Aviram (“Avi”) Turgeman, 30, is the beverage director for the Chef Driven/Tour de France restaurant group in New York, which includes Nice Matin, Marseille, Café d’Alsace and Barbounia, all with Wine Spectator award-winning wine lists. Born in Jerusalem, Turgeman came to the United States in 2001, looking to get into the restaurant and hospitality business. He’s been stationed at Nice Matin since 2005, where he works on the dining-room floor for both the lunch and dinner services, while also overseeing the wine buying and training at all the group’s restaurants. Recently, the group scored what was left of now-closed Chanterelle’s celebrated cellar, which had held a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence. Turgeman sat down with Wine Spectator to discuss how his wine lists have evolved, his preference for classic pairings and why he likes older wines.
Wine Spectator: How did you first get interested in wine?
Aviram Turgeman: My family is a gastronomic family—everyone cooks, so wine went hand in hand. Even my aunt’s garden in Jerusalem has grapevines in it. I’ve been in the hospitality business since I was in high school. After coming here, I started part-time as a bartender at Café d’Alsace and it went from there.
WS: I assume there’s a big difference between the wine industries here in the U.S. and back in Israel?
AT: Very big. Back home it’s limited; here you have much more exposure. Though of course it’s changing back home. Both the Israeli wines, as well as the wines they’re bringing in, are getting better all the time.
WS: Since you’ve been in the U.S., how have you learned about wine?
AT: I started in 2003 with the American Sommelier Association taking both the blind tasting and viticulture classes. I have an advanced certificate from the WSET and now I’m currently taking the diploma level four class in WSET. So that, plus I taste, a lot. I also try to get to a wine region every year—I’ve already been to the Loire, Champagne and Burgundy in France and the Douro in Portugal.
WS: How has the list here at Nice Matin changed since you’ve taken over?
AT: When I took over, the wine list was 600 selections—now it’s 1,650. Also, it was divided by grape. But as it grew, I changed the layout to list the wines by region. Plus I’ve tried to cover regions that weren’t on the list before. Spain was weak—there were some classic regions represented, but it’s more diverse now. Same for the southern hemisphere, Chile and Argentina in particular, plus South African whites. We also emphasize half-bottles a lot more now. We have about 80 half-bottles.
WS: What’s your favorite wine region?
AT: I have to say France as a whole—I can’t go specific. Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Hermitage, Chenin from the Loire, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace—I love it all. But I do like them old, even if it’s from an off vintage.
WS: What wines have surprised you recently?
AT: I recently had a ’71 Musigny from Bouchard Père & Fils and a ’35 Taylor Port that were really eye-opening. I tried a Mallorcan white made from two indigenous varieties called Premsal and Callet. I really liked the distinct minerality it had, and so now we’ve got it on Nice Matin's list for a nice price [$36].
WS: What’s your favorite wine-and-food pairing?
AT: No one favorite—there’s a lot. … Tuna Niçoise with a glass of Provençal rosé for starters, and on a daily basis, too [laughing].
WS: What’s the most difficult wine-and-food pairing at Nice Matin?
AT: I think I can find a wine for any dish, since the menu here is pretty classic. Sometimes artichokes or asparagus, when they’re in the season, can be a little trouble. For artichokes, I’ll serve a Provençal white, like a white Bandol. Or maybe a northern Italian white. For asparagus, I like rosé a lot, from Bandol or Cassis.
WS: In addition to the growth of Nice Matin’s wine list, what other changes have you seen in your time here?
AT: Today the most popular wines at Nice Matin are Provence, Rhône and Bordeaux, in that order. That’s a shift—when I took over there was more West Coast Pinot Noir and Cabernet. But I felt like I wanted to sell wines that were friendlier with our cuisine. We’re also selling more bottles at lunch now too, as people start to key in on the list—both neighborhood regulars and tourists, which is great.
And in recent years I’ve seen such an increase of awareness among consumers at all levels. If they’re buying a $40 or $200 bottle, people really seem to know their stuff. I feel like more and more people read the press, go to tastings and really know what’s going on. And in turn that makes them more open to trying new things. For example I’ve been selling a dry Furmint from Tokaji by the glass, and people love it. Canadian Riesling too—I wouldn’t have been selling that four years ago.