Patrick Cappiello: It was 2001 when I started at The Tribeca Grill. I remember that I was just starting to get interested in wine, and I interviewed with you. At the time, the list there was like 800 bottles.
David Gordon: Yeah, we were increasing the wine program at the time. I was mostly a manager, Yoshi Takamura was really heading up our wine program on the floor. You started as a waiter and, because of your interest, we ended up making you the first sommelier to work on the floor full time. It was an experiment to start with, but we quickly realized that we were selling better wine, more wine, and we had better customer satisfaction. Over time, he helped increase our selections and wine became a real focal point of the restaurant.
Cappiello: It still is! I’d love to hear you talk about what wine programs were like back then—what, in your opinion, were the other dominant wine programs in New York City in 2001?
Gordon: Back then, the sommelier profession was still young. In 2001 it was really only a few places, the finer French places. Now, almost any place has at least someone around who knows about wine, if not a sommelier. There’s an increase in knowledge on the customer end that is tremendous in the past 10 years, and because of that, restaurants have had to adapt. When you were at The Tribeca Grill [in 2001], it was all Burgundys, Rioja, Bordeaux and Rhone wines. [Now] guys like you and other young sommeliers have come along and put their stamp on these programs, introducing customers to more esoteric wines. Paul Grieco was one of these first guys to focus more on lesser-known varietals, on the wines that sommeliers tend to want to drink. Not the trophy wines.
Cappiello: Do you think that’s also a result of there being a younger generation of sommeliers who are less experienced in the classics? Because maybe they’ve never had the opportunity to work at one of these restaurants [like Tribeca Grill] with big wine programs where all these expensive bottles are being opened.
Gordon: We got to taste a lot of those wines, yeah. We also did a lot of wine dinners where we were opening tasting wines. And you’re right, the younger sommeliers don’t seem to have an interest in these classics. It’s partially because of the price. It’s a function of not even being able to taste these wines that drove sommeliers to look for less expensive wines that they find more interesting [like natural wines]. The danger is, now, that it’s gone too much towards that, and that younger sommeliers don’t have an interest in what customers really want.
Cappiello: Right. Ten years ago, you built a wine program on wanting to make the customer happy. And now, a lot of young sommeliers build wine lists based on their own fetishes. You see wine lists now that a guy who drank a lot of great wine over the last 10 to 15 years of his life sits down in a restaurant and doesn’t recognize anything on the list. Which is a big danger. But many of these younger sommeliers have an attitude—they’re just like “I don’t give a f***, this is my restaurant and you’re going to drink the wines that I put on my list.” I don’t feel like we ever had that approach [at Tribeca Grill].
Gordon: We never had that approach, and I know that you don’t have that approach now. Even though you serve a lot of esoteric wines at Pearl & Ash, if somebody comes in and they want Bordeaux, you have plenty of Bordeaux. You hit all the soft spots.
Cappiello: Yeah, and I’m happy to do it. I’m proud to do it.
Gordon: Right. Why would you want to talk someone out of spending $200 or $500 on a bottle when you could offer them a Muscadet at $45. It doesn’t make sense. It’s always been about upselling the customer, but also giving them what they want. Obviously, the food can’t be tailored to what every customer wants. If they walk into Pearl & Ash and they want a hamburger and you don’t have it, you don’t have it. But if they want a Napa Cabernet, that’s not a ridiculous request.
Cappiello: It’s not hard to do! It’s a bottle of wine. I feel that nowadays, many sommeliers think they’re as important as chefs. That’s taking it a little far. I think we’re just buying wine.
Gordon: It’s nice that sommeliers are getting a lot of credit, but you don’t want to take it too far. I think there’s a danger in getting too esoteric, getting too deeply involved in what the sommelier likes and not satisfying the customer. On the other hand, these sommeliers have opened customers up to trying all kinds of new wines, and it’s been great for the wine industry. For example, you couldn’t sell Beaujolais five years ago. You couldn’t give it away.
Cappiello: Or Jura wines!
Gordon: Yes, even German Rieslings. Customers are more open.
Cappiello: There’s been a generation of sommeliers that have moved into a different avenue of the industry. If you look at Levi Dalton who bounces around a lot, one of the problems that he has sited is that there aren’t a lot of jobs out there that fit his skill set. It seems like a lot of sommelier jobs have been going to a younger generation with less experience.
Gordon: What has happened is that a lot of younger people want to get an accreditation, they want to be Master Sommeliers. But then they don’t seem to be able to stay employed. They end up wanting to get out of restaurants. I understand that everyone wants to just pay their dues and move on because sometimes the lifestyle is difficult. What I mean about the Master of Wine or Master Sommelier programs is that people who do them often want to bypass the experience of actually working in a restaurant and just want to study, and you can’t. I don’t think that works.
Cappiello: I don’t think it does either. I’m not against the idea of the education structure. I think some people learn better in a classroom setting. I personally don’t, but I get it. I never did extremely well in school, but I was able to thrive in an apprenticing situation, like when I was training under you and Tim Kopec. Each of you has a different personality within the wine industry, and you can’t make a school that can teach you the things that I learned from you guys. A lot of it was about having to work hard within the industry. I think if you look at my case and Yoshi’s [Takamura], we both worked for eight years in two restaurants, not even as wine buyers. We were just doing the work. We did the admin stuff, we were working the floor. I think that’s the advice I’d give people wanting to learn. You’ve got to spend eight years working in two different, great restaurants. You’re going to have to do admin work, and you’re going to have to carry cases up and down from the cellar.
