Situated on the 101st floor of the tallest building in New York City’s Hudson Yards, with unparalleled skyline views, Peak is easily one of the world’s most dramatic and breathtaking places to dine. Zachary Kameron presides over the Best of Award of Excellence–winning wine program, an ambitious list he designed to match Peak’s extraordinary setting.
Kameron had left restaurants years ago to work in the wine import and distribution business, but couldn’t turn down the opportunity to join the Peak team in December 2019, while the much-anticipated restaurant was in its development phase prior to opening in March 2020. Owned by Rhubarb Hospitality Collection (RHC), which operates restaurants and event companies in New York and London, Peak is a 10,000-square-foot restaurant and event space designed by architect David Rockwell.
A Boston native and a graduate of Rhode Island University, Kameron has worked in hospitality since he was 15 years old. During his five years as sommelier at A Voce in New York’s Columbus Circle, the restaurant earned Wine Spectator’s prestigious Grand Award, in 2012. He left in 2015 to work first at fine-wine importer Terlato Wines International and then Folio Fine Wine Partners.
Wine Spectator senior editor Kristen Bieler spoke with Kameron to learn about what life is like running Peak’s wine program at 1,296 feet of elevation.
Wine Spectator: During the past few years, many wine professionals have left restaurant work for jobs at wine import and distribution companies, but you made the reverse pivot.
What brought me back was this project. It’s impossible to come to this awe-inspiring setting and not be moved. To be part of creating something that is now a fixture of the New York City skyline—anyone who flies into New York and New Jersey will see this building and this restaurant from the air—and to have the backing of our parent company, RHC, was an opportunity I could not resist.
You pushed management into creating a much larger list than they originally intended. Why?
Initially, RHC envisioned a much smaller wine program, around 200 wines. But in my heart, I knew that this was going to be such a grand space with people coming from all over the world to dine here, and the wine list had to be bigger and grander. I sent the VP of operations a bare-bones business plan with my ideas for the wine program—closer to 1,600 different wines—and they agreed. The experience of dining here with the extraordinary, seasonally driven menu and these views, it really demands a wine list that can live up to it.
Peak had just opened its doors when it had to close during the pandemic. How did that impact your program?
We got this project off the ground in 10 weeks and had just finished our friends-and-family soft opening when we had to close. But because we had launched so quickly, we sacrificed a lot in the name of speed, so we took that time to build out the cellar, create a new inventory-management system, purchase some large wine collections and look to the future. We asked ourselves a lot of questions, like: “What will the future of beverage service look like?” We got sharper and better during that time.
Describe the ethos behind your wine list.
We have around 1,600 wines and roughly 40 percent of that is French. We have a very large Champagne selection and are very strong in Burgundy and American wines, and the remainder is Italian. I really wanted to maintain a focus for our list; it doesn’t make sense to me to throw a wine on there just for the sake of having a region represented.
Our cuisine is very focused on seafood and vegetables, and it took some time to get in lock step with the kitchen. I’ve changed the by-the-glass offerings to better complement the food, so a lot of fruit-forward, high-acid reds from Italy, for example.
Value is paramount for me, from the top to the bottom of the list. About 30 percent of our list is under $200 a bottle and 25 percent is under $125, and you will see the same level of quality and research behind a $55 Sylvaner as a $1,500 bottle from Burgundy. I want the absolute best value for money at every tier, and a lot of options for people who only want to spend $60 for example.
A lot of restaurants of our ilk have a tendency to be very top heavy—lots of grands crus and classified châteaus—but it’s easy to put a list together where everything is over $300. Finding everyday value that wine lovers can enjoy is the most challenging thing we do.
Which wine regions or categories do you believe offer some of the best value right now?
The second or third wines from great châteaus and estates. In Bordeaux, Tuscany, Piedmont and the U.S., wineries are adding pyramids to their wine production, and you can get great value at those lower levels. The third wine from Château Angélus in St-Emilion, No. 3 d’Angelus, is a great example; at retail you can find it for $32 and it has stunning structure, vibrant fruit, beautiful balance—a very high-quality drinking experience. I always buy producer first, and always look for second wines in years when they don’t make a first wine.
In general, Bordeaux offers better value than Bordeaux blends from Tuscany and California. In Italy, Nebbiolo d’Alba is a terrific source of value; Bruno Giacosa is a standout producer.
Where are you seeing demand surge?
Champagne is still explosive in terms of demand. We offer Champagne cart service, which people really like. We are a destination restaurant for many people who are celebrating bar mitzvahs, anniversaries, birthdays, so we sell a lot. I’m noticing that people are getting more adventurous in terms of style, trying blanc de noirs, brut nature, really looking for more specificity out of Champagne. Of course, many people are still looking for Dom Pérignon and Veuve Clicquot and tête de cuvées, but I’m always trying to push people out of their comfort zone, especially with the bigger brands; the blanc de blancs from Perrier-Jouët, for example.
And Burgundy is still the beacon for most wine drinkers, I find. We have a fantastic list from Italy, and I come from an Italian wine background, but Burgundy is still where most people gravitate.
What is your clientele like?
In the early days, it was mostly tri-state locals, but now that people are traveling again, we have a lot of tourists. But although we have a good amount of international clientele, our guest breakdown is still a lot of New Yorkers, many of them bringing out-of-towners. We host a lot of events, too, so everything from a Justin Bieber concert and Kid Cudi Halloween party to titans of industry and celebrities.
What is your favorite time of day or season for views at Peak?
There is never a bad day to dine here; even when it’s foggy or raining, it’s always dramatic. In fact, storms are some of the amazing moments, especially lightning storms when we can see bolts hitting our building. We’ve seen some pretty intense weather events, and being up this high you can see the storms approaching over New Jersey, like the snow squall that engulfed New York last winter. Sometimes it’s raining at street level and it will be snowing up here.
What sparked your interest in wine?
I didn’t grow up in a wine household, but my family was very focused on food. I was always cooking with my grandmother and making pasta. I had a bartending job after high school and would help the wine director move cases and started asking questions. I realized that wine encompassed a lot of my interests—history, chemistry, geography, biology. Wine is all of these things. Soon I was totally consumed by learning and studying wine. After working as a sommelier in Connecticut, I took a position at A Voce where my proficiency and skills were fine-tuned and turbocharged. That made me a real sommelier.
You’ve worked on both the selling and buying sides of the wine industry. How do those experiences inform your perspective?
When I left restaurants to work on the distribution side, I benefited from being seen as a sommelier; accounts appreciated that I had a fine-wine background. As a former wine director, I was able to bring fresh eyes to my restaurant buyers’ wine programs and suggest things that could enhance it. I also knew the schedule of a wine director—and not to request appointments during inventory!
Having the experience on that side of the business really rounded me out as a professional, and returning to hospitality, I have so much more understanding of the business of wine—and more empathy for my sales representatives and partners.