Aaron von Rock, 38, was born in Maryland and got his first experience with wine at the age of three, stomping Concord grapes along with his siblings for the family's homemade wine. By the time he was 18, von Rock found himself as the wine buyer at a Baltimore hotel before heading off to Boston University where he graduated in 1993 with a bachelor's degree in business administration. After graduating, von Rock moved to New York and let his passion for the restaurant business lead him to Verbena, where he was working as a bartender and server when he met David Gordon, wine director of Tribeca Grill, who helped spur his love of wine. Von Rock eventually became the wine director at Verbena in 1997.
Since then, von Rock has started his own wine consulting company and developed the lists at Alto and Della Rovere in New York and Aperitivo Plus in Westchester, N.Y. He joined Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner Telepan as wine director when it opened in 2005, and the loquacious von Rock now oversees the 750-selection, 5,300-bottle inventory, which emphasizes wines from California, Italy, Burgundy and the Loire.
Wine Spectator: What is the hardest dish on the dinner menu at Telepan to pair with wine, and what do you pair with it?
Aaron von Rock: Chef Bill Telepan often threatens to prepare what we call the "four horsemen of the pairing apocalypse": A dish featuring asparagus, artichokes and hard-boiled eggs tossed in red wine vinaigrette, which he hasn't done yet. I don't like when people order the soup [currently a Chilled Tomato-Bread Soup], not because the flavors are challenging, but the "too much liquid" dilemma is troublesome.
In reality though, his food is remarkably wine-friendly. The tasting menu here is energetically dynamic. Customers create their own four- or five-course menu from over 30 dishes.
WS: What is your go-to wine-and-food pairing?
AVR: In my free time, I love to reengage what I call the "oyster challenge," whereby you get a variety of oysters and bring together a range of possible wines. Aquagrill in Manhattan features over 20 oysters which wonderfully complement a number of wines—fino Sherry, Muscadet, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Loire Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, Chablis, grower Champagne blanc de blancs. They are all good liquid arguments.
WS: What kinds of dishes do you like to cook at home?
AVR: Diane Forley, the chef-owner of Verbena, inspired my enjoyment of creating tiny dishes—complex yet miniaturized bursts of flavor. I am most likely to make a menu of consecutive amuse bouches. Smoked or cured fish always plays a prominent role, and the preparations are well worth the limited effort required.
WS: How do you emphasize value on the wine list at Telepan?
AVR: We constantly taste cutting-edge wines, and there is an energy poured into the search for the next great cult wine. Find them now, before you have to sign up on a mailing list/waiting list or pay the auction premium. I loved meeting Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton primarily because they are worthwhile individuals, but that relationship also bespeaks an early chance at wines that are now widely recognized and hard to come by.
WS: What is/are your favorite wine region(s)?
AVR: Always a tough question, and as a wine drinker, the regions that combine passion and value are more and more difficult to come by. That said, I don't think that I shall ever forget approaching that Dr. Seuss-like vista of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and marveling not only at the formidable creaky ruins of the old donjon on high, but the fabulous wealth of old vines on every hillside and plateau.
WS: How many bottles do you have in your own personal cellar, and what are some of your favorites?
AVR: I am down to 27 cases of my "identity cellar," a collection that I sought to use as a key to my personality and wine-loving style in the case that I could plug it in to a restaurant endeavor. Burgundy, Châteauneuf, other Grenache dabblings and Champagnes of the ageable sort. I have used them in different restaurants over time, and the collection has dwindled. Make no mistake, I have the collector's bug, but just not the time or space to scratch that itch.
WS: If you ever made a wine, what kind of wine would it be?
AVR: I don't entertain the presumption or hubris that I would be a naturally capable winemaker, but I do believe the ultimate challenges are Pinot Noir, Viognier and Riesling. My natural inclination is probably more suited to trying to make a great Grenache though. Add flesh to the fruit, keep the suggestion of game and lavender, find depth and texture, those illusive companions to Grenache. Flexible, supplementary as well as complementary, inspiring stuff.
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