Juliette Pope could be considered an accidental wine expert. When she first started at Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern in 1997, Pope made her home among the other chefs in the kitchen. But when she and her husband—also a chef—began planning their own restaurant, it became clear that some front-of-house expertise was needed.
Pope stepped out of the kitchen in 2000, taking the helm as Gramercy Tavern’s beverage director in 2004, and since then she’s not only gained the kind of insight into wine she was seeking—she’s also placed the restaurant among the highest echelons in terms of selection and service. And while she says she still misses the kitchen, the shift from back of the house to front wasn’t as big a move as she first thought. “There’s a natural affinity between food and wine, and that helped lead me into it, even as a cook,” she says.
Gramercy boasts more than 600 wines (along with an admirable range of beers, ciders, spirits and cocktails), and Pope and her team have managed to make the list approachable. She says the key to removing the intimidation factor has been to immerse the full staff in the program, so everyone can understand and explain what’s in a glass.
“I think it’s in the DNA of this place to make everything we do really approachable, transparent and un-snooty—which is unusual for a New York Times–rated 3-star restaurant,” she says.
Pope notes that the full restaurant staff is presented every day with a wine or other leverage to experience, and that they’re encouraged to taste any open bottle. “They get constant exposure, and it makes it all very friendly, and not super-academic or intellectual,” she says. “Most guests don’t want a discourse on Bordeaux—they just want to know if it’s a tasty bottle of wine. But if they want to know the difference between a 2006 and a 2011, most of our staff can engage in that conversation.”
Today, that conversation may range from bottle-aged Rieslings to Burgundy—among Pope’s recent passions—to other wines that currently capture her attention, from savory Jura expressions to vibrant whites from the Finger Lakes, and from the clean, alpine Valle d’Aosta from Northern Italy to richly oxidized Madeira and sherries.
As Pope approaches her 20th year with Gramercy Tavern, she notes many other long-termers on the staff, along with those who’ve come through the restaurant and gone on to launch prestigious places of their own (PDT owner Jim Meehan is a Gramercy Tavern alumnus). And while making guests happy is still at the core of her mission, helping her colleagues fulfill their potential is a welcome bonus. “That’s what gets me out of bed every day—pushing our people forward,” she says.