definition of Sommelier

Interview with Jerry Castleman
by Alexis Beltrami

Alexis 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.

AB: Why limit yourself to just three countries? What about Austria, Germany, Spain, Australia?

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.

AB: 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.

AB: 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 lists?

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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