When you're the national wine director of multiple restaurants across the country, you're on the road all the time. Rachel Driver Speckan is based in Chicago, but today she's in New York, visiting Manhattan's City Winery—the original location of entrepreneur Michael Dorf's urban winery/restaurant/concert space concept that now has eight outposts in six cities, all of which are under Speckan's watch. City Winery New York holds a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence for its 1,300-selection wine list, as do its Boston, Chicago, Atlanta and Nashville offshoots.
Speckan's day starts with a slew of meetings, including touching base with City Winery New York general manager Tim Carosi, beverage director Ganna Fedorova, and a quick check-in with Dorf.
But before the madness, Speckan, 37, spared a little time to pull a few wines for some special guests arriving soon …
In the sommelier world, blind tasting can be an extreme competitive sport, and Speckan is hosting a match this morning. Several local wine pros, all of them studying for their advanced or master's level exam for the Court of Master Sommeliers, show up for a practice sesh of the taste test.
The atmosphere is tense. The room is quiet—the only audible sounds are those of sips and swirls of wine, heavy sniffing, and the furious scribbling of notes. The somms take turns to describe the wine they're tasting: "This is medium-bodied, high-acid" … "potpourri" … "smoked meat, speck" … "dried blood." After six wines, Speckan gives feedback and reveals the bottles; the somms discuss where they went right and wrong, and everyone relaxes and has a laugh.
Fedorova calls it a "sneaky lineup." Among other curveballs, Speckan had included a Ridgeview sparkling wine from England to start, which most of the group had guessed as a blanc de blancs Champagne.
"Is Fiano a thing now?" wonders Arthur Hon, assistant wine director at Union Square Cafe, worried that the Italian white could be a wine he might draw during the Court's tasting exam. "I can't even tell you what it tastes like." Speckan herself will be sitting for the master's theory test next month.
City Winery has started a new wine-education program of its own for its staff, and Dorf wants to talk about it with Speckan and Fedorova. The program debuted in Chicago and is coming to the New York location tomorrow; Speckan has been developing it for two and a half years, and it will be mandatory training for all staff.
"The idea is that you're investing in the staff," she says. "This is free of charge, it's included as part of their employment, giving them greater tools and education."
"I just ate my lunch," says Speckan as she takes the last bite of her granola bar. "I'm on a weird eating schedule right now." There are more important things to tend to, anyway, like tasting the latest City Winery wine releases with chief winemaker David Lecomte and Alice Houël, the New York City location winemaker.
The City Winery team buys fruit, mostly from California and Oregon, and makes its wine right there in Tribeca. Lecomte says he's lost track of how many vineyards they work with. "It's 31 vineyards, from the last checks I wrote," says Dorf. The wines will first go on tap in the restaurant as a by-the-glass option, and then be bottled and sold both at retail and on-premise.
The team tastes through a range of wines: first, Chardonnay from Scopus Vineyard in the Sonoma Mountain region, then Pinot Noirs from Bacigalupi Vineyard in Russian River Valley, Alder Springs Vineyard in Mendocino, Hyland Vineyard in Oregon's Willamette Valley and the 2009 City Winery Spring Street cuvée from the same appellation. Speckan takes notes in meticulous small handwriting in her notebook, which she says has her entire life in it. The tasters move on to Syrah; one is also from Alder Springs, but the second has no label, just blue duct tape with handwriting that reads: "2016 Syrah Thompson No SO2." It's from Santa Barbara, and it's the first completely no-sulfite wine Lecomte has made, an experiment he is keen on developing. The wine has no name yet. "There's a kind of competition internally about creating a cool label about this wine. Right now nobody has come up with a good idea," he says. "It's gotta be hipster-French," jokes Speckan.
"Do you know the TV show The Bold Type?" Dorf interjects. A friend just texted him asking if City Winery could make a rosé themed for the show—the winery also creates personalized wine labels, most notably for the bands that perform at the restaurants.
