Alex LaPratt believes you shouldn't have to leave Brooklyn to experience top-notch wine and dining. However, though both his Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence–winning restaurants—Atrium Dumbo and Beasts & Bottles—are in his borough of choice, today his workday begins in Manhattan. One of the adjunct wine faculty members at the International Culinary Center (ICC), LaPratt, 37, teaches courses within the school's 10-week intensive sommelier training program. So after waking up bright and early in his Brooklyn Heights apartment, he's off to ICC's SoHo campus to teach today's lesson: red Burgundy.
"Buckle your seatbelts," he tells his class of 10 aspiring certified sommeliers. "We're gonna talk about the Holy Grail of wine."
LaPratt sips an iced coffee and sits among his students in ICC's small auditorium as he covers everything from the history of Burgundy to the region's top vintages and producers to the meaning behind all the double-barreled place names and designations (Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanée, etc.).
"It's kind of like an appetizer," he warns of the lesson, which is just a taste of one of the wine world's most notoriously complex regions. "The main course you're going to have to cook yourself. You're going to have to do some research, you're going to have to read some stuff, you're going to have to drink even more."
LaPratt interjects his own wine wisdom throughout the two-hour lecture. On the legend of how Corton-Charlemagne became dedicated to white grapes: "Charlemagne—what is that, King Charles the First, or whatever? He saw this hillside and planted it red. But as he got older, his beard turned gray, and apparently his wife said, 'We should change your wine because of your beard.’ And so he decided to plant Chardonnay as well on the hill, and this is what we get. There are all kinds of weird legends that aren't necessarily true, but they like to come up with this crazy stuff. You can tell guests this, but it's absolutely ridiculous."
"All right, I'm going to need a few volunteers to open these, present them and then pour them," LaPratt calls out when the class reconvenes after lunch break, which LaPratt spent fielding work calls and emails. He points to the eight bottles of Burgundy he's lined up near his podium. One by one, students come up to pop corks and practice showing the selections to LaPratt as they would to their guests in a restaurant.
The group then tastes through the lineup, which includes Cyprien Arlaud Nuits-St.-Georges Les Porrets St.-Georges 2014, Domaine Nicolas Rossignol Volnay 2014, Jean-Noël Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot Premier Cru 2015 and other Burgundy Pinots. With LaPratt's guidance, the students take turns talking through the wines, including commentary on the sight, nose, structure and flavor elements of each.
LaPratt is so wrapped up in the tasting that class runs 10 minutes over. "Hopefully, if I did my job well, you'll leave with more questions and more curiosity than when you came to class today," he says. But there's no time to bask in the glow of his lecture right now. He's running late.
From the backseat of an Uber, LaPratt handles more restaurant business on his phone, occasionally looking up to call out directions to the driver—shortcuts he knows that the GPS doesn't—so he can rush home, change his clothes and get to his next stop of the day.
His schedule is always packed, he says. "I usually do the things I really enjoy first thing, just to make sure I get them out of the way." Some days, that means an intense workout in preparation for his next big adventure. (LaPratt is an avid cyclist, and he recently climbed Washington's Mount Rainier.) Today, it meant a quick sprints exercise and a bit of guitar practice, a hobby he picked up when he had some free time after earning the Master Sommelier pin—which he now proudly wears on the lapel of his crisp navy suit—in 2014. It's an accomplishment that took years of study.
But it's not like things have slowed down since. Following the opening of Atrium in 2013, LaPratt and partners chef Laurent Kalkotour and manager Leslie Affre opened their second restaurant, Beasts & Bottles, in 2016. And he drops a hint about the team's next conquest, a restaurant he hopes will "redefine wine excellence for the Miami area," in that city's trendy Design District.
Beasts & Bottles' dining room is modern, rustic, and, for the moment, empty save for a few staff members prepping for dinner service. Scott Lefler, the restaurant's sole sommelier, and Brady Brown, his Atrium counterpart, are both waiting for LaPratt when he arrives. The trio taste through a few Champagnes that importers have dropped off for consideration for the restaurants' wine lists—among them cuvées from Pierre Moncuit, A. Margaine and Agrapart & Fils.
