The Grape Frontier: Patrick Cappiello Leads a Revolution in Wine
Not even ten years ago, most serious wine drinkers in this city were of a pretty elite group — they were suits with deep bank accounts who cellared Burgundy and Bordeaux and finished nights with $1,000 bottles ordered off the lists of wine meccas like Cru and Veritas. But sometime in the last decade, interest in wine began to seep past traditional boundaries, hooking enthusiasts with much more meager budgets. These drinkers pushed into underrated regions, looking for wines that wouldn't drain their savings in one shot. They drank funky and unusual wines, and forwent the white-tablecloth temples in favor of more casual restaurants. And they were led into this brave new frontier by people like Patrick Cappiello, the wine director at Pearl & Ash (220 Bowery, 212-837-2370) and newly opened Rebelle (218 Bowery, 917-639-3880).
Cappiello cut his teeth in the wine meccas that dominated pre-recession New York, but first he worked at a fine-dining restaurant in Ohio, where he realized he'd make more money if he could more effectively sell the wine on the list. He started studying with one of the other waiters, and he picked up Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, a book that covers what Zraly used to teach his staff at the wine-centric Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. "I ripped through it," says Cappiello. He still keeps his first wine list in a beat-up copy of the book.
He learned the basics, and started doing really well, he says, so he decided to move to New York City, where he landed a gig at the Tribeca Grill, which had just earned the Wine Spectator Grand Award under David Gordon. Cappiello spent a year learning the cellar while he wasn't working shifts, and then Gordon allowed him to work the floor as a sommelier. After three years, he went to Veritas, which he describes as a center of high-end drinking in the days before the economic crash. "It was the last hurrah for that wine scene," he says. "It was gluttonous. We opened thousands and thousands of dollars' worth of wine; there was so much great wine opened and shared with me. In those four years, I tasted more regal, rare wine than I probably will in my life. It was more than most sommeliers taste in their career."
If that kind of drinking didn't totally dry up around 2008, it certainly became less ostentatious. But while the rest of the industry battened down the hatches to weather the economic storm, Cappiello found himself in charge of the wine program at Gilt, which was owned by the sultan of Brunei. "I had this huge budget," he says. "I convinced them to go for the Grand Award. I was going to auction for these rare bottles. At Zachys, you'd have this wine flying by, and no one was bidding. I was buying it really cheap and stockpiling it." Unfortunately, while Gilt became a tourist destination, it never quite caught on with wine hounds. Cappiello's stockpile is still sitting at the New York Palace Hotel — he hopes it'll someday become accessible.
Gilt went on hiatus at the end of 2012, and while Cappiello was trying to figure out his next move, Brandon McRill and Richard Kuo approached him with a little consulting work. They were opening Pearl & Ash down on the Bowery, and they needed a wine list. "I said, let's put a little money into it and do a really cool 200-bottle list with low markups," Cappiello says. "No one had done that in a long time. I have a love for funky, off-the-beaten-path wines. I was chasing Burgundy at work, but I couldn't afford to drink that way."
The resulting list, says Cappiello, was "like an octopus with 1,000 arms. I want to give as many people as many opportunities to get excited about as many wines as possible," he explains. "To do that, you have to be constantly poring over the list. What if I was in the mood to drink two bottles, one white that's minerally, and one red that's funky, and I only had $150?" The 200- bottle list has expanded to 2,100 bottles, and it leaves very few regions untouched. "It's sort of a fuck-you — I challenge you to not find a bottle you're excited about."
The strategy lured in all kinds of drinkers — industry pros descended on Pearl & Ash in droves, sure, and the bottles of rare Bordeaux and Burgundy in the collection were a fishing line for the collectors who fill high-end midtown dining rooms. But there were also novices in the mix — Cappiello, who became a partner at Pearl & Ash, worked diligently to break down the barrier of intimidation that often puts new wine drinkers off of listening to a sommelier. He became known for sabering bottles of sparkling wine in the dining room, and Pearl & Ash became the place you'd go if you wanted to drink wine that makes you feel like a rock star while adhering to your rather modest day-job budget.
Cappiello describes the collection at Pearl & Ash as an inclusive list — "Just because I'm eating pasta doesn't mean I want to be forced to drink nebbiolo," he explains. "I never understood the one-country approach. Pearl & Ash was about trying to find the trailblazers, and shaking things up." But at Rebelle, which he and McRill just opened with chef Daniel Eddy (and Alessandro Zampedri, who is also a partner in Pearl & Ash), the wine director decided to zero in on two countries: France and the United States.
"It's a French restaurant run by Americans, so that's why the wine list is French and American," Cappiello explains. And while limiting himself in this way was a challenge, it was necessary — "If I transcribed Pearl & Ash's wine list to Rebelle, I'd be critiqued by that," he says. If you have even a passing interest in French or American wines, you'll likely read Rebelle's list like a book — it digs deep, offering wines from well-known regions and underrated corners, and several vintages of a number of producers. You'll see bottles from the Loire Valley, Jura, and Savoie on the French side, and Cappiello dug up old California bottlings plus wine from states like Idaho, Michigan, and Arizona for his domestic collection. He also focused on biodynamic and organic producers, which he said is fairly standard practice among winemakers in many regions of France. He's concentrating on that now, he says, because drinkers actually care about it — that wasn't the case a decade ago.
By narrowing the offerings at Rebelle, Cappiello put the onus on the wine staff to guide drinkers to bottles they'll like, even if they don't normally drink wine from the regions offered. "Our job is to find wine for the person who wants to drink Brunello," he says. "We can guide them to Bordeaux, which also has a soft, supple texture. It's not impossible to make people happy, but it's a little exclusive."
Given the jump drinkers have made over the last few years, though, it's not often a tough sell. Cappiello says he now sees once-obscure regions like the Loire Valley garnering huge sums at auction because collectors are into it, and once-obscure bottlings like small producer-growers' Champagne flying off his list. What's next in wine trends? Domestic sparklers, Cappiello predicts. Savoie. Sicily. Corsica. Spain. And wine from the Finger Lakes, right here in New York.
And Cappiello thinks this is an expansion that will only continue. "Food critics critique wine lists. Sommeliers are put in a position by clients, trendsetters, media to do the right thing by their guests. Big Brother is watching, in the best possible way," he says. "A lot of people are embracing drinking really well and inexpensively, and so many wine buyers are starting to embrace that idea. There's a revolution happening in the sommelier world, and an understanding about what clients need. It's a new realm, and people are excited."
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