucking merlot…”
Exactly. Strong marketing voices in print, television, and film over time gave people that language.They don’t know anything else, and they don’t have words for anything else. So the question becomes: how much do you push on what the guest does or does not know?
It seems like, in Matter House restaurants, you’d be able to push quite a lot considering how progressive the food is.
Here, I am mostly saying “Yes, but….” As in, “Yes, we have some incredible Champagne on our list, but did you know that they make amazing methode champenoise wines in Jerez now?” I love it when I can bend their arm just a little bit into trying something new.
What about when guests aren’t willing to field those curveballs?
If you feel like you need me to give you something that’s recognizable? Oregon pinot noir, let’s say, or white Burgundy? No problem. Obviously, I need to keep at least a one-finger hold on what the guest expects, even if the other nine are in a more exploratory realm. At Dinex, that balance was more like 50/50. I had to play it a bit safer there. But in general, my strategy is definitely not the path of least resistance. [laughs]
Have your employers ever implored you to just give people what they are willing to pay for?
Sometimes, sure. There can be this notion that if you don’t have expensive wine on your list, no one who buys expensive wine will come. But price and value are not the same thing. Anytime you walk into a New York restaurant and buy a bottle of Sancerre, for instance, you’re being taken for a ride. The markups are crazy!
Then what wine buying principles do you adhere to?
To me, number (1) is the farming. And I don’t want stuff that’s pumped full of chemical additives in the cellar. Once that baseline is established, then…
(2) What is the actual profile of this wine? How challenging is it to the guest? Just because I can go a bit crazier at Estela or Altro doesn’t mean I always need to. We aren’t trying to be super esoteric just for the sake of it.
(3) If the brand recognition (of the grape variety, the winemaker, or even the region) is so great that people’s preconceived notions about it are correspondingly strong, then I don’t buy it.
(4) What are the wines that nobody knows about yet? Or the varieties that are capable of profound beauty, even though no one has taken the time to care about them?
And what about the wines everyone knows about? The trendy ones?
A lot of them are delicious! I just do my best to get ahead of labels getting famous and or particular producers blowing up, because as winemakers gain notoriety, and prices go up, you have to keep looking for new stuff because sometimes people are only willing to pay X dollars for something in a given category. It’s not that I’m trying to get ahead of trends; I’m trying to get ahead of the curve on pricing.
I imagine you read [Cote wine director] Victoria James’ Eater article last week, which suggested that people with different backgrounds would have different perspectives when building a wine list. Did that ring true for you?
Absolutely. People need to understand that the wine world and the world itself is huge! I feel like my lists should always represent the global diversity of wine. And honestly, the thing I care about the most is that people diversify what they drink.
With that in mind, do you read other people’s wine lists much?
All the time! I keep an eye on Victoria’s list, and on Aldo Sohm’s. Pascaline’s [Lepeltier at Racines] is such a joy. But my focus isn’t limited to just New York restaurants, or even big city restaurants. I think it’s important to really stay in touch with what regular people drink. Yes, I’m bored to tears of chardonnay, and yes, I would much rather talk about obscure Piedmont whites like erbaluce and timorasso. But I’m from rural Pennsylvania for crying out loud. I didn’t grow up drinking this shit! At the end of the day, I have to be aware of how all of those wines taste.
So you educate yourself in order to educate your guests?
Well, my main goal is to connect with them. It would be much easier for me to proselytize for the wines that I love to drink, or just shut my mouth and give people exactly what they’ve asked me for every single time. It’s a lot more work to have these kinds of dialogues with people. In the end, that’s the way the needle moves: one table, and one person’s experience, at a time. That’s how you establish trust; that’s how you cultivate regulars.