She said we were going to New York City to celebrate our good friend Scott’s 60th birthday, and I was to pick a Michelin-starred restaurant and some great wine for his birthday celebration. This is the kind of challenge I enjoy, and Elizabeth knew I’d give it some serious thought and come back with great recommendations.
There would be six of us. Given where we planned to stay in Midtown and what I knew about the food preferences of our guests, I recommended Ai Fiori, which features modern interpretations of French and Italian Riviera cuisine. I shared my recommendation with our guest of honor, and he was pleased with our choice.
The menu at Ai Fiori includes signature dishes from the sea as well as pastas and meat, and the wine list is deep; a quick count suggests over 1,700 selections, many of which I either know and love or want to try. These are most often from producers who consistently make great wines and whom I talk about and profile on “Walter on Wine.” Ai Fiori featured several of these producers, and in some cases, many wines from each producer.
So do yourselves and your guests a favor, and research the wine list before you go to the restaurant. I’ll look over the wine list and, considering my guests and their preferences, make my pre-selections. Often, to help me narrow my choices, I’ll refer to expert ratings to see what they are saying. Whether the restaurant has 17 or 1,700 wines, the last thing you want to do as the host is sit there silently reviewing the wine list while everyone else is chatting and launching into a festive evening. This is especially true if the group decides to forego cocktails and go straight to wine, which is exactly what we did.
The next thing I usually do is ask our guests about any firm preferences. In this case, I already had some white and red wines in mind (and a Champagne too, in case we went in that direction to start), and I asked if everyone was happy if I select a white and a red. Hopefully this is where anyone with a strong personal preference will let me know. Sometimes folks will say they’ll stick with their cocktail through the meal, or they “really like” a certain type of wine, meaning that may be the only thing they drink. Better to know up front. This wasn’t that kind of night. They were all happy to have a red and white option, so it was up to me to get the order in. (This is really where you do not want to start looking over 1,700 options for the first time. If you are, and you want the sommelier to help, listen to my audio: “How to Order from a Somm.”
The first wine I chose, the red, was the 2018 “Grattamacco” Bolgheri Superiore from Podere Grattamacco. This wine had some sentimental value, as we had been to the Bolgheri region (one of the “three B’s” in the crown of Italian wine consisting of Brunello, Barolo, and Bolgheri) with our friends Scott and his wife several years ago, and had visited Podere Grattamacco. You can choose a Grattamacco Bolgheri Superiore from any year starting in 2008, and it’s going to be a very good wine. It is primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, blended with Merlot and Sangiovese, a “Bordeaux-style” blend for which the Bolgheri region is renowned. The sommelier gave me a wry smile when I ordered it and asked for it to be decanted, saying “Yes, the Grattamacco is a classic here.” While you can spend many times the price of the Grattamacco Superiore at Ai Fiori, and no doubt you will get a beautiful wine, there are few better and none so at its price point. I knew I was selecting wine his regulars favor.
And so I thought I saw some apprehension when I told him we would also like to order a bottle of white wine. Again, there were several directions I could go, but there was one producer in particular that stood out for me: Aubert. Mark and Teresa Aubert are renowned winemakers in California, and Mark describes his Chardonnays as “ripe, rich, opulent and hedonistic.” Production is small, and you have to be on the Aubert list to get them. They are on strict allocation. I told the Somm I’d like to order the Aubert 2019 Chardonnay Larry Hyde & Sons (the latter part of the name refers to the specific vineyard where the grapes are grown). The Somm looked at me and said, “It seems you know our wine list.” This is a wine that flirts with perfection. For all the opulence, it comes from a cooler vineyard, and Aubert is able to retain enough bracing acidity to keep the big ripe fruits in balance. And unlike a more restrained Chablis or white Burgundy, the price for the Aubert does not break the bank, not even in a Michelin Star restaurant.
My ordering took no time at all, and I was able to turn back to the conversation, having missed very little. And I was confident in the two beautiful wines, with the Aubert being something of a unicorn because it is so rarely seen.
Food was served and wine was poured, with most in our party choosing to have a glass of both the red and the white, as most were sharing bites with their spouses. Appetizers of lobster soup with black truffle, fluke crudo with caviar and crème fraiche, and Tartare di Carne would easily find a wine pairing. Toasts were made and the wines were sampled. Those drinking the Grattamacco Superiore red were quick to say how good it was. The nose offered black fruits and cedar with delicate notes of rosemary and pepper, and on the palate the wine is full bodied, complex, and balanced. It was clearly a hit.
Those tasting the Aubert seemed to be sitting more silently, some smiling, some just staring into their glasses. It took a few moments, but the comments started to come. The nose offered concentrated aromas of crystalized ginger and white stone fruits along with lemon peel. And on the palate, what a palate. Florals combine with the powerful caramelized stone fruit and chalky minerality and fresh acidity to provide a remarkable balance with a finish that lingers forever. Our guest who spent the longest time looking into his glass and licking his lips summed up the impressions of all who were there: “It’s the best wine I’ve ever had.”
We proceeded with our appetizers and entrees, wonderful creations like Astice (butter-poached lobster with silver dollar mushrooms, bacon, and carrot velouté), fusilli with wild boar and pancetta ragù (the Grattamacco paired beautifully—wild boar roam the forests around the winery and the wine seemed to have a special affinity for the dish), and many others. The food, the wine, the conversation, and the impeccable service—with special mention to our Sommelier John Canvin, who curated the wine list and served us that night—was all seamlessly interwoven and made for an unforgettable evening.