When the perfectly named (for a sommelier) Aldo Sohm went to work at the classic New York French fish restaurant Le Bernardin seven years ago, one of his first special assignments was to select wines for chef Eric Ripert's birthday party.
The entrée was escolar with sauce béarnaise. Sohm, unaware that Ripert famously loves to drink red Bordeaux with everything and damn the consequences, chose Hubert Lignier Morey-St.-Denis Les Chaffots 2001, a deliciously fragrant and silky red Burgundy. "It was drinking perfect," said the affable sommelier, still with a tinge of his native Austria in his accent.
Ten minutes before the event started, however, the maître d' and two captains approached the new guy. "They started yelling, ‘Didn't they tell you chef only likes Bordeaux?'"
Unfazed, Sohm shrugged. "Listen, I do not change the wine. This pairing works. If he likes Bordeaux, fine, let me open a Bordeaux for him. So what's the problem?"
Ripert later confided that he really liked the pairing. "But for the future," he told Sohm in an even stronger French accent, "I really love Bordeaux. With everything." Sohm responded, "Cook me meat, I will be happy to give you Bordeaux. But if you cook me those dishes, what do you want me to do?"
Ever since then, they have taken great delight in ribbing each other over Ripert's mantra of Bordeaux avec tout. "I could drink red Bordeaux with every meal," said Ripert, "even if it doesn't make a perfect pairing with the food. It makes me happy." A few years ago they even shot a segment for Ripert's Emmy-winning TV show, Avec Eric, in which chef and somm faced off over the question.
On the table was a plate of raw oysters, a serving of lobster salad, ripe Camembert cheese and a pecan pie, in their glasses the white Bordeaux Château Carbonnieux Graves 2007 and the red Bordeaux Château Gazin Pomerol 2004. (The segment can be viewed on YouTube.)
As pleasantly and diplomatically as they attempt to speak, you can tell what's happening with the sound off. After sampling the red wine with each dish, Sohm winces. Ripert shrugs and smiles. Whatever the gene is that makes most of us cringe when we drink a tannic red wine with oysters, Ripert doesn't have it. He didn't even flinch when sipping the dry red with the sugary pie, although he did allow that it kind of kicked up the tannins.
In his office last week, Ripert laughed. "I love to tease Aldo, like it's Bordeaux and nothing else matters. I am actually much more open-minded. I drink wines from everywhere, and I really do like them. But give me Bordeaux, and I am happy."
After all, the video is about drinking what you like. "Eric loves those wines, and I respect that," said Sohm, but it didn't stop him from packing the expanded Le Bernardin wine list with more Burgundy, mostly white but also lighter styles of red, grower Champagnes and, yes, white wines from Austria.
Sensitive to his Austrian heritage (and a previous gig at Wallse, an Austrian restaurant in New York), he waited until he beefed up the Burgundies before cautiously seeding more Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings onto the list. "When I got here, the press wrote immediately, 'Oh, Le Bernardin's wine menu will be changing into German and Austrian,'" he said. "But Austrian wines make sense with Eric's cuisine because they're clean, the fruit is on the neutral side, and they match the delicacy of the fish so well."
He also pruned what had been, in deference to Ripert's preferences, an oversized Bordeaux section. Now the options for Bordeaux hew closely to the classics. Some might call them trophy wines, but they sell, said Sohm, to customers who, like Ripert, just want to drink a great wine and don't mind if the pairing falls short of perfection.
What if a big spender orders a statuesque red wine, whether it's Bordeaux or Rhône or California Cabernet? It may be hard to believe that people show up at Le Bernardin not knowing its reputation of serving America's finest and most delicate seafood. But some parties arrive knowing only that it's supposed to be a great restaurant and are surprised to find a menu bristling with black sea bass, yellowfin tuna and red snapper. Even the dish called "surf and turf" is an appetizer of sea urchin and roasted bone marrow.
"I always point out that we focus on fish and maybe a white wine would work better," said Sohm. But if they still want the Bordeaux, he serves it without condescension. "That's my job," he shrugged. "Advise, and then make them happy."
Sohm noticed that Ripert and the other chefs at Le Bernardin rarely focus on how wine matches with their food. He even has a theory about why. "These guys have to be so incredibly creative. They experiment constantly with so many aromas and flavors," he said. "If they would start playing around the same way with wines, they would go completely nuts."
By July, Sohm and Ripert plan to open a wine bar next door to Le Bernardin on 51st Street, in the space across the courtyard that once housed Palio. Most of the restaurant is being converted into private dining space, but the bar area will become Aldo, with a wine list that skews toward moderate prices.
Sohm, Ripert and the Le Bernardin chefs are still tweaking the menu, but the sommelier wants it to be casual, quick and simple, focusing on cured meats, cold appetizers and a few goodies from the kitchen. They don't want the wine bar to compete with Le Bernardin's lounge, which serves food only slightly more casual than the dining room does.
"I don't want to say we're going to do bar food, but it's something like that," said Sohm. "When I visit Austria, I like the simple dishes the best, but at a top level, with great products. In Vienna, in the green market, there's a little shack [where] they sell roast beef, pata negra ham [from Spain], and here are the top hedge-fund managers and famous people rubbing shoulders with everyone else, eating with a toothpick from paper. They have a glass of wine and they move on."
Sohm would love for his namesake wine bar to become something like that.