Interview with Jerry Castleman
by Alexis Beltrami
Beltrami: You have created for Anago
a wonderfully individualistic and award-winning wine list that focuses
on small producers from Italy, France, and the U.S. whose wines, in
your own words, "emphasize ripe fruit, soaring aromatics and natural
textures." Would you elaborate on the thinking behind your list?
Jerry Castleman: From the beginning, with the support of the
owners, Bob Calderone and Susan Finegold, I set out to put together
one of the top lists in the country. That doesn't mean the biggest list
in the country. My list, which changes
frequently as wines sell out, is based on limited-production, allocated,
minimal-intervention wines that complement Bob's food. By minimal-intervention
I mean wines that emphasize high-quality fruit, which comes from the
vineyard, not from winemaking technology. A successful wine program
is always about the synergy between the food and the list. Bob's cooking
has a strong Mediterranean influence, featuring bold flavors from the
wood-fired grill, the r™tisserie, and the wood-oven, and all of my wines
stand up to the food.
limit yourself to just three countries? What about Austria, Germany,
JC: I'm not concerned with trying to offer
something from every wine region in the world. Italy, France, and America,
for my palate, produce the best wines in the world, and the ones that
go best with Bob's flavors. I don't understand the restaurants with
the encyclopedic wine lists, where there seems to be some obligation
to represent every type of wine a customer could possibly ask for. I
especially love Italian wines, which are what I usually choose for myself
when I dine at Anago. So I put the Italian whites and reds first on
the list, after the sparkling wines and wines by the glass, in order
to draw customers' attention to them. After that come French wines,
then American, so the list works from least familiar to most familiar
and, I hope, encourages experimentation.
That brings up the format of the list, which I found helpful.
JC: I'm glad. I've tried to make the list
user-friendly-for example, by listing the grape varieties in each wine
when they're not specified by the appellation. I also give the full
name for the producer, where appropriate, because I want to personalize
the wines and show my customers that there is a person behind the wines
they are drinking-it's Fran¨ois Cotat, not just Cotat.
With your emphasis on limited-production wines, you must sell out frequently.
Is inventory management a problem?
JC: No, not really. I generally buy at least 3 cases, whenever
possible, and I always have wines waiting in the wings to put on the
list when others sell out. I'm comfortable keeping the list at about
130 bottles, and I've managed to get great stuff without making the
usual deals with distributors, where you have to carry their big labels
in order to get their small producers.
AB: Have your
customers been receptive to your wine selection? I mean, are they put
off by not seeing the big names they might expect on a prestigious wine
list-- the Opus Ones and the first-growth Bordeaux?
JC: The customers are very enthusiastic, which is reflected in
the fact that our wine sales keep rising. If the program wasn't working,
I would have to tweak it. But the clientele really gets it, which is
tremendously gratifying. Thanks to the special wine tasting dinners
we've held, my guests also know that they have helped shape the list.
I have added and dropped wines based on the feedback from these dinners.
AB: I see that all of your Italian whites
are from northeastern Italy, from Friuli and the Alto Adige, with a
generous ten selections from those regions, but no whites from other
regions of Italy.
JC: Again, just as I limited the list as a whole to three countries,
I've focused on the best wines within each country. While there are
a lot of good whites coming from all over Italy, I feel the best whites
come from these regions. As you can see, I have three wines from Vie
de Romans in Friuli, made by their brilliant young winemaker, Gianfranco
Gallo. His Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs are some of the best not
only in Italy but in the world, and they work very well with Bob's food.
AB: You have a new list for Spring. Do you enjoy creating seasonal
JC: Absolutely. I thought my Fall/ Winter '99 list was my best
ever, but now I think the Spring list is my best. This business is as
dynamic as the Internet business, and that's what really makes the job
exciting for me.
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