Pope started her restaurant career in 1996, cooking at Best of Award of Excellence winner Union Square Café. There she was first introduced to wine through the guidance of wine director Karen King. Later, through the tutelage of her predecessor at Gramercy Tavern, Paul Grieco (who now manages New York's Hearth and Insieme restaurants as well as Terroir, a wine bar which opened this past May), she became fluent in all things front-of-the-house. A 10-year veteran of Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group, Pope, an Atlanta native, still refers to herself as a "homegrown girl."
Wine Spectator: Did you grow up with food and wine?
Juliette Pope: I grew up with an appreciation for eating—not fancy food, but good food. My mom has an obsession with cooking: She also lived in Rome when she was in her early 20s, so she always had the bug. I come by it naturally. Wine was a late-breaking thing.
WS: You started out on the kitchen side of the Danny Meyer restaurant family. How was your transition to the front of the house?
JP: It was definitely daunting. My god, wine was the most daunting part. Sitting in my first family meal and just listening to the banter and conversation! I tell [the staff] (the ones who are afraid to speak up), "Trust me. I've been there. I was there only seven years ago." You sit there, you soak it up, and you go after it. You learn it. It was scary, but I had good teachers.
WS: How did you go about learning wine?
JP: I learned on the job, mostly from experience. That's how everyone [at Gramercy Tavern] learns. I carry no official credentials. I'm a homegrown girl as far as the wine stuff goes. That's why I preach it to these guys: You can do it! This is do-it-yourself; it's very organic.
It's a family here. Everything I do is to engage [the staff]. Yes, ultimately, it is to serve the guest. But when I think about what I'm buying, what I am putting on the list, what we are pouring by the glass, I'm thinking about what they are interested in—about what I can get them interested in. The staff is what keeps this whole machine going. It's all about engaging them, intriguing them. That's what gets me out of bed tasting wine. I'm learning, and I'm trying to help [the staff] learn as I learn.
WS: You worked harvest at in Oregon at Yamhill's Belle Pente. What was that experience like?
JP: It was phenomenal. It was really life changing. After all these years reading, reading, reading, asking questions, trying to get my mind around punch-downs, and whole-cluster presses, etc., I just had to do it. I love what's in the bottle, but the older I get, the more I'm interested in how it got there. I am a cook: I like to have my hands on things and get dirty, literally. That's one reason I like to work in the cellar. I just like to have my hands on it.
WS: What are your favorite wines?
JP: Riesling used to rule the world for me, but I am a sucker for Loire Valley Chenin Blanc—whether it is the most searingly dry Vouvray or austere Savenierres. For red, I am going to have to throw it down and say Northern Rhône Syrah: Cornas, Côte-Rôtie and the like. Those would have to be my desert island wines.
WS: Do you have a favorite wine pairing?
JP: It's seasonal for me. We have a gorgeous halibut dish—it's slow poached in olive oil—the fish is really unctuous and mild, served over a stew of green vegetables: green garlic, garlic scapes, asparagus and fava beans. I know that right now Grüner [Veltliner] has become the darling; I think that every wine director says: "Grüner, Grüner, Grüner." But, it is such a great go-to wine. Especially at this time of year, with all those funky vegetables that have tinny, sweet vegetal notes which are hard to pair wine with. [With the Halibut] I pair the 2004 Hirsch Lamm Grüner Veltliner: it's very focused with a little bottle age. That's what I would want to sit down with right now—it's a total slam dunk—Grüner seems to work every time.
WS: How would you describe the wine program at Gramercy?
JP: It's not huge. We definitely do cellar wines. Our off-site storage facility is as large as our cellar here. Generally, when I'm buying '05 Burgundies, I'm buying to use them a couple of years from now. It's not going on the list unless it's village level. Premier cru and grand cru wines are going away for a few years. We're building up a nice stock of things that age really nicely: Austrian and German Riesling, Barolo, red and white Burgundy. We have the luxury of being a busy enough restaurant where we can do that.
WS: Do you have any under-the-radar wine suggestions?
JP: [From Sicily], one of my favorites is almost Burgundian in style: Passopisciaro. The grape is Nerello Mascalese, one of the better native grapes of Sicily. Tenuta di Trinoro has bought vineyards on the side of [Sicily's] Mt. Etna DOC which, for Sicily, has a very cool microclimate, high altitude, coolness at night and a real range of temperatures. This bottle is really elegant and works where a light Nebbiolo would. I'm intrigued.
WS: What do you drink at home?
JP: We like light fresh wine: Riesling, Grüner, Lambrusco, chilled reds in summer, and sparkling wines in general. My husband [Ralf Kuettel, chef and owner of Award of Excellence-winning Trestle on Tenth restaurant in New York] and I have similar tastes in wine: We drink everything. We don't drink fancy wine at home, just like chefs don't eat fancy at home. He's a chef, and believe me, we don't eat fancy. I usually do all the cooking!
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