Last week, we interviewed chef Ryan Hardy, who helms the kitchen at Charlie Bird. The wine program at this restaurant, though, is just as serious as the menu, so I sat down with the restaurant’s not-so-silent partner Robert Bohr, who worked the floor at Cru for years, and sommelier Grant Reynolds, formerly of Frasca in Boulder, Colorado, to chat about their philosophies and program. Both, it turns out, like drinking Kölsch.
Do either of you remember your first taste of wine?
Bohr: I do, yes. It’s not a fancy story, though. I remember tasting Paul Masson Chablis: My aunt and maternal grandparents used to buy it in big gallon jugs then pour it into liter carafes to chill in the fridge. Clearly there was no ceremony to it. I was around five or six years old and at Thanksgiving or Easter–a few times a year during holidays–I would have my tiny cordial glass and got to have my sip of wine. I called it “sha-bliss.”
Reynolds: Yeah, my story is nothing fancy, either. My first taste of wine was with a shady family friend who would drive around in the car with a water bottle filled up with box wine. I remember I reached over and grabbed it, took a sip, and spit it out. That’s how I knew I didn’t like boxed wine.
When did you both first discover you wanted to get into the wine business?
Reynolds: For me, it was a pretty organic transition from working in restaurants. I just loved working in them during college and got lucky–I met people I really looked up to in the industry, people with good character who served as mentors. Wine ultimately grabbed my interest. For me, the restaurant business is a combination of a lot of things that I love, and wine is at the center.
What is the focus of the list you have created at Charlie Bird, and how does it complement the food?
Bohr: Grant and I both have passion for producers and wine styles that have a lot of integrity, and, to be honest, our wine list is an extension of what we really like to drink. Fortunately those wines fit into the style of restaurant that we are and they aren’t that expensive. For instance, we have a lot of Chablis on the list, a lot of Italian reds, and a lot of coastal Italian whites. That’s what we like to drink, and that’s what really goes with the food, since the food has the same sensibility of the wines: a little more discreet, flavorful, and nuanced. We look at our wines as tools to help guests have a good experience with the food. And on their own, of course, they are wines we are happy to represent.
Do you guys carry wines you wish you didn’t have but do because customers want them?
Reynolds: I was thinking about this the other day. With only 100 selections at any time, why would we want to put anything on the list that we don’t stand behind?
Bohr: There is a lot of shitty wine out there, and a lot of people who prop up really bad wine under the guise of it being terroir-driven and unique and special. Our job is to edit that for our guests.
Your list leans heavily on classic regions, not always so inexpensive. What do you think are the best value wines on your list?
Bohr: I am going to say this, and I don’t want to sound like an asshole saying it: Our job is to put the value wines on the list. It’s your job to figure out what they are. Our job is to find wine and give really aggressive discounts in relation to price structure based upon wines we think are under-appreciated, and if you happen to know what the value of that wine is in the real world, and you know it is cheaper here, then that’s your best value. Does that make sense?
So, I should just tell readers the key to your wine list is look-up the wines on Wine-Searcher, do their homework and …
Bohr: Yes, and figure it out. Exactly! [laughs]
Are there any unusual wines on the list? And I don’t mean esoteric for the sake of esoteric–but a pet grape or region of which either of you are particularly fond?
Reynolds: We definitely don’t put wines on the list just to be unique. Right now we are pouring a wine by the glass from Mt. Etna, Sicily–a Carricante. We aren’t intentionally trying to have an indigenous grape from Italy in order to provide something different, we just really like the wine.
Recently, we were doing a tasting and there was a wine that jumped out at us both, and neither of us had ever heard of it: Punta Crena Mataossu. The grape is Mataossu, and it’s a rare variety from Liguria. We had it by the glass for a period, but we just changed it out–we loved it so much, we told everyone about it, and we sold out of our stock.
How often do you refresh the list?
Bohr: Maybe once or twice a week; by the glass, less so. Right now we have lots of vegetables on the menu, obviously, so our whites are geared toward crudo and vegetables; the reds are lighter, summer wines. But we usually only have a couple of bottles of any one wine so we refresh it often. As you can imagine, we don’t have a lot of space, and this isn’t a massively funded wine program, so by some measure of default, we have to change things up.
Do women and men order wine differently?
Bohr: My previous restaurant [Cru] was a very clubby, male-dominated joint. When a woman ordered, it was a different kind of feeling. At Charlie Bird, there is a much greater sense of an informed diner, an informed wine person; the general increase of curiosity and intelligence on the customer’s side, both male and female, has created a more level playing field, at least as far as what we are talking about–we aren’t talking about first growth Bordeaux–we are talking about ordering wine in this type of restaurant.
Who, then, generally orders the wine at Charlie Bird?
Bohr: Ha. Women. We actually have a majority of women diners here. Probably 60/40. I feel like we are at brunch every night.
What is the draw for women to Charlie Bird?
Bohr: The menu is full of vegetables and fish; the cooking is healthy, fresh, and honest. And the aesthetic is really gender-neutral, at best. It’s not geared towards Wall Street expense accounts. And it’s younger.
Have you noticed any consumer trends?
Bohr: Yeah, that growing curiosity I spoke to. I am super pumped about that.
Reynolds: Yeah, things are changing. There is a sommelier I used to work with that would try to match a customer’s haircut to his wine order. There are certain stereotypes that are now being blown apart. The other night we had three guys in suits, and they asked for three really fun, kind of esoteric wines and left it to Robert to pick out some fun choices. The stereotype was totally blown away.
Bohr: Yes, three suits. I mean, you don’t expect them to like funky, esoteric, red wines. And it was great. That’s the paradigm shift for me. It was awesome.
Any unsung or undervalued regions left out there?
Bohr: There are a lot of cool things going on in Champagne right now–things that younger winemakers can do because the region can provide a kind of financial cover for them. Also, I am a little late to the Corsican wine phenomenon, but the wines are great. They are savory with great texture, and they have a lot of qualities that really work with our food. Also, I like what’s going on in Etna, Sicily. I think there’s a lot of cool stuff, and they are not expensive wines. You just have to embrace drinking indigenous varieties and be okay with that. It’s exciting time to be a wine drinker and buyer right now.
Reynolds: I just want to add that it’s dangerous to always be chasing something new. I think it’s important to pay respect to classics–they give us context. When I drink Corsican wine, for example, it’s like comparing it Chablis or great Tuscan reds. We need that context to appreciate other wines.
What interests do you have outside of wine and work?
Reynolds: Skiing. I wanted to be a professional skier, but it didn’t hash out.
Bohr: Grant is a really good skier and a lot of fun to hit the mountain with. As for me, I really like hip-hop. And politics. I spend a lot of time on politics. I once considered being a constitutional lawyer.
What are you guys drinking off the job?
Both: Beer. Kölsch.
If you guys could be traveling anywhere, where would you be?
Bohr: Chile would be fun. I could get on a mountain right now.
Reynolds: Or Lake Placid. But a mountain in Chile would also be great; escape the heat. We would bring our own wine, though.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 29, 2013