Leo Schneemann of Café Kristall On Austrian Wine, Beyond Grüner


We’re betting the first time you ordered the Grüner, you felt pretty cool. The crisp, oftentimes brilliantly acidic wine helped put Austria on the map, but the country has since expanded beyond white wines. Why not try a Blaufränkisch or Zweigelt? Or even a pleasantly mineral Pinot Noir. Leo Schneemann, the beverage director for Kurt Gutenbrunner’s restaurants, including the months-old Café Kristall in the Swarovski store in Soho, is happy to guide you through it.

Describe your wine program.

The beverage program we’re running is 95 percent Austrian wines. We are famous in name for Austrian wines. When Kurt Gutenbrunner opened Wallse in 2000, it was the first Austrian restaurant in New York and they started with two or three Austrian wines on the menu — because not many of them were here. And, 10 years later, he has five more restaurants and we’re selling around 60,000 bottles of Austrian wine a year.

Why do you think Austrian wines are becoming more popular? Is it just that people are learning more about them?

I think that a lot of people know about Grüner already. Our main job right now is to try to make the other varietals a little more popular and, especially, I am talking about the Blaufränkisch, which is a red wine varietal. It’s our signature [in Austria]. Nobody else has a terroir to grow wines like that.

Austria is, of course, better known for its whites. Are white wines being taken a little more seriously than they used to be?

I think the promotion is better on the white wine because you have heavy white wines for the winter and you have crispy, fresh white wines for the summer. But there are a lot of good lighter red wines out there, like Pinot Noir or Blaufränkisch, which are very drinkable in the summer. You can also drink them at cooler temperatures to make them fresher.

What’s it like offering a complete dining experience in a fancy boutique?

At Café Kristall, you have a full dining experience starting at 9 o’clock in the morning with a full breakfast menu and a little lighter lunch, with a lot of fish dishes and also a lot of sandwiches. And at dinner, you have five different whites, Austrian, and five different Austrian reds by the glass. And another 30 to 40 each of white and red wines by the bottle. So, there’s something on the menu for every consumer that comes in.

Is it mostly people coming in specifically for dinner or shoppers stopping in?

No, actually, we figured out the last couple of weeks we have done really well on the dinner side. Most people aren’t stopping in [on their way to buy fine crystal].

What is one of your more unusual food and wine pairings?

An unexpected wine pairing on the menu — it’s not a traditional Austrian dish, but it goes very well with Austrian Riesling — it’s a Maine lobster with pineapple vanilla and bok choy and it goes perfectly with an older, full-bodied Riesling. For me this is one of the best wine pairings that we’ve had the last couple of weeks.

What would you say is the craziest bottle on your list?

I have two. One of which is a Zweigelt and the producer is Schwarz from the Neusiedlersee region. It’s a lighter, easily drinkable variety, or grape variety and there’s another producer, Heinrich in Burgenland, that makes the Zweigelt in a New World style, on the heavier side with a lot of oak. So, it’s actually kind of a crazy combination.

A café in a Swarovski boutique isn’t the most obvious place to get a drink or a meal for a lot of people. How are you appealing to normal folk?

We have a new happy hour that will run from 5 to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday. You get half off all wine by the glass, beer, and cocktails. There aren’t that many happy hours that go till 8 o’clock, so it’s a great place to get a drink in Soho.