For Amy Racine, working in the wine industry wasn’t exactly what she thought she’d be doing, but food was always in the picture.
Early in life, she had planned on becoming a chef, beginning her studies at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in upstate New York. There she had to take the infamously challenging wine course—two weeks of intense memorization and tasting. But Racine was surprised to find she actually liked it. A lot.
Racine soon changed course, and ended up heading to CIA’s Napa campus to study for her Court of Master Sommeliers exam while living near Beringer Vineyards and visiting wineries like Corison (founded by Cathy Corison, one of the first women winemakers in modern-day Napa), on the weekends. She settled in San Francisco, developing the wine programs for the restaurant group Sons & Daughters for four years before connecting with John Fraser, the New York City–based chef known for his creative approach to vegetables.
Nowadays, Racine is the beverage director for Fraser’s entire JF Restaurants group, which not only has restaurants in the Big Apple but also Tampa, Los Angeles, North Fork and soon Boston. Though his Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner, 701West at the Times Square Edition hotel, remains temporarily closed, the group also includes Award of Excellence winners Iris in Midtown Manhattan, North Fork Table and Inn in Southold, N.Y.,and Ardor in the West Hollywood Edition—each with their own take on plant-forward dining.
In addition, last fall Racine was tapped to be the wine director for chef Kwame Onwuachi’s new dining destination, the critically acclaimed Tatiana at Lincoln Center, and was also charged with updating the performance center’s wine program in the theater itself.
Racine talked to Wine Spectator editorial assistant Julia Larson about her strategies for running so many programs at once, searching for diverse winemakers and why screwcaps are essential for intermission.
Wine Spectator: When you were younger, did you have a particular “aha moment” wine?
At a holiday dinner with my family at Smith and Wollensky’s when I was a late teenager, I ordered a glass of wine (the guy didn't question me and I'll leave my parents out of it). It was a Trimbach Gewürztraminer; I lucked out on that, I had no idea what I was ordering. But I remember thinking, “This is crazy.” It was probably the perfect intro wine just because it’s so aromatic. You can start reciting things you smell even if you’re not a wine pro.
You designed the list for Kwame Onwuachi’s new restaurant at Lincoln Center, Tatiana, a ground-breaking Afro-Caribbean restaurant that channels his upbringing in New York City. Was it challenging to build a wine program to complement that concept?
Kwame, [bartender and cocktail director] Don Lee and myself had the obvious initial conversation of “What wines do you think pair well with your food, chef?” But then we looked at the three of us—all from totally different backgrounds, ethnicities, races, genders. We represent a very positive change in the hospitality and beverage industry, and we’re in Lincoln Center.
I thought, what if we did a minority- and women-focused wine list? Let’s represent producers that are breaking boundaries. We looked for as many of those producers as we could and also selected wines that best pair with African-diasporic cuisine [influenced heavily by Caribbean and West African cooking]. With Tatiana getting some great press, I’m finding a lot more diverse wine producers than I did at first, and we are adding more every day.
What are some examples of wines from Tatiana’s wine list that work especially well with chef Onwuachi’s food?
Chef’s food is so flavorful, but not necessarily super heavy, so Mencía, Teroldego and Albariño are all awesome grapes. The Teroldego from Foradori in Trentino-Alto Adige is one of my favorites, with some high fruit tones to play against spice. It has a little tannin if you’re going for the pastrami or oxtail, which are both amazing. Also, the Extra Brut Albariño by Carboniste in California is a great starter—it has mineral and green flavors which go great with the piri piri salad.
Has curating the wine list at Tatiana influenced the way that you run the wine programs for John Fraser’s restaurants?
It has just been more eye opening. I’m trying to find as much diversity in the wine world as I can. It’s helped me think beyond, “What does the wine taste like? Is it sustainable or organic?” Now we’re thinking about who’s behind it and if we believe in the work they are doing. I’m having that conversation a lot more with my teams, and they’re also getting more inquiries from guests about this as well.
John is very into wine and spirits, which is why I was attracted to this group. Now that we’ve worked together for seven years, he really trusts me. When he says I want to do an Aegean restaurant like Iris, then I say I want to create a list that is 50 percent Aegean wines, focused on Greece and Turkey, and then that other 50 percent will be global. We kind of spitball ideas off of each other, which is great.
Fraser is famous for his creativity with vegetables, a big focus on all his menus. What have you found to be the best wine styles and varieties for pairing with these dishes, which can often be tricky?
Varieties with a savory or less fruit-driven side are great with a lot of our veggie dishes: Grüner Veltliner, briny coastal white wines like Assyrtiko or Albariño, and orange wine, with some skin contact, work well.
JF Restaurants span from Los Angeles to New York City and Long Island’s North Fork, and down to Florida. What are your considerations for each new concept and market?
I try to listen to each market. Eat around, talk to bartenders, get as best of a feel for the area as I can in a short period of time. Then, consider the theme of the restaurant we are opening: What are we trying to showcase here? The breadth of cuisine in the Aegean? Great local produce and farmers? It takes a lot of study to do right by the people and the space. It’s an opportunity to show a different side of your personality with each concept and to grow with it.
I’m also very careful about going into new markets and being aware that I’m the outsider and not going to force the New York mindset on anybody. I’m not going to sit back and watch, but I should absorb everything before I speak. A little bit.
How are the guests different from location to location? What do they like to drink in each market?
It’s interesting for sure! I wish I could apply a rule to it, but the trends ebb and flow. For example, Chartreuse [a monk-made French herbal liqueur] is huge in most of our restaurants in NYC. Yet, we got pushback from our guests in Los Angeles. Orange wine is very popular in L.A, but in Tampa no one wants to go near it. On the flip side, espresso martinis and tequila are huge everywhere.
The list at North Fork Table & Inn features a lot of Long Island wines, reflecting the restaurant menu’s focus on local food producers. What are some of the most exciting wines being made on the East End?
Macari is an excellent producer. They’re family owned and one of the major wineries to pave the Long Island wine landscape with Cabernet Franc as a flagship varietal. The kids have since grown and are making their own mark on the winery in every way—offering yurt experiences in the winter, elevating the tasting-room experience and making Cabernet Franc as a pét-nat.
In general, there’s a good amount of generational handover. It’s happening at One Woman Wines, McCall and RGNY as well. It’s amazing. There’s a list of producers in the North Fork that we always want to have on our list for many different reasons. For example, One Woman Winery is an iconic producer that crafts a really interesting Grüner Veltliner; nobody else is working with that grape out there. We keep the list 50 percent Long Island and 50 percent other.
Explain what you did with the wine program at Lincoln Center.
For the theater, orchestra and intermission bar, I went with a music theme. We have some obvious bottlings, like a Champagne cuvée called Melodie en C made by Le Brun Servenay, and others that are a little less obvious but a very fun story. One of my favorites is a Burgundy, the Jean-Claude Boisset Les Ursulines 2019. The Ursulines were a group of nuns in New Orleans known for baroque songwriting and singing. People who love music also tend to love wine. There’s overlap.
With [Lincoln Center], our priority is we just need to get the drinks out. We have 30 minutes between intermission, and we’ve got hundreds of people coming to these bars. I selected wines sealed by screwcaps so our staff is not being held up by fighting with corks. So then I pitched to do the music theme, and everyone thought that was great, so I had to start finding music-themed screwcap wines. And I was just thinking, “What did I do to myself?”