Inez & Stephen Ribustello met in 2000 while working together in the wine department at the famed Windows on the World, then a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner, at the top of the World Trade Center in New York. After the restaurant was destroyed in the 2001 attacks, Stephen landed a position uptown as wine director at retailer PJ Wine and Inez worked as the beverage director at Blue Fin in Times Square. But by the summer of 2002 they moved out of the city and headed to France to work the harvest at Dujac winery in Burgundy.
When they returned to the States later that year, they opened On The Square a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence-winning restaurant, in Inez's hometown in Tarboro, N.C. In 2003, Inez returned to the Northeast to work as the wine director at the Borgata Casino, Hotel & Spa in Atlantic City, N.J., for one year until she joined Stephen back in Tarboro to help run the restaurant and start a family. Today, Inez oversees the dining room while Stephen runs the kitchen, and the two meet weekly to discuss the direction of the restaurant's menu and 500-bottle wine list, which is also available through the restaurant's adjacent retail wine shop. They’re currently the only couple to hold the Court of Master Sommeliers' advanced certificate and are studying for the rigorous Master Sommelier examination.
Wine Spectator: What first sparked your interest in wine?
Inez Ribustello: During my senior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I went to Charleston for a girls’ weekend. We ate at Magnolias and our server poured us a Chateau Ste. Michelle Chardonnay. I had never tasted anything like it.
Stephen Ribustello: When I was 18, I worked for two young graduates from the Culinary Institute of America who had opened a restaurant in Monroe, N.Y. One of them had inherited a substantial collection of wines. He brought in and shared some aged Bordeaux from the '70s, older California Cabernets and an occasional white Burgundy. I was blown away, but realized that I didn’t know what the heck was going on. I just started reading anything about wine I could get my hands on.
WS: At what point did you make a conscious decision to integrate wine into your career path?
IR: While I was in Peter Kump’s culinary school in New York (now the Institute of Culinary Education), I would often stop by Best Cellars around the corner to buy wine. One day a woman working at the shop said, "You know, you would save a lot of money if you got a job here." And I said, if that’s an offer, I’ll take it. So they hired me and I realized that I like to drink wine a lot more than I like to cook.
SR: I moved to Arizona to go to college and got a server job working at L'Auberge in Sedona to pay for school. One day the wine director blind tasted the staff on two wines we poured by the glass. I was able to identify them, a Vouvray and a California Cabernet, so he offered me a job as a part-time sommelier. I liked reading about wine more than reading about schoolwork, so I decided to give it a try and I took a break from school.
WS: Who has been your most influential mentor during your career and throughout your studies for the Master Sommelier exam?
IR: David Gordon of Tribeca Grill is brilliant. He knows more about wine than so many people I know. He’s a straight shooter, and a great mentor and person to ask wine questions—and he’s just an awesome guy. He hired me to be the wine director for the Borgata in Atlantic City. While we were working on Specchio's mostly Italian wine list, he'd talk about how Italian wines are one of the biggest mysteries for sommeliers. It really inspired me to expand my studies outside of Tuscany and Piedmont.
SR: I've had many between working in Arizona and at Windows on the World, but more recently my wife has been my biggest mentor. She’s the one that keeps me interested in pursuing the Master Sommelier program. We’re more likely to travel to wine regions instead of going on vacation to some island.
WS: What's your favorite food-and-wine pairing?
SR: For me, that question is nearly impossible to answer! But there is something completely celebratory and delicious about Champagne and a host of different hors d'oeuvres. I can’t say caviar anymore because I’ve sworn it off. And seared Foie Gras with a luscious sweet wine is just over-the-top indulgence.
WS: Is there a grape or wine region that goes particularly well with Stephen's cuisine?
IR: Albariño is very complementary to Stephen's cuisine because he uses a lot of spice and Asian ingredients in his food. Reds from Rioja and a few from Toro have the softer fruit profiles that often go very well with his dishes, including fish.
SR: On the white side, I like off-dry German Rieslings. I do use aggressive seasoning and spice, but there are also elements of sweetness in a lot of the dishes. So wines with residual sugar match up well. On the red side, I have to say Burgundy. I think Pinot Noir is so food friendly, especially since the alcohol is lower and the oak isn’t over the top. But I also love sparkling wine as a category; when in doubt, grab some bubbly.
WS: What is your favorite wine region or wine?
IR: I would drink Burgundy every time, if price weren't an issue. We're both Burgundy and sparkling wine fanatics. Again, Champagne if we could, but we normally drink cava. After working 12 to 15 hours under high heat and pressure in the kitchen, nothing tastes better than a well-chilled, simple bottle of Segura Viudas, uncomplicated and very refreshing.
SR: We worked the harvest at Dujac in 2002, so we have a definite connection with them and think their wines are great. Their best wine is either their Clos de la Roche or the Bonnes Mares. We have a picture of Inez punching down the Vosne-Romanée Les Beaux Monts. She nearly passed out from the carbon dioxide and I had to fish her out [of the fermentation vat] with a broom handle.
WS: Is there a memorable bottle of wine that you two have shared?
SR: We drank a bottle of the Salon '85 on New Year's Eve a few years ago after a particularly good night at the restaurant. But for sentimental reasons, we have this little sparkling wine we served at our wedding from the Jura called François Montand Brut Rosé. I still have one bottle left, although we won’t ever drink it.