Martina Zuccarello of Massanois Imports has come to City Winery to lead a training for a half-dozen City Winery staff members. And she's brought some accessories: two rocks, to illustrate the local limestone and volcanic soils, which get passed around and inspected by the staff in between sips of Alberto Graci's Etna wine.
Zuccarello asks the group to come up with one word to describe each wine. The staff has fun with it—"rotten tomatoes" and "French fries" are among some of the descriptors thrown out there. "But in a good way," adds one young man wearing a pink T-shirt festooned with cactus designs. "It tastes like licking the side of a margarita glass," says Zuccarello of one white, describing its salinity.
"This wine is loud," says Fedorova, the New York bev director. "If I were having a conversation with this wine, I'm not sure I would be able to squeeze a word in." Cactus-shirt guy agrees: "I feel like it would also be changing subjects a lot."
As Speckan heads to her next meeting, Reckless Kelly, the band that's playing at City Winery that night, is rehearsing and doing sound checks in the main dining room and performance space. Speckan gets to meet with musicians a lot. She recounts a time when she turned Robert Plant, lead singer of Led Zeppelin, on to Château Simone rouge, from Provence's tiny Palette appellation. Plant liked Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Priorat, so she recommended the wine knowing he would love it. Now, every time Plant comes to New York and connects with City Winery, he asks Speckan to get him a bottle.
Philippe Newlin, director of distributor Duclot La Vinicole, arrives, and he's brought some Bordeaux with him for the City Winery wine team to taste. He describes Bordeaux appellations as different James Bond actors. Margaux is the most feminine, so that's Pierce Brosnan, he says. The ageworthy and classic Pauillac is Sean Connery. St.-Julien is between the two: "Who's classic, but kind of a pretty boy?" Newlin asks. Roger Moore, in his book. And the farthest appellation away from the city of Bordeaux, the rustic St.-Estèphe, is obviously Daniel Craig.
It's time to check in on City Vineyard, City Winery's chic sister bar at Pier 26, which has a beautiful view of the Hudson River. "I just looked down and realized I have my butterfly shoes on," says Speckan as she and Newlin wait for a cab. "They're my 'don't give a fuck' shoes—stop being stressed, you have butterflies on your feet." She got them when she was studying for her advanced level exam: When she looked down, she was reminded to have fun, that it's just wine, she says.
It's a beautiful, sunny day, and City Vineyard is already booming with people, including Michael Dorf, who resurfaces. Last year was City Vineyard's first full summer in operation, and the rosé never stops flowing here throughout the season, he says. But there's business to attend to, like tasting the new cocktail offerings at the rooftop bar. Four of them come, and they're a hit, except one that's a little too spicy.
Speckan, Dorf and Newlin brainstorm an idea for a Rhône-themed wine and music event called Rock 'n' Rhône. Newlin goes off with his analogies: Gigondas is AC/DC, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is The Clash … The south of the region is louder, he says, while the north is more mysterious—Hermitage is, like, Led Zeppelin. Côtes du Rhône? That's Green Day. Speckan is taking detailed notes in her notebook. "Great," she concurs.
Dorf has just returned from a meeting with Citibank executives. He ponders: "Would this be too obvious, to change our name to C-I-T-I Vineyard? Is that selling out?"
"Did you also find this too spicy?" asks Speckan, changing the subject and pointing to the offending cocktail.
After a few more rounds of brainstorming for upcoming events—and some bites of beef tartare and oysters—it's time to go back to City Winery, where the opening act for Reckless Kelly will be starting their set soon.
At City Winery, Speckan comes in through the front door and is greeted by the door staff, asking them if they know where she's been seated; she likes to drop in incognito on the City Winery locations she visits, to see how the staff deal with regular guests.
The room is buzzing with people already, ordering their wine and food from their servers and wine captains. Speckan takes in a set by Jesse Dayton, a country rocker from Texas, while sipping on the Graci Etna Bianco she sampled earlier at the Massanois training.
When the set wraps up, Speckan finally takes a little non-work social time. She heads to Union Square Cafe with Fedorova for snacks, Aligoté and, of course, Champagne.
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