Next? More tasting, of course. Both somms are training for different certification exams within the Court of Master Sommeliers. LaPratt, the resident Master, often helps them out with mock exams.
"Alex is tractor-beaming us up to the mother ship," Lefler jokes.
Today, they're doing a "full six," meaning each somm has 25 minutes to blind-taste six wines—three whites and three reds—and identify their grape varieties, countries of origin, appellations of origin and vintages.
"It’s like the wine Olympics," LaPratt says. "The same mindset as sports, for sure. A lot of visualization. Confidence is key."
As each somm takes his turn rattling off the characteristics of the wines in the lineup, LaPratt takes notes at an equally breakneck pace. As they're winding down, all three wine pros seem in need of an energy boost. As if on cue, they're jolted alert by an unexpected visitor.
"Is that Fred Dex? On his scooter in a Def Leppard t-shirt?" Brown points out the window. Indeed, another Brooklyn-based wine guy, Fred Dexheimer, is wheeling by. LaPratt springs into action, waving his pal in. "Do you guys still have that Champagne? Let's pour him some."
LaPratt is supposed to head over to Atrium for staff lineup—the next item on his uber-structured to-do list—but the opportunity to shoot the breeze with a friend (and fellow Master Sommelier) is too good for him to pass up. The two haven't seen each other in over a year and have lots to discuss.
From the struggle of being a restaurant owner:
"People don't understand the financial reality of running a restaurant. And now the government's getting ready to get rid of the tip credit," LaPratt speculates. (New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been conducting a review of the provision that allows restaurant owners to pay their employees less than the standard minimum wage as long as the tips earned by a worker bring his or her income up to or above the minimum wage.) "And if you get rid of the tip credit, your employees don't necessarily make more. Often, they make less. We just want to be sure everybody makes enough money. We try to do, like, Manhattan money, but Brooklyn convenience; that's how we try to retain a lot of our staff. It's not easy when it’s all yours and you have a limited bank account," he says, comparing his budget to those of some of the big-ticket restaurants he's worked at in the past, including the French Laundry, Daniel, Le Bernardin and Jean-Georges.
To the sommelier version of the word "swagger":
"Swagger has to do with confidence, and it's confidence that's earned by sweat and toil over a long period of time," LaPratt says. "Some people say, 'Alex, you're so cocky.' But I'm not cocky, I'm confident. I don't get nervous doing what I do anymore. I can be in a room of 100,000 people, it doesn't affect me."
But even while kicking back, LaPratt takes care of business: A guest approaches the table where LaPratt is holding court. He's looking for a Northern Rhône red, something refined with some olive notes, around $200.
LaPratt pauses to mull over his list. He looks up. "I'm going to change your life. Forever." He asks Lefler to open a bottle of the Marcel Juge Cornas 2015. "If this doesn't change you life, you let me know, because I'll come and drink it, and we can get anything else."
"That's called swagger!" Dexheimer chimes in.
It's after dark when LaPratt and Dexheimer have exhausted conversation topics—and bottles of bubbly. There's no chance now that he can stop at Atrium like he planned, or even grab a bite to eat. He hustles to call a cab to take him back into Manhattan and get back on schedule.
Over the bridge, LaPratt has organized a gathering of wine friends in a private room at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a popular sommelier hangout downtown. He makes the rounds greeting his comrades-in-wine—sommeliers from New York hot spots such as Union Square Cafe, Per Se and the University Club, as well as producers, marketers and even an app creator—most of whom seem to have come prepared to impress with their wine selections.
LaPratt wields his own picks with pride: From the Compagnie wine list, a jeroboam of Karthäuserhof Riesling Spätlese Trocken Alte Reben 2012, and from Beasts & Bottles, a magnum he brought of A. J. Adam Hofberg Riesling 2012.
"It's good to get everyone out, taste some wine, have some camaraderie," he says. "Everyone is always trying to be all serious. I think we need to take that out sometimes."
For the rest of the night, LaPratt will stay busy entertaining his friends while keeping their glasses filled, ensuring everyone gets a taste of what he's got to offer.