Growing up, Daniel Tucker Jr. rarely saw wine on the table. But the New Jersey native began working a string of restaurant jobs at 19; once behind the bar, the self-described people person and history buff immersed himself in mixology, beer, spirits and, finally, wine, teaching himself and taking courses in his down time. In October 2019, he took the position of wine director at Princeton, N.J.’s Elements.
The Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner excels in local, seasonal cuisine from chef Scott Anderson, and Tucker’s 550-label list blends traditional selections with off-the-beaten-path wines from small producers around the world. In just a few months, Tucker restructured the wine list, forging a more international cellar that speaks to both his clientele and his values.
Then the pandemic hit. Tucker is now navigating a new set of challenges facing his, and other, restaurants: engaging and educating guests despite the limitations of reopening, considering the social and political reckoning happening in the restaurant and wine industries, grappling with the ongoing tariffs on European wines and more, all in an environment that remains highly uncertain.
Editorial assistant Taylor McBride spoke to Tucker about what it's like to remake a high-end wine program, how he spotlights small producers and family-owned wineries, and the importance of community both inside and outside the wine industry.
Wine Spectator: When dining rooms closed, what was your response—not just as a sommelier, but as a person living and working—to the shutdown?
Daniel Tucker: For me the response was more concern for the world and health in general. This is unlike something we’ve seen in our lifetime and it’s a concern for me, because I am a father. I am a son. I am an uncle to many. My immediate thought was my family, their health and their concerns. Initially, when I found out we were going to be shutting down, I had hopes that it would be something that would [last] a few weeks or a month, and that we’d figure this thing out.
It turned into what it is turning into and, for me, I think it’s about trying to live day to day. It’s hard not to focus on the future, it’s hard to be concerned about the state of my industry and where it’s going to be in three months, six months or a year. This is what I do for a living. This is what I do for my family. So of course this is of major concern for me. But at the same time, I try not to dwell on it. I’m living today and just moving forward with some of the steps that I take personally.
We stepped into takeout. We offered wine retail, and we had some success with it. Now, with the outside [and, as of September, limited indoor dining] being available, we’re certainly happy to be back.
WS: When you started in October 2019, what sort of wine list did you inherit, and did you have any particular approach to restructuring it?
DT: I had to do a lot of restructuring of the list. I got handed a list that was very collected. It was one that I would say, in New York City, would do very well. Here, in Princeton, N.J., it struggled a little bit. There were a lot of unknown appellations, a lot of unknown varietals. The [sommelier] that I took over for, he was Croatian, and the list represented that. It was very Eastern European—Croatia, Slovenia. There was a great bit of Italian wine on there as well. But it was lacking in a lot of other areas. France, in particular, and all over California. Even areas of South America, Australia and South Africa. They were being underrepresented on the list for sure.
The one thing that I’ve learned with Princeton, having worked here for the last nine years: People enjoy wine, but they’re also intimidated by it very easily. They feel more comfortable with things that they know and things that they can recognize. My mission was to dial back some of the obscurity, while still having it on the list. Having these fun [selections] for guests that come in looking for that outside-the-box element, but also making it a bit more traditional. I came in with a list that was probably 70 percent Eastern European and Northern Italian, and I had to almost switch that in a sense, where we still have that available, but there’s more France and California and things like that.
WS: How has your approach to service, and the guest response, changed with the shift to mostly outdoor dining?
DT: There’s less time spent going into detail just because of how our setup is with the outdoor [area]. There's a little less time going over or over-explaining something because one has to deal with the fact that our customers and clientele are a little bit older—I would say 35-plus. So some of them, especially when you get into 50 and over, may just kind of want what they want. They’ll hear you out on something; they won’t necessarily go with that, but they’ll hear you out. But then you have that crowd that is a little bit younger and more receptive to that. It doesn’t take a full explanation of place and history. Sometimes they’re just like, “You know what, that’s cool, I’ve never had it. You’ve mentioned a profile on it and I’m interested,” and that’s kind of all it takes.
WS: Although you’re trying to focus on the day-to-day, do you have any plans for Elements in the future and the wine list going forward?
DT: As it stands, I’m doing my best to make sure that a lot of these smaller producers and smaller areas have a place on the list. I want to make sure that people can see these growers and families who have spent decades and generations doing things the right way and making fantastic wine. And I want to make sure that they are highlighted on my wine list. … I haven’t come across an issue yet where I introduced someone to a new producer, region or new varietal where they haven’t been pleasantly surprised. It’s something that people will often say to me: "I wouldn’t order this if I were out by myself or with friends. But the fact that you’ve brought this over, it’s just great. So happy that you introduced me to this.” That’s really what it’s all about at the end of the day.
WS: How have you responded to all the change that has happened in the industry? Not just the shutdown, but also issues of diversity and equity.
DT: The wine world is constantly changing. From a buyer’s side of it, from a sommelier side of it—there’s always something more. My thought process with moving forward with it all is just working with more of my peers. That’s something that often gets swept under the rug in the restaurant industry because everyone is offering a product and everyone wants to sell their product more than the other guy. Sometimes I find that if we come and work together, we can all help each other out. I’m hoping to see more of that. With everything going on as far as COVID-19 and how it has affected the restaurant industry, I’m hoping to see more restaurants stick together and beat this.
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