While studying chemistry at the University of Washington, Cortney Lease had every intention of pursuing a career in acupuncture and Oriental medicine. Fortunately for wine-loving Seattleites, modern Asian food, rather than traditional Asian healthcare, piqued her interest along the way.
Today, Lease, 31, is the wine director of Grand Award–winning Wild Ginger, but her history with the restaurant goes back almost 10 years. In college, she casually waitressed at the pan-Asian dining destination, and soon became interested in wine. After graduation, she spent a year in England, furthering her beverage knowledge by working at a pub and a wine shop, only to return to the Seattle restaurant, this time with a new goal in mind. “I worked my way back into the system and begged for a job in the wine department,” she explains. The gamble paid off: She was given the role of cellar master.
In 2009, two years after Lease’s return, Wild Ginger received its Grand Award under owner Rick Yoder and then–wine director Ole Thompson. After two more years, Lease was promoted to company wine director, overseeing the Seattle flagship, a second Best of Award of Excellence–winning location in Bellevue, Wash., and the Triple Door, a music and dining venue. She has grown the Seattle list to more than 2,800 selections, focusing largely on Burgundy, the Rhône Valley and an ever-expanding section of Riesling. Lease spoke with assistant editor Christine Dalton about serving wine with a sometimes difficult-to-pair cuisine.
Wine Spectator: What are the challenges of creating a wine list for Asian cuisine?
Cortney Lease: Obviously, Asian cuisine is very, very complex. The assumption is that it’s the spice that drives the cuisine, and while that’s true for Szechuan food, it’s not necessarily true for Malaysian. There are so many different spices, varying widely among the different regions.
My focus for pairing cuisine is actually making sure that the textures match. Of course, when you have spicy food, our instinct is to pair that with an off-dry Riesling or another off-dry wine to balance out the spice, but some customers enjoy the enhanced spice by having a more tannic wine or a wine with higher alcohol. It’s really about making sure that the wine can stand up to the food, because there’s no way that you can pair the delicacies of the wine consistently with Asian cuisine.
WS: Which wine pairings with your pan-Asian dishes have you found work really well?
CL: One of our classic dishes is the Wild Ginger fragrant duck, and what I found works really well with that are Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs or some older vintages in Burgundy.
Riesling with almost every single dish is phenomenal, but older Rheingau Riesling from 2003 or 2005 show really well with a simple pork satay with just a little bit of a hoisin or soy braise to it.
We also have a mango and herb preparation for sea bass, and I think it works beautifully with a Federspiel Wachau Grüner Veltliner. The herbaceousness of the preparation and the texture of the food work really well with that level of Grüner Veltliner.
WS: Your list has a strong representation of wines from Oregon and Washington. What’s your relationship with your regional winemakers?
CL: I have the pleasure of working at the International Pinot Noir conference every year, and we’re neighbors with a lot of these guys. There’s a huge amount of Washington wine available on our list because our local winemakers are doing some really incredible things. We also do winemaker dinners, which are focused on bringing the winemaker to the guest. We’re always trying to connect the customer to the wine and finding new ways to do it.
WS: And one of those ways appears on the first page of your wine list, which is dedicated to “The Wild Ginger Wine Program.” This month it profiles Joh. Jos. Prüm. Why did you take this approach to customer education?
CL: We’re trying to tell the story of the winery and explain to people why they’re important to our list and maybe why we have a vertical. [Our customers] seem to be very interested in the story behind the wines. I think that’s the largest connection that we can make for our customers, connecting them to the intent of the wines and finding a good home for them.
WS: Wild Ginger has a very affordable wine list. What was the decision behind the pricing?
CL: Wild Ginger has been around since 1989 and has been really wine-focused since the very beginning. The owners love wine and they saw the value in wine as a dining experience, even with an unusual cuisine in the typical sense, and always wanted to give that value to our guests. We don’t want the reserve list to be an inhibition for people to try something new. We don’t want it to be a risk.
WS: What are you drinking now?
CL: Lately, a nice, crisp, dry rosé is hitting the spot. There’s also a huge amount of really interesting whites coming from all over Italy, some white blends and some clean, interesting Greek whites. I find myself taking home Moschofilero more often than I thought that was ever going to happen.