Ted Conklin, 59, has been the owner and wine director of the historic American Hotel in Sag Harbor, N.Y., since the early 1970s. The hotel was built on Long Island's South Fork in the early 1800s, and its fortunes and clientele have mirrored the ebbs and flows of prosperity that have washed over the area since its inception. Conklin has assembled and maintains a Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning wine list that's both heavy on the classics and full of well-considered selections from the New World. As the busy summer season recently drew to a close, Conklin took the time to talk to WineSpectator.com about his wines and his history.
Wine Spectator: How did you come to be involved in hospitality, and to be owner of American Hotel?
Ted Conklin: Back in the 1960s, there were colleges where you needn't attend class if you just passed the exams. I took this opportunity to hybridize my education; in sophomore year I enrolled and bought the texts. Then, for reasons that still puzzle me, I leased a space near my home on Long Island and proceeded to build a restaurant. It was ready to open after exams the next spring. By Labor Day I was looking at a thriving business with 50 employees, all of whom had to leave to return to college. I hurriedly found a buyer, but I had missed the fall term by then. I went to Paris, married, returned to finish school and afterward farmed in upstate New York for two years. Upon selling the farm I did my due diligence to find a real job and a sensible career. I discovered the American Hotel, a derelict vestige of the 1840s in the then-depressed old whaling port of Sag Harbor. Any 23-year-old should have known that this was less an opportunity than a sentence, but I decided I was up to the task. After I demolished the outhouses, replaced the coal stove, installed electricity and similar amenities, I waxed the old bar, and the American Hotel reopened in summer of 1972. I'm still here.
WS: I understand that you started your cellar at American Hotel with Bordeaux. Why Bordeaux?
TC: My ambition was guided by a mentor, who always said, "It only costs 50 percent more to go first class." ... My early focus on Bordeaux involved knowing a legendary salesman, Gus Gants [of Austin-Nichols], who sold me a few basic French wines [at my first place, the Artful Dodger in Westhampton Beach]. Four years later, Austin-Nichols was closing up shop and, with Gus—the quintessential wine professional—guiding me, I bought lots of their high-quality, inexpensive Bordeaux. ... I focused first on Bordeaux because it was the appellation I most understood and appreciated, and it was also the wine category most diners favored. Remember, in the 1970s, there were only a few California labels and no competitive domestic wines. Spain was virtually unknown, Italy was déclassé, as its reputation was stymied by its infamous Chiantis, and stockpiling German Rieslings were not in my future at that time. Bordeaux was it, and between Austin-Nichols and [Seagram] Chateau and Estates, the environment to build a great list of classified growths was never better. When I priced the wines modestly, I developed a loyal group of wine-oriented customers.
WS: In your recollection, how does the relative value of Bordeaux in the late 1970s and early 1980s then stack up to the kinds of en primeur pricing in place currently? Have you seen a similar price evolution in other types of wine?
TC: "Relative value" depends on the context. Laying in a case of $2,000 per bottle Bordeaux is not appropriate for a restaurant, unless it's in Las Vegas. It's now a commodity, whereas, years ago, Château Ausone vintages from the 1960s into the 1980s used to be a slow sell at $240 per case wholesale. It might not have been as stellar a "value" as in the present, when stratospheric pricing, en primeur or at auction, truly makes the wine "valuable." Wines 20 or 30 years ago were far less expensive, but they were often not as complete or reliable. Still, I had more fun pulling the cork on a Calon-Ségur 1966 or a La Mission 1971, because I didn't feel guilty because of the cost. If a wine is astronomically priced, I'd sooner drink some less-classic wines from California, Australia or Spain. I think a lot of people may feel the same way. ... Bordeaux sales have been stagnant since about 2001. It's a shame, but because of the unaffordability of classified growths, the coinage of the region, there will soon be an entire generation of consumers who cannot afford—and may never taste—some of the greatest names in wine.
WS: What are some of your go-to wine-and-food pairings, either from the restaurant or from your own personal entertaining?
TC: First, let me tell you that in my country house, the stove isn't connected to the gas, I've never made a pot of coffee there, and the limit of my "personal entertaining" is a beer after work, some Chablis and a local cheese poolside in summer, or a Port or Cognac at fireside in the cold months.
In the restaurant, I like to mix it up if I'm asked for a recommendation. Our job is to sense the customer's budget, his level of dedication to one region or another, and if he or she would enjoy adventuring into a new or unheralded region. Then you consider the food. A large table with a varied order makes impossible a perfect match for all the dishes, so we then generally get more conservative and less inventive. Given carte blanche, however, my favorite pairings are Grüner Veltliner and our Gardiners Bay oysters, a great Dageaneau Pouilly Fumé with Peconic Bay oysters, a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, one of the best current values, with duck breast or liver, and a Long Island Paumanok Assemblage, or the 2001 Grapes of Roth Merlot, with bison filet or another red meat.
WS: Is there any priority given to emphasizing value wines on the American Hotel wine list? And what types of wines would fall into the value category?
TC: To me, value wines ... are $20 wines that fall into a category of wines that usually cost $40. ... An example might be a Chardonnay from a celebrated producer who offers a version of a highly rated cuvée with a modified label. Or, sometimes a brilliant new wine without a market is offered at an advantageous price. Sometimes we can find wines that are bought inexpensively because a distributor is discounting to reduce his inventory. Diners [at the American Hotel] can buy wine at attractive prices because I think I buy smart and aggressively, and pass along the savings.
WS: Do you have a personal wine collection? If so, how many bottles do you have, and what types, regions, varietals, producers do you most like to collect?
TC: I do not have a personal wine collection, but the cellar at the American Hotel I take very personally. That is where I collect Bordeaux and other reds that can age. (I hasten to add that my accountant and banker want me to prioritize the selling rather than the collecting, but, all wine buffs know it's impossible to be perfect.) The whites that should be sold, we generally move them through the system by selling them by the glass, an increasingly popular feature of our list. A lot of whites that have the potential to age I will hold. Even if I'm not certain of their condition, I'll keep bin-end bottles and discount them for curiosity seekers who, if dissatisfied, are not charged. Mostly these wines are amazing and worth the humiliation of the occasional oxidized dud. But you can imagine the profile of the people who take the gamble! These are the geeks and the adventuresome, and I love throwing them a 1979 Savennières, a truly old fashioned, foot-trodden, $30 Portuguese red, or a mid-'70s Cab from a maker long since defunct.