Justin Timsit, 32, worked for years as a traveling salesman for a menswear brand. Frequently on the road, he drove up and down the West Coast. In his spare time, he started to visit wineries—and found wine more to his taste than selling dress shirts.
Timsit had only three years of restaurant experience under his belt when he was brought on as the new wine director for restaurateur Danny Meyer's Gramercy Tavern, a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner and New York wine destination, in October 2016. However, he had been exposed to great restaurants and hospitality at a young age thanks to his father, a wine lover and collector. "My father was the toughest critic at every single restaurant we went to," recalls Timsit. "To the point where my brother and I, as children, would get embarrassed." But he credits his father's exacting demands of service with helping him implicitly grasp how to connect with diners while working the floor himself.
Though an Angeleno through and through—as a child actor, he had a recurring role on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers—Timsit first headed east to lead the wine program at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse in Philadelphia, a Best of Award of Excellence winner. Now he has taken the reins from Juliette Pope, a Gramercy Tavern veteran of 20 years. Timsit spoke to assistant editor Emma Balter about his plans for the program, the wonderful versatility of rosé bubbly, and his taste for tequila.
Wine Spectator: Do you recall a specific moment that made you want to go into wine?
Justin Timsit: I remember meeting Cathy Corison in overalls, with mud on her jeans and dirt under her fingernails and a bag of Gewürztraminer grapes that she was testing with a refractometer, and I said to myself, "Wow, is this what the wine industry is all about?" I thought it was all glitz and glamor. I never really put it together that these people are farmers. That, to me, was really the romantic side of it, and it inspired me to learn more.
WS: What was your first restaurant experience?
JT: A friend of mine had a restaurant in Beverly Hills, an amazing restaurant, but he didn't really have any eyes on his wine program. I said to him: "I think I really want to do this as a career, let me just get my feet wet and come in and oversee the wine program." He didn't pay me, I just did it to help him, and I wanted to get experience. I would work 9 to 5 in my sales rep position selling dress shirts, and then at 5 I'd throw the suit on and get right on the floor selling wine.
It was like this immediate realization that this is what I really wanted to do. Being tableside with guests, being able to talk about something that I really loved, sharing and creating experiences for people at a dinner table—[that] was really special. Four months later, I moved to Philadelphia to take a position [as beverage director] at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse. I was in way over my head at first, but they gave me a chance.
WS: What was it like taking the job at an institution like Gramercy Tavern?
JT: First, I had to pinch myself. I remember finding out when Juliette [Pope] was leaving, and saying to myself, "Whoever takes that role, that's going to be major." I never thought that would be me. It was nothing short of a dream of mine. But I felt like I understood the program right away. I took a look at the restaurant, I knew it was special, and I just wanted to be a part of it and see how I could make it even better. The trust in me as a professional to come in and be given the keys to run a program like this is very humbling.
WS: What are some changes you've made since you've taken over?
JT: We've introduced a couple new concepts, one being a seasonal market list. We wanted to create an environment where the kitchen's philosophy and the beverage philosophy were in unison. I grew up with food and wine being together: Food was on the plate, wine was the sauce. We're highlighting wines that are geared toward certain flavors on the menu, certain ingredients [and] preparations. This will change seasonally.
WS: You have a large selection of Champagnes on your list. What do you think of sparkling wine as a food wine?
JT: I love it as a food wine. There are so many opportunities to please an entire table with a bottle of sparkling wine. Not too many people turn down a bottle of Champagne. I really love recommending a rosé [sparkling wine] with foods that might typically require a red wine and serving it in a Burgundy glass, where you can feel the structure of the red grape, Pinot Noir or Meunier, or the body or the texture of the wine on your palate. I've had great experiences where the husband and wife drank two different types of wine entirely: One drank Cabernet, one drank Sauvignon Blanc. We served them a bottle of blanc de noirs Champagne. It was eye-opening for both of them. One had it with their dry-aged rib eye, and the other was having arctic char.
WS: What do you drink on your own time, besides wine?
JT: Tequila. I'm not talking about lining up shots at a bar, I'm talking about artisanally crafted, small-production tequila that comes from small families that have been doing it for a hundred years. It's a really special craft.
WS: What are your goals for the Gramercy Tavern wine program?
JT: It's very important for us to maintain this idea that as a guest, whether you've been to Gramercy Tavern 30 times or whether it's your first time here, you can come in and have a very approachable, nonpretentious experience. Creating that balance between the wine connoisseur and the casual wine drinker.
Where do I see it one year, two years from now? If we have 700, 800 selections now, if we happen to grow that to 1,500, we should be able to cater to what people want even more. And then I think having a highly skilled team of sommeliers here on the floor, just to give our guests that added level of expertise if needed.