2011 New York Rising Star Sommelier Nick Adams Robinson's passion for food began in childhood, slaving over a toy stove to make the imaginary meals he forced upon his parents. Having one European parent, and frequently splitting time between Europe and the United States, Robinson had an early, sophisticated focus on cuisine. Wine had always accompanied dinner in the household. But for Robinson, it was during a summer job as a waiter that he really began to notice the auspicious relationship between great wine and food.
Robinson didn’t buy his first “grown up” bottle of wine until college, when the poli-sci major used a serious bottle to impress a fellow University of Colorado co-ed (the two are now happily engaged). This small act of finding the right wine, for the right person, for the right meal, planted the seed for his eventual love affair with wine. Moving to New York, Robinson resumed his career in restaurants, earning a post as captain at Aquavit. It was at Aquavit that Robinson’s passions shifted definitively from food to wine.
Throughout his career, Robinson has found that the most stimulating aspect of service is pairing wine and food. Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s delicate, cerebral cuisine at Aquavit allowed Robinson to get both creative and conceptual in his pairings—a practice he continues to this day in the very disparate culinary realms of Tocqueville and 15 East. Robinson is a firm believer in wine as the final sauce for any meal, both as a means of perfecting the dish and creating a more vibrant communication between the food and the palate. And since 2008, he’s employed this philosophy at both restaurants, first as a floor sommelier and now as beverage director for both establishments. Meanwhile, Tocqueville’s whisky program and 15 East’s sake list allow Robinson to continue to engage in his favorite professional pastime—learning.
Interview with Sommelier Nick Adams Robinson of Tocqueville – New York, NY
Emily Bell: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Nick Adams Robinson: It’s been a lifelong journey. My parents always had wine [when I was] growing up. I had European parents. So it was something I always saw integrated as a kid. When I was in university I kind of got a little bit of an interest in an alternative to beer. Also I met a girl in university I really wanted to impress. I picked out some really dreadful wine. Thankfully, we’re still together.
EB: How did you get into wine professionally?
NAR: When I was 14, I started working in restaurants. It’s something I’ve done for my entire adult life. To me, the most exciting part of the experience is pairing wine with food. My Aquavit internship helped me get into things. It snowballed from there.
EB: Describe your fondest wine memory.
NAR: We created a wine program here [Tocqueville] called The Winery of the Month.
We do these dinners sometimes. It’s four courses, each paired with a wine. We did one for George Wine Company from the Russian River Valley. It was just a great process. David Coleman was the chef when I worked on this.
When we rolled the menu out, we weren’t that busy. I actually sat down and enjoyed dinner with George and the rest of the guests. It was just amazing to see all the work come together, and to enjoy that dinner with the creator of the wine. It’s a wine I’ve sold so often and that’s inspired me in so many ways. It was an “I made this” kind of feeling. So often, what you do as wine professional is for other people. It was really amazing to create something amazing and experience it firsthand.
EB: What is your philosophy on wine and food?
NAR: Philosophically I view wine as the final sauce, the final touch to a dish. It really does function the same way as a sauce. A sauce you apply to the plate. This you apply orally. It’s a final adjustment to a plate. In a way my philosophy is that wine has a responsibility to the dish. You are taking something brilliant and altering it in a way, in pursuit, of course, of making it perfect. Overall my philosophy is that wine is just sort of the greatest sauce that exists. And in a way the sommelier has the final touch on the dish.
EB: How do you compile the wine list?
NAR: The first thing I do is observe the restaurant. I think many wine directors come in and say “I’ve eaten here. This is what I want to do.” To me it’s very important that I get to know the clients, the captains, the management, the bartenders, etc. To understand how the restaurant performs. For a restaurant to be truly successful, I have to provide tools people need to work with. Every restaurant is different. I observe the team and what their capacities are. At end of day, I choose wine that I think is excellent and will bring out interesting qualities in food. You have to observe what makes sense for the restaurant and what will satisfy customers.
EB: What regions are you interested at the moment?
NAR: I’m always interested in everything but I’ve been very into Austria this year. Within that, probably not a specific region. Maybe the Kamptal and Wachau have shown me wines I’ve most enjoyed. I find it to be an exciting country. The Burgenland also, for red wines. There’s fantastic stuff entering the US markets.
EB: What wine trends do you see emerging in your city?
NAR: For the past few years there’s been a real green push both in food and wine and I think this sort of comes into wine in the form of eco-friendly wines. Biodynamic has become a catch phrase.
EB: What are some of your favorite wines?
NAR: I’ve thought about this. Steininger Grand Gru Grüner Veltliner. Year in and year out, it’s really reliable, always under $20 wholesale. For a wine, that’s a flagship wine of the winery, that’s an incredible offering a lot of times I think dollar for dollar. Everyone can say I like DRC [Domaine de la Romanée-Conti] the best. I’m impressed the price hasn’t gone up. They haven’t missed a vintage. In an area that doesn’t have the most regular climate, I find that so impressive. But the best wine I’ve ever had? That’s Domaine Comte de Vogue Musigny. I’ve tried it on several occasions, in several different vintages. That’s a dream wine.
EB: Tell me about a perfect wine and food match you’ve discovered.
NAR: There are a lot of them. I had a barbecue last year where I actually smoked and grilled some very large pork chops. And your Tempranillos go so well. They’re nice and smoky, with great coffee tones. Charcuterie is one of the things I have a great passion for, particularly dried sausages and those sorts of things. I think Grüner Veltliners go really well with that—the nice pepper flavor. Everyone always wants to put red wine with charcuterie. I think fatter, spicier whites like Grüner are better for that.
EB: Who are some of your mentors? What are the most important things you learned from them?
NAR: Probably the two I’ve learned most from are Fred Price, MS Advanced. He’s been a purveyor for me for long time. He’s always someone I can turn to with questions regarding any aspect of my career and he answers very honestly. Also he just has a great tome of knowledge. I would also say Dominique Simone, a wine importer. I have a similar kind of thing with him as well. He worked with David Bouley for many years. He’s someone you can turn to for professional advice. As someone who’s younger, I put a lot of credence into people who have a lot of experience.
EB: What does success mean for you? What are your ultimate career goals?
NAR: I like constant progress. So for me, whether I look at it in terms of a week, a month, or a year, I like to feel like I’m always moving forward. So in a way, sort of in a grander sense, that’s what I feel like accomplishment and success is.
EB: Where will we see you in 5 years?
NAR: Becoming a Master Sommelier is something I put work into every day. It would be a great honor to have that title bestowed on me. Also getting into single malt whiskies, a master of whiskies program. I really like education. I had to sound awfully Faustian, if I did know everything it’d be really exciting. Career-wise, I would love to be a corporate beverage director somewhere and have multiple restaurants. I’m one of those people who always have to be doing something. What I’ve enjoyed about working at Tocqueville is I also have 15 East—two projects to keep my mind going. The more I develop, the more projects I take on. To have a lot of things with a lot of different requirements is very stimulating to me. My mind sharpens the more it has to. I’d also like to do some consulting. Starting something new, building from the ground up, has always been a dream for me.
And … I’ve always wanted to have dinner with Heston Blumenthal from The Fat Duck. He has the same manic focus that I do. He piped coffee [aromas] into the urinals. Anyone that concerned with aromas is someone I’d like to meet.