Interview with Wine Director Aaron von Rock of Verbena - New York, NY
Alexis 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 wasn’t the kitchen versus floor staff kind of competition that she’d seen on occasion in previous restaurants.
AB: Is such competition a common problem in restaurants?
AVR: It happens far too often. Diane’s 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: I’ve been Wine Director for three years. For the previous two, I was head bartender and the sommelier on the floor. From the beginning, we’ve 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 it’s a relationship that we enjoy maintaining, although it has of course developed into something different. He consults for lots of restaurants –Verbena was his first—and he’s 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: We’re 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 you’ve got to participate. It’s the same as with allocated wines—you’ve 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 about—you do a lot of research for one auction, to walk away with only two cases of wine. As a restaurant, we’re basically bottom-feeders; we’re not going to be pushing the high bids on something that has a lot of bidding. We look for the under-appreciated wines that don’t get as much attention as they should, not the star-status wines.
AB: Have you ever had problems with the quality of the wines you’ve purchased at auction?
AVR: I haven’t yet, and we’ve been doing it for a couple of years. That’s part of the research.
AB: Speaking of research, are there any wine publications you find particularly useful?
AVR: Well, I think there’s some necessary reading, because it’s what you know the public is going to run into, and then there’s necessary reading that you know certain winemakers respect—if they do respect anything—and 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 do—that’s certainly what he [Robert Parker] caters to. Decanter is a lot of fun, and if you’re studying for sommelier courses, it’s 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 Diane’s favorites, so it’s 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 it’s difficult to grow and difficult to vinify, but it’s one of the most rewarding wines, and it has a natural affinity for her food. It’s 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 appetizers.
AB: Does she consult with you when she’s creating a dish or planning a menu?
AVR: Well, we’ve 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 we’ve accumulated over the years. It’s 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 we’ve 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 Aaron’s 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 d’ouevres selection, which we do for private parties and is very popular. Tasting sizes really made sense in such a small space—you have one burst of flavor that sears across your palate and establishes a memory, and you move on. The menu is different from Verbena’s, but the food is Diane Forley’s and comes out of the same kitchen. It’s a great place to try her food at a lower cost.
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. What’s gratifying is that the customers have really been up for the adventure. They’re 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 with us.
AB: In the six years you’ve 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. We’re 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.