Gordon: And doing that gives you an opportunity to taste different wines that you can’t really do on your own. If you’re working, you’re tasting every bottle opened that night. I think that’s where you gained a lot of your confidence. Once you start tasting, you can see that you are as good as somebody that’s been doing it for 10 years, it gives you a lot of confidence to go out and be able to speak about the wines to customers. That’s the thing about you. Even when you didn’t know anything, you could talk to anybody. Being interested in talking to people about wine—you can’t teach that. You have to have a natural affinity for talking with people, for not talking down to people, and that’s something I always stress. Not making it a snobby thing. It’s a very subjective field.
Cappiello: Right, it’s got to be simple. I think sometimes the language, the academia of it, can get in the way.
Gordon: It sounds like it’s so obvious, but it’s not. A lot of sommeliers don’t have that ability. I think that’s a real problem with the wine business; the snob factor and the elitism that prevents more people from being interested in wine.
Imbibe: What would you say are the major differences between your two approaches now? And the similarities?
Gordon: Patrick is a big fan of natural wines. He’s much more interested in esoteric wines than I am. At Tribeca Grill, our customer base is pretty wide, but it’s not an experimental one. I tend to like the wines that we sell at Tribeca—Châteauneuf-du-Pape, American wines, a lot of Burgundy. The classics. And I’m not as interested, personally, in the natural wine movement. I don’t think our customers are either.
Cappiello: Which is really the most important thing. It’s not so much about what you’re interested in; it’s about the customer. We’re a restaurant on the Bowery. We’ve got a younger clientele. Natural wines are representative of the best values in wines right now. On my wine list, you can drink wines that are like $40.
Gordon: With a list like yours, someone’s not taking a big risk if they order a $45 bottle of natural wine. It’s not the same as ordering a $100 bottle. It’s a huge point to make that the price point of these wines are on the lower end of the spectrum. At restaurants like Pearl & Ash, you’re seeing a younger clientele that isn’t going to spend $200 on a bottle for the most part. They’re also more open to new ideas, and new types of wine. The older clientele tends to be set in their ways. And so you have an opportunity there, and you use it. You sell a ton of those wines; people are happy, they’re trying things they haven’t had before. That’s one of the reasons why it works so well.
Cappiello: The thing that I learned from you is that you have to ask the right questions. As a sommelier, you’re almost like a detective. You’ve got to try and get into customers minds and figure out what they like to drink. Just because I’m into something doesn’t mean you’re going to like it, so I ask them to tell me about the wines they drink.
Gordon: That’s true. And if I taught you that, that was good!
Cappiello: You did! I remember when we sat down at some point and said, “You already know more than 95 percent of most people who come in. People like wine, but they don’t know that much. So what you need to do is concentrate on learning MORE than that other 5 percent.”
Gordon: It’s still true. Now that you reminded me, I’m going to go say that to the sommelier now, because that’s good advice.
Cappiello: What do you think the next hot wine region is? We mentioned a lot of hot regions now, like the Loire Valley and the Jura, but what’s next?
Gordon: Jura is a total shock to me. Just don’t try to sell me a Jura wine when I come in there.
Cappiello: I would say it’s the number two category, after the Loire, on a nightly basis.
Gordon: Amazing. It’s certainly what everyone talks about. I think the areas of Spain that are not Rioja and Ribero del Duero are wide open for expansion. There are a lot of interesting wines there. But again, I’m the last person you should ask about a trend.
Cappiello: I think you’re right. If you look at Spain, I think what you’re saying is that there are a lot of producers that we haven’t even looked at yet. There hasn’t’ been a champion for those wines yet.
Gordon: Another thing that’s changed over the past few years is the press. It used to be just Robert Parker and Wine Spectator. But now there are so many other people adding their voices. It used to be that if Robert Parker and Wine Spectator don’t care about a wine, then nobody would ever care about that wine.
Cappiello: I remember that we used to wait for the the Parker issue to come. Remember? We’d get it at Tribeca Grill a little early and we’d try to track down these wines right away.
Gordon: And now you don’t even read it!
Cappiello: I still read it!
Gordon: Well, you have to read Wine Spectator. They put your picture in it every other day! If you didn’t read that, you’d be an idiot.
Cappiello: [Laughing] This is exactly how we talk every time we go to lunch. This is exactly like every conversation we’ve ever had.
Gordon: Ha! It’s true.
Cappiello: David and I talk several times a month on the phone, and we get together for lunch about once a month and have this same conversation. I’m very lucky to have him in my life—he’s a very important person to me. Aside from how he’s helped me with my career, as far as a person, he’s one of the most genuine, nice, hilarious people that has ever been in my life. I feel very lucky to call him a friend.
Gordon: I wish I could say something as nice about Patrick, but he has so much nice stuff written about him that I just can’t. I don’t want him to get a big head.
Cappiello: He always keeps me in check. “Remember when you were a waiter, Patrick.” That’s what he always says to me.
Imbibe: If you two were going to open a bottle together right now, what would it be?
Gordon: The Rhone or Burgundy, I would think.
Cappiello: Oh, yeah. Every year we do a lunch, usually around the holidays. It’s a tradition with me, David, Tim Kopec and Daniel Johnnes. They’d actually been doing it for 10 years when I finally got invited. I was so happy. But I would say inevitably we always do a mix of Burgundy and Rhone. One time we tried to do Italian and I don’t think it went very well. It’s like a contest. You want to walk out of that lunch having had the best bottle at the table. So usually we’re not particularly open about what we’re bringing. When you walk in you have the big reveal.
Gordon: If just Patrick and I were going to open a bottle, I would probably talk myself into a Rhone wine.
Cappiello: Yes, I would do that! Let’s go.