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Sommelier Talk: Charles Puglia of Blue Hill at Stone Barns

At Dan Barber's pathbreaking locavore restaurant, the wine director navigates a seasonally-changing menu and champions local wines
Photo by: Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Charles Puglia cheers on New York wines and figures out pairings for "parsnip steak" but knows when to break out a Napa Cabernet.

Gillian Sciaretta
Posted: November 6, 2015

Blue Hill at Stone Barns, located in Tarrytown, N.Y., has been at the forefront of the locavore and sustainable food movements. Under the stewardship of pioneering chef and author Dan Barber, the restaurant grows many of the ingredients it uses and strives to make patrons conscious of the sources of their food.

But what about the wine? After stints at the Mandarin Oriental and Jean-Georges, wine director Charles Puglia, 33, arrived at Blue Hill to elevate the restaurant’s wine program; it now numbers 2,000 selections, earning it a Grand Award in 2016, joining other Wine Spectator Restaurant Award–winners.

Puglia recently spoke with associate tasting coordinator Gillian Sciaretta about the philosophy that drives his list, the challenges of pairing with an ever-changing, hyper-seasonal menu and the importance of drinking local.

Wine Spectator: How did you get started in the restaurant business?
Charles Puglia: I started out in the kitchen. I was not very good. I went to college for just under two semesters and kicked around the idea of going to culinary school, but somehow found my way into the front of the house.

The immediate attraction to the restaurant business, to be honest, was when I saw my then-girlfriend—now wife—making pretty good money in restaurants. Eventually I found my way into a more serious restaurant, Gaia, which had a fairly serious wine program. It was in Greenwich, Connecticut.

I asked if I could work pro bono down in the wine cellar just to get my hands on the bottles. Eventually I started doing my homework, and [my bosses] trusted me enough to let me work the dining room floor a couple nights a week and sell some wine.

I decided I needed to go to New York City. Because that’s where, you know, “If you can make it there…” kind of a thing.

WS: What changes have you made to Blue Hill at Stone Barns’ wine program since you started?
CP: We had 650 to 700 references on the list [when I started]. Since then it has grown to 2,000. We have added some blue-chip wines. We’ve shifted a big focus to buying American wines. In the past year, we have really expanded on our New York wine offerings.

New York is setting a high bar with what’s produced in this state. White and red respectively, we have about a page each with sixty to seventy references, in all, of New York State wines.

If you like wines with high acidity and reductive winemaking styles, if you’re a German Riesling fan, then you should be rooting for New York wines. With the restaurant’s ethos, and since we are just outside of New York City, we should really be embracing New York wines.

WS: What is one of the most difficult wine and food pairings for you at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, especially considering the menu changes with the seasons?
CP: There’s this dish here that definitely encompasses what we at the restaurant are trying to do. It’s our parsnip steak. We take a big, over-wintered parsnip that has been in the ground for about a year. It has amazing flavor but also amazing sweetness with high levels of sugar from the stress that forced the starches to slowly convert to sugar. So you have an incredibly sweet parsnip that’s cut into smaller pieces, which they treat as a steak or fillet.

A dry red wine doesn’t work with something that sweet. I wanted a red wine with some residual sugar, so I found a humble Lambrusco with about 8 to 9 grams of residual sugar per liter. That Lambrusco, with a higher acidity, residual sugar and just enough tannins, proved to be a really amazing match for the dish.

All the wines that we really love to drink don’t always make the most flexible partners when it comes to food. I feel like I could drink a 40-year-old grand cru Burgundy with anything because it’s a 40-year-old grand cru Burgundy. But in the grand scheme of things, the simple Lambrusco would probably be a better match overall.

WS: What more do you want to do with the wine list? Future plans?
CP: We are incorporating things like soil samples into our wine pairing. So at some point in the meal you may get a big chunk of limestone dropped on your table and a quick history lesson about Chablis while you are waiting for your next course. It’s a way of using the vineyard itself to tell a story about a wine. We are working to expand on that in the future as I slowly collect these samples. So far we have used silex from the Loire Valley and volcanic soil from Santorini.

WS: How important do you think it is to work the floor?
CP: All of the work that you have done behind the scenes, all of the ordering, managing the inventory, schlepping the wine around, organizing, counting—all of that leads up to when the curtains open at 5 o’clock and the show starts. I feel that if you’re not spending at least a few hours on the floor every night, you’re out of touch with your program because that is when the action happens.

WS: Which wine on your list do you like to help your guests discover?
CP: I like to introduce people to older Austrian wines, in particular Grüner Veltliner. The more serious examples from the Wachau, and to a lesser extent Kremstal, Kamptal, really do get absolutely amazing with bottle age. They age magnificently and are just as good as any German wine or white Burgundy.

WS: What wines do you drink on your own time?
CP: I fell in love with the wines of France a really long time ago, and while I have an appreciation for all types of wine, the classics, such as white and red Burgundy and, to a lesser extent, the wines of the Northern Rhône Valley, are my real passions. Also, Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley is very exciting to me.

If I’m not going to France, then I go for whites from Germany and Austria. I prefer higher acid in my wines, but I’m open to anything. And I feel the atmosphere and food really call for the wine. Even my favorite steak house wine is California Cabernet. I like the texture, abundance of fruit and richness that Napa Cabernet brings to the steak pairing. It’s not the most dynamic or interesting pairing, but it works.

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