James Beard Award-winning wine writer Alan Tardi shares his fascinating story of how he moved on from being a dish washer at a restaurant in New York to opening a wine school in this interview with Amanda Barnes. He explains why, despite training in French cuisine, it was Italy that blew his mind, and shares his love affair with the wine country ever since.
How did you get into wine?
I originally got into wine through food. I was taking a break from college. I spent two months traveling through Europe, mostly France and Italy. When I came back to the States, I went to visit my sister in New York. And I stayed. After a while, I thought I should get a job. By chance, I walked into a restaurant in a new area called TriBeCa and I started the next day — washing dishes. After a few weeks, I became a busboy, then a waiter. When I came to work, the kitchen was always behind. I started helping the cooks and soon moved into the kitchen.
I went back to university but continued to work weekends at the restaurant. My school was in the Greenwich Village area of Manhattan. Often, after finishing classes, I went to a tiny restaurant called Chez Brigitte and sat at the narrow counter watching Brigitte cook delicious home-style dishes, while chatting with me in French.
There was a wineshop nearby and I began bringing half (and sometimes full!) bottles to accompany my supper and share with Brigitte. The food, wine, French babble, and cozy atmosphere made me feel quite good indeed.
After I obtained my Liberal Arts degree, I realized I enjoyed cooking and decided to look for a ‘real’ job in the kitchen. I heard good things about a restaurant in an up-and-coming area called SoHo and went to introduce myself.
As it turned out, they were looking to add a third person to their kitchen brigade and I started the following week, working garde-manger and desserts. Six months later the sous-chef left, so I took his place at the stove with the chef. Chef-owner David Waltuck was born and raised in the Bronx. He attended the Culinary Institute of America but dropped out to travel across France and develop his own unique take on traditional French Cuisine. The menu, which changed every week or two, consisted of a prix-fixe option (appetizer, main course, dessert) or a seven-course tasting menu. And owner-maitre d’ Karen Waltuck wrote every menu by hand in an elaborate ink script on thick paper with a custom-printed drawing by emerging (and now very famous!) artists, who were also customers.
This was an entirely new world for me. The food was fantastic and ever evolving. The wine list — heavy in Grand Cru Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Rhône, as well as Port, Cognac, and Armagnac — was quite amazing too. And Karen and David were very generous in allowing us to taste.
Tell us about your connection with Italy and what inspired you to open an Italian restaurant and write your first book about Piedmont.
Chantarelle closed the entire month of July for vacation. During this time many of the staff went off to France to explore wine-growing areas and three-star Michelin restaurants (reservations had to be secured by letter correspondence in French months in advance), as well as spontaneous meals in auberges, bistros, brasseries, and cafés.
I did this for two years and it was an awesome experience both times. The third summer I decided to explore Italy and rented a farmhouse outside Siena with my girlfriend at the time. And this turned out to be another mind-opening experience. I was blown away by the regional wines, food, architecture, landscape, culture, and people. It was more relaxed than France but just as compelling. And having taken a year of Italian at university, I was able to communicate with the people we encountered.
We had many excellent meals in trattorie, osterie, and ristorante but one place stood out. La Chiusa was — and still is! — located in a tiny village called Montefollonico in the province of Siena, just across the valley from Montepulciano in what was once an olive oil mill. Our lunch consisted of about 15 small plates: cold and hot antipasti; primi of soup, risotto, and several pastas; secondi of fish, fowl, and meat; local cheeses, dessert trolly, and biscotti, with an array of regional wines to match each course. We were there for close to four hours and, amazingly, we were not overly stuffed.
I left Chantarelle the following spring, I contacted Umberto and arranged to do a summer stage at La Chiusa. It was a tremendous experience, working in the kitchen with the village women making their traditional dishes, grilling Bistecca alla Fiorentina over charcoal in a fireplace, baking Tuscan bread in the wood-fired oven, and all the local ingredients — rabbits, poultry, Chianina beef, olive oil, pecorino cheese, herbs, and vegetables — from the immediate vicinity.
When I got back to New York that fall I took a job at a recently opened place called Lafayette in the Drake Swiss Hotel. The chef de cuisine, a native of Alsace and protégé of three-star Michelin chef Louis Outier, was named Jean-Georges Vongerichten. He hardly spoke English back then and lived in the hotel with his wife and two young children. This turned out to be yet another great experience. Over the two years I worked as chef de partie, I watched the menu change from Outier’s elaborate dishes to an entirely new style of cooking that Jean-Georges gradually developed via the daily specials. Everyone in the kitchen was excited about this transformation and committed to developing and refining Jean-George’s ideas. The success of this new cuisine was confirmed by a glowing four-star review in The New York Times.
