with Aaron von Rock
Beltrami: You have been working with Diane Forley since Verbena
opened in 1994. What is distinctive about her management style?
Aaron von Rock: One of her strategies when she opened was to
create a place where the back-of-house was assimilated to the front-of-house,
to make sure there wasnt the kitchen versus floor staff kind of
competition that shed seen on occasion in previous restaurants.
AB: Is such competition a common problem in restaurants?
AVR: It happens far too often. Dianes attitude assured
that she would be in contact with the waiters, bartenders, hostess,
maitre d. It was important for her to be able to converse regularly
with anybody who dealt with wine, and conversely for those people to
interact with the kitchen very closely. She created a nurturing atmosphere
that was unique for me.
AB: When did you become Wine Director?
AVR: Ive been Wine Director for three years. For the previous
two, I was head bartender and the sommelier on the floor. From the beginning,
weve been working with David Gordon [Wine Director at Tribeca
Grill in New York] as a wine consultant, and on our wine list at Verbena
we still credit him as the creator. He has been a mentor to me as far
as developing my palate, and its a relationship that we enjoy
maintaining, although it has of course developed into something different.
He consults for lots of restaurants Verbena was his firstand
hes developed a kind of hybrid position where he has what we call
an allocation pool. Thanks to his relationships with the wineries that
go back many years, he is able to obtain very highly allocated wines,
which are unavailable to the general market and individual restaurants.
He then divides the allocation among the restaurants he consults for
and his own restaurant.
AB: Do you buy wine at auction?
AVR: Were active at auctions. When you are a New York restaurant,
you enjoy one of the advantages only a couple other cities in the country
have, and youve got to participate. Its the same as with
allocated winesyouve got to get things on your list that
make the experience at the restaurant singular, as opposed to something
you could accomplish at home. Auctions are something you can become
obsessed aboutyou do a lot of research for one auction, to walk
away with only two cases of wine. As a restaurant, were basically
bottom-feeders; were not going to be pushing the high bids on
something that has a lot of bidding. We look for the under-appreciated
wines that dont get as much attention as they should, not the
AB: Have you ever had problems with the quality of the wines
youve purchased at auction?
AVR: I havent yet, and weve been doing it for a couple
of years. Thats part of the research.
AB: Speaking of research, are there any wine publications you
find particularly useful?
AVR: Well, I think theres some necessary reading, because
its what you know the public is going to run into, and then theres
necessary reading that you know certain winemakers respectif they
do respect anythingand that you know other restaurants will be
peering into. The Wine Spectator is that thing you should know,
so you know what the public is doing, and The Wine Advocate is
what you should read to know what the industry is about to do, and what
collectors and auctions are going to dothats certainly what
he [Robert Parker] caters to. Decanter is a lot of fun, and if
youre studying for sommelier courses, its educational in
that you can actually glean enough information to wing through parts
of the exam.
AB: Does Chef Forley have any favorite wines?
AVR: Yes. Viognier has always been one of Dianes favorites,
so its been on the wine list from the start in many different
permutations, even before it was popular. We enjoy the idea that Viognier
is so popular now. We understand that its difficult to grow and
difficult to vinify, but its one of the most rewarding wines,
and it has a natural affinity for her food. Its the kind of wine
with those layers, what I like to call two-tier wines, with
an aromatic expression that can be different from what you get on the
palate, as opposed to something simpler like Chardonnay, which is often
the same experience on the nose and palate. This dynamic occurs in her
food often, as well. The idea of Verbena as a restaurant was that aromatics
were going to play a role; as an herb, verbena is very aromatic. You
get a response from the aromatics before you taste. Viognier, with its
generous bouquet, made a lot of sense with her dishes, especially the
AB: Does she consult with you when shes creating a dish
or planning a menu?
AVR: Well, weve evolved into a tasting menu restaurant
(although à la carte is available), because she feels that tasting
menus give the most value, and the wine pairings on those tasting menus
reflect conversations that weve accumulated over the years. Its
great to have that mental index of things that I know she likes to serve,
and things that she knows I like to serve with them. We have things
that weve never done and may never do, but we have ideas that
we share that are very exciting to us.
AB: What was the motivation for opening Bar Demi, which is just
around the corner from Verbena?
AVR: I just bought so much wine we needed another outlet! No,
the idea of opening a wine bar had appealed to Diane for a long time,
and a lot of concepts just came together. We had the small space available.
We wanted to do more with half bottles, which we feel offer the best
value, and are preferable to wines by the glass [read Aarons tip
on half bottles here]. We had about 30 half
bottles on the list and we wanted to bring it up to about 70 (which
is what we have now), and we had some aging half bottles in the pipeline.
Diane also wanted to do more of an hors douevres selection, which
we do for private parties and is very popular. Tasting sizes really
made sense in such a small spaceyou have one burst of flavor that
sears across your palate and establishes a memory, and you move on.
The menu is different from
Verbenas, but the food is Diane Forleys and comes out of
the same kitchen. Its a great place to try her food at a lower
AB: I like the fact that Bar Demi is truly a wine bar, not a
restaurant that calls itself a wine bar.
AVR: We only offer about a dozen wines by the glass, but the
half bottles provide the variety to fairly call it a wine bar, and the
food is arranged according to wine types. Everything is in appetizer
portions, and the dishes are grouped by three-course tiers for each
wine type. Whats gratifying is that the customers have really
been up for the adventure. Theyre going for the stranger items.
I had a couple of weeks where I sold only one glass of Chardonnay a
week. I think that describes the type of consumer that is participating
AB: In the six years youve been at Verbena, have you observed
changes in the tastes of your clientele?
AVR: Yes, certainly a lot of change. Categorically, Chardonnay
is no longer our biggest seller, which it once decidedly was. Were
watching the trend towards more red wine, back from more white wine.
Liquor has decreased its role, while wine has increased. There is a
larger consumption of dessert wines, and of fortified wines, both before
and after dinner. People are also drinking more Champagne. And the consumers
are more knowledgeable, which sometimes can be a challenge, but in most
cases is certainly more rewarding.
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