Interview with Sommelier Karen Ann King of Union Square Café - New York, NY
Alexis Beltrami: You've been with Union Square Cafe for nearly 15 years, which is unusual stability for the restaurant business. How has that been possible?
Karen King: Well, partly that reflects the wonderful people here-owner Danny Meyer, [managing partner] Paul Bolles-Beaven, and [chef] Michael Romano-and the kind of work environment they've created. I'm fortunate to be working with such caring, supportive, and genuine people. Also, I've been able to grow professionally within Union Square Cafe, instead of having to go out on my own.
AB: I'd like to hear that story.
KK: I had actually been trying to get out of the restaurant business when I started at Union Square. I started waiting tables, then soon went behind the bar, where I stayed for 11 years, while gradually adding wine responsibilities. One day about 11 years ago, the wine director asked me to help with inventory, and later I attended a tasting with him. I was very nervous at that first tasting, with all its strange rituals-people spitting in buckets, writing notes. But I found that I had a good palate, and I slowly began easing into wine duties. About 6 years ago I met with Danny for the first time to make changes on the wine list. I continued tending bar while doing the wine program until about 3 years ago, when I finally took over the wine program full-time. In my first year as Wine Director I felt that I was dog-paddling, swimming against the current, but now I'm in a groove-comfortable but still excited, invigorated, never bored, always challenged.
AB: Is being a woman in a male-dominated profession one of those challenges?
KK: No. Being a woman has not been a hindrance. In fact, it feels like it works in my favor.
AB: What are some of the challenges you face, then?
KK: Dealing with salespeople can be a challenge, because I can't please them all. There's so much good wine in the market now, and so many good salespeople in New York, that I can't do as much business with all of them as I would like. Right now, in fact, our inventory is on a diet-we have huge wine holdings that we've acquired over the years. I also can't spend all day tasting wine, with sales reps or at trade tastings, as much fun as they are, because tasting is only part of my job. Sometimes I feel like a carcass on the plain! But I always try to be respectful and considerate in my dealings with salespeople, which is very important. As a sommelier or wine director, you're in a position of power, and sometimes people let that affect their behavior.
AB: What do you do to educate your staff? Do you send servers to wine courses?
KK: We don't send staff to training courses as a general rule, but when a server wants to enroll in a wine class on his own, we'll help pay for it. But I do all the staff wine education myself. I give our servers written wine tests twice a year, and I hold mandatory tastings every three weeks, which we take seriously. They are scheduled in January for the year, and although other things inevitably come up, I don't cancel them. The kitchen prepares food for these tastings, since food and wine is what we are about. I also lead informal tastings with a small core group of interested servers. And when we taste the specials every day I pour a wine with them.
AB: What are your guidelines for pairing wines with Union Square's food?
KK: Chef Michael Romano's food is very eclectic and lustily spiced, so big-flavored, rustic-style wines work well. I don't have a lot of specific guidelines; for me, food and wine matching is not so much an intellectual as a visceral process. It's based on experience and knowledge of the food. Our occasional food and wine dinners, where a wine is paired with each course, are a lot of fun and a good model for what we do on the fly every day.
AB: How do you decide which tables to approach when you're working on the floor?
KK: If I see a wine list open I might go over. Or, if I serve some guests I may engage them in conversation. Of course, I'm always available if a server comes to me and says a particular party has requested extra help with the wine. One of our big goals at the restaurant is for the waiters to be confident and capable of handling guests' wine questions and needs. I am by no means the only person interacting with wine. We want all of the staff to be wine knowledgeable.
AB: Your list includes a wonderful selection of sweet wines, including two old vintages of Vouvray Moelleux from Gaston Huet, 1924 and 1959. Do you find sweet wines to be a tough sell, and do people typically order them with, or in lieu of, dessert?
KK: We have offered a wide selection of dessert wines since we opened, and they sell steadily. Some people drink a sweet wine instead of dessert, some with dessert, and others while they wait for dessert. People like sweet wines.
AB: Your house red is notable, the "Union Square Cafe Reserve" from Valentino in Italy's Piedmont. Would you tell us more about this wine?
KK: It is a blend of about 80% Nebbiolo and 20% Barbera. We have used it as our main house red wine since 1985. We did have a little break, because 1991-1994 were not strong vintages· so there was about a 9-month interlude between the 1990 and the 1995, which is what we pour now (we bought a lot to eke through). It is our philosophy that a "house" wine should reflect the quality of the restaurant and not serve as a cash cow/ bread and butter pour.