Tim Kopec, 41, is head sommelier at New York's Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning Veritas. Prior to joining Veritas in 1999, shortly after it opened, Kopec spent nearly nine years at another New York restaurant-wine institution, Montrachet.
A Westchester, N.Y., native, Kopec represents the new breed of sommelier in America—low-key and laid back. He is happy to simply open the bottle you order or, if you want to plumb him for information, he can easily walk you through a number of options. And with a wine list at his disposal that totals 3,000 selections and draws upon a 100,000-bottle inventory, Kopec certainly has options. Along with his team of sommeliers who oversee the wine service in the small, 65-seat restaurant, Kopec makes sure you get whatever level of attention you want.
Wine Spectator: How did you first become interested in wine?
Tim Kopec: I grew up in a house that had a great cook—my mother—who loved to entertain, and my parents served fine wine. Mouton-Rothschild, d'Yquem and Corton-Charlemagne were all in the wine cellar. They weren't served on a daily basis, but they were used along with Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo, Beaujolais and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I was exposed early to them, but it took time [for me] to like wine. Eventually it came [to me].
WS: And then how did you become a sommelier?
TK: I became [interested in becoming] a sommelier while attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Halfway through the program, I realized I wanted to work with fine wine, and great restaurants seemed a natural fit. I went to work at Montrachet, and the learning curve was one of the most intense and rewarding things I have ever experienced.
WS: What is the hardest dish to pair with wine on the dinner menu at Veritas, and what do you pair with it?
TK: When people order gazpacho in the warm months, I struggle. Also fish or shellfish dishes with balsamic vinegar as a component.
Normally I recommend very young and crisp whites for the gazpacho. Sancerre, a drier Riesling kabinett or, more ideally, a rosé Champagne or rosé from the Loire.
The shellfish with balsamic is a challenge. Mostly I like the high acid of Madeira with the vinegar. But it's tricky convincing an entire table to have a bottle of Madeira.
WS: What are your go-to wine-and-food pairings?
TK: Red Burgundy with birds, lamb with Bordeaux and a great white Burgundy, like the 2004s from Louis Carillon, with crab or other shellfish.
WS: How do you emphasize value on the wine list at Veritas?
TK: We emphasize value by pointing out to the customers the wines that are drinking particularly well, regardless of price range.
The reasoning is this: Once the customer agrees to a wine recommendation, he or she has to rationalize the price range, whatever it may be. By serving a wine in its flattering stage, the customer experiences the most complex or flattering expression possible. They therefore believe they have been given great information or recommendation. This approach deemphasizes price, because everyone has a different price threshold, and allows each individual to experience the biggest bang for the buck or most pleasurable food-and-wine pairing for the money.
WS: How many bottles do you have in your own cellar, and what are some of your favorites?
TK: I have a couple thousand bottles of wine. Most are Burgundy, but Bordeaux, Rhône, German whites and California are represented in their finest forms.
The wines that I find myself drinking for the most part are wines in their younger stages. Red Burgundy from 1999 to 2002, Bordeaux from the early to mid-1990's and pure white Burgundy—Chablis Raveneau or Dauvissat is an event. I love them and find myself explaining and describing them in great, patient detail to my company. Wines like these cannot go unannounced. Purity can fall in the shadow of more flamboyant expressions. Subtlety will not go untriumphed! Not at my place.
WS: If you could be one other person in the wine business for one day, who would it be, and why?
TK: Bernard Noblet, the cellar master at Domaine de la Romanée Conti, for obvious reasons. He is generous, seems happy, and has access to the greatest wine cellar in the world. And, apparently, he does not need to ask anyone's permission to open bottles from that cellar.