I loved working at Lafayette. But I was also thinking about making food that was simpler, more straightforward, less manipulated, more seasonal, more grounded in some sort of tradition. And I kept thinking about Italy. I took a job as chef at a new high-profile restaurant called Le Madri, soon to be opened by a well-known New York Italian restaurateur and his financial backers who owned a fashionable department store. I managed a crew of 24; the restaurant had about 180 seats and we would typically do 350 to 500 covers each day. The restaurant was quite popular and got very good reviews. Overall, it was a great experience but after a year I had had enough.
Walking around one day on a non-descript block between Chelsea and the flower district, I noticed a three-story landmark squeezed in between much taller loft buildings. I looked through the dusty windows and saw a disheveled bar and what appeared to be a dining room further back. I also saw a mottled ‘For Lease’ sign taped on the door. And I arranged to have a look. It was dirty, decrepit, and smelled bad. All the kitchen equipment needed to be replaced and the place was undeniably a big mess. But there was something about place that felt very good.
A concept quickly developed: Italian regional dishes that changed with the seasons, more Northern influence in the fall and winter and more Southern in the spring and summer, using fresh local ingredients as much as we possibly could. And the wine program was to consist of excellent yet unusual wines from little-known appellations and producers. I got friends and family to invest.
We cleaned the place up, installed a tiled wood-burning oven in the dining room, and had a Japanese friend cover the walls with a luminous yellow-gold stucco Veneziana. There were some major bumps along the way, but we made it happen. And Follonico opened in September 1992. People began to dribble in. After a month or so, Gale Green wrote a rave article in New York Magazine and the floodgates opened…
Over time we developed a very appreciative and loyal clientele. But I was working lunch and dinner 12-16 hours a day. And after nearly ten years, I was starting to get tired. It was time for a change. I closed Follonico on July 14th of 2001. We had a great bittersweet farewell dinner with many of our loyal clients. Then we shut the doors and went off to the beach for the rest of the summer. I was planning to launch another business that fall but everything came to a halt on September 11. And remained that way for quite a while.
In the fall of 2002, I went to Torino to attend a Slow Food conference and food fair and write an article about it for an American magazine called Food Arts. After that, I stopped off in a small village in the Langhe area of Piedmont to visit a cook who had worked at Le Madri. In Castiglione Falletto, I met a young man who had just taken back his family’s vineyard that had been leased out for 20 years after his father passed away. He needed help and I was happy to lend a hand. Learning how to prune vines — Nebbiolo vines in a prestigious vineyard of Barolo, no less — was an exciting opportunity. I spent most of my time helping him out. And I came back again in the spring to help some more.
While I had learned a lot about wine, I had never had much hands-on face-to-face experience with the vines. And I was smitten. Back in New York, the city was still in shock; restaurants were struggling to survive and nothing new was starting. I sublet my New York apartment for a year and rented a room in Castiglione Falletto. I worked the harvest with the elders, who spoke in Piemontese dialect and sang while they picked. And I continued to help my friend in his vineyard. I learned all the terminology of viticulture in Piemontese; I hung out in the café in the evening watching the old men play tarrochi and gradually became a part of this small rural winegrowing community.
I felt a coming together of my work in the vineyards, the wine I was drinking, the traditional food I was eating, and the culture I was immersed in. I was taking notes of all the things I was learning and being exposed to and my first book, Romancing the Vine: Life, Love and Transformation in the Vineyards of Barolo (St Martin’s Press, 2006), practically wrote itself. Much to my surprise, Romancing the Vine won a James Beard for Best Wine Book of 2006.
The ‘year’ expanded to well over a decade. I became a resident of Castiglione Falletto and a citizen of Italy. I managed the Cantina Comunale of Castiglione Falletto where wines of all 22 of the town’s wineries were available for tasting and purchase and I moved from my apartment into a beautiful old farmhouse in the middle of some of the most famous vineyards of the appellation. I truly loved it. But in 2015 it was time to go back to America.
How have you seen the appreciation of Italian wines evolve in New York over the years?
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a Tuscan craze arose in New York, a new and exciting take on Italian food, wine, and culture – in contrast to the standard checkered-tablecloth spaghetti-and-meatballs heavy-handed-garlic sort of restaurant. ‘Super-Tuscan’ wines gave what was perceived as snooty French Bordeaux and Burgundy a run for their money. And this gradually expanded north, to Barolo and Amarone, and south to Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Taurasi.
This trend was fuelled by the post-World War II generation of Italians that had taken charge of their family wineries and visionary importers who began bringing these new Italian wines to the US. Now, it is going much further. Many aficionados are exploring lesser-known producers and unfamiliar appellations, and a new generation of curious wine drinkers are looking for new things like unusual grape varieties and alternative production methods such as biodynamic and ‘orange’ wines. Italy — with its ancient history of viticulture, diverse winegrowing areas, and vast number of unique cultivars — has a lot for wine lovers to explore.
What other wine regions are particularly close to your heart, and why?
There are many. But Champagne is particularly close to my heart. Living and working extensively in the vineyards of Barolo, I became very focused on wines made from one grape variety, one specific town or vineyard, and one vintage. In 2009, I was invited on a press trip to Maison Krug. And when I tasted their Grande Cuvée and learned how it was made, I was flabbergasted by the amazingly complex yet totally seamless assemblage of hundreds of wines from numerous vintages, three different grape varieties, and many different places within the extensive growing region. And in addition, there was the magic transformation that occurs during the second fermentation.
I was obsessed. I went back to visit a few more times. And then I told Krug I wanted to write a book about the creation of a classic Champagne cuvée chez Krug. It was a big ask: I would require full access and would need to follow every step of the long process. We talked about it for over a year. Then they said yes. I started early spring of 2013, driving all over Champagne with chef des caves Eric Lebel to meet with grape suppliers and contract plots, which went on for months. I closely followed the growing season leading up to harvest, pressing and fermentation in barrel. Then, after the holidays, we began tasting the new base wines and vast reserve collection going back 15 years. After that, Eric created the ‘recipe’ for the Grande Cuvée and the other champagnes they would produce that year.
It was a thoroughly fascinating process, one which everyone in Champagne does but each producer does it a little differently. I realized early on that for any of this to make sense, I would have to include the entire history of Champagne and the development of the Méthode Champenoise from its early beginning to today. Though it was tricky at first, I developed a way to intersperse the long historical timeline with the much shorter narrative of the creation of the 2013-based Grande Cuvée. Champagne, Uncorked: The House of Krug and the Timeless Allure of the World’s Most Celebrated Drink was published by Hachette in 2016 and received a Gourmand Best in the World Award.
Tell us about your new wine school, the New York Wine Studio, and why you decided to open one now.
After I came back to the US in 2015, I began conducting masterclasses at wine conferences such as The Society of Wine Educators Annual Conference, SommCon USA, and the American Wine Society. I also started giving seminars online for the international Wine Scholar Guild (WSG). After completing their comprehensive two-part Italian Wine Scholar program, I began teaching the course online for the WSG and did so for about six years.
I really enjoy teaching, whether online or in-person. I love sharing information and insights that can help people better understand and appreciate wine. I also find that while teaching others, I always learn something new myself. Online classes can offer tremendous opportunities with a very wide reach but there is limited interaction with participants and simultaneous wine tasting is difficult. Moreover, the Italian Wine Scholar program has never been taught in-person in New York City and I thought it was time that it was.
In New York, it seems there are two extremes of wine classes: on one side, there are professional credential programs aimed at serious professionals in the wine trade, such as WSET and Certified Sommelier under the auspices of the Court of Master Sommeliers. On the other side is a plethora of wine classes that are primarily recreational opportunities to taste a few wines while making new friends.
At the New York Wine Studio, in a lovely and accessible facility in the heart of midtown Manhattan, I intend to offer some of the comprehensive Wine Scholar Guild certification programs (in-person and with wines) as well as independent classes focusing on specific themes geared to both professionals in the wine trade, as well as highly interested consumers who love wine and want to learn more about it. newyorkwinestudio.com
What do you like to do in your free time, beyond wine?
Free time? I have an eight-year-old daughter; I have no free time! But once upon a time I used to love to play the piano (especially Chopin), take long walks or cycle, visit the sea, travel (which often involves wine) and go to the opera, especially in Paris, Milan, or Venice.