Not all Western sommeliers pair aromatic, residual-sugar-laden whites with Eastern dishes, like lemmings. Jason Wagner, beverage director and partner at Fung Tu (“Wind Soil”; 22 Orchard Street; 212-219-8785) on the Lower East Side, has quietly reimagined the role of wine at the Chinese dinner table, building one of the most inventive wine programs for Chinese-American food currently available in New York — and possibly the country.
I laughed out loud recently while reading a Food & Wine interview with Jeannie Cho Lee. The Korean-born, Hong Kong–based Master of Wine commented, “I’ve never seen anyone in Hong Kong who knows anything about wine serve gewürztraminer with Cantonese food.” When probed about riesling, the American sommelier’s favorite all-purpose Asian-food wine pairing, she remarked, “about the only time I pour sweeter wines is with European or North American guests who can’t handle spices!”
Wagner shares Cho Lee’s sentiment, but he wasn’t always pairing sherry with black bean-clam sauce. Born in Houston and predominantly raised in Atlanta, his first f&b job was as a daytime bartender at the now defunct Dailey’s. He mostly fixed lemonades and took reservations, until he earned a spot on the evening shift, where he first learned about wine and cocktails.
Inspiration to self-educate on the world of wine stemmed initially from the desire to kill time during slow periods at the restaurant. Encouraged by his boss to read “something work-related” instead of work the crossword, he began to pore over Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible. Jason said he “became fascinated with the subject because it seemed to encompass so much: history, geography, sociology, chemistry. I think that’s also where I first encountered the word ‘sommelier.’ ”
Fast-forward to New York, and the precursor to opening Fung Tu with chef and partner Jonathan Wu. Wagner met Wu while taking courses at the American Sommelier Association, “hitting it off right away,” Wagner said. “We lived close to each other at the time and became study buddies, hitting the books, cooking, tasting, and drinking together. We’ve been friends ever since.”
When the opportunity arose to partner with Wu, Wilson Tang, and John Wells (Fung Tu’s chef de cuisine), Wagner couldn’t pass it up, especially because the concept of the Chinese restaurant wine list was vastly underexplored and underserved. “It’s very exciting to work with a cuisine that doesn’t have wines already associated with it. I can be as creative as I want with the pairings and never get any pushback from the guests. The possibilities are limitless,” Wagner elaborated.
Fung Tu stands out in a sea of conventional NYC Chinese restaurants largely due to the owners’ personal spin and seasonal approach to food. Also, Wagner said, Wu’s dishes “play a lot more with texture and layers of flavor rather than the tired spicy-and-sweet droll of most places.” Wu and Wells draw on their experience with French and Italian cuisine and techniques to “subtly add additional flavors to complement the more traditional Chinese flavor palette,” he said. While ingredients change with the seasons, ginger, garlic, and scallion compose the core of the cuisine. “We call it ‘the trinity.’ It’s the mirepoix or soffritto of Chinese food,” said Wagner.
Wagner has carte blanche to experiment with pairings, and not all of them are wine. He sources a Belgian sour ale beer to complement a dish of smoked and fried dates stuffed with duck. “I pair it with a Rodenbach Grand Cru. The dish is smoky, salty, sweet, and savory with a crunchy exterior and a soft interior. The beer brings a bright, sour, and fruity profile to the dish and a fizzy bubble to refresh the palate. It’s almost as if the two were made for each other.”
Wagner’s wine list encompasses a global selection of regions, grapes, and styles, but he doesn’t snub riesling entirely. “It can be a great combination when you’re trying to battle the spice in some Chinese dishes. But Jonathan’s food isn’t always spicy, and therefore that residual sugar really doesn’t need to be there. I always have one riesling on the list, and probably never more than that, though I’m not crusading against it or anything. I’m just trying to get people to think differently about Chinese food and wine together. There are so many incredible combinations outside of just riesling.”
Wagner firmly champions wine on the Chinese table, and believes other Chinese-American restaurants should retool their thinking, although a wholesale cut-and-paste of his list might not work. “Jonathan’s food is pretty unique, and our beverage program wouldn’t make sense for everyone. For instance, restaurants that focus on the cuisine of Sichuan province could definitely make use of wines with more residual sugar.”
Wagner devotes a section of his list to sherry, vin jaune from Jura, and sake — drinks that share a similar profile to the flavors of Shaoxing rice wine, an ingredient commonly found in Chinese dishes or even consumed at the table. Wagner compares Shaoxing to the flavors in an amontillado sherry (“nutty, saline, with hints of caramel”) and says that dishes incorporating Shaoxing match well with wines of a similar profile.
Wagner describes a sherry-evocative “orange” wine marrying well with one of Wu’s compositions. He pairs egg noodles in a chopped clam–black bean sauce with sweet Chinese sausage, pickled red onions, and chile oil with Bodegas Marenas “Cerro Encinas” Montipila. “The grape,” he explained, “is an obscure white variety used only in Montilla Moriles, Spain; it is usually made into sherry, but here, it is vinified dry and sees extended skin contact, making it an orange wine.” Wagner likes the tannic texture the skin adds to the wine, which he says “plays nicely with the richness of the sauce and sausage.” He also likes the wine’s salinity and nuttiness, making it a great match to the sauce, which has saltiness from the fermented black beans and brine from the clams.
Wagner’s affordable list will rotate wine selections as dishes revolve with the seasons, but he’ll always save room for biologically aged and oxidized wines. “I think sherry, especially fino, works well with a wide array of Chinese dishes,” he said. That’s good news for the unsung category’s advocates. Long a darling of American sommeliers, maybe sherry will supersede riesling as the go-to Chinese-food wine pairing.