Interview with Sommelier Robert Bohr, Alex Miranda, and John Slover of Cru - New York, NY
Michann Thompson: What is the structure of your team? What is the breakdown of duties?
Robert Bohr: In title I’m the wine director, so basically I get all the credit and they do all the work. I do most of the overseas auction buying and collectibles buying; the three of us share domestic buying. There are 18,000-20,000 bottles in our cellar here. The majority of our wines – almost 60,000 bottles – are stored in our warehouse in New Jersey. We also have a warehouse in France for about 1,000 cases of our younger wines. Alex does the physical cellar management, organizes the bin system, and really maintains the cellar. John handles the wine list administration.
MT: How does your team collaborate with Chef Shea Gallante?
RB: Mostly around new tasting menus. Communicating with Shea requires a light touch, particularly because he likes to think on his feet. You have to be agile in your wine decisions. If someone has already ordered wine, we might say to Shea, “Can you think more Burgundy?” for example. He’s gotten better at crafting menus from that perspective.
John Slover: He’s pretty smart about pairing. You can describe the wine to him and he will have some ideas…
Alex Miranda: More than just some. But he has an excellent palate.
MT: Is it a challenge to maintain knowledge of your inventory in your head?
AM: Not really. Especially if it’s something I selected or personally inventoried.
RB: The wine list is so deep that we each have things that are more salient than others. It becomes rather organic.
AM: And luckily, we have just about everything at our disposal, whereas at a smaller restaurant you’d have a much scaled-down wine list to draw from.
JS: And then there’s a structural approach where someone can say, “I want a wine that’s high in acid, but soft, etc.” and then we just generate from that.
RB: And then we consider price points, where does this customer want to be? Hw many French wines have they done already? There are a lot of factors, and seldom is there just one wine that would satisfy all those factors.
MT: So you can really customize the selection to the individual?
JS: Definitely. And everything that we just discussed, looking at all those elements and assessing those factors, takes place in 2 ½ seconds. (Laughter)
RB: A lot of selling wine comes down to the confidence with which you speak to guests coupled with extensive tasting experience. But you have to have both. You can’t have one: if you have great tasting experience without confidence, you’re dead…
JS: No one’s going to trust your opinions.
RB: And if you have a lot of confidence without extensive wine knowledge, it’s a thin veil that sooner or later is going to fall away.
AM: The minute you pour the guest a taste, they’ll know…
JS: Yeah, “This is nothing like what you said it would be!”
RB: In New York especially, you are dealing with a very sophisticated customer who might eat out more than five times a week. You just can’t be making it up. So anyway, after developing this niche in Italian wines, I went on to work at Daniel to expand my knowledge of French wines. All this time, I was meeting with private clients and that is where I got to taste really great wine. That is the difference we are fortunate to enjoy. To have an opinion on how the wines of Burgundy have changed from the 1930’s to the 1940’s vintages is not something most sommeliers will be exposed to. It’s something that none of us could afford on our own, but when you meet enthusiasts, they love to share wine, especially with those who they know will really appreciate it. And we’re ideal candidates for that – we’re eager… One of those clients I met was Roy Welland, now the owner at Cru.
MT: Where do the wines come from? What % would you say each of those sources represent on your list?
RB: 100% is Roy Welland’s inventory. Even the stuff purchased at inventory is for him personally. Which reduces the burden of the restaurant, since the wine program requires so much capital. It’s his wine.
AM: And we just sell it for him.
MT: What wine regions are you most excited about now?
AM: Well, we are classicists. Because of what we have at our disposal and, as Robert was saying, being able to taste older stuff most people just read about, I’m more excited than ever about classic regions.
JS: I totally agree.
AM: I know that there’s always a vogue, “up-and-coming” region, but I think in our heart of hearts, we all still love Burgundy, Rhone, and Piedmont.
RB: Look at our wine list. Our personalities are rather transparent.
JS: Just to give you specifics: Burgundy, red and white. Barolo and Barbaresco in Piedmont. Rhone reds. German and Austrian whites.
RB: Right. There is 80% of our wine list.
JS: And Bordeaux, I like Bordeaux. I think Alex does too.
AM: I do, actually.
JS: Robert doesn’t.
AM: A lot of young sommeliers like New World wines because they’re easy to understand and you can find the latest hotshot in Chile and go with it. It’s the same thing with the press. There’s nothing new to write about Burgundy, so when I pick up Wine Spectator or Decanter, it’s “South Africa!” or “Chile!” which I understand. We are old school. I think 30% of our clientele is interested in modern wine and we do have some. It’s almost like we are trying to sell them on the Old World.
MT: That’s interesting because in wine education courses, a common exercise asks students to suggest New World substitutions for Old World classics, but you essentially find yourselves doing the opposite.
AM: Somebody will say, “I love Chilean wine” and I’ll say, “Why don’t you try this regional French wine?” almost like I’m trying to get them to go back to the source.
JS: Definitely. It’s understandable. That’s what gets press.
AM: Exactly. And it’s affordable. Who can afford to drink Grand Cru Burgundies every night? But I think that’s the exciting thing about our list. We have affordable older selections. For example, in the Rhone section, we have 85 different Cote-Roties for under $100 and I dare any restaurant in New York to offer something like that.
RB: Really? “Dare?”
JS: Absolutely, I dare them, too!
MT: Alex, do you still like California wines?
AM: I do, actually. My palate has evolved. Now I like softer, prettier wines. But having said that, I can appreciate those big wines. I really love California Cabs from the ‘80s. I think they’re delicious.
JS: Yes, like older Phelps.
AM: But sometimes, you try to sell them to people…
JS: And they want something young, that’s being written up in the press. It’s like, “The 2001 Peter Michael Pavots was just written up, I have to drink it.” That’s a shame because that wine is going to be great and it’s not ready to drink.
AM: We all feel passionate about giving the wine a chance to become something. That’s the biggest challenge to get customers to try something with a little maturity.
MT: But you have that luxury, right? Because ultimately you decide when to put a wine from your cellar into rotation on your list?
RB: We won’t put young wines on the list, so in essence we force them out of what currently is in the press.
JS: And also our first reflex is to push people toward drinking older wines.
RB: And it would be to our advantage to sell them younger wines! We have more opportunity to buy them.
MT: So it’s more philosophical?
JS: Yeah, that’s what it is. It’s a philosophical aspect of how we work. Given that we don’t put young wines on the list that much, we do get the chance to expose people who would not normally choose an older wine to some really excellent wines.
MT: Do you see your portfolio changing over time? If so, how?
RB: There are a few areas we’re feeling out. We’re tasting more Southern Hemisphere wines.
AM: We’re trying to be open-minded.
RB: Yes, we’re learning more. I haven’t personally visited those regions, so I don’t have the connection yet that I have to some Old World wines, but I’m tasting.
AM: It’s also a reflection of what customers are requesting. I think what Robert is saying is that we want to give those countries their due.
JS: But Burgundy is always going to dominate our list.
JS: Number one: it’s our preference. Number two: it goes best with our food. Three: we have endless amounts of future stock to drink.
MT: Do any of you have a favorite “value” wine, say under $25?
AM: I generally like Loire Valley whites for my everyday wines. One specific producer I enjoy is Domaine de Bellivière. It’s spicy, very light. Even on wine lists, it’s pretty cheap. Robert?
RB: I drink a lot of Bourgogne Rouge as my house wine. That and Barbera.
JS: Yeah, I was going to say Barbera.
RB: Those are my two main ones. I mean, I like to drink Grand Cru Burgundy all the time, but it’s not something I usually drink at home.
AM: Me too.
RB: I’m not at all opposed to drinking simple wines.
JS: For me, it’s also Barbera for red and Riesling for white.
AM: For whites, the same for me.
MT: Tell me about a perfect match that you discovered.
JS: Just last week, I had roast-suckling pig with Cornas. It was a 1999 Allemand Reynard – amazing.
AM: When I was at Clinton 71, the chef used to make this uni dish with poached egg and maple syrup and I couldn’t find a wine that could stand up to such strong flavors. I ended up choosing a Savagnin from the Jura. Jacques Puffeney is the producer.
RB: That would agree with the egg, I’d imagine.
AM: Yes, it worked really well. The savagnin grape has a lot of texture and is almost sherry-like, but fresh.
RB: We just did this great pairing last night, actually. One of my favorite menu items is Pike Quenelles with a watercress garlic puree and it’s awesome with this Grüner Veltliner from Knoll. It was fantastic.
JS: Now I’m hungry.
MT: Do you have any professional pet peeves?
JS: Besides anything that Alex does?
RB: My real pet peeve on the floor is a lack of dialogue. As in, “We’d like a red wine.” And you say, “We have 2,500…” and they add, “Something, you know, reasonable.” The more vague someone is, the more difficult the job is, and it’s less likely you’ll be able to meet their expectations.
MT: Do a lot of guests ask for Parker or Wine Spectator scores as a guide?
RB: They do, but we don’t read any press, so we have no idea.
AM: It’s true. We read books and have studied regions from that perspective, but…
RB: We had a bunch of cases of that Peter Michael’s wine we mentioned earlier and every night we would sell at least 3 bottles, and we couldn’t figure out why it was selling so well. Once someone told me it had just been named a top new release in Wine Spectator, which had come out that week, it all made sense.
AM: I’ve made suggestions to people about wine I know is fabulous because we’ve tasted it, and they’ll say, “Well, that didn’t get a very good score from Parker.”
RB: Luckily, it’s less of a factor in restaurants than in retail. In retail, it’s the dominant factor in wine buying.
More and More Wine
MT: Do customers ever feel overwhelmed by the size of your inventory? How do you manage to put them at ease? (Note: There are two wine lists--books really—one for red and one for white, which also includes sparkling wine and beer.)
AM: Definitely they do.
JS: A joke, an encouraging wink…
RB: Structurally, we try to help by the way we wrote the wine list. If I told you how long it took to organize this list, you truly would not believe us, but we tried to mitigate the sense of dread someone feels when looking at a wine list this big by setting it up by region. We put tabs in for each section, so you can flip directly to a region or country you’re interested in. There’s a Table of Contents at the front and also the first couple of pages that you go to are just our recommendations.
AM: Which are really great.
RB: It’s a shortcut: there’s a little description of each recommended wine, they’re all under $100, so if someone doesn’t feel like flipping through 250 pages, they can look at these four.
JS: It’s really like a mini-wine list.
MT: You’ve got the maps here as well.
RB: That came from Roy. He likes to learn about wine and he is not a wine person by trade, so when he goes somewhere and he learns something about wine, he feels like he’s gotten something from the experience.
MT: What is your corkage policy for customers bringing in selections from their private cellars?
AM: Zero tolerance.
RB: No exceptions. And we mean that in the nicest possible way.
AM: I mean, 3,500 bottles on the list…
MT: Beyond the impressive portfolio you manage, what do you think makes your wine team unique in this business?
RB: There are a lot of great sommeliers in New York and there are a lot of people I respect immensely, and if they were in this position, they would do great also. But why I like the wine team that we have is that there are 3 distinct personalities…
JS: There’s a chemistry.
RB: One journalist had suggested to me that that’s a negative, and I respectfully disagreed. I think it’s actually a plus that on any day you could get different advice from Alex or John than you might get from me. Maybe it would be good if there were a company policy on wine and every recommendation were the same, but that’s not reality.
AM: And I would not want to work in a restaurant like that.
RB: So we all have our own opinions and we establish a rapport based on our individual personalities, but there’s no qualitative difference. Effectively, you’re going to get good service and knowledgeable opinions, regardless of who comes to your table.
AM: And also we’re all really smart! (laughing)
RB: And incredibly fit…
JB: Strikingly handsome…
AM: And we respect that about each other…
RB: But seriously, there’s a lot of mutual respect. When you have a restaurant where wine comprises so much of the investment… I mean, we all have keys. Any one of us could come in and lift a $10,000 bottle of wine. So it all comes down to trust. To me and my partner, it’s an invaluable part of the relationship. There are dozens of sommeliers in this city who could do as well or better than any one of us, but I think together, as a team, the 3 of us are greater than the sum of our parts.
Sommelier John SloverCRU
24 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10011