Rewriting the Rules for Steak House Wines
Steak and wine. Easy, right? Just match a big Cabernet Sauvignon and you’re done. But at Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner Rothmann's Steakhouse in midtown Manhattan, sommelier Tom Gannon is taking a different approach, expanding the range of choices on offer from West Coast Pinots to South American reds.
Gannon, 32, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, into a "beer-drinking culture," he says. He moved to New York in 2001 and got his first restaurant job at Fleur de Sel. "I was in theater, looking to be a playwright. So I basically was prepared to be a bartender for the rest of my life," says Gannon. He decamped for Rothmann's in 2002. Wine Spectator sat down with Gannon recently to talk about how to pair different cuts of beef with wine and how he’s brought a modern touch to the traditional steak house wine list.
Wine Spectator: How did you get interested in wine?
Tom Gannon: It was at Fleur de Sel. When I hit Burgundy and the Rhône, that was the “aha” moment that really unlocked it for me. So I started taking the sommelier course at the American Sommelier Association, and from there, I applied for a job here at Rothmann’s.
WS: How has the list changed since you’ve come to Rothmann’s?
TG: It was mostly Napa Cabernet and some Tuscany, but I’ve added Rhône and Burgundy. Plus I’m committed to have the best South American section of any steak house in town. It’s something that people are gaining an awareness and passion for—Chilean reds in general. I really like Carmenère. And of course, Argentine Malbec. At the same price point as other regions from around the world, they really deliver value. Plus, they go great with steak.
WS: But Cabernet and steak—why mess with a winning formula?
TG: Just a “big red” or big Napa Cabernet with steak is a sweeping generalization. There are actually Cabernets that are so extracted and powerful, they overwhelm the steak. A smoky Pinot goes great with a rib steak, which is a fattier cut. Donum Pinots have a great smoky character that works well. But in contrast, for filet, it’s more along the lines of a Zevo Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, with a little age on it, maybe the ’02 vintage. Since the filet has less fat and is more tender, a lighter-tannin red works. There’s such a diversity of cuts of beef.
WS: Ever try to match whites?
TG: Sure—a Corton-Charlemagne or Chevalier-Montrachet from Burgundy, or a big, but balanced Napa Chardonnay. These wines have the weight to match with the fatty quality of a rib steak.
WS: Have customers warmed to the idea of other wines, rather than just Cabernet with steak?
TG: Napa Cab still rules, as you would expect it to, but the added choices from Washington and other Cabernet-producing regions, plus other regions altogether, have really been received well. Value is one way to [win customers over to new things]. If someone asks me to pick something for them and they give me a budget of say $100 to $150, I can blow them away with a bottle that costs $93.
WS: You’ve even got a Finger Lakes Riesling by the glass on your wine list. That seems unusual for a steak house.
TG: We’ve got shellfish on the menu, so some low-alcohol whites are good to have. I was always aware of Wiemer and Dr. Frank being the vanguards of quality in the Finger Lakes. Wiemer is a great combination of value and quality, and Riesling is such a food-friendly wine. The local aspect really piques curiosity among folks.
WS: It may seem easy to pair wine at a steak house. But is there any dish you have on the menu that’s difficult?
TG: Probably the pepper-crusted filet. It has a lot of pepper on it. There, I’ll try and massage it by pairing it with a medium-bodied, peppery wine like a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Pepper on pepper so to speak.
WS: What wine regions have you traveled to?
TG: I’ve been to the Finger Lakes, Napa, Sonoma, Chile and Burgundy … Chablis, Alsace and the Rhône [are next]. I try and go at least once a year somewhere. I like to visit and see in person the wines that I’ve known and worked with, but I also want to find new things. You always want to challenge yourself instead of sticking with